Gender and Mysticism Thesis: PART 1

My Lover, My God: The Role of Gender in the Mystical Theology of The Cloud of Unknowing

Written by Amy Goodloe
Copyright © 1993, 2008. All Rights Reserved
do not reproduce without permission


One of the most difficult concepts for the twentieth-century mind to grasp is that, despite what would appear to be an obsession with works, the fourteenth-century was not without an understanding of divine grace as the freely given but wholly underserved gift of God which makes the spiritual life possible. Without this gift, according to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, we would not even be aware of God’s existence, much less desire to know and love God. If grace could be earned or deserved, it would no longer be grace, and thus even those who are called out of the “common” life and into the “special,” “solitary,” or even “perfect” life should not think of themselves as especially deserving of favor.5 In fact, the Cloud-author takes pains to explain that each state of life is necessary to earthly existence, and each is therefore dear to God, but that some are chosen to move towards perfection in this life, while for others this state will be possible only in heaven. The call to the contemplative life, then, is freely given without regard to merit, or innate capacity, as the capacity for this life is one with the calling.6

Thus it is impossible for one person to determine whether or not any other person has the capacity for or is suited to the life of contemplation, but it is possible to offer those who think they have been so called ways of verifying their calling and tips for following up on it. That is the purpose which the author of the Cloud of Unknowing sets out for himself in this work, which is intended for a young novice contemplative whom the author describes as his “Goostly freende in God”(13).7 He does not, however, limit his audience to this one novice, nor to any one group of people over another.8 In both the prologue (written to the general reader) and the last two of his seventy-five chapters he seems to be aware of the likelihood that others will read his work, and he warns only that those who are “purposed … to be a parfite folower of Criste” (2) should read it. Those who are merely curious, notably “lettred men” (2), are asked to stay away from the book, as are “Fleschely iangelers, opyn preisers & blamers of hem-self or of any other, tithing tellers, rouners & tutilers of tales, & alle maner of pinchers” (2).

The author also makes it quite clear that not everyone who reads the book or who finds his discussion of the work of contemplation interesting and good is necessarily called to this work themselves, but at no point in his text does he specify any innate characteristic, such as gender or social standing, which would serve as an automatic disqualifier. Rather, he not only repeatedly emphasizes the necessity of having been made capable of this work by divine grace, but he also seemingly ignores what Elizabeth Robertson has determined were the common assumptions about female spirituality in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.9 While it is possible to argue that the author deliberately ignores these particular assumptions, I think it is more likely that he is simply dismissing all assumptions which suggest that anyone has or lacks the innate capacity for this life. Nonetheless, since my intention is to demonstrate that the Cloud-author does not promote a gender-specific approach to contemplation, I will now turn to four of the assumptions about women’s capacities that Robertson details in Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience.10

1. Women are body-bound

The first assumption about women common in the middle ages is that women are, in Robertson’s terms, “inescapably rooted” in their bodies — that because they are essentially willful, and not rational, they are unable to fully control the desires of their flesh to the extent necessary for contemplation. In particular, women’s biological functions keep them more involved in the physical/material realm than men, and thus prevent them from “escaping” an awareness of their bodies. This assumption depends, however, on two beliefs that the Cloud-author does not hold: that without the discipline of reason, the will by nature tends towards the material world, and that men are capable of escaping awareness of their bodily existence by their own efforts. According to the Cloud-author, the faculty of the will is distinct from the lower faculty of sensuality, which is what draws the soul towards earthly pleasures unless it is “reformed” by grace. While sensuality operates in the realm of bodily understanding, the function of the will is purely spiritual; indeed, it is the faculty which first experiences God’s call to contemplation, and which subsequently leads the way, so to speak. Thus, the condition of being “willful” is not gender-related.

