Gender and Mysticism Thesis: PART 3

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

Is The Cloud of Unknowing an anti-masculine text? So far I have been asking some rather non-traditional questions of this text, but this one goes well beyond the scope of traditional Cloud scholarship — yet it is the question that interests me most, perhaps because I originally expected the answer to be no. The Cloud has so often been called an “elitist” text, or “highly specialized” in its approach, that I felt sure that it would turn out to be very masculine, in the sense that it would conform to what the theological “authorities” defined as the “highest” and “best” way to achieve mystical knowledge of God. But even without putting the text into its contemporary context, which will be the goal of Part IV, a close examination of the Cloud’s teaching yields some surprising results.

If we use the terms masculine and feminine not in any essentialist sense but as a way of talking about the relationship between dominant ways of thinking — rational, ordered, active, masculine — and all the modes of knowledge subordinated by the dominant — defined as feminine, or “other” — then what becomes clear is that the author of the Cloud is actively positioning himself in opposition to dominant ways of thinking, and thus might be considered anti-masculine. In fact, it would seem that he openly campaigns against ways of thinking typically associated with the masculine impulse in his assault on the use of intellect in contemplation, but it must be made clear (once again) that the author himself never labels these modes of thought in gendered terms. Rather, the terms as I am using them are more the product of the twentieth-century than the fourteenth, and thus they enable us to read this text in ways that may not have even been possible to earlier readers. As a result, we can read two of the Cloud-author’s main concerns — the futility of the intellect and the inadequacy of language in the pursuit of contemplation — which were clearly anti-dominant, as also being anti-masculine.

The Futility of the Intellect

The Cloud-author’s insistence on the futility of the intellect in achieving knowledge of the divine is repeated often enough in the text, and with sufficient intensity, to suggest that the tendency to elevate the intellect was rather popular among his contemporaries. Throughout his text the author rings changes on this theme, emphasizing in some places the ineffectiveness of intellectual knowing, and in others its inherent dangers, and he also offers a variety of methods for subduing the intellect. The foremost reason that intellectual activity is ineffective is simply that God “is incomprehensible to alle create knowable miyt” (18). As the author explains later, God “may wel be loued, not not thouyt. By loue may he be getyn & hoden; bot bi thouyt neither” (26) . Love, then, is the only means by which God can be known, for “loue may reche to God in this liif, bot not knowing” (33). If God himself is “unknowable” to the intellect, then clearly it is futile to attempt to know him by these means — and it is also dangerous.

In the fourth chapter of this text, the Cloud-author begins to warn against the dangers of an intellectual approach to contemplation:

For who-so herith this werke outher be red or spoken, & weneth that it may or schuld be comen to by trauayle in theire wittes (& therfore thei sitte & sechin in theire wittes how that it may be, & in this coriouste thei trauayle theire ymaginacion parauenture ayens cours of kynde, & thei feyne a maner of worching, the whiche is neither bodily ne goostly): trewly this man, what so-euer he be, is perilously disseyuid; in so-mochel that, bot yif God of his grete goodnes schewe his mercyful myracle & make hym sone to leue werk & meek hym to counsel of prouid worchers, he schal falle outher into frensies, or elles into other grete mischeues of goostly sinnes & deuels disseites; thorow the whiche he may liytly be lorne, both liif & soule, with-outen any eende. & therfore Goddes loue beware in this werk, & trauayle not in thi wittes ne in thin ymaginacion on no wise. For I telle thee trewly, it may not be comen to by trauaile in thim; & therfore leue theim & worche not with theim. (22-23)

And he continues in chapter five by explaining that while “it be ful profitable sumtyme to think of certeyne condicions & dedes of sum certein special creatures, neuertheles yit in this werke it profiteth lityl or nouyt” (24). In this case, the special type of contemplation the author is describing, thought serves only to interfere in the true work of the soul:

For why mynde or thinkyng on any creature that euer God maad, or of any of thiere dedes outher, it is a maner of goostly liyt; for the iye of thi soule is openid on it & euen ficchid ther-apon, as the iye of a schoter is apon the prik that he schoteth to. & o thing I telle thee, that alle thing that thou thinkest apon it is abouen thee for the tyme, & bitwix thee & thi God. & in so mochel thou arte the ferther fro God, that ouyt is in thi mynde bot only God. (24-25)

Thus the very activity that is typically associated with the “highest” powers of the human mind is thoroughly discounted by the Cloud-author, not only because it suggests that contemplation is possible as a result of human effort but also because as “work,” thought lies outside the natural state of the soul, and thus interferes with its loving attention, its “naked entent,” towards God, which occurs only in the darkness of the cloud of unknowing.

