BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING

Week Two: A Short Prayer Penetrates Heaven

Cloud of Unknowing cover

The modern Centering Prayer movement teaches practitioners to choose one word to say and focus on during prayer. This technique has its origins in The Cloud of Unknowing (among other historical works) — our featured book of the month.

I grew up listening to long and wordy prayers in church. But the Cloud‘s 14th-century author explains why short prayers can be better prayers. I especially like his colorful example of a person who uses one word to cry for help in the midst of a fire. Aren’t we all crying out for help when we pray?

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Contemplatives seldom use words when they pray, but if they do, they choose only a few, and the fewer the better. They prefer a short one-syllable word over a word with two syllables, because the spirit can best assimilate it.

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[I]f we pray intently to get anything good, we should cry out in word, thought, or longing nothing but this word—God, nothing else. No other words are needed; for God’s very nature is goodness, and he’s the source of everything good.

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Why does this short little prayer of one small syllable penetrate heaven? Because you pray it with all that you are and all that you can be . . . the deepest wisdom of your soul is contained in this single tiny word, which is long in feeling . . .

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When a person is terrified by a fiery catastrophe . . . they cry out for help. That’s obvious. But what do they say? I can promise you a person in danger won’t pray a long string of words or even a word of two syllables. Why not? When desperate, you’ve got no time to waste . . . you’ll scream ‘Fire!’ or ‘Help!’ and this one-word outburst works best.

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I’ve been enjoying the Cloud of Unknowing in a newer translation that renders the text in a modern English idiom. Read more here.

For Reflection

Cloud quote - week 2