Letter 23: Mystical prayer in the 14th century

We have looked at the flowering of mystical prayer in the 3/4thcentury that resonated with John Main and led him to the Christian form of meditation, the apophatic way of prayer. Cassian and Evagrius and the Origenist monks realised the Divine cannot be rationally understood or expressed in words – therefore their way of prayer was called ‘apophatic’ – ‘beyond words’. Hence the emphasis on letting go of images and words – in fact all sense perceptions – to lead us to the Silence of ‘pure’ prayer, where we experience the Divine Presence.

Political and social upheaval and a flourishing of mysticism seem to go hand in hand. The 14thcentury was no exception – the 100 year war, the Poll tax to finance the wars, the Peasant Revolt and several outbreaks of the Black Death all led to terrible suffering and turmoil. Moreover, the Church and State on the continent were at loggerheads with at one time two chosen Emperors at war and the Pope escaping from Rome to Avignon; the Franciscans and Dominicans were arguing over the principle of poverty. At this chaotic time mystical prayer and spiritual experiences were widespread, some ecstatic and some apophatic. In Germany Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler and Henri Suso come to mind and in England there are the English Mystics: Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, The Cloud of Unknowing and Julian of Norwich. The Flemish Mystic Jan van Ruysbroek and in Italy Catherine of Siena were equally influential.

It is not really surprising that the ordinary people were longing for spiritual guidance. The result of this was that Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowingfelt called to teach in the vernacular, because they were very aware that, as Meister Eckhart stated: “If the ignorant are not taught they will never learn, and none of them will ever know the art of living and dying. The ignorant are taught in the hope of changing them from ignorant to enlightened people.”

With The Cloud of Unknowingwe are firmly back in the apophatic mystical tradition. This fact makes it ironic that we do not know who the author was! It is a treatise written in English as a guide for a young man who wanted to lead the contemplative life of a hermit. The hermetical life exercised a great attraction for many people at this turbulent time, especially because of Richard Rolle’s example and teaching in his very popular book The Fire of Love. The Spiritual Director, who was giving this young man advice at the start of his spiritual journey, was very keen to counterbalance that influence. As a corrective to Richard Rolle’s emphasis on ecstatic, sensual experiences the author of The Cloud of Unknowingemphasized that to know God we had to let go of all experiences, thoughts and images, in other words he was advocating the ‘via negativa’, apophatic prayer. He did stress that we did indeed find God in the experience of Love, but that this was beyond any image or ordinary sensual experience. The author of ‘The Cloud’laid emphasis on Love in a beautifully poetic way and stressed we should be ‘piercing the heart of God with a flaming dart of love’.

Brother Patrick Moore in his contribution to the Chapter on The Cloud of Unknowing in Journey to the Heart points out that there are two main influences on The Cloud of Unknowing: Dionysius the Aeropagite and the Dominicans, especially the teaching of Meister Eckhart. He writes: “It is important to understand the context, in which the author of the The Cloudis writing, especially as he will be re-stating the ideas expressed in Hidden Divinityor Mystical Theology, an influential work he himself has translated into English. This was a treatise written about the year 500 by a monk, who called himself Dionysius the Aeropagite. For a thousand years Western Christians believed that this was someone who had the authority of Scripture; he was presumed to be the famous convert of Paul in Athens, Dionysius the Aeropagite, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. He is now referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius to distinguish him from the real Aeropagite. The author was actually a Syrian monk, who gathered together the Neo-Platonic world view, which spoke of the soul ascending to God by direct experience….Dionysius was the first to set out what have become to us the well-known stages of the mystical journey: purgation, illumination and union. His influence can be seen in the author of The Cloud speaking about union as “being one-ed” with God.” We hear the author of The Cloud say: “That is why St Dionysius said, ‘the most godlike knowledge of God is that which is known by unknowing.’ Indeed anyone who will read Dionysius’ works will find that he clearly endorses all I have said, or will yet say, from beginning to end.”(Cloud 70).

The second important influence came from the Dominicans, especially Meister Eckhart. Amongst the audience of Meister Eckhart were many Beguines in the Rhineland and further afield, who had joined in communities to support each other and help those around them, without wanting to join an established religious order. We do know that there were also Beguines in Norwich, when The Cloudwas being written, who would have therefore heard of his teaching, and moreover the Dominicans were then in Cambridge.

Next week we will explore the teaching of The Cloud of Unknowingand the correspondence with some of Meister Eckhart’s teaching, both so in accordance with the teaching of John Main.

Kim Nataraja