In the seventh chapter, the author describes thought almost as if it had a life of its own, and could deliberately intrude on the soul’s devotion. He instructs the contemplative that if “any thoyt rise & wil prees algates abouen thee, bitwix thee & that derknes, & asche the seeing ‘What sekist thou, & what woldest thou have?’ Sey thou that it is God that thou woldest haue;” otherwise the thought will do its best to bring the mind to “diuerse ful feire & wonderful pointes of [God’s] kyndnes” which will ultimately lead the contemplative to thoughts of Christ’s passion, and then to his or her own state of wretchedness (26-27). Presumably because these types of thoughts or meditations, especially on Christ’s passion, were so popular at the time, the Cloud-author is especially careful to explain that these thoughts are not intrinsically bad:

& yit, neuertheles, the thing that he seide was both good & holy; ye, & so holy, that what man or womman that wenith to come to contemplacion with-outyn many soche swete meditacions of theire owne wrechidnes, the Passion, the kyndenes & the grete goodnes & the worthines of God comyng before, sekirly he schal erre & faile of his purpos. & yit, neuertheles, it behoueth a man or a womman, that hath longe tyme ben usid in theese meditacions, algates leue hem, & put hem & holde hem fer doun vnder the cloude of foryetyng, yif euer schal he peerse the cloude of vnknowyng bitwix him & his God. (27-28)

Thus, in this special life, those “that hath longe tyme ben usid in theese meditacions” must learn to “smite doun al maner thouyt vnder the cloude of foryetting” in order to avoid being thoroughly distracted from his or her calling (28).

But how exactly is one to go about suppressing these thoughts? The Cloud-author offers several “plans of attack,” which range from using a “litil worde of o silable,” like “God” or “loue,” as a “scheeld & spere” (28) to actually “step[ping] abouen it with a feruent steryng of lue” (66). Despite his repeated warnings against thinking in literal or physical terms about spiritual matters, these “methods” offered by the Cloud-author are remarkably vivid and physical.14 With the one-syllable word which is both “scheeld & spere,” the contemplative is to “bete on this cloude & this derknes” above him or her, which will thereby “smite doun” the thought and drive it away (28). And, in addition to stepping over thoughts, “treed[ing] hem down vnder thi fete” (66), the author describes two more ways to “dodge” an attack by thoughts. One is to

Do that in thee is to lat as thou wist not that thei prees so fast apon thee, bitwix thee & thi God. & fonde to loke as it were ouer theire schuldres, seching another thing: the which thing is God, enclosid in a cloude of vnknowyng. (66)

Not only are these thoughts capable of independent action, then, they even have “schuldres!” The other dodge is this:

When thou felist that thou maist on no wise put hem doun, koure doun under hem as a chitif & a coward ouercomen in batayle, & think that it is bot a foly to thee to stryue any lenger with hem; & therfore thou yeeldest to God in the handes of thin enmyes. (66-67)

Thus, it is clear according to the teaching of the Cloud-author that thought, which is ultimately a function of the intellect, is the enemy of the true contemplative, to be fought against at all costs. But there will come a time when the “thi bodely wittes kon fynde ther nothing to fede hem on” (121), and thus it will remain still and quiet so that the will can “feel” what the mind is unable to “see” (122). This time will only come, however, when all manner of masculine knowing and seeing has ceased.

It would seem, then, that the approach to contemplation advocated by the Cloud-author is rather anti-intellectual, and thereby anti-masculine. But we have yet to consider the implications of the author’s particular concern with the inadequacies of the intellect’s primary means of knowing: language.

The Inadequacy of Language

If we think of language as an attempt to capture thought in a form which renders it intelligible to the human mind, which thus imposes order and control on the way we understand the world, we can begin to see language as the logical offspring of the masculine impulse described earlier. Language does not exist in nature — it is not only the product of the human mind, but also a seemingly arbitrary system of signs and signifieds which attempts to impose relationships where none by nature exist. But because this system has become so thoroughly integrated into our understanding of what it means to be human, we cannot escape involvement in it, though throughout history poets in particular have lamented the inadequacy of language to fully convey human thoughts and desires.

According to the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, however, this inadequacy is nowhere more profoundly felt than in the relationship between the soul and divine. What works with limited efficiency as a means of human communication is of no use in this transcendent relationship, which itself defies all explanation. But does this then mean that language plays no role in the contemplative life? To address this question we must again turn to the text itself, which is, after all, a monument to the power of language to communicate fundamental truths — and a very well-wrought one at that!

