“Brilliant, bold, and breathtaking. Carmen Acevedo Butcher is called to this work, and I have no doubt the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing is the one calling her. I loved her sensitivity to the original Middle English, her fascinating background details, and her high level of accuracy. I am delighted that this passionate and readable new translation of the Cloud is on the planet!”—Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Wisdom Jesus and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening
The Cloud of Unknowing: A New Translationby Carmen Acevedo Butcher
This anonymous fourteenth-century text is the glory of English mysticism, and one of the most practical and useful guides to finding union with God ever written. Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s new translation is the first to bring the text into a modern English idiom—while remaining strictly faithful to the meaning of the original Middle English.
The Cloud of Unknowing consists of a series of letters written by a monk to his student or disciple, instructing him (or her) in the way of Divine union. Its theology is presented in a way that is remarkably easy to understand, as well as practical, providing advice on prayer and contemplation that anyone can use. Previous translations of the Cloud have tended to veil its intimate, even friendly tone under medieval-sounding language. Carmen Butcher has boldly brought the text into language as appealing to modern ears as it was to its original readers more than five hundred years ago.
Also included in the volume is the companion work attributed to the same anonymous author, The Book of Privy Counsel, which contains further advice for approaching God in a way that emphasizes real experience rather than human knowledge.
To learn more about the author, visit her website: carmenbutcher.com
Read an Excerpt
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
And in the name of love, I ask you, whoever you are, however this book came into your hands—maybe you own it, have borrowed it, are delivering it to someone else, or are safekeeping it for others—regardless, I beg you in the powerful name of love, if at all possible don’t read it to anyone or copy it or quote from it, and don’t let anyone else read it, copy it, or quote from it, unless, in your opinion, that person is sincere in their intentions to follow Christ. They must be ready to go to the next level, advancing beyond the active life to the highest contemplative life. Grace takes us there in this present world through purity of soul, even though our bodies are mortal. Entrust this book only to those who for a long time have been doing everything possible in prayer and virtuous living to prepare themselves for the contemplative journey; otherwise, this book is not for them.
I also ask in the name of love that you accept some advice from me and please pass this advice on to others who read, copy, quote, or listen to this book. Promise me that you’ll take the time to read it all the way through, and ask them to do this, too. Here’s why. What if you find something at the beginning of the book, or halfway through that makes you question why a point was left hanging or wasn’t clarified in more detail? But in later chapters the point is completely explained, if only you had read the very next chapter or one at the end of the book. That’s how a person who reads one section but not another could be led into error. It would be so easy. To avoid this spiritual misstep and to help others avoid it, too, I’m asking you—please do what I say, for love.
I hope that habitual gossips, boasters, flatterers, fault-finders, busybodies, whisperers, liars, and character assassinators never see this book. I never meant to write anything for them. I don’t want them meddling in these matters, nor do I want the merely curious, educated or uneducated, prying into this subject. Even if they’re good people with active lives, it will mean nothing to them, unless they’re also inwardly stirred by God’s mysterious Spirit, allowing them to participate in contemplation at the highest level from time to time. Then, through God’s grace, even if they can’t do this work unceasingly, as true contemplatives can, they’ll find that this book will go a long way in strengthening and comforting them in all they do.
This book has seventy-five chapters. The last one discusses what signs to look for if you want to know whether or not God has called you to do the work of contemplation.
Dear spiritual friend in God, examine your life. Pay careful attention to the way you live out your calling. With all your heart, thank God for your blessings, and his grace will help you stand strong in the face of subtle attacks from within and without, until you win the everlasting crown of life. Amen.
Chapter 1: The four stages of the Christian life, and how the disciple for whom this book was written advanced in this calling
Dear spiritual friend in God, I want to tell you what my humble searching has found true about growing as a Christian. You’ll experience four stages of maturity that I call the ordinary, the special, the singular, and the perfect. You can begin and complete the first three stages in this earthly life. Grace will help you start the fourth here also, but it will last forever in the heavenly joy of eternity. You will notice these stages are listed in this order: first, the ordinary, then the special, next the singular, and last, the perfect. Our Lord in his profound mercy has called you to progress through them in this order, leading you by the desires of your heart.
You remember the first stage. You lived the ordinary Christian life with your friends out in the world, until God’s eternal love could no longer stand your being so far from him, because first he created you from nothing and later he paid his priceless blood for you when you followed Adam and got lost. So, with an irresistible kindness, he nudged your desire awake, fastened it to a leash of longing, and led you to the next level, so you could be his servant, serving those he loves. At this special level, he knew you would learn to live more abundantly and more spiritually than you had before.
What else did he do? He didn’t abandon you at that stage, because he loves you with all of his heart. He’s loved you since you began. So what did he do next? See how forcefully and how gently he pulled you to the third level, the singular? Along this solitary way, you’ll learn to lift up the foot of your love and walk in kindness toward purity. This fourth, perfect level is the final one.
Meet the Author
Carmen Acevedo Butcher is Associate Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Shorter College, Rome, Georgia, where she is also Scholar-in-Residence. She has published numerous translations of Christian mystical classics, including Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader, Man of Blessing: A Life of Benedict, Incandescence: 365 Readings with Women Mystics, and A Little Daily Wisdom: Christian Women Mystics.
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The Cloud of Unknowing is a 14th century Christian classic, the primary source-text for Centering Prayer and other forms of meditation and "prayer of the heart." This beautiful new translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher has a more devotional quality than most previous translations of The Cloud and its "sequel," The Book of Privy Counsel. Butcher's versions of these texts are easy to read, and she captures the passion, deep faith, and occasional humor of their anonymous author. Butcher begins with an extended introduction to The Cloud, giving us the history of the book as well as what we do and do not know about its author. This introduction also gives us a summary of the theology and spirituality of the text, which, while solidly rooted in 14th century Christian faith, has been a deep inspiration to contemplatives of many other faith traditions throughout the last five centuries. The fact that this new translation is published by a Buddhist press shows that The Cloud transcends barriers of tradition and is a truly timeless classic. One of the "hidden treasures" of Butcher's translation is the Notes section at the end of the book, which give us a wealth of insight into the text. She occasionally quotes the Middle English to show us the wordplays and other aspects of the original text, and she also includes references to Scripture and other writings to illuminate various passages of The Cloud. It's definitely worth the trouble to flip to the back of the book to read the endnotes. I fell in love with The Cloud of Unknowing about 15 years ago through William Johnston's classic translation, and now I've fallen in love with it again. I feel like I've been re-introduced to an old friend. Even if you've read The Cloud in other translations, I highly recommend reading it again in Butcher's new and vibrant translation.
Ms. Butcher makes this Middle English Christian mystical masterpiece intelligible and accessible in it's wisdom, thereby relevant to the modern mystic! It's both a prescription for the practice of contemplation (and the root of modern contemplative prayer) and devotion as vehicles for personal and Universal transformation. I've enjoyed toggling between the footnotes and text as Ms. Butcher helps one to dive deep into language and it's richness and limitations in describing the Indescribable. An antidote for spiritual hubris and fundamentalism!
I was first introduced to The Cloud of Unknowing by finding it in the home of someone who was practicing its teaching. It showed. This new translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher is brilliant and better than the one my late friend had. Highly recommended.