Thursday, July 19, 2012

Can We Really Know God?

I was raised with the promise that I could know God as surely as I know the loved ones and friends who fill my days with such fleshy, palpable joy.  

Photo Credit: Mark Grace
It was not until I was in my thirties that this entitlement was challenged.  Sure, I had heard my friends from the emerging church crowd speak passionately about "living the questions."  I understood that perfectly. I did not understand, however, and still have trouble understanding why one would turn away from the parts of Scripture that are easily understood to live in a no-person's land, contemplating the things we will never comprehend until Christ returns.  It seemed like a lot of navel gazing to me, an excuse to live vaguely and ineffectually.

There Is More To This Than I Thought . . .

Then I began to pray.  Rather, I was invited into a style of prayer that actually focused on God's presence with me, in the moment.  Bit by bit I dropped the chatter and began to attempt to listen to God. After all, God was there, right there, waiting for me just as He always had been.  Easy peasy, nice and breezy.  

Except for the fact that it wasn't so easy.  As a matter of fact it was really difficult.  All kinds of thoughts and disturbing emotions assailed me, not once or twice but every. Single. Time. I tried to pray in this way . . .

I found that I had a natural talent for obsessing about anything but God.  

How could that be?  Wasn't I the kid who thought about God all the time?  Hadn't I grown up with the  blessed assurance that Jesus was mine, all mine?

Eventually I found a small book entitled, THE CLOUD OF UNKOWING and I began to develop a new awareness of God's presence in my life, one that wasn't as easily controlled by me as I had believed for so long.

Seeking Genuine Encounter, Risking Change

That discovery has become shockingly important to me on so many different fronts.  Here are just a few:
  1. I developed a much sharper awareness of the difference between MY voice and God's voice.
  2. I am less tempted to offer platitudes about how easy it is to know God, and much more empathetic and respectful about the obstacles others face when they talk about trying to know God.
  3. I am no longer satisfied with certain counterfeit experiences- for instance, getting high on emotion, anger and jealousy misinterpreted as passion for God, substituting mindless chatter for real prayer.
  4. I found an increased ability to engage in daily activities consciously and prayerfully.
  5. When counseling with folks, I often ask them to take five minutes a day to silently seek God, then to come back and talk to me about it.  This simple exercise has become a foundation for my practice of brief pastoral counseling and has opened up profoundly healing conversations.
Below I've included an excerpt from the book.  The first version is my attempt to render the Middle English into something a little more intelligible to contemporary readers.  Below that you will find the original text, or at least, I believe, Evelyn Underhill's translation of the original Middle English, still a challenge to read.


Chapter 3
"Do not stop, but work until you are ready.  Because the first time that you attempt to meet God in this kind of prayer you will find darkness, and a cloud of unknowing.  You will know nothing except that you will feel  a passionate desire for God.  Try as you might, this darkness and this cloud will stand between you and your God.  It prevents you from seeing Him clearly with only your reason.  Neither will it allow you to feel Him in the sweetness of love in your desire for Him.
"So resolve to live as long as you can in this darkness, crying more and more for the One you love.  If you expect to ever see Him, you must be prepared to live constantly in this cloud of darkness. If you apply yourself to practice hard in the way that I have described here, I am confident that in God's mercy you will come to know Him."
Original Text
"Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection." p. 73
"And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest. For if ever thou shalt feel Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth always to be in this cloud in this darkness. And if thou wilt busily travail as I bid thee, I trust in His mercy that thou shalt come thereto." p. 74
 Now I must tell you that I am no great shakes at contemplative prayer- I continue to be inconsistent, distractable, and I still talk too much to God just like I tend to talk too much in general.  But I am not about to give up this quest.  At least now I understand what the fog is all about.

What about you? What spiritual and prayer practices have become important in your life?


  1. I really believe that stuff can be dangerous. The devil can really do a number on you if you Aren't anchored in The Word.

  2. What an important point! There are some common-sense precautions that anyone doing this kind of prayer should take. FIRST, have a prayer partner or a prayer group of experienced Christians so that you can talk about what is happening to you when you pray this way. It is quite common for people to identify feelings of restlessness, distractions, occasionally uncomfortable emotions, or intrusive thoughts. That isn't necessarily a sign that the devil is taking over, but as the author of the Cloud points out, a part of the growth experience. SECOND, start with brief sessions- 3 to 5 minutes is a very long time if you've never done this kind of prayer. Teresa's counsel, which is in the quote I included in yesterday's readings, is to learn to walk before we try to fly. That really holds true here. THIRD, don't let it be your only experience in prayer and daily devotion- continue to use other forms of prayer that are meaningful to you. FOURTH, don't do this kind of prayer without the assistance of a licensed professional counselor or a credentialed and experienced spiritual director IF YOU HAVE A HISTORY of trauma, moderate to severe depression or are taking medications that may interfere with the experience- including but not limited to antidepressants, tranquilizers, certain pain medications and antipsychotic medication. At this point you may be saying, "Then why the heck would I want to do this in the first place?" My answer would be that ALL of the uncomfortable symptoms and precautions identified are STANDARD PRECAUTIONS for anyone engaging in any kind of relaxation or stress reducing exercise. As to the rest, well see items 1-4 in the article above. Blessings!


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