Chapters 17 and 18

A reader writes, in response to last Monday’s post:

can you please comment on chapter17 and 18 of the cloud of unknowing as i think very relevant to this discussion.
it is certainly an ungoing struggle with myself as within my own mind there is ongoing dialogue between active and contemplative life
the author of the cloud seems to reject the idea that the two forms can exist in one s life and i would definately agree………after one receives spiritual direction to authenticate the yearning of the spirit

Okay, let’s see. In chapters 17 and 18 of The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author looks at the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:39-42) to suggest that the contemplative life is higher or more “perfect” than the active life. He suggests that Martha’s complaint (asking Christ to instruct Mary to get up and help her) is indicative of the way that “actives” have complained about “contemplatives” ever since.

But I don’t see the author as saying that the active and contemplative lives cannot co-exist in the same person. Rather, he seems to suggest that the two will always pull against each other; in other words, that any effort to blend the active and the contemplative will always be “imperfect” (see chapter 20). In chapter 21 he goes on to recognize that between the active and the contemplative lives is what Walter Hilton called the Mixed Life — wherein an ordinary Christian might begin to incorporate elements of contemplation into his otherwise active life. The cloud author also acknowledges that dedicated contemplatives “on rare occasions and when greatly needed” may return to the mixed life as well.

This is one of the reasons why some scholars believe The Cloud of Unknowing was written by and for a Carthusian monk — since the Carthusians, among western monastics, live the “purest” contemplative life. Other monks, including Benedictines and Cistercians, live what would be properly termed a “mixed” life, even in the cloister. For their motto is ora et labora — “pray and work” — implying a life that blends both contemplative and active expressions of faith. Being a contemplative does not excuse one from the physical demands of life — we must work in order to eat, and in order to maintain health and hygiene. Even someone as hierarchically-minded as the cloud author understands this.

I personally don’t see it that “the author of The Cloud seems to reject the idea that the two forms can exist in one’s life.” I think the author clearly regards the contemplative life as “higher” than active forms of ministry or living, and recognizes that any iteration of a mixed life will be imperfect. But this hardly amounts to a wholesale rejection of the mixed life. I think we who aspire to the contemplative life today, whether cloistered or not, need to be on guard against the idea that contemplation somehow excuses us from the ordinary demands of life. Such an idea points not to sanctity, but to quietism.

Creative Conversation Begins with Contemplative Compassion
Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • brazenbird

    Great post.

  • Ellen N. Duell

    My own life has needed the contemplative times in order to better live the active times. (I also really like the use of capital letters to clarify written expression! The questioner’s mode seemed lazy or ignorant of good English practice.)

    I was wife, homemaker, mother of three girls and two boys, and schoolteacher. Yet I had to have a quiet contemplative time every morning in order for my active day to be nurtured.

  • soma

    I meditate in the morning and again at night. I find when life is infused with respect and an inner communion, everything has meaning and purpose.