Before the Cloud of Unknowing…

The Twelve Patriarchs • The Mystical Ark • Book Three of the Trinity

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?

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  1. As part of my academic research for a PhD in theology, more people are realizing we are reading these texts wrong and the translations are not good. it is not that the language is dualistic. It is that there is a psychology of the text that suggests two different moments. One moment is dialectic, logical and explores the world that way but then there is a moment that shifts to holistic thinking and uses language as poetic metaphor to discuss what is beyond words. Maggie Ross points this out in her academic work published in medieval academic journals. Other thinkers are joining in a chorus with her. I am one of them.

    That particular translation in that series makes it sound more dualistic than the original Latin would have it. We have been misreading these texts for a long while now. I wonder if we don’t have to go back and uncover what was really said because I think even Plato’s Forms is not really about another world that ignores the body. Nor, I bet, are some of the gnostic texts or the pre-Socratic thinkers in philosophy etc.

    • Carl McColman says:

      I appreciate your thoughts here, Kevin. And Maggie’s perspective, too, curmudgeonly as she may be. Since I just have enough Latin to be dangerous, I’m always wondering as I read these texts, “what am I missing? what has been distorted?” And I find your point about Plato particularly inspiring. Now, where Maggie and I disagree is that she insists (particularly with the middle English mystical writings) that if we can’t or won’t read the original text, then we’re better off not reading it at all than to engage with a defective translation. But I see in her position just a subtle form of neo-gnosticism — is there such a thing as a “pure” text? Or pure understanding? Or pure interpretation? Of course not. Give me The Cloud of Unknowing in the most pristine of manuscripts, and give me a lifetime of knowledge of that particular north country dialect of late 14th-century middle English, and I will still manage to get it wrong somehow. Because all communication is flawed, is filtered through sin, is anchored in the positionality of writer, reader, interpreter, teacher… in short, we have what we have and we need to get on with it. I read Richard of St. Victor in the Paulist Press translation. So when I interrogate the text for suspected dualism, I’m questioning that particular translation, and not the author’s original Latin. I suppose I should be more diligent in saying so. But it seems to me that no matter what we read, who we engage in dialogue with, or what experiences we undergo, the point is not what is pure or not pure in the text outside of ourselves, but what the process of reading and understanding and interpreting means within my own self, my own body and mind. Is this reading/interpreting process, of whatever text, supporting my journey into loving God and loving neighbors as self? That’s the bottom line.

      Now, having said all that, and speaking as a non-scholar, I still admire the good work that you, and Maggie, and other careful scholars are doing, to increase our understanding and knowledge of these texts, which will hopefully dial down the static that interferes with our reading. But don’t stop translating a text just because you are overwhelmed by how imperfect and distorted the final product will be. By that logic, everyone should stop having children, because every parent will inevitably harm their child (and that, of course, was another strategy of gnosticism, I believe).

      • I hear your point quite well. Maggie, a great friend, is very cautious about doing violence to people in the name of Christ and I think what she means when she says “don’t translate the text” — is that you don’t need the text. Christ is present at work in your mind already. Sit down and seek Christ rather than listen to people like me (and her) who are alleged scholars!

        I hear your point too about no perfect text. But I don’t think, you me or Maggie are that far apart here. What I do when I read these texts, is try to look for the moment when the text shifts from logic and explanation in a linear manner to a metaphorical description that shifts away from the linear. And when that happens, I look to see how the translation deals with it. In this translation, when the shift happens, the translator doesn’t notice and he or she still uses linear language with words like transcend that suggests a leaving the world but the passage is not really saying that. So we need to be careful or we begin to confuse the two moments — the linear and the more holistic and subtler aspects of knowing things.

        I guess I am confused because your question you raised and asked for responses was here:

        “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.”

        That question and comment doesn’t seem to be about the translation but about the original analogy by Richard. And the analogy is not dualistic inherently. In fact, it suggests what I am saying. A bird who flies is still in this world! And yet it has another point of view…it sees more….it can see miles away what is over the trees that block my view. So Richard is pointing to a “this world” type of vision that sees differently and sees more.

        And because we have read the texts so off for centuries — we have this idea that the word “mind” automatically means something Platonic and dualistic and I wonder if that is really the case. I am wondering if we go back to the original texts, that Platonic texts and the teaching of Socrates and Plotinus are pushing more in this direction of noticing the two moments in thinking — the active linear part and the passive holistic part that is gifted to us if we allow for it? No need to use the word “mind” and automatically think mind/body dualism of Descartes.

        I appreciate your work tremendously. And since I have just co-founded a group focused on the Christian contemplative tradition and that will do more and more work in this area — I see a kindred spirit. My comment was not intended to be a cranky scholar crying that “you don’t get it” but was more a FYI that stuff is going on in the academic world that may allow us to re-look at Richard and others and realize that we have just discovered some blind spots in our education and it is affecting how we approach these texts. I am hoping to help get that word out to help others use these treasures on their important journey: the seeing of Christ.

        Deepest peace.

