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The Cloud of Unknowing and the Greening Power of Contemplation ~ A Love Note from Your Online Abbess

Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,

Last spring I received an email from my editor at Broadleaf Books to connect me with Carmen Acevedo Butcher who had a new translation of Brother Lawrence’s writings out. That connection was such a gift as I have been a fan of Carmen’s work for years, having especially loved her work with the women mystics. 

We went on to record a conversation about The Practice of the Presence for our book club and found Carmen to be not only a wise teacher of contemplative practice, but a beautiful human being full of kindness and enthusiasm. A friendship with a kindred spirit was born and we invited her to be on our Wisdom Council

It is my great delight that she will be leading a program on The Cloud of Unknowing next Saturday. This classic contemplative text comes alive in new ways with her fresh reading, translation, and commentary. 

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to share some of her wisdom: 

“We need contemplation because, as our globe gets more crowded by the hour, more and more we act like elbow-to-elbow passengers in cheap coach seats on a commuter flight. We jostle for an inch more room and feel our faces heat up when someone gets our cargo space. To escape, we plunk ourselves down each day in front of the virtual infinity offered by computer screens and rarely stand under the sky and stare at the stars. Technology moves at the speed of sound, and we all struggle to keep up with Wi-Fi, Moodle, Wiis, Facebook, MySpace, and the latest search engine. Who doesn’t rush through the day? Who never feels the pressure to produce? How often are you in cyberspace? Our new frantic pace is like poison to our holding hands with those we love.

“That is where contemplation comes in. It reconnects us to ourselves, to God, and to others. It helps us learn to forgive and heal our souls, an action as basic as washing our hands or studying the ABCs in kindergarten. As Daniel Goleman says, meditation is ‘an antidote to the mind’s vulnerability to toxic emotions.’ Simply put, we need a way to generate joy. In a University of Wisconsin lab during the summer of 2001, a few months before 9/11, a Tibetan Buddhist monk submitted to the experiment of having his brain waves monitored by an EEG, and as he meditated, the results were remarkable. When the monk began contemplating in a way designed to nurture compassion within himself, the EEG sensors registered an actual shift—to a state of joy.

“For the first sixteen centuries of the Christian church, contemplative prayer was the goal of Christian spirituality, and now in our own time of transition and upheaval, five hundred years after the Great Reformation, we are returning to our roots. Contemplative prayer is more relevant than ever before. More and more of us are practicing this ancient form of prayer and finding peace in a world of war, AIDS, SARS, mad-cow disease, epidemics, terrorism, technology, overcrowding, noise, inequality, and a Church in need of humility.”

And an excerpt from The Cloud of Unknowing text:

“Do this work until you feel the delight of it. In the trying is the desire. The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing. You won’t know what this is. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do. They will always keep you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your intellect and will block you from feeling him fully in the sweetness of love in your emotions. So, be sure you make your home in this darkness. Stay there as long as you can, crying out to him over and over again, because you love him. It’s the closest you can get to God here on earth, by waiting in this darkness and in this cloud. Work at this diligently, as I’ve asked you to, and I know God’s mercy will lead you there.”

I so love that image to engage contemplative practice until you feel the delight of it. That in the trying, in the practice itself, is the desire to lean toward the Divine. But often we meet a darkness, an unknowing, and there is a sweetness in this experience, because it means we are reaching toward the One who is beyond our knowing and understanding. And in this we can experience a boundless love and holding. 

Please join Carmen Acevedo Butcher next Saturday, August 26th for a retreat on the Cloud of Unknowing

With great and growing love,


Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE

PS – I will be a part of a public online ritual that Dr. Daniel Foor is hosting on Ancestors of Path and Culture this Sunday, August 27th. Registration is free and there will be a recording available. 

Image paid license with Canva

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