“By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. … With a devout and delightful stirring of love, [you must] struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love” (excerpt from The Cloud of Unknowing).

For someone who, somewhat pridefully, considers herself intelligent, I overthink my experiences of God. I decide for myself what God must be communicating to me, tailoring God’s response to what I would prefer. Amazingly, God is almost always 100% in sync with my opinion!

In my busy life, praying and reading Scripture can just be items on an endless to-do list. This approach to faith may be practical, but I often yearn for something else, something more—a spiritual relationship that touches my heart. I so rarely just sit and love God, and let God love me.

In the medieval book The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author (believed to have been a monk) insists that we stop thinking God and start feeling God instead. Using as a core image Moses’ encounter with God in a cloud at Mount Sinai, the author invites us to step into mystery. God is beyond our comprehension, so we should stop trying to comprehend. It’s liberating to leave behind our earthbound reasoning and bask instead in God’s essence, which is pure love.

As we sit on a hillside on a clear autumn evening, must we know an abundance of facts about the stars twinkling in the sky?

The book was written in Middle English. Translations have been published, but I highly recommend Daniel London’s The Cloud of Unknowing, Distilled (Apocryphile Press, 2021). London captures the book’s message in a series of brief passages and meditations, and he keeps the reader focused on the moon (God) and not the finger pointing to it (ourselves). The contemplative spirit in which it guides us to encounter God is strikingly similar to that of Eastern meditation traditions. We leave our preconceptions and busy brains at the door and enter into stillness, embraced by the God who is “nowhere and everywhere.”

We in the 21st century might consider ourselves more advanced than the original readership of this little 14th-century book, yet we must admit that we still live in a great cloud of unknowing. For all our space telescopes and supercomputers, we remain largely in the dark about the workings of our vast universe. For all our advances in medicine and psychology, every scientific discovery or technical breakthrough only underscores how much further we have to go. This can either discourage us or remind us that maybe we should focus on our feeling selves more—in our everyday lives and our prayer lives too.

As we sit on a hillside on a clear autumn evening, must we know an abundance of facts about the stars twinkling in the sky? Maybe the whole point is the wonder and awe and gratitude that we were created to be here, right now, on this amazing planet. By letting those feelings sink deep into our bones—by letting them be our prayers—we can find relief from our fear and anxiety. We can tap into the peace that passes all understanding but is nonetheless God’s great gift to us.

In this often confounding and unknowing world, let us come into God’s presence just as we are. We don’t have to know all the answers—we can rest assured that our God does. Let us pierce with love that dark cloud of unknowing and allow God’s light to pour into us.

Elise Seyfried
Elise Seyfried is the author of five books of essays. Her essays have also appeared in Gather, Insider, The Independent, Chicken Soup for the Soul, HuffPost, The Philadelphia Inquirer and many other publications. Elise recently retired after 20 years as director of spiritual formation at a suburban Philadelphia ELCA church.

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