According to the author of the Cloud, all humans are also inescapably aware of their bodily existence, but not because of any biological or physical link to the flesh. In fact, although the author acknowledges the dualism between body and soul, he refuses to define it as a tension; in other words, the body itself is not at war with the soul, hindering its progress towards God by dragging the contemplative towards the material realm. It is this kind of thinking that leads to attempts to actually “mortify” the flesh by physical penance, but the Cloud-author has this to say about such practices:

Fast thou neuer so mochel, wake thou neuer so longe, rise thou neuer so eerly, ligge thou neuer so harde, were thou neuer so scharp, ye, & yif it were leuful to do — as it is not — puttest thou oute thin yyen, cuttest thou oute thi tonge of thi mouth, stoppedest thou thin eren & thi nose neuer so fast, thouy thou schere awei thi preue membres & dedest al the pine to thi body that thou miytest think: alle this wolde help the riyt nouyt. Yit wil stering & rising of synne be in thee. (38-39)

Thus “synne,” that which stands in the way of contemplation, is not “in” the flesh nor can it be purged by an effort on the part of the contemplative — and it exists in all, regardless of gender. Thinking about sin in this literal/physical way, as linked to the body, is but one example of a tendency the Cloud-author repeatedly warns against: interpreting physically, or by bodily understanding, what is meant spiritually.

Because he does not link the flesh itself with sinfulness, the author of the Cloud emphasizes discretion and moderation rather than rigid asceticism with regard to the contemplative’s daily affairs: eating, drinking, sleeping, clothing, etc. (79-80). Clearly the body itself does not hinder the act of contemplation; as long as the soul continues in this work, the body will “behave:” “For alle bodely thing is sogette vnto goostly thing & reulid therafter, & not ayensward” (113). Elsewhere the author speaks of the need for both body and soul to work together:

For I telle thee trewly that this werk asketh a ful greet restfulnes, & a ful hole & a clene disposicion, as wele in body as in soule. & therfore for Godes loue gouerne thee discreetly in body & in soule, & get thee thin hele as mochel as thou mayst. (80) But he also explains that if the contemplative is able to “gete a wakyng & a besi beholdyng to this goostly werk with-inne [the] soule,” then he or she can “haue a rechelesnes in etyng & in drynkyng, in sleping & in spekyng & alle [thine] outward doynges” (81).

Thus, according to this author, not only is there no dualistic tension between body and soul, no hatred of the flesh so common during this period, but both are together being prepared for perfection by the work of contemplation:

theire acordyng abylnes in body & in soule, in degre & compleccion, er the tyme be that thei mowe parfitely be onid vnto God in parfite charite — soche as may be had here yif God voucheth saaf. (85)

So, even if women were considered to be somehow more tied to their bodies than men (though the Cloud-author assumes that we are all equally tied), this would not pose a problem as long as the fervent desire for contemplation never ceased.

2. Women are not educated, and thus have not been trained to think rationally.

Although the Cloud-author assumes basic knowledge of Church teaching, such as that available through sermons, he places very little value on formal education in the pursuit of contemplation. In fact, all that is necessary for this life can be taught by God alone. Those who are truly called to contemplation (that is, “hem that contynuely worchen in the werk of this book” [72-3]), as opposed to those who consciously choose to become an “apprentice in contemplation,” are often given such knowledge spontaneously:

For theire meditacions ben as thei were sodein conseites & blynde felynges of theire owne wrechidnes, or of the goodnes of God, with-outyn any menes of redyng or heryng comyng before, & with-outyn any specyal beholdyng of any thing vnder God. Thees sodeyn conseytes & thees blynde felynges ben somner lernyd of God then of man. (73)

Nevertheless, instructional texts such as The Cloud of Unknowing are useful, if for no other reason than to offer encouragement and the means by which the young contemplative can verify if his or her calling is from God, or from some other source.

If education is not necessary, then, neither is it necessary to have been trained to think rationally. In fact, the Cloud-author has this to say about such thinking: “Bot then is the vse iuel, when it is swollen with pride & with coriouste of moche clergie & letterly conning as in clerkes” (30). Thus it would seem that the contemplative is better off for not having had a formal education, and so in this regard women are especially well-suited to the contemplative life.

3. Women are unable to think in abstract terms because they must by nature conceptualize in terms of the concrete, physical world.

