The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century guide to Christian contemplative prayer, uses God’s appearances to Moses, or theophanies, as models for how we experience God’s continuing revelation in the world. For example, the Old Testament image of a pillar of cloud symbolizes the unknowing of God through a kind of negating of everything we think we know, while a pillar of fire symbolizes the way of affirmation, knowing God through qualities we affirm through images, sensations, thoughts, and feelings.
Now, it might seem like the idea of unknowing God isn’t the most attractive option, and if that’s what you’re thinking you’re not alone. To name just two biblical examples we have Elijah enjoying quality time alone with God in a cave, not being in any kind of rush to leave, even though God seems intent to send him on his way. We also have Peter, James, and John witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus Christ atop a mountain, and they don’t want to go anywhere either – Peter even suggesting he make some tents for them.
I imagine it might be something like being a five-year old on the first day of kindergarten, terrified at the prospect of leaving the safety and comfort of their mother for a strange and scary world. Or it might be like someone snuggling in bed with their beloved on a Monday morning, not wanting to leave for work and go out into the comparatively cold and cruel world. For Peter, James, and John atop the mountain, reveling in the glorious sun of a beautiful and divine light, the valley below must have looked dreary and dark, the sun seeming farther away. If we were in those situations we probably wouldn’t want to go either – who would want to leave behind the safety, warmth, and light of mother, lover, and glorious sun?
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing was familiar with this dilemma, knowing that too strong an attachment for finding or remaining on the mountaintop, or feeling hopelessly trapped in the valley can distract us from the relationship we share with God everywhere, all the time. The path of contemplation, of unknowing, can help us avoid these pitfalls of the spiritual journey, helping us develop a certain kind of awareness, a way of being present for ourselves just as we are with compassion, surrendering more fully to God’s will for us. And from this way of being in the world there’s born a recognition that the choice between mountain top and valley, between staying with or leaving behind mother, lover, and glorious sun, is in some ways a false choice to begin with.
The Ark of the Covenant is used in The Cloud of Unknowing as a symbol of the ultimate fruits of contemplation, of God’s abiding presence. In our reading from Exodus, that presence is sometimes manifested as an obscuring cloud in the day and sometimes as a revealing fire at night. But the story also presents us with a middle way, a path between mountain top and valley, or as Thomas Merton would say it’s not a question of knowing or unknowing, it’s a way of knowing by unknowing. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing helps us understand this when he writes “God’s grace restores our souls and teaches us how to comprehend him through love. He is incomprehensible to the intellect. Even angels know him by loving him. Nobody’s mind is powerful enough to grasp who God is. We can only know him by experiencing his love.”
And so when God instructs Moses to build the Ark in the valley, we’re being offered the grace of our Beloved God living among us and within us. Through contemplative prayer we learn to rest in an unknowing stillness, to descend from our heads and dwell in our hearts where we discover God’s beautiful Truth, infinite Love, and the Light of Christ waiting for us. In gratitude we might find ourselves, like Moses and his shining face, sharing that Light with the world. And we might even find that when it comes to leaving the mountaintop a part of ourselves does have to go, but another part, a deeper part, gets to stay. And then everything, all creation, becomes mother, lover, and glorious sun.
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