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Piercing the Cloud of Unknowing

A talk given at the 2013 Chapter of Mats.


The morning started with Lectio Divina on the day’s gospel – the story of Martha and Mary, so the talk began with the question: What is Mary being praised for?


It’s not really the doing nothing that is being praised; nowhere in the scriptures will you find laziness praised, for instance:


The lazy do not roast their game, but the diligent obtain precious wealth (Proverbs 12:27).

The appetite of the lazy craves, and gets nothing, while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied (Proverbs 13:4).

But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? (Matthew 25:26).

One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12).


So it’s not the sitting doing nothing that is praised. To get a better insight into this we need to look at passage in Matthew’s gospel. It’s an extraordinary passage with a significance that is often lost. It’s not to be confused with the passage about the woman pouring ointment over the feet of Jesus. In this story the woman anoints his head. It’s from Matthew 26, just before the passion where the mood of the gospel is very tense and foreboding by this stage. Jesus is just about to enter Jerusalem where he will surely meet his death but before he goes there he is spending the night in Bethany. This is, of course where Martha and Mary also lived, so there is a connection between these stories.


(Read Matthew 26:6-13)


The act of anointing in this passage isn’t therefore a ritual, it’s an act of love by a woman caring for Jesus in his humanity.

The structure of this story is a bit like passage where the children are kept away from the Lord by the disciples. It therefore emphasizes her action. The gospel writer really wants us to take notice of her action. It’s also interesting to note that non-biblical texts from the surrounding world at the time talk of soothing oils that are brought at a certain point at the end of a meal to help people relax. This was part of the Greco-Roman culture they were living in. The act of anointing in this passage isn’t therefore a ritual, it’s an act of love by a woman caring for Jesus in his humanity, concerned for the stress he’s going through, helping him relax, to be more comfortable.

The last line of the passage is interesting: “wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her”. Really? Has it been? Has this woman been remembered by you? That phrase “do in memory of” does it remind you of anything? The Eucharist?

Matthew’s gospel certainly sees what she has done as essential to the living of the gospel. It is an action the gospel writer wants remembered for all eternity. It is an act of loving kindness towards Jesus in his humanity. Most of us get so caught up in our own lives and our needs, that we only turn to God when we are desperate while for the rest of the time not thinking about God very much. The message of this woman, if we listen to it, will overturn our lives. We would not go to Mass for what we get out of it, we would go, however boring, out of an act of love for Jesus. We would set aside some time for prayer, not because we are stressed and need a boost from God, but because we want to pour out our love for Jesus. This is exactly what Mary did in today’s reading for Lectio Divina, she is giving Jesus all of herself, she is just gazing and listening to the one she loves.


This brings us to theme of today: “Jesus, who longs to love and be loved.” This is indeed a quote from the Maltfriscan rule, but it is based on many passages of scripture:

“I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.” (Prov. 8:17)

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.” (John 8:42)

Jesus yearns for the fact that some of us just might get the message and love him, look after him, care for him.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments."  (John 14:15)

“for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:27)

And then of course one of the most famous passages of John, the breakfast scene…


(Read John 21:15-17)


It’s interesting in the dialogue between Jesus and Peter how different words in Greek are used for what we always simply translate as love:

Jesus to Peter – Do you love me? agapas me? (total self-giving love)

Peter to Jesus –  love you filw se (like kind of love)

Jesus to Peter – love me? agapas me?(total self-giving love)

Peter to Jesus – love you filw se (like kind of love)

Jesus to Peter– love me? fileis me? (like kind of love)

Peter to Jesus – love you filw se (like kind of love)

This is good news for us when we realise how bad we are at being disciples, how little we really love God, Jesus meets us at our level and leads us forward.

Some scholars would say that there isn’t much difference between the two Greek words for love but others do and if this is the case, it shows a wonderful way that Jesus works with us in our weakness. He keeps asking Peter if he’s up to total self-giving love and Peter can’t do it, all he can say is that he wants to love him. Eventually Jesus comes to his level and leads him forward from where he is. The rest of the passage Jesus goes on to say that when Peter was young he would choose to go where he wanted but when he is older he will have a belt tied round him and he will be taken where he does not want to go. In other words as long as Peter is faithful, he will eventually be able to love with that self-giving love which he’s not really up to yet.

This is good news for us when we realise how bad we are at being disciples, how little we really love God, Jesus meets us at our level and leads us forward.

Our call though, is to love Jesus and hopefully go from strength to strength to love him more and more. How do we show this love for Jesus? The command to love God and neighbour means that much of the response to this question is in our service of others. The subject of this morning’s talk, however, is about the first bit, out life of prayer, loving God as God. Loving Jesus as he yearns to be loved.


There was a medieval monk who lived near here, somewhere in the north east of the Midlands who anonymously wrote an extraordinary masterpiece of spirituality called “The Cloud of Unknowing”.

By loving God we come to know him and share his intimate life.

This is not the iCloud, but the uCloud. It refers to the fact that when we try and get close to knowing God, we realise we know him less and less. It seems hopeless but it isn’t because the way to pierce this cloud of unknowing is through love. By loving God we come to know him and share his intimate life.

