My Lover, My God: The Role of Gender in the Mystical Theology of The Cloud of Unknowing
Written by Amy Goodloe Copyright
© 1993, 2010. All Rights Reserved
do not reproduce without permission
The fourteenth-century mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing, has received much scholarly attention through the years, yet scholars rarely take notice of the role of gender in the Cloud-author’s theology. The text may be written by a male priest to a presumably male novice, but we can in no way infer from these details that the text is thereby masculine. Quite the contrary, it is the purpose of this thesis to demonstrate that the Cloud-author rather openly locates his text on the feminine pole of the masculine/feminine binary system, and that he does so in order to define his approach to contemplation over and against those approaches considered dominant at the time.
Rather than emphasizing reason and intellect as the primary means of achieving knowledge of the divine, the Cloud-author stresses the superiority of the will as the faculty in and through which divine union occurs, and he teaches that love alone makes this union possible. Because the faculty of will has long been associated with the feminine end of the binary, and reason, language, and intellect with the masculine end, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing thus not only privileges a feminine position but actively discounts traditionally masculine ways of knowing.
Much of the scholarship on the fourteenth-century mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing, focuses either on uncovering the sources and background of the anonymous author’s theology, or on situating the author within the context of contemporary mystical writers, both English and continental.1 Rarely do scholars have anything to say about the issue of gender in the text, either in terms of the gender of those for whom the approach is intended or the way the approach works on a metaphysical level. In fact, because the text is so often treated as a representative of the dominant approach to contemplative experience in fourteenth-century England, it seems implicit in much scholarship that the text is thereby masculine — the author is, after all, a presumably male priest writing to a presumably male novice contemplative. Clifton Wolters, in his introduction to a modern English translation of the text, has gone so far as to remark that “a sense of masculinity pervades the whole” (12), though he does not explain what exactly he means by this.2
Elizabeth Robertson goes one step further by pointing to the Cloud as typical of “most male mystical literature” (162), primarily because it “follows the male mystic’s hierarchical ascent to union with God,” a “progressive ascent” which she finds “conspicuously absent” from several twelfth-century texts for a female audience (47).3 Thus the Cloud is offered as the antithesis to feminine spirituality, or rather as the premier example of masculine spirituality. But what Robertson doesn’t take into consideration is the Cloud- author’s repeated warnings not to take physically what is meant spiritually — in other words, not to interpret a spiritually abstract or transcendent approach to mysticism as an approach which requires actual, physical transcendence.
According to Robertson, women were considered unable to escape an awareness of their own bodies and of the physical existence to which they were tied by their biological function. As a result, she argues, texts written for the spiritual instruction of women emphasized a non-linear, non-hierarchical, concrete and pragmatic approach to the spiritual life, as opposed to the more abstract and teleological approach supposedly advocated by the more dominant “male” texts.4 While I have no quarrel with her assumptions up to this point, I do question the inclusion of the Cloud among these “dominant” texts, especially since I believe it is possible to see the Cloud, in context, as an openly anti-dominant text.
Not only is there no indication in the text itself that the approach is intended only for a males, but the Cloud-author goes to great lengths to insist that his approach is available to all who are called, regardless of innate capacity, and that any attempt to read his approach in literal terms (i.e., as literally hierarchical or linear) is ultimately misleading. So how, then, can the Cloud be said to be masculine? Can we even assign a gender label to this text, which seems to resist any attempt to categorize it in worldly terms? If we think of the word “feminine” as referring only to the physical characteristics associated with femaleness — bodily, physical, natural, emotional, earthy — then the Cloud certainly does not seem feminine, though the author does not actively denigrate the flesh or the world. If, however, we think of the text in light of the typically “masculine” characteristics of reason, intellect, abstract thought, control, power, etc., then we find that it does not fit this label either, as the Cloud-author insists on the superiority of love over intellect in contemplation.
This leaves us with two possibilities for speaking of the text in terms of gender: perhaps the approach is feminine in the non-physical sense of the term, and perhaps it is so in order to define itself against the dominant approaches to spirituality at the time. In other words, if we think of the masculine/feminine dynamic constructed by society, in which masculine equals rational, dominant, and intellectual, and feminine equals everything “other” than or outside this realm (passive, submissive, willful, loving, metaphoric, irrational, patient, etc.), then it becomes possible to see the extent to which the Cloud locates itself quite plainly on the feminine pole of this binary system. This is not, however, because it emphasizes emotional or physical experience (the usual ingredients of a “feminine” approach), but because of its insistence on the futility of the intellect in contemplation — an act which must be thoroughly driven by a love which defies human comprehension, even articulation.
What I am suggesting, then, is that we use the masculine/feminine dynamic as a way of recovering the extent to which the Cloud-author stands over and against the dominant masculine tradition of his time. While I do not mean to ascribe to either gender any essentialist traits, I do think that this dynamic, this polarizing tendency so encoded in Western thought, is a useful tool for this purpose, so long as we remain aware that every tool has its limitations. With that in mind, let us now turn our attention to the text itself, starting with the Cloud-author’s assumptions about gender-related versus general human capacities for the contemplative life.