Gender and Mysticism Thesis: PART 2

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


Thus far we have seen that the Cloud-author does not teach an approach to contemplation which discriminates on the basis of gender, but this is not to say that gender plays no role in the approach itself. As the author describes the relationship between the soul and God, the twentieth-century reader cannot help but see this relationship in sexual terms, even if they are thoroughly spiritualized. However, even though it has been common since the patristic era, and even in pre-Christian times, to speak of the soul in the “feminine” position before God, the Cloud-author himself makes no such statement — and would most likely warn against it, as doing so serves only to apply a limited physical understanding to a relationship that is ultimately beyond the scope of human comprehension. Nevertheless, as products of a culture saturated with the implications of human sexuality, we may not be able to understand the relationship between the soul and the divine in any other way. That is not to imply that we are somehow incapable of “truly” understanding this relationship, but rather to suggest that as we look at this “feminine soul” in the hands of the Cloud-author, we keep in mind where the adjective “feminine” comes from, and that, as I will be using it, it applies only on the metaphysical level.

If we consider the relationship of the soul with God in gendered terms, one obvious way of understanding this relationship as the Cloud-author describes it opens itself up to us: contemplation as the courtship of the soul. Again, although this concept is hardly new, the Cloud-author himself never makes it explicit (whether intentionally or not we will never know). But consider the evidence: the soul itself was made for continual union with God, but as a consequence of original sin, what was once possible by nature can now only be made possible through grace. Without grace, the soul isn’t even aware of the separation from its “true love,” but once it has been made aware, it is filled with a longing to return to its source. For some this means a calling from the common life to the special life of the “believer,” but for those so chosen (for whatever reason) the calling is to a life dedicated to the kind of contemplation that others will only be able to enjoy in the afterlife. This calling, then, represents the ultimate courtship of the soul, offering the possibility in this life of the “spiritual marriage” which awaits all souls in heaven.

At first glance, this courtship might appear to fall out according to traditional gender roles, with God as the male lover wooing his beloved, but in the divine romance the roles are less clearly defined. While God makes the “first move,” so to speak, the Cloud-author is careful to insist that God will not force a relationship on a soul that is not willing — although he also explains that the soul granted this gift is thereby made both willing and able (68-71). The point is that the relationship, beyond the fact that God initiates and enables it, is best described as interdependent — the more the soul longs to know and to love God, the more grace it is given to reach this end. But the extent to which this relationship actually depends on the level of the soul’s participation in it is never quite explained by the Cloud-author. He does, however, describe in some detail both what the contemplative should do as “preparation,” and what he or she can expect from the divine.

When the contemplative first experiences the call to this special life, the author recommends that he or she respond by clearing the mind of all other thoughts but God, and praising and thanking him.


& mene God that maad thee, & bouyt thee, & that graciousli hath clepid thee to this werk: & resseiue none other thoyt of God. & yit not alle theese, bot thee list; for it suffiseth inouy a naked entent directe vnto God, with-outen any other cause then him-self. (28). This “naked entent,” then, is the first move on the part of the soul in response to the invitation of its “goostly spouse” (15). But God is also a “gelous louer” (15), so the soul’s next move must be longing for its beloved to the exclusion of all else: “bete euermore on this cloude of vnknowing that is bitwix thee & thi God with a scharpe darte of longing loue. & lothe for to think on ouyt vnder God” (38).

Despite all this longing, however, the contemplative is urged not to give in to excessive displays of devotion, either physically (bodily trances, for example) or spiritually. Rather, as in the “game” of courtly love in the secular world, it is more “proper” for the contemplative not to outwardly acknowledge the depth of its desire but instead to “leerne thee to loue listely with a softe & a demure contenaunce, as wel in body as in soule” (87). The author continues his lesson in devotional etiquette thus: abide curtesly & meekly the wil of oure Lorde, & lache not ouer hastely, as it were a greedy hounde, hungre thee neuer so sore” (87).


In order to prevent the contemplative from making a breach of etiquette, the Cloud-author actually suggests a kind of spiritual “hide and seek” game in which the desire of the soul is “hidden” from God. He offers two reasons for this game:

& o skyle is this, whi that I bid thee hide it fro God, the desire of thine hert: for I hope it schuld more cleerly com to his knowyng, to thi profite & in fulfyllyng of this desire, by soche an hidyng, than it scholde by any other maner of schewyng that I trowe thou coudest yit schewe. & another skyle is: for I wolde by soche a hid schewyng bryng thee oute of the boistouste of bodely felyng into the purete & depnes of goostly felyng; & so forthermore at the last to help thee to knit the goostly knot of brennyng loue bitwix thee and thi God, in goostly onheed & acordyng of wille. (88)

Ultimately the contemplative is urged to get past the stage of “falling in love,” when the desires of the soul long for expression, because the author “wote wel that euer the more that thi spirit hath goostliness, the lesse it hath of bodeliness & the nerer it is God” (89). And this more spiritual state, of being less emotional but nearer to God, is that of being in love — peaceful, quiet, but continually growing stronger and deeper.

As the soul is making its way towards this state of being, divine grace never ceases to make the way possible, often surprising the contemplative with “sodeyn steryngs” that come “vnauised, speedly springing unto God as sparcle fro the cole” (22). Meditations and prayers also “risen sodenly with-outyn any menes” (73), and even “that deuote sterying of loue that is contynuely wrouyt” in the soul is produced “not by him-self bot by the hande of Almiyty God” (61).