This assumption is related to the previous two in that women were thought to be incapable of abstract thinking primarily because they were “body-bound,” but also because, even if they were capable of such thinking, they lacked the necessary training through education. As we have already seen, the Cloud-author assumes that everyone is to some extent body-bound, but he does not find this a problem, and neither does he put much stock in the need for formal training. But on the subject of abstract versus concrete thinking, he has a great deal more to say.

First of all, he assumes that it is a human tendency to want to interpret concepts physically or literally, and that this tendency must be overcome by everyone. But the alternative is not abstract thinking, as an abstract concept is merely an attempt to apply a physical reality to a non-physical entity, which in the end is still interpreting physically what is meant spiritually. For example, if we think about the abstract concept of divine justice, we cannot help but bring an earthly understanding of justice to bear on our thinking, and this earthly understanding thus stands in the way of our truly grasping what is meant by divine justice. Because this is true of all concepts, all thoughts no matter how abstract, it is better not to entertain such thoughts at all but rather to “put them doun”” beneath the “thicke cloude of foryetyng” (66).

The Cloud-author has a great deal more to say about the role of thought in the work of contemplation, which we will come to in Part III, but suffice it to say that the inability to conceptualize in abstract terms, if indeed this was thought to be true of women, poses no problem to the approach detailed by this text. The only mental ability necessary is the ability to cease from all mental activity altogether, to instead “concentrate” not by knowing but by “unknowing.” This kind of concentration is made possible because God “is incomprehensible to alle create knowable miyt” (18). And to further underscore the point that this ability is not limited on any basis, including gender, the author goes on to write:

of the which two miytes, to the first, the whiche is a knowyng miyt, God, that is the maker of hem, is euermore incomprehensible; & to the secound, the whiche is the louyng myyt, in ilch one diuersly he is al comprehensible at the fulle, insomochel that o louyng soule only in it-self, by vertewe of loue, schuld comprehende in it hym that is sufficient at the fulle. (19)

Thus, all that is required of the individual contemplative is a “naked entent directe vnto God, with-outen any other cause then him-self” (28); all else, including the “scharp steryng of vnderstondyng” (33) — which is the faculty that tends to conceptualize in physical terms — must be “put doun” under the cloud of forgetting: “bot thou bere him doun, he wile bere thee dun!” (33).

4. Women cannot ascend the “allegorical ladder” to God; that is, they cannot follow the typical “male” pattern of “escape” from their bodies and detachment from the world.

Although this assumption is built on those already discussed, it is worth mentioning separately because it foregrounds the notion of hierarchical and linear ascent as being a male preserve. To understand mystical union as an upward ascent, however, even in allegorical terms, is to engage in that most fruitful of errors: interpreting physically what is meant spiritually. Mystical union, according to the Cloud-author, is something that is altogether different from that which is described by this fourth assumption.

Rather than thinking of the soul as leaving the body and ascending towards God — since “the werke of oure spirit schal not be directe neither upwardes ne donwardes, ne on o syde ne on other, ne forward ne bacward, as it is of a bodely thing” (106) — we should think of union as occurring “nowhere” physically, or rather, spiritually speaking, “in” the cloud of unknowing that shrouds both soul and God: “For the perfeccion of this werke is so pure & so goostly in it-selfe, that & it be well & trewly conceyuid, it scal be seen fer lengthid fro any steryng & fro any stede” (110-111). But this is not to say that the body itself is left behind in this act, even in a figurative sense, as to say this would once more plunge us into the difficulties of assuming that the soul goes anywhere. Rather, as the whole contemplative, body and soul, engages in contemplative prayer, in fervent longing to know God’s love in deeper and fuller ways, God may choose to send out “a beme of goostly liyt, peersyng this cloude of vnknowyng that is bitwix thee & hym, & schew thee sum of his priuete” (62). This has nothing to do with any kind of “allegorical ladder” or “ascent” in any sense of the term, and everything to do with a state of being, of waiting in the stillness and darkness of the cloud of unknowing, not for the soul to “leave” the body but for soul and body together to “receive” the divine.