The first problem with the use of language is that any attempt to speak of the divine (or anything for that matter) requires the use of terms which operate primarily in the physical realm; hence the need for repeated warnings to “conseyue not bodily that that is seyde goostly” (94). But words by their nature carry with them physical connotations, which we in our humanness are unable to escape. Even when such words are raised to the infinite power in the attempt to speak of the divine, we are still reducing the divine to the level of human understanding rather than reaching beyond it, which according to the Cloud-author should be our goal. And since nothing is more reductive than submitting content to the shackles of grammar, the author recommends that if we must use language, choose only one word, such as “God” or “loue,” but take care not to “brekyng ne expounyng thees wordes with coryouste of witte, in beholdyng after the qualities of thees wordes, as thou woldest by that behodyng encrees thi deuocion” (73). Rather, the purpose of this “litil word” is similar to the cry of “fire!”:

& riyt as this lityl worde FIIR sterith rather & peerseth more hastely the eren of the herers, so doth a lityl worde of o sylable, whan it is not only spoken or thouyt, bot priuely ment in the depnes of spirit…. & rather it peersith the eres of Almyty God that doth any longe sauter vnmyndfuly mumlyd in the teeth. & herfore it is wretyn that schort preier peersith heuen. (75)

Thus it is not even the word itself, but the intention behind it, that enables communication with the divine; if the word itself can be left behind, the soul will be that much closer to its goal.

One of the real dangers in any attempt to speak about God in human language is the tendency to “rewrite” God in our own image, the image our language system makes possible, thereby rendering him no longer divine. The Cloud-author describes this danger in some detail, saying of those who insist on understanding God in such literal terms that they “make a God as hem lyst, & clothen hym ful richely in clothes, & set hym in a trone, fer more curiously than euer was he depeynted in this erthe” (105). Although this passage reminds us of the author’s sense of humor (frequently felt throughout the text), it also points to the potential for deception and idolatry opened up by describing God in human terms. Not only is the anthropomorphic God limited by the availability of terms to describe him, he also becomes subject to the rigors of logic, grammar, definition, and propositional content — and as “subject” is at the will of the masculine impulse, which seeks to conquer, claim, and illuminate, to know that which is by nature hidden. But it is, of course, only the words for the divine that are thus “colonized,” as the distance between these signs and what they signify is ultimately too wide to be bridged by any human effort.

To avoid this obviously sinful tendency, then, the Cloud-author encourages the contemplative to break free from the world of signs altogether, or as much as is possible, and to instead think about and communicate with the divine “with a fulle spirite, in the heiyt & in the depnes, in the lengthe & in the breed of his spirit that preith it” (75). Because God himself stands beyond the reach of human language, he can only be found in places where words cannot go. Words are inextricably linked to bodily understanding, and if something “neuer so goostly in itself” is to be spoken of, it must be “wroyt with the tonge, the whiche is an instrument of the body,” and thus “alweis be spoken in bodely wordes” (114). But since God is a spirit, “who-so schuld be onid vnto hym, it behouith to be in sothfastness & deepnes of spirit, ful fer from any feynid bodely thing” (88). Therefore, the prayer of the contemplative ultimately takes place in a kind of non-language, which is in fact better able to communicate with the divine:

Bot more aperte is that thing knowyn & schewid vnto him, the whiche is hid in depnes of spirit, sith it so is that he is a spirit, than is any thing is ferther fro God bi the cours of kynde then any goostly thing. (89)

However, despite the Cloud-author’s insistence on abandoning language as a means of communication with the divine, he does not express outright disgust with or hatred for language, just as he does not for the physical body. In fact, he is careful to explain that he does not want the contemplative to “leue any tyme, if thou be stirid to preie with thi mouth,” nor does he want to prevent him from “brest[ing] out, for habundaunce of deuocion in thi spirit” (90). These involuntary expressions, such as “swete Ihesu,” are the body’s way or participating in contemplation, which is important because “God wil be seruid with body & with soule, both to-gederes, as seemly is” (90). Nevertheless, even this vocal communication transcends the rational order of language, as it arises from the depths of the spirit and from a desire to love, not to name or classify, analyze or comprehend.

Ultimately, in the most intimate moments of contemplation, everything that is not pure love for the divine is so well suppressed beneath the cloud of forgetting that the silence must be “deafening.” With language no longer in the way, human spirit and divine can commune in ways neither intelligible nor expressible. Thus, at this stage, the soul has finally broken free from the confines of a language system constructed by the masculine impulse and has returned to its essence, to the purpose for which it was made. In a sense, then, both soul and divine are “feminine,” because both stand outside the realm of “knowing,” naming, thinking, and seeing. But this is not to suggest that such gender labels work on any literal, figurative, or even spiritual level, since contemplative union ultimately transcends all such distinctions; however, it does provide us with a way of emphasizing the contrast between dominant ways of thinking, typically considered masculine, and the approach described in The Cloud of Unknowing. In this way, it becomes possible to see the Cloud as an anti-masculine text — but this brings us to our next question: is it unique as such in the context of late fourteenth-century English spirituality? It is the aim of Part IV to address this question.


Part I: The Free Gift of Contemplation

Part II: The Feminine Soul

Part III: An Anti-Masculine Text?

Part IV: Alone in the Crowd