Prayer as Rest
The Cloud of Unknowing is a contemplative treatise written in the late 14th century. It forms the basis (along with a few other historical texts) of the modern Centering Prayer movement.
The Cloud‘s anonymous author was a monk or priest who addressed his treatise to a young disciple just setting out in a religious vocation. Although written in a monastic context, the Cloud (and its “sequel,” the Book of Privy Counsel), has advice for anyone who wants to pursue a life of prayer.
Reading the Cloud of Unknowing, I’m especially drawn to the author’s description of contemplative prayer as rest and even akin to sleep. I don’t know about you, but I think rest is something most of us need in a culture characterized by a lot of striving. Are you tired and anxious? The Cloud author writes:
I . . . call [contemplative prayer] ‘rest’ for two reasons: When your soul is engaged in contemplation, it doesn’t feel worry or doubt. It’s totally at peace because it knows exactly what it’s supposed to do.
It makes sense to compare the work of contemplation to sleep. When we’re asleep, the functions of our physical faculties are suspended so that our bodies can get complete rest. Sleep nourishes and strengthens our bodies in every way. The same is true of the spiritual ‘sleep’ of contemplative prayer. The stubborn questions of our restless spirituality and all our creative and rational thoughts are firmly bound and totally emptied, so the happy soul can sleep soundly, resting profoundly in the loving awareness of God as he is, completely nourished and strengthened in spirit.
When you are seeking God, you won’t rest until you rest in him . . .
I’ve been enjoying the Cloud of Unknowing in a newer translation that renders the text in a modern English idiom. Read more here.