The Ethics of Sharing Mystical Knowledge: Meister Eckhart and the Cloud Author

The Cloud of Unknowing

Pick up any edition of The Cloud of Unknowing, and you are likely to find the following language a bit intimidating:

Whoever you are possessing this book, know that I charge you with a serious responsibility, to which I attach the sternest sanctions that the bonds of love can bear. It does not matter whether this book belongs to you, whether you are keeping it for someone else, whether you are  taking it to someone, or borrowing it; you are not to read it, write or speak of it, nor allow another to do so, unless you really believe that he is a person deeply committed to follow Christ perfectly. I have in mind a person who, over and above the good works of the active life, has resolved to follow Christ (as far as is humanly possible with God’s grace) into the inmost depths of contemplation. Do your best do determine if he is one who has first been faithful for some time to the demands of the active life, for otherwise he will not be prepared to fathom the contents of this book.

Whew!

In my work selling books through a monastery gift shop, I’ve had customers complain to me that I shouldn’t be selling The Cloud of Unknowing, referring to this passage to explain why. In their minds, unless I interviewed every person who wanted to purchase a copy to make sure he or she is “deeply committed to follow Christ perfectly,” — and refused to sell it to anyone who didn’t pass muster — then I am disrespecting the author by selling the book, or even by having it on display in the store. The first time this came up, I tried to reason with the person who complained by noting that I could not judge another person’s faith or intent, using Matthew 7:1 as my guiding principle. That did not satisfy her, and she left the store angry and unhappy with me.

This all reminds me of a friend who served in the peace corps in Tunisia. While there, he converted to Islam and began to study the Sufi masters, under the guidance of his Imam. Occasionally he would go into town to purchase a book by this or that classic author. He discovered that the bookstore where you could buy such books wanted to check him out first — they asked him who his Imam was, and apparently the bookseller talked to the Imam to make sure my friend had permission to study the book(s) in question, before they would sell them to him. I suppose that’s what my disgruntled customer wanted: before I would let anyone purchase The Cloud of Unknowing, I would check with their priest, pastor or spiritual director first, to make sure it was okay to sell it to them (never mind that anyone can freely download the text online).

Clearly, I see no point in trying to replicate the more controlled world of the Sufi bookseller in Tunisia (or, perhaps, the medieval scribe with a hand-copied manuscript) in 21st century America. But I am willing to acknowledge that there has always been a tradition (and not just among Christian contemplatives or Sufis) of withholding information from someone until he or she is deemed ready or worthy to receive it. Consider this tidbit from a book called Growing Up as a Trappist Monk, written by a former monk named William Nolan:

Strangely enough, novices were not allowed to read the writings of John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila (both great mystics of the Church). The reason given was that since we had not had much experience in the spiritual life we might imagine mystical experiences that were not real.

So the librarian or someone else in the monastery had to give a novice permission before he could read such advanced material.

Even I, when talking to a customer, will try to steer people away from books if I think they are not “ready” for them. But it’s a gentler process. You don’t give a freshman in college a graduate-level textbook of theoretical physics. You start out with a basic undergraduate text (like Geller & Young’s College Physics), for the student must master that before he or she is ready to take on Morse and Feshbach’s Methods of Theoretical Physics. In a similar vein, if I catch a customer looking at The Philokalia or Raimon Panikkar’s The Rhythm of Being, I’ll ask them if they’ve read The Way of a Pilgrim or Christophany first. If not, I’ll encourage them to look at those more introductory texts. But the motivation here is not to withhold information; rather it is simply to assist the reader in finding the most user-friendly route toward grasping the depth and subtlety of mystical theology. Usually, that means beginning at the beginning.

Yesterday I stumbled across this delightful passage in one of Meister Eckhart’s works, The Book of Divine Consolation, found in the Paulist Press Essential Meister Eckhart. Here, Eckhart is defending himself against critics who would argue that his advanced mystical teachings should not be made accessible to a general audience.

And we shall be told that one ought not to talk about or write such teachings to the untaught. But to this I say that if we are not to teach people who have not been taught, no one will ever be taught, and no one will ever be able to teach or write. For that is why we teach the untaught, so that they may be changed from uninstructed into instructed… But if there is someone who misunderstands what I say, what is that to the man who says truly that which is true? Saint John narrates his holy gospel for all believers and yet for all unbelievers, so that they might believe, and yet he begins that gospel with the most exalted thoughts any man could utter here about God; and both what he says and what our Lord says are constantly misunderstood.

Eckhart seems to be saying “yes, there is a risk that advanced mystical theology will be misunderstood by those who are ignorant or not yet ready for it, but it is important to make such wisdom widely available anyway, for the sake of those who are ready for it.

The Essential Meister Eckhart

I could not agree more with Eckhart, which explains why I continue to promote The Cloud of Unknowing as widely as I can, despite its stern warning. And yet, I do not disagree with what the Cloud author is saying, nor do I think Eckhart contradicts him. I see the warning at the beginning of the Cloud to be a statement about the importance of discernment and spiritual counsel. Anyone who wants to pursue the contemplative life needs a spiritual director of some sort. Discernment is always best when communal. And even though a book like The Way of a Pilgrim offers detailed advice about how to cope if you cannot find a wise spiritual guide, the assumption is that you will continue to pray for one — and seek one — as part of your ongoing spiritual practice.

