The Work of Contemplation Then and Now: The Cloud of Unknowing and Present-Day Christian Mystical Practice
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The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous fourteenth-century Middle English mystical text that discusses what its author calls the “work” of contemplation. In the late twentieth century, the Cloud became an important resource for two Christian contemplative movements that go by the names of “Centering Prayer” and “Christian Meditation.” This dissertation addresses a number of issues related to the appropriation of the medieval Cloud by persons who wish to engage in a present-day form of Christian mystical practice. These issues are (1) the medieval context and audience of the Cloud; (2) the reading of the Cloud and the conceptualization of contemplation in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; (3) the description of contemplative practice in the Cloud and in Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation; (4) the effects of contemplation for the practitioner's understanding and sense of self as this is discussed in the Cloud and in Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation; and (5) the implications which this consideration of the Cloud and these present-day movements has for the interpretation of mysticism. These issues are addressed through a comparative reading of the Cloud, related early Christian and medieval mystical texts, and the literature of the Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation movements. This dissertation aims to contribute to knowledge of The Cloud of Unknowing, and Christian mysticism more generally, by relating this text to a present-day conception of contemplation. The Christian contemplative movements discussed here read the Cloud as a text which offers instruction in a mystical practice that can be performed by persons in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This emphasis upon practice in the appropriation of the Cloud can serve as an interpretive lens with which to consider the meaning of the category of mysticism in the discipline of Religious Studies.
Table of Contents
Abstract -- Acknowledgements -- Introduction: A Medieval Text and Present-Day Mystical Practice -- Who Entered the Cloud? The Context and Audience For Medieval Contemplative Literature -- The Contexts of Contemplation: Present-Day Appropriation of The Cloud of Unknowing -- The Performance and Practice of Contemplation: Verbal Formulas and the Method of Contemplative Prayer -- Awareness and Transcendence: The Self in Contemplative Practice and Experience -- The "Work" of Contemplation: On the Place of Practice in Interpreting Mysticism -- Conclusion: A Wider View of Mysticism -- Bibliography -- Vita.