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.
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.
Read What You Are Ready to Read
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.
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 Importance of Discernment
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.
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.