a crowd of unknowing

Inspired by one of my regular readers, I’ve begun reading The Cloud of Unknowing. It’s an astonishingly clear and perceptive work. What stands out to me is the author’s repeated assertion that we cannot know or understand God. We can only love God. The goal of contemplative prayer is to relax our hold on the effort to understand, know, or explain God and to surrender ourselves fully to loving God as God is.

I am more and more aware that the same can be said of ourselves. We can never truly, fully know or understand ourselves–all we can do is love ourselves as we are and as God already loves us. At some point it must be enough that God knows us fully.

This lesson is being born out in my prayer life. There are times in my lectio or centering prayer when the terrors of the deep rise up. In those moments I am gripped by a primal fear of annihilation, as if I’m on the edge of an abyss, inexorably drawn forward. In such moments I only have access to the emotional and somatic sensations and not to any conscious memory or experience giving rise to those feelings. In such moments, the only prayer I am capable of is to allow the experience to take over and pass in its own time.What’s new for me, is that I’m becoming convinced not only that I can’t know what such experiences are about, but I don’t need to know. There are corners of my being that will, most likely, remain forever dark to me. To love myself in the form of allowing myself to be who I am without comment or critique is more prayer than any words or clarity of thought could muster.

In such prayer the terrors of the deep are not something to be “gotten over,” nor I am merely some wounded creature who needs to be healed. It’s not that I’m not in need of healing, but rather that the darkness and the terror are somehow, in ways I will never understand but can only accept and, yes, even love, essentially a part of my truest self, already in union with God.

Cynthia Bourgeault puts it beautifully and simply in her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening:

What if–as poets and mystics have long intuited–the reservoir of human darkness is not so much a disease as the raw material of our transformation? […] True self comes into being as a kind of sacred alchemy, through the conscious acceptance and integration of our shadow side. It is not so much the curing of a pathology as the birthing of something that would never have existed apart from struggle, like a candle that reveals its true nature only when tallow and wick are set aflame. (106-7)

My part–my only part–in that process is to surrender myself to God, to give God the space and time to transform the tallow and wick of my life into God’s own flame. As I wrote last week, I am convinced that such unknowing is the foundation for a revolution of nonviolence in ourselves, the Church, and the wider world. Gathered into a crowd of unknowing, collectively set afire in this revolution of non-violence, what a light we could be for the world.


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Credit where credit is due: I took the phrase “crowd of unknowing” from a defunct vocational discernment group at Union Theological Seminary. I just loved the pun too much to let it alone!

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6 thoughts on “a crowd of unknowing

  1. I’m reminded of a quote (that’s apparently fairly well known, but that I just recently came across in a Graham Greene novel): “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering, in order that they may have existence” (Leon Bloy). Removing the gender-dominant element of that thought, I find for myself that there’s something apt in it.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that quotation–I love it. It seems to me another way of saying “the crack is where the light gets in.” I don’t know where that one’s from, but I knew it as true the moment I heard it.

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      1. That’s Leonard Cohen you’re paraphrasing! From “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” A friend who leads a women’s writing group at the county jail, uses those lines as part of an opening ritual with the inmates. They are indeed powerful.

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