Before the Cloud of Unknowing, Richard of St. Victor (who lived in the twelfth century, a contemporary of Hildegard of Bingen and Bernard of Clairvaux) wrote this lovely passage in his work called The Mystical Ark:
When birds want to fly they spread out their wings. So, we surely ought to spread the wings of our heart by longing and wait for the time of divine showing at every house — nay, rather at every moment, so that at whatever hour the breath of divine inspiration drives away the clouds of our mind and discloses the rays of the true sun after having removed every cloud of darkness, then the mind, immediately shaking the wings of its contemplation, can raise itself to the heights and fly away. Having fixed its eyes on the light of eternity which shines from above, it can fly through all the clouds of earthly changeableness and transcend them with the force of a soaring eagle. I would say that a person fulfills the command and example of the Lord and stands erect with outspread wings, as it were, when, after receiving grace in these last kinds of contemplation, he always strives zealously, as much as he can, to show himself ready and prepared for such a flight. The result is that when the time of divine good pleasure comes and the breath of aspiring grace blows, he is found fit to be admitted to the manifestation of divine secrets.
This is available in English translation through the Classics of Western Spirituality volume by Richard of St. Victor: The Twelve Patriarchs • The Mystical Ark • Book Three of the Trinity.
So do you like Richard’s analogy of contemplation as like a bird flying through “the clouds of earthly changeableness”? I’m not entirely comfortable with how this passage could be read dualistically: God is “above” us, and our job is to “escape” the darkness of this world below and Platonically soar into the radiance of eternity — all in the mind, mind you, for the body is after all part of the darkness found below. I think this kind of rhetoric can lead too easily to a spirituality of rejecting the earth and the body. So that bothers me a bit about it. On the other hand, I like the organic imagery of the bird (unlike the more aggressive “dart” metaphor found in The Cloud of Unknowing) and the idea that contemplation is, at heart, a transformed way of living, 24/7, because the moment of “aspiring grace” can come at any moment — often when we least expect it (I’m always reminded of a sermon I heard Barbara Brown Taylor preach years ago about a moment of epiphany she experienced while cleaning out the cat litter box).
So what do you think? Is Richard of St. Victor’s “cloud” imagery helpful? Or too burdened by dualistic thinking?