Gender and Mysticism Thesis: PART 4

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

In order to place The Cloud of Unknowing in its fourteenth-century context, I will need to cover some ground already covered in the Introduction, starting with the tendency to classify highly emotional and physical mysticism as feminine. Because women have been historically and mythologically associated with the desires of the flesh, and with the emotional and irrational side of human nature, it comes as no surprise that female mystics who were able to conquer their worldly/fleshly desires were often rewarded with acutely emotional spiritual desires, culminating in a “bodily” experience of the divine.15 Frequently these experiences came in the form of actual sensory perception, tastes of “heavenly sweetness” or visions of the infant Jesus nursing at Mary’s breast, and they were sometimes accompanied by outwardly visible “signs” such as ecstatic prostration. But despite the fact that this type of mystical experience was considered “verifiable,” as an outward expression of an inward reality, it could also lead to dangerous excesses. Consequently, those who sought such experiences were constantly reminded to purge themselves of any desire which was not spiritual — often by means of severe bodily discipline.16

Against this tradition, characterized by the discipline of the outer body — which is associated with women though it was popular with both sexes — stands the tradition of the inner rule, which appears to be a more mind-centered, and therefore a more rational, orderly, linear, and “masculine” approach to spirituality.17 Along these lines, then, of body versus mind, are the distinctions of masculine and feminine usually drawn, although both sexes participated with equal “success” in each of these approaches. But, I would argue, these distinctions are ultimately too broad and over-simplified to yield any significant insight into the subtle variations among medieval mystics. Rather, it seems more useful to loosely categorize these methods along the lines of theological underpinning behind both mystical practice and experience — and to then ask which approach is typically considered “dominant,” and thereby “masculine.” In his History of Christian Spirituality, Urban Holmes discusses four such categories, which are the four possible combinations of two sets of terms which describe method of meditation (cataphatic or apophatic) and means of subsequent illumination (speculative or affective).18 If we look closely at the assumptions that lie behind each of these types, we will see how the combination which fits the teaching of the Cloud-author — apophatic/affective — is not only fairly atypical, but also privileges the traditionally feminine power of the will.

Cataphatic describes the kind of meditation that focuses the mind on concepts that have a positive content, that describe God in terms of what he is rather than what he is not. These terms, however, such as loving or forgiving, come from within the context of human language, and thus carry with them connotations from the realm of human existence. Knowledge of sacred texts and of other authorities is thus prerequisite to cataphatic meditation, although such knowledge may be acquired second-hand, through reading the meditations of those who have enjoyed such study, and by listening to sermons. This approach is frequently called the via positiva, and it is the predominant approach of Western Christendom.

The alternative to cataphatic meditation is apophatic, which tends to deny the possibility of describing God in concrete terms, especially since such terms seem to reduce the divine to the level of human understanding rather than elevating the soul to a transcendent understanding of the divine. Thus, it is characteristic of the apophatic method, known also as the via negativa, to describe the divine by negating the typical terms used by cataphatic meditation. Rather than saying that God is love, for example, one would say that he is not-love, because he is ultimately so much more than what this term can convey that it would be better to say that he is not that term at all. Hence the use of the term “negative content” to describe the focus of apophatic meditation, as opposed to describing it as an absence of content.

But how, exactly, does one focus on negative content? Herein lies perhaps one of the most fundamental differences in apophatic and cataphatic methods: while in cataphatic meditation the mind focuses on grasping and comprehending as much as possible via the powers of reason, apophatic meditation takes the opposite extreme in requiring the contemplative to “empty” his or her mind of all content, and to as much as possible still the powers of reason altogether.19 Since the concept of God as “not-love” is not rational, it requires the power of another faculty, higher than reason — but how one defines this faculty depends on the presumed means of illumination.

Unlike cataphatic meditation, the prerequisite for apophatic is not so much knowledge of sacred texts and traditions as it is a willingness to know God fully and deeply in ways that transcend the ordinary powers of the intellect. The approach thus presupposes familiarity with the basics of church teaching, as well as knowledge of the methods and aims of this approach; this is where texts like The Cloud of Unknowing come in, as instruction in the methods of the via negativa rather than providing the actual “content” for the via positiva.