To a twentieth-century reader, this understanding of the soul’s “role” in mystical union clearly has gender related, if not overtly sexual, connotations, and exploring these and other such connotations will be the focus of Part II. But first I will wrap up the discussion in Part I by pointing to some general examples that illustrate the Cloud-author’s unwillingness to restrict his approach on the basis of perceived gender-determined capacities.

Perhaps the most obvious example of the author’s general attitude towards women as contemplatives is his description of Mary Magdalene as being “in persone” the reprasentative of “alle sinners that ben clepid to contemplatiue liif” (44-45). While the story of Mary and Martha as “types” of the contemplative and active lives was not uncommon among spiritual writers, nowhere in his text does the Cloud-author give any indication that he is addressing types that are not also themselves fully human and fully female (i.e., not just symbols). Rather, he focuses in some detail on the biblical account of Christ’s visit to the house of Mary and Martha, and on Mary Magdalene herself — some eight chapters to be exact.

It is perhaps especially significant that Mary Magdalene was not only female but guilty of the most “fleshly” of sins, yet even she was both forgiven of her sins and granted the gift of contemplation:

not for hir grete sorow, ne for the mynde of hir synnes, ne yit for hir meekness that sche had in beholdyng of her wrechidnes only. But whi than? Sikerly for sche loued mochel. (45)

Thus, both forgiveness and the gift of contemplation are the reward not because of intrinsic merit on Mary’s part, nor because of inherent deficiencies, but because of her “naked entent” and the purity of her love for Christ. As she sat at Christ’s feet, Mary modeled the perfect contemplative behavior:

& in heryng of his worde, sche beheeld not to the besines of hir sister, … ne yit to the preciouste of his blissid body, ne to the swete voyce & the wordes of his Manheed … bot to the souereynst wisdom of his Godheed lappid in the derk wordes of his Manheed: theder beheeld sche with al the loue of hir hert. For fro thens list hir not remowe for nothing that sche saw ne herde spoken ne done aboute hir; bot sat ful stille in hir body, with many a swete priue & a lyste loue put upon that hiye cloud of vnknowyng bitwix hir & hir God. (47)

But lest we think that there is anything gender-specific in this description, the author continues:

For o thing I telle thee: that ther was neuer yit pure creature in this liif, ne neuer yit schal be, so hiye rauishid in contemplacion & loue of the Godheed, that ther ne is euermore a hiye & wonderful cloude of vnknowyng bitwix him & his God. In this cloude it was that Marye was ocupied with many a preue love put. & whi? For it was the best & the holiest party of contemplacion that may be in this liif. (47-48)

While Mary is put forth as the model to all contemplatives, as the type of contemplative “for thei schuld conforme here leuyng after hirs” (48), Martha is described as a representative of the active life. But as such a representative, she is still a “specyal seinte” (50) and should not be blamed for not choosing the “better part” that Mary has. Involved in the active life, Martha’s concern for daily affairs “was good & profitable to the helthe of hir soule” (52), but had she known more about the contemplative life, or if she herself had been called to this life, she would not have complained to Christ about Mary.

Although the Cloud-author draws from the story of Mary and Martha “a great deal more … than would be permitted today” (Wolters 40), what seems especially relevant to our purposes is that had his approach been somehow not suited for women, he would not have offered a woman as the model of contemplative life. Furthermore, a final point emphasized by this exemplum, which will serve to draw a close to Part I, is that it would be thoroughly at odds with his whole system of belief for the Cloud-author to assume, even unconsciously, that contemplation could be anything but the freely given gift of God, wholly independent of the capacities, abilities, training, disposition, and thereby gender, of the individual recipient. In fact, he leaves those of us who might think otherwise with this thought:

Were thou verrely meek thou schuldest fele of this werk as I sey: that God yeuith it frely with-outen any desert. (69)


Part I: The Free Gift of Contemplation

Part II: The Feminine Soul

Part III: An Anti-Masculine Text?

Part IV: Alone in the Crowd