It’s interesting that what The Way of a Pilgrim suggests is that, in the absence of a wise spiritual guide, we should immerse ourselves in the writings of the great saints — that is to say, in the literature of the mystics. A wise spiritual companion is always better than a book, but a book is better than no guide at all. Which points to Eckhart’s “open source” approach as, ultimately, more useful than The Cloud’s more restrictive idea.

Of course, one more thought. The Cloud was written about fifty years after Meister Eckhart’s death — and condemnation. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing may have been motivated not only by his desire that only those who are ready should read his book, but he may also have been wary about the risk of himself suffering Eckhart’s fate, and felt that warning away casual or uneducated readers from his book might be a defense if the heresy hunters ever came after him. It’s sad that contemplative authors in the past had to be hyper-vigilant about avoiding even the slightest hint of error in their writings; surely this inquisitorial culture dampened rather than nurtured the ongoing flowering of mystical theology within Christianity. But the past cannot be changed, and when we read great mystics we are wise to remember that they often wrote their teaching with a sense of personal risk. No wonder they might have been picky about who they thought should (or should not) read their writings.

Disclosure: If you follow the links of the books mentioned in this post and purchase them or other products from Amazon.com, I receive a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — it is the easiest way you can support this blog.

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  • http://jeshua21.wordpress.com yeshua21

    The advice to withhold mystical resources from all but the most qualified initiates made a lot of sense when western/Christian culture was more stable and isomorphic, but given our more pluralistic culture and the information age in which we live– being perpetually bombarded with ideas and information of all kinds, both edifying and destructive –the good news of nonduality and mystical oneness needs to be “out there”, too, IMO.

    Question: How does “The Cloud of Unknowing” compare to “The Book of Privy Counsel” by the same author?

  • http://allshallbewellbylillianlewis.com Lillian Lewis

    Thanks, Colman for your tireless work for all of us still on step #1. When you get a chance read my book and let us know what you think. You said you wife was reading it. Yes. Great. All Shall be Well or why would they send a royalty cheque. Lil Lewis

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    I have mixed feelings about this. I remember the first time I tried to read Meister Eckhart, about 15 years ago, I stopped because recognized I wasn’t ready for him; I didn’t have the grounding necessary to “fathom” what I was reading. But on the other hand, sometimes reading challenging texts can cause us to go deeper in our spiritual lives. I like the idea of gently steering readers towards books that are appropriate for where they are, but you’re right, most of these texts can be downloaded for free (or ordered from Amazon) by anyone.

  • southernfrances

    I do not like the last sentence of this post because I truly believe the author wrote his cautionary words simply to help people find their

    appropriate place on the road towards inner wisdom and spirituality. If someone misunderstands mystic experience two things might happen:

    they may then go forth preaching the misunderstood knowledge which may end up hurting others either physically, mentally, or spiritually.

    Two, the person may feel confused or overwhelmed. The futility of their efforts might end their quest or create negative self images which may prohibit further growth. I think Carl should have stated such points or made better ones. Great masters speak of the need for a spiritual guide for good reason. Beginning at the beginning and making steady progress in these realms is vital for the foundation of the inner,

    hopefully Holy Life, to grow and blossom into Loving Service to All and to Humble Adoration of the Divine.

  • Glenda

    I remember reading those words of the Author of The Cloud when I first picked the book up. They scared me in a way. But the greater message I received was that reading that book, like beginning contemplative prayer, was a serious business and made me recognise that I needed help with both! It has become a book I return to often in my journey but I am cautious who I recommend it to.

  • Mike Dempsey

    The first thing I learned after I first read The Cloud of Unknowing was that I had to read it again. And, like any other sumptuous meal, it is best digested a paragraph or two at a time.

  • Hans

    Dear Carl, dear community,

    searching for blogs on “Centering Prayer” I hit this mine.

    This article provoked me to share some lines.

    I suppose, that quite a few issues of the Cloud and similarly deeply spiritual Christian books had been reprinted, concurring and shortly after the emergence of eastern spirituality in the West.

    Now, the first ambassadors of eastern spirituality who came here, did so on command of their masters. Just like here, in former times spiritual wisdom was esoteric, meant for the few ripe souls. One outstanding motive to spread sacred knowledge to the world today, was the imminent danger of its falling prey to oblivion.

    Isn’t it the same with us?

    I will cite some lines out of “The Book of Privy Counseling” translated by William Johnston, which you supposedly all know:

    … Contemplative prayer is the naked and blind intuitive perception of God’s being as our own being and our own source, without words.

    … See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out toward God.

    That’s a miracle! A text quite some centuries of age talks to me so stern and unambiguous. Some place in me feels acknowledged, far more, loaded with vibration.

    … It is not hard to master this way of thinking. I am certain that even the most uneducated man or woman, living in a very primitive way, can easily do it. Sometimes I smile to myself, not without a touch of sadness, and marvel at those who claim that I write to you and others a complicated, difficult, lofty, and strange doctrine, intelligible to only a few clever and highly trained minds. It is not simple, uneducated folk who say this either; it is scholars and learned theologians.

    Well, I feel concerned myself. Hardly do we enter contemplation and already again we are immersed in conceptual thought. Trying to get things straight.

    Let us stand in that “naked and blind intuitive perception of God’s being as our own being and our own source, without words.”

    We will meander our way through conceptual worlds of our making. No problem. There is always Grace pricking us gently. It is on us to respond.

    Hans


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