Thus far I have described two methods for achieving divine illumination, but have not yet discussed the means by which such illumination takes place — or what might be better understood as the faculty in and through which illumination occurs. Because cataphatic meditation focuses on the recognizable qualities of God, and thus his seemingly “human” (or “super-human”) attributes, such a method is typically paired with an affective end, which is to say that illumination occurs in and through the affectus, or will. One of the assumptions behind this pairing, however, is that the will is by nature corrupt, tending to stray towards earthly delights, and so can be “reformed” when its attention is captured instead by the prospect of heavenly delights. The will presumably trades its love for the world, which frustrates reason’s capacity for spiritual pursuits, with a love for the divine, so that the will cooperates with reason in the pursuit of divine knowledge.20 This pairing — cataphatic/affective — is among the most popular “type” in Western mysticism, and the English mystics Richard Rolle and Julian of Norwich fall into this rather broad category.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the pairing of apophatic and speculative, which is typically considered the most “intellectual” approach to contemplation, despite its emphasis on the “emptied” state of the intellect. Although the mind itself is empty, occupied only by the “darkness of unknowing,” in its consciously receptive mode divine illumination is made possible. But instead of reforming the will, or having really anything to do with love, this illumination yields knowledge of the divine not possible through the ordinary processes of human thought. Perhaps it is considered intellectual because it defines love of the divine as desire for knowledge of the divine — the Anslemian notion of “faith seeking understanding” — which ultimately privileges the intellectus as the “highest” human faculty, even though its powers are purely the gift of divine grace.21

Apophatic/speculative is also the category in which the pseudo-Dionysius falls, whose De mystica theologia had perhaps the greatest influence on the Cloud-author. But not everyone who read pseudo-Dionysius came to the same conclusions about the role of the intellectus. In fact, Thomas Gallus wrote a commentary on De mystica theologia in which he advanced the superiority of affectus over intellectus as the means by which the soul is united with the divine, while Albert the Great and several other thirteenth-century commentators on the same text defined intellectus as the highest power.22 These commentators, then, are in keeping with the pairing of an apophatic method with a speculative end, but with Gallus’ different reading of pseudo-Dionysius, a new pairing becomes possible: apophatic and affective.23

Although this pairing is far less common in Western mysticism than the other two, it is nonetheless the one that most influences the Cloud-author, and which shapes his teaching on contemplation. Thus, while others are emphasizing meditations on Christ’s passion, devotion to the Eucharist, and sensory perception of the divine, the Cloud-author urges his followers to take an entirely different route — to forgo all attempts to communicate with the divine by any human means: reason, emotion, language, etc. The ultimate aim of this communication is not to be intellectual illumination but a sort of ecstasy of the will. But as the Cloud-author himself would add, the concept of ecstasy can be very misleading, as this experience bears no real resemblance to sexual ecstasy, and whatever abandonment occurs takes place in the quiet, “secret” stillness of the cloud of unknowing.

I have so far demonstrated that the Cloud-author’s approach follows different theological premises than many of his most well-known contemporaries, but often the differences are quite subtle. In fact, it would be a mistake to define the mystical teaching of the Cloud as the “opposite” of any other teaching, or to consider it unique in all regards. Comparative analysis of medieval mysticism illustrates both the uniqueness of each individual’s approach as well as each one’s common ancestry. Rather, what I intended to call attention to was the uniqueness of those aspects of the Cloud that allow us to see its teaching not only as anti-masculine, but also somehow feminine, though in a transcendent way. Without an understanding of the dominant teaching on the means of mystical union, which emphasized intellectual knowledge of God and/or a physical/emotional response to this knowledge, then it might be all too easy to label The Cloud of Unknowing as dominant, and thereby masculine.

But if we look at particular aspects of the text, such as the prerequisites for contemplation, the use of language, and the role of the soul in union, in terms of the male/female dynamic constructed by society, it becomes clear that this particular text has a vested interest in defining itself against the norm. But then, there is a sense in which all mysticism can be said to define itself against the norm; after all, the mystical experience is one which takes place outside the boundaries of the Church, and in fact gives the mystic access to divine knowledge which is frequently at odds with institutionalized doctrine, and with this knowledge comes a power which the Church no doubt felt as a threat. That could even be the reason that English mysticism often seems “tame” compared to the wildly emotional and expressive mysticism reported on the continent. Margery Kempe was influenced by accounts of such experience, and was continually in danger of being labelled a heretic; indeed, the fear of being so labelled might well have quieted others who wished to follow in Margery’s footsteps. But the approach to mystical union advocated by The Cloud of Unknowing, while equally as subversive of ecclesial authority as continental mysticism, was far less likely to get the contemplative into trouble, as it did not openly challenge the Church but rather quietly sidestepped it. Nonetheless, the text still defined itself in opposition with dominant ways of thinking, thus positioning itself on the feminine end of the cultural binary.

But a final word should be offered on the use of this adjective “feminine.” If it helps us as twentieth-century readers to define this particular approach as feminine, in terms of the masculine/feminine dynamic, then this construction can be considered useful. If it only confuses our understanding of the transcendent nature of the mystical theology of the Cloud-author, then perhaps we should leave it behind — as the Cloud-author himself would undoubtedly suggest.


Part I: The Free Gift of Contemplation

Part II: The Feminine Soul

Part III: An Anti-Masculine Text?

Part IV: Alone in the Crowd