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Feeling Time, Will, and Words

Feeling Time, Will, and Words

Vernacular Devotion in The Cloud of Unknowing

(p.23) Chapter One Feeling Time, Will, and Words
Staging Contemplation
Eleanor Johnson
University of Chicago Press

This chapter focuses on the anonymously-authored The Cloud of Unknowing, a mystical treatise of the late fourteenth century, to argue that this prose work is far more than simply a how-to manual. Instead, Cloud is a partial literary enactment of the abstract and difficult work of contemplation that it describes. Cloud achieves this by theorizing the experience of divine contemplation as one in which a contemplative sends “sharp darts of longing love” toward God. These darts should be delivered as the words of prayer—words that should last for only an “atom” of time, which is to say, little words of “one syllable.” This style of prayer enables a contemplative practitioner to send sharper darts of his loving will toward the cloud of unknowing between him and God. What Cloud does beyond that is to embody in part the aesthetic experience of this atomic prayer by studding its own text throughout with monosyllabic utterances and chains, including the famous suggestion that a reader pray on the words, “Love, love, love” or “God, God, God.” In embodying the experience of contemplation in this subtle, modest poetic way, Cloud implicitly claims Middle English as the ideal contemplative language.

Keywords:   Cloud of Unknowing, cognition, contemplation, atomic words, time, likeness, monosyllables, mysticism, participation, Middle English

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