The Cloud of Unknowing

Dear Parents, Guardians and Friends,

Many hymns suffer from a kind of certainty fixation about God and Jesus Christ. In addition, some words are forced to fit a tune, with the result that the emphasis on words is frequently in the wrong place. Some tunes, on the other hand, are made to fit the words, particularly in hymns that are now better known as Christian Songs or Choruses. Then comes the issue of gender and race, and images of God that are, frankly, fatuous occasionally.

At my niece’s wedding which I was asked to conduct, I had difficult hazards to negotiate. She insisted that there should be no reference to words such a ‘salvation’, or ‘redemption’ or any reference to Jesus as Lord. With a rather stern look to her face she wanted no words that suggested a duality between God and Humankind. What interested me, however, was that she insisted in choosing a chorus from the Community of Taizé in France: ’Salvator Mundi’ – ‘Jesus, Saviour of the World’. When I pointed out the contradiction between her ‘banning’ of ‘salvation’ and this chorus, she simply replied that the chorus was in Latin and therefore it doesn’t matter!

Perhaps that contradiction explains why people choose their favourite hymns for wedding with sometimes puzzling if not comic consequences: ‘Fight the Good Fight’ ‘Drop drop slow tears’ ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ ‘O valiant hearts’, the latter which has that less than appropriate second line for a wedding: ‘through dust of conflict and through battles flame’. However, there may be some who feel that marriage has been known to involve the occasional dusty moment of conflict and the rise in temperature from marital battle. All that aside, there are hymns that for me touch on the essential mystery of The Divine.

In that magnificent hymn, ‘All my hope on God is founded’, we have the simplicity of what Christian meditation and the Christ-life are about. That opening line is followed by: ‘God unknown, he alone, calls my heart to be his own.’ God unknown? The incomprehensibility of God, who is the Absolute Good is beyond grasp. It helps that the hymn was written by a great poet, Robert Bridges [see photograph] and the music by Herbert Howells. The other hymn that conveys this sense of not knowing God is ‘My song is Love Unknown’, a Hyman from the 17th century by Samuel Crossman; music by John Ireland. Both these hymns are quintessentially English. As a Scot, I make no apology for that!

There is some bewildering, wistful sense in the English psyche that is so difficult to express. I have heard it said that the English don’t show their emotions, with the possible exceptions of anger or ebullience in crowds. My answer is that at least some of the time, the English [and the Scots!] are perhaps feeling too deeply to show emotions. Make no assumptions from the look on someone’s face. It may be that you are feeling sad and that might be obvious in your face. However, in sorrow, you may show no signs of it as it is too deep.

Perhaps the greatest text on the subject of Christian Silent Prayer and Meditation is the anonymous work English mysticism, from the latter half of the 14th century, is ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. I come to Love of God, by the way ‘unknowing’. Or putting it another way, I come to God by that which he is not; arriving a place of deep humility, acceptance and attentiveness to the barely perceptible command to love.

The writer of ‘The Cloud’ is firm in suggesting that when you come to the prayer of silence, or whatever you feel you want to call it, all you need is one word! This praying is not about mustering thought, nor is it about controlling the inner life and its constant fragmentation. We move into ‘the cloud’ that maybe a place in which I might feel lost and helpless. And that’s the point! This is where I ask for help.


Here’s an approach that you might find helpful:

  • Sit or stand still for 20 minutes and gathering your breathing gently, simply noticing what’s going on in you in the moment.
  • Take a word into the silence. It might be ‘Jesus’, it might be ‘Trust’, ‘Love’, ‘Hope’, ‘Peace’ or simply – ‘God’. Stick to that word.
  • Your mind will wander all over the place. That’s inevitable. When you become aware that that’s what’s happening, simply bring yourself back to your breath and to that simple and preferably monosyllabic word.
  • Avoid judging yourself as to whether you concentrated or not; nor whether you understand or ‘get it’ or not. All that leads to a huge self-consciousness.
  • When you come out of your 20 minute practice, make a simple act of thanksgiving and dedicated. Fore example: ‘Keep my heart open to Your Love.’


If you are suffering, anxious or deeply concerned, you already have one word that you use: ‘Help!’… No-one is an expert at making themselves open to the Love Unknown. Putting it simply, all of us need help. With perseverance in this practice, your trusting in ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, the more the habits of possession and judgement begin to have less of a grip.

If you would like some help with this practice, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me: m.shaw@exetercs.org

‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ is a beautiful book on Contemplative Prayer. It’s available in various translations from the Middle English. I suggest the Penguin version.

Am I good at this practice? Of course, not! But I’m aware that the mystery of Love Unknown somehow ‘indwells’. This indwelling has little to do with the senses or achievement, but to do with Love and perseverance in that Love.


Bishop Martin
School Chaplain

9 February 2022
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