Though it is the workings of grace, then, which ultimately make this love relationship possible, the role of the soul cannot be discounted. Whether it is pursuer or pursued the soul remains actively involved, either by the “action” of “naked entent” or by the willingness to be receptive to the sudden impulses of divine love. Although this love has been placed in the soul by God, the Cloud-author admonishes the contemplative to “lene listely to this meek steryng of loue in thin herte, & folow ther-after; for it wil be thi gyde in this liif, & bring thee to blisse in the tother” (92). Here, it would seem, love plays the dual role of masculine “movement” in the soul in response to the beloved and feminine “guide” leading the soul to heavenly bliss.11 The “guidance” of love can also be seen as “masculine” (as the active pole on the active/passive binary), and thus the contemplative must let love “be the worcher, & thou bot the suffrer” (70). As the soul progresses beyond the courtship period and towards what we might call the “consummation” of union, its role becomes increasingly more feminine.

From time to time, as the contemplative dwells in the cloud of unknowing, absorbed with love for the divine, God may choose to penetrate the darkness with “a beme of goostly liyt, peersyng this cloude of vnknowyng that is bitwix thee & hym, & schew thee sum of his priuete, the whiche man may not, ne kan not, speke” (62). In these moments of illumination, the soul is in a sense “impregnated” by the divine light, which engenders further devotion and more fervent longing in the soul. But along with this increased desire comes the awareness of the one thing that stands in the way of total union: the contemplative himself or herself. This awareness of self must (and presumably can), however, be altogether “forgotten,” for “it is the condicion of a parfite louer, not only to loue that thing that he loueth more then him-self; bot also in maner for to hate him-self for that thing that he louith” (82). This “self-hatred” is more than just “trampling” all memories and thoughts beneath the cloud of forgetting, for even when alle other creatures & alle theire werkes, ye, & therto alle thin owne werkes, that ther schal leue yit after, bitwix thee & thi God, a nakid weting & a felyng of thin owne beyng; the whiche wetyng & felyng behouith alweis be dstroied, er the tyme be that thou fele sothfastly the perfeccyon of this werk. (83)

But despite the Cloud-author’s insistence on stamping out an awareness of self, he does not in any way condone the kind of self-deprecation that leads to bodily punishment, or to suicidal thoughts, as it is not the body that he means by “self” but the very fact that the soul has existence over and against God, and that the separateness of body and soul is the result of the disobedience of original sin. Thus there is only one way that the “nakid wetyng & felyng of thin owen beyng” can be destroyed, and that is by “a ful specyal grace ful frely youen of God, & therto a ful acordyng abilnes to resseyue this grace on this partye” (83).

The Cloud-author goes on the define this “abilnes” as “not elles bot a stronge & a deep goostly sorow” and he assures the contemplative that “wel were hym that miyt wynne to this sorow” (83). Once again, even though the awareness of self can only be destroyed by God, the contemplative must participate in this “act” by producing the appropriate response of sorrow, or lament, which has long been associated with the feminine. In this case, however, the sorrow is produced not by loss, or by an inherent lack or deficiency of any kind, but rather by a presence which by its very existence hinders the soul from entering into “union” with its beloved — yet it can only be vanquished by the beloved. As in the perfect romance, full and willing participation on both parts is necessary.

If the gender distinctions are once again appearing to blur, this is to be expected not only because of the “gender” of both soul and divine are being read into a situation which itself transcends the limitations of gender roles, but also because even at the peak of human sexual union, gender roles frequently lose their definition. While the soul has been patient, passive, receptive, and fervent in devotion, it has also participated in its “journey” nearly every step of the way, not only by its complete and total consent to the workings of divine grace, but also by struggling to overcome the obstacles of memory, thought, and self. In the end, however, the soul surrenders even the awareness of self and yields fully to the embrace of the divine — an embrace which takes place in the womb-like darkness of the cloud of unknowing.

Likewise, the divine role has been somewhat mixed: although God actively sought out the soul and “planted” the seed of grace within it, and subsequently enabled the seed to grow into the fruit of contemplative devotion, the love thus planted also played the role of the “eternal feminine” which guides men’s souls beyond themselves and towards the true good.12 As guide, the divine led the soul towards itself, that very self or “being” then becoming the object of the soul’s desire, its “intended.” And then, finally, the “spiritual marriage” takes place, in which the soul is “in grace, onyd with him in spirit with-outen departyng, bothe there & in blis of heuen withouten any eende” (120). But at this point any attempt to read gender roles into this marriage becomes futile, because God, though he is thought of as the spiritual husband, perfectly contains both masculine and feminine and yet transcends these roles altogether.

Even though many a spiritual writer has tried to establish the union of husband with wife as a “type” of mystical union, defining the male role as that which “completes” the deficient female, in the context of The Cloud of Unknowing this typology loses credence. All humans, regardless of gender, are by nature lacking what can be given to them only by grace, but God is by nature whole and perfect; therefore no man can accurately represent in physical marriage God’s role in spiritual marriage, but rather both male and female are in equal need of “completion” by grace. To suggest otherwise would be to imply that any one person has more intrinsic worth or merit than another — an implication that, as we have seen in Part I, the Cloud-author takes great pains to avoid.13

So then, what are we to make of the seemingly feminine role of the soul in the Cloud’s mystical theology? If we insist on pushing these terms to their literal limits, we will only fall victim to that error of interpretation that the Cloud-author so often warns against. If, however, we use these “earthly” terms, masculine and feminine, to help us better understand the dynamics of the relationship between the soul and the divine, then they have served their purpose and we can effectively leave them behind. But before we can leave the issue of gender altogether, there is a rather large question which demands attention: is The Cloud of Unknowing, in its emphasis on love rather than knowledge, and on will rather than reason, an anti-masculine text? This is the subject of Part III.


Part I: The Free Gift of Contemplation

Part II: The Feminine Soul

Part III: An Anti-Masculine Text?

Part IV: Alone in the Crowd