“For I would indeed have you be nowhere. Why? Because nowhere physically is everywhere spiritually.” I am moving slowly through The Cloud Unknowing. (William Johnston translation) The Cloud is one of the classics of contemplative Christianity.
I am moving slowly because I almost always am reading at least five books at a time. I am also trying to read slowly and contemplatively.
The Cloud is sometimes called the Zen meditation of the Christian tradition. It was written anonymously, perhaps because the author saw what was happening to other mystics of his/her day and didn’t want to be put on the heretic list!
In context, the above quote is referring to a mental place of nowhere, a sort of spiritual resting place. “Spiritual work is not located in any particular place.” However, when the mind “consciously focuses” on something, then you are there, in that place. That author finds a certain clarity in the cleanliness of an empty, open mind. From this space of mental lucidity, the seeker meets God, a God beyond concepts and knowledge, a God found only in the cloud of unknowing.
I recently had a chat with someone who told me that the thought of silence or a similar form of contemplative activity was terrifying. Indeed. It certainly can be, and I have experienced this fear as well at various times in my spiritual work. Various spiritual traditions speak to this point, as does the author of The Cloud.
“At times the sight is terrible as a glimpse of hell.” We must go through this patiently, the author councils. “Gradually he [the spiritual contemplative] will see his past sins healed by grace.”
Silence and stillness can call forth deep and strange things from the heart. Pain. Abandonment. Failure. Emptiness. Fear. And many other emotional dynamics that are deeply disturbing. Surrounded by a space of grace, they can be given the opportunity to surface with safety, leading toward healing. “Deep calls forth to deep,” says the Psalmist. From my experience, the depth of releasing these painful emotions can open up a greater spaciousness of the heart, ushering in a new dimension of freedom.
Speaking from my own spiritual work over the last few years, cultivating these “nowhere” places talked about in The Cloud has been one way in which I have felt more freedom to engage life and live a life of openness and receptivity to others, to the world, and to God. Though I certainly have a ways to go in my journey, this openness has felt like a certain flexibility of the heart that, I think, is the foundation for the fruits of the Spirit that the Apostle Paul speaks of: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.