05/23/17 – Praying Silently with the Cloud of Unknowing

There is a story from India about four blind men who were asked by a king to describe what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. One blind man felt the leg and said the elephant is like a pillar. Another felt the tail and said the elephant was like a rope. Another one felt the belly and said the elephant was like a wall while the other felt the tusk and said the elephant was like a solid pipe. The king then said, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each of you touched the different parts of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all features you mentioned.” Based on their own unique experiences they each arrived at their own different conclusions about the elephant.

This story is often used to help explain different understandings of the divine espoused by different major faith traditions. We are all accessing and touching different parts of God and, as a result, Christians experience God one way while Muslims experience God in another way and Hindus in yet another way. We all have limited vision and limited experiences and we all see “through a glass darkly” as St. Paul says (1 Cor 13:12). We are invited to be careful in not insisting that we have a monopoly on understanding God in God’s fullness. As Desmond Tutu says, “God is Not a Christian.” Although the fullness of God is indeed revealed in Christ in bodily form (Colossians 2:9), our human and finite vision is certainly not wide enough to comprehend the infinite and ineffable God. God is beyond our knowing. God “surpasses our understanding” as we just prayed in our Collect this morning. So it is indeed appropriate that we open ourselves up to multiple perspectives on God, whose fullness we cannot comprehend on our own. For this reason, I appreciate our newly articulated mission statement for Church of the Redeemer, understanding our church as “a sacred space for sharing individual gifts and diverse views [about the God who surpasses all understanding] as we seek to embody Christ [who represents our understanding of God].”

This mission statement was perhaps not too unlike the mission statement of a place called Areopagus in first century Athens, which we read about this morning in our reading from Acts. Now in order to get a broader context for our reading this morning, let us open our Bibles to Acts chapter 17 verse 16. “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” First of all, Paul was waiting for his missionary partners Silas and Timothy, with whom he had been sharing the Gospel across the Mediterranean, causing all kinds of trouble. While waiting, Paul notices how crowded the city of Athens is with idols. And he looks carefully at them and discovers one altar dedicated to an unknown God. Because Paul is an evangelistic genius and the Christian missionary par excellence, he knows that all cultures have within them already seeds of the Gospel (logoi spermatikoi) that need to be affirmed and watered and grown in order to challenge the violent and oppressive aspects of the culture that our counter to the Gospel. So Paul starts preaching and telling people that this “unknown God” this “God beyond all knowing” has made himself fully manifest in Christ.

Verse 17: “So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Other said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.’ Eugene Peterson translates this verse in saying something like, “The Areopagus was a great place for sharing ideas. There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.” The Athenians of Areopagus were open to new ideas and wanted to hear Paul’s spiel.

So Paul tells them, “You Athenians have an altar to an unknown God, the God beyond all understanding. And I’m here to tell you that that God has revealed himself to us in Christ. That God who has given you the gift of life and existence, in whom you live and move and have your being, is the God revealed in Christ, who has risen from the dead. And through Christ, we can tap into that divine Source of Being and participate in resurrection ourselves.”

And then how do they respond? let’s continue our reading and see how the Athenians respond in verse 32: “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.”

I want to highlight this character Dionysius the Areopagite. Although he doesn’t show up anywhere else in the Bible, church historian Eusebius claims he became the first bishop of Athens. But more importantly, this character Dionysius evolved in the Christian imagination and became the great Christian icon for accessing the God beyond our understanding.

In the fifth century AD, a Syrian monk used this character Dionysius as a pseudonym for some short books he wrote on mysticism and accessing the God beyond our knowing. This author chose this pseudonym because he imagined Dionysius being moved by Paul’s sermon and then coming to experience, through Christ, the God beyond all knowing.

This author is now referred to as “Pseudo-Dionysius.” I would honestly be surprised if any of you heard of him, because I didn’t learn about him until my third year in seminary. But Pseudo-Dionysius is considered to be one of the most influential theologians in all of church history, even on par with St. Augustine of Hippo, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther. Almost all of the Christian mystics after the 5th century have been influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius in one way or another. One mystic who is particularly indebted to Pseudo-Denys is the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a text written in Nottingham England (the old stomping grounds of Robin Hood and the Westmorelands) in the 14th century, around the same time and place as….Julian of Norwich.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, also known as the Cloud author, uses images to describe our relationship with the God who is beyond all thoughts. He explains that between ourselves and God there is a cloud of unknowing, which we cannot penetrate with any thoughts, but which we can penetrate through love. The Cloud author invites us to “shoot humble impulses of love” like arrows through the cloud and thereby access God not with our thoughts but with our love. And he offers a practical way to do this, that has come to be known as “Centering Prayer.” This fairly ancient prayer practice involves using a sacred word like “God” or “love” or “Christ” to help quiet the mind, to detach ourselves from our thoughts, to tame what the Buddhists call the “monkey mind.” This word is meant to repeated as a kind of mantra, as an anchor in the stream of consciousness. Whenever we find ourselves getting caught up in our thoughts, we return to the word and let go of the thoughts. By returning to the word, we return to our love for God, through which we can pierce through the cloud of unknowing.

Now this is a difficult prayer practice that requires significant commitment from its practitioners. Most Centering Prayer leaders advise practicing this prayer for at least twenty minutes at a time, twice a day. Personally, I have enough difficulty practicing it for ten minutes once a day. However, I have found it to be deeply beneficial and transformative. I find that it deepens my love for God who is beyond all knowing while also helping me develop a healthy detachment from my own thoughts. This healthy detachment has all kinds of benefits: decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, better sleep.

Although I encourage you all to develop a habit of Centering Prayer (if you haven’t already), I also want to invite you to practice something that might be a little bit more accessible; and that is simply sitting in prayerful silence for just ten minutes a day, every day. That might look different for each of us, but I encourage you to make sure that time is both prayerful and silent. This practice of prayerful silence is a tried-and-true method for experiencing and abiding in the God beyond all knowing. It is a way to deepen our love for Christ while also expanding our experience of the infinite fullness of God. Returning to the story of the blind men and the elephant, it is a way to touch different parts of the elephant while remaining true to one’s own tradition and understanding.

I have offered this invitation to churches in the past and I have had congregants approach me months afterwards explaining how beneficial and transformative it has been for them to simply carve out this time, ten minutes of prayerful silence each day. At my commencement, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited us to abide in Christ by delving deep into the ancient Christian spiritual practices. Without connecting to our roots, he said, we produce no fruits.  Jesus said, “If you abide in me, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). I invite us all to abide in Christ in whom the fullness of the infinite and ineffable God dwells. We can experience this today by sitting together in prayerful silence for just two minutes right now…