        • Carl McColman says:

          Kevin, thanks again. And I wish to apologize for the defensive tone in my previous comment. I did not see you as being a “cranky scholar crying ‘you don’t get it’” — not at all! Alas, I think my defensiveness comes from the fact that Maggie once called me out on her blog, for my advocacy of contemporary translations of the Cloud. So there’s the fanboy in me that is sad that someone I admire has cause to speak critically of me. Oh well. Meanwhile, I beg your forgiveness for how I muddied the waters there.

          You are right about the “shift” from logical/linear to metaphorical/nondual. This is something I think about a lot, especially when I speak. I tell my retreatants, “try to keep listening for the silence between and beyond my words.” It’s like the charming image in the Cloud of how you look over the shoulder of someone who is in your face when you really want to connect with someone else — i.e., we need to “look over the shoulder” of our discursive/linear/monkeyminds, to find that vast spaciousness where pure beholding is always happening. And I think a similar strategy needs to be brought to the text we read as well. And the question of us misreading the texts for a long time now: I find it exciting that scholars are teasing out more holistic understandings of the great writings, and I hope that will inform not only current and future scholarship but future translation and popular commentary as well.

          Yeah, the comment about “you don’t need the text” — reminds me of the time when a monk chastised me for spending too much time reading and not enough time in silence. I’m still working on that one. :-)

          Now, back to Richard. I don’t see the dualism in the bird, but rather in his use of light and dark imagery. That, coupled with the below/above dynamics of the ascending flight, is what set off my dualistic alarm bells. But your point about how the bird never leaves the world is important. We’re dancing on paradox. As Hildegard says, God is above all things and in all things. Transcendence and immanence. Both are true. But transcendence without immanence leads to dualism, and immanence without transcendence leads to what Wilber calls flatland, the disenchantment of the world. So we need to learn to dance in the tension of the paradox.

          Thank you so much for your kind words and I appreciate your reading and responding. Would love to learn more about the group you’ve co-founded, perhaps we can take that conversation offline. Many blessings to you.

          • You are quite generous in your reply and there is even more I wish to say to agree with you and to correct my misunderstandings and misreading of your comment about the dualism. Maybe a short simple way is to say this — the language of “light and dark” and above and below” tend to be words used in the tradition to talk about the shift to the nondual consciousness. Probably a better way to read it is to think not above as running away from the world but instead think of the word above as signaling thinking that is prior to the linear and more aligned with “reality” that is over our shoulders (as you put it quoting the Cloud).

            I would love to talk offline and tell you about our group. We have a Twitter Feed and a web site being built and programs being developed. The simple wordpress page I have listed under my name and email in order to leave comments on this page is an early draft of who we are for starters but much more is happening now. Is there an email we can exchange?

            Deepest peace and blessings.

          • Carl McColman says:

            Beautiful. Thanks again, and thanks for the reminder about how the language of the tradition is often so much richer (and more truly contemplative) than we modern/postmodern types acknowledge in it. I know that’s a pothole I fall into, more times than I care to admit.

            I’ll be in touch. Cheers!

  2. Nolan C. 'Gus' Galloway says:

    I see what you are saying and I always get a little tangled up in the non-dualism – dualism idea. I have made some peace with the paradox ( there’s that word again) because of the transendence of Abba as well as his immanence. I see the above in the transdence and the non-dualism in the immanence. Some of this i have to put in my Mystery box.

  3. I would like to suggest turning to another poetic offering written in the 12th Century called “The Conference of the Birds”. Although the paradox of immanence and transcendence remain in the Mystery Box, light is shed on the issue quite beautifully. I think that our consciousness is now evolving and moving toward the place where we will rest more comfortably in this paradox.

  4. Hey brother Carl Hallelujah! well I must comment sense i rarely do and I have been studying a bunch of platonic influenced folk lately like Balthasar and a few his contemporaries. Concerning my own studies I find that the problem lies not in creation but in the”exchange” of Romans 1. Our contemplative flight begins with out reconciliation the beginning of the “Gestalt” which is our unification with the Christ consciousness. this discipline of the sublime is the blessed spreading of the wings of truth. It is this intimacy with Truth that diminishes all shadow and dispels the ignorance of the carnal mind (the death of the effigy). This death of the illusion of self takes much contemplative work as does our participation in the drama of existential action. This is where we get to dance and have the honor of infusing the true the good and the beautiful into the world of “mere men”. For the work of spiritualization is the unfolding fruit of Truth which moves into the will making it good so we may participate in offering the gifts of beauty in the performance of the gift, our new creation, Christ “in” us. Hallelujah! May God through His living and active Truth richly waken our mind from the shortfall of duality.

  5. I would like to know more about Kevin’s group.

  6. J. R. Beata says:

    I Believe when taken in the historical context of the12th century , Richard of St. Victor is a genuis of putting words to the inner contemplative experience. He also wrote ” Contemplation is a free and clear vision of the mind fixed upon the manifestation of wisdom in suspended wonder.” Reading the CWS translation of his works was a heart opening experience. Highly recommended!

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