I love this monk’s down to earth straight talking. He is a real person who knows the real weaknesses of the human condition and yet lays out a path to union with God. Be aware though, old translations make it very difficult to understand. If you want to have a read of the book I plead with you to read the translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher. It’s lively, understandable, modern English and you get a real sense of the gutsiness of his writing.


For example, early in the book he addresses the fact that people often find prayer difficult…


“Cheer up. Yes, you’re weak. And yes, life is hard. Accept this, and then take a good look at yourself. Who are you? What have you done to deserve being called by Our Lord to do this work? Is anyone’s heart so fast asleep in laziness, so worn out and miserable, that is isn’t jolted awake by the pull of his love and the sound of his voice calling? You’re human so watch out for that enemy, pride. Never think you’re holier or better than anyone else. Never confuse the worthiness of your calling with who you are!”


Prayer, therefore, is a labour of love and it’s never for ourselves so he explains why it’s good to persevere, even though we sometimes find it very hard.


“Let go! Give yourself over entirely to God’s pleasure. Saints and angels rejoice when you do this and hasten to help you forward. The evil ones are furious, however, and will try in every way to deflect you. But the whole of mankind, in a most mysterious and wonderful way, will be helped by your action.”


One of the main points of his book is that although our mind is very useful, when it comes to prayer, our mind eventually becomes a massive distraction. So he says: “Nobody’s mind is powerful enough to grasp who God is. We can only know him by experiencing his love.”


When prayer is its most pure for him is when we are responding in love to the one who loves us, and this isn’t the action of the mind but a decision of the heart: “You only need a naked intent for God. When you long for him, that’s enough!”


In chapter 21, he uses the Martha and Mary story to teach us how to pray. When I saw that this was today’s gospel I immediately thought of this passage, which is why I’m talking about the Cloud of Unknowing today. His conviction is that we don’t come to know God by thinking about him. Even the most pious thoughts end up just trapping our brain rather than piercing the cloud and reaching God:


“You’ll find thoughts seducing you in other ways. For example, a thought may remind you of the many times God has been kind to you and how he is amazingly sweet and loving, full of grace and mercy. It likes nothing better than to grab your attention, and once it knows you’re listening, the thought will start rambling. It will chatter about Christ’s passion, drawing you in more and more, and then it will show you God’s miraculous, sacrificial kindness. The thought loves you when you listen to it. Next it will let you see how you used to live, when you were miserable and sinful, and as you begin thinking on those days, it will help you visualise where you used to live at that time, and before you know it, your mind is slatted all over the place. How did this happen? You listened to the thought. You answered it, embraced it, and set it free.”


The great Franciscan St. Bonaventure teaches exactly the same thing! The following extract is from “The Journey of the Mind to God” by St. Bonaventure:


“we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul. Hence the Apostle says that this mystical

wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit.


If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervour and glowing love. The fire is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardour of his loving passion.”


How do we pray then by suspending the operations of the mind? The author of the uCloud talks about acts of love that pierce the cloud. We know one way already. Praise. In praising God we are not thinking about God, just acknowledging that he is God and of course singing in tongues is an external expression of not using words, not involving the mind but just the raw energy of the fire of yearning for God. When we are praying quietly on our own or after communion or at exposition, that is the equivalent of this.

The author of the uCloud says the best way to switch off the mind is to use a word of one syllable over and over again. It’s to be a word of your choice so that it is personal to you, but it needs to be a word that you won’t think about. So it could be the word ‘praise’, or ‘God’, or ‘Love’, or ‘peace’, or ‘You’. As long as it’s one syllable so that you just keep focusing your mind in one action to God. Other authors aren’t so strict on the one syllable, so ‘Jesus’, is therefore possible; the important thing is to find a word that expresses the yearning of your heart and then use it but don’t think about it!


Now if you attempt to do this for half an hour you quickly find your mind doing exactly as he predicted, going off on detours about anything. The key is not to worry about this but, when you realise, just go back to the word. It is hard work. The doing of it though is the training of your mind, heart and soul to focus on God, so it is the most useful work you will ever do in your life, considering everything else we do will cease when we die.


If it proves too difficult and you just aren’t getting on with it, there are plenty of other ways of praying which you can make as acts of love. The rosary is a wonderful example of this. It uses more words but praying five decades of the rosary is still a way of giving twenty minutes to God. It’s an act of love. In the east there is the great tradition of kissing icons and lighting candles, (which we have just about retained in the west), simple acts of devotion which express our love for God. It is a real shame that we have lost a lot of the devotional life of the Church in the west and the more we restore devotional life, the more the practice of a faith will become more vivid and real to us.


Jesus longs to love and be loved. If we simply focus on Jesus’ great love for us, he too easily just becomes for us a benevolent force, a cushion to rest on. When we realise there is this man, Jesus of Nazareth, who longs for us to love him like the woman with the ointment did, a whole new intimacy opens up for us. It becomes a real give and take relationship and we will become truly alive!

Mark Crisp

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