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The trend of people identifying as “spiritual but not religious” is sometimes a rejection of biblical literalism, religious fundamentalism and orthodoxy. To me that can be a good thing, and, in my reading of a recent translation from Middle English by Bernard Bangley of the book, The Cloud of Unknowing, very traditional.
The anonymous author encourages readers to discard what’s not helpful in the book, and so I freely disagree with the writer’s rejection of physical and sensual experience as unspiritual, even ungodly. This 14th century English monk must not have met the 14th century English nun, Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “In our sensuality, God is…”
The beliefs of the church regarding creation, incarnation, and resurrection all support a hallowing of bodily experience. As James B. Nelson and a diverse group of other contemporary Christian body theologians have affirmed, we know God through our bodies or we don’t know God at all. Nelson goes so far as to add, “Pleasure is the strongest argument for the existence of God.”
Yet I wholeheartedly embrace The Cloud author’s understanding that literalism interferes with our spirituality, and he offers many examples. I once wrote that we do a disservice to religion when we treat matters of faith as matters of fact.
For example, the writer cautions against taking the ascension of Jesus literally. As a college professor of mine once said, “If Jesus had ascended at the speed of light, he still would not be outside the known universe.”
The Cloud of Unknowing asserts that “the spatial references are only symbolic. … The spiritual realm is always near, enveloping us on every side. Whoever has a strong desire to be in heaven is already in heaven, spiritually. Measure the highway to heaven in terms of desire rather than miles. … Love determines a soul’s location.”
Earlier the writer explained, “Similar in nature to heavenly bliss, divine contemplation already participates in eternity.” I once wrote that people we recognize as living saints are those who experience God’s commonwealth here and now. Spiritually they have found heaven in their desire to love and serve others. Heaven for me is where God’s and human will coincide. Saying the Lord’s Prayer (“on earth as it is in heaven”) is a way of aligning ourselves to that greater purpose. That’s why Jesus could say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” or “among us.”
There are many pearls of wisdom about the spiritual life in The Cloud of Unknowing. Here are a few quotes I underlined in my copy:
+ Remember your spiritual needs rather than your spiritual achievements.
+ Continue until your prayer life becomes enjoyable.
+ You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God.
+ Loving contemplation destroys our tendency to sin more effectively than any other practice.
+ The essence of contemplation is a simple and direct reaching out to God.
+ Judging others, pronouncing them good or bad, is God’s business. We may evaluate behavior, but not the person.
+ Christ taught us in Matthew’s Gospel that spoken prayers are best when they are not too long.
+ A little prayer of one syllable pierces heaven because we concentrate our entire spiritual energy into it.
+ The person in great distress will continue calling for help until someone hears and responds.
+ The little word “God” can flood your spirit with spiritual meaning without giving attention to particular activities of God.
+ I desire to help you tighten the spiritual knot of warm love that is between you and God, to lead you to spiritual unity with God.
+ Love functions as your guide in this world, and it will bring you to grace in the next.
+ [After meeting our physical needs,] sensuality urges us to take more than we need, encouraging lust.
+ The important consideration is not what you are, or what you have been, but what you want to be.
Finally, this anonymous monk seems to echo the axiom that spiritual guides remind us of what we already know:
Writers used to think that humility required them to say nothing out of their own heads, but to corroborate every idea with quotations from Scripture or the [Church] fathers [and mothers]. Today this practice demonstrates nothing but cleverness and education. … If God moves you to believe what I say, then accept my ideas on their own merits.
Given its encouragement to surrender certain knowledge of God for intimacy with God, I can’t help but think The Cloud of Unknowing would be a great text for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. As they say in recovery programs, religion is for people afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for people who have already been there.
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