The Cloud of Unknowing: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

Cloud Devotion, a translation/paraphrase of The Cloud of Unknowing by David Robinson

One of the top 25 books that every Christian is wise to read is the anonymous spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the late 14th century in the midlands of England, by an unknown author, likely a monastic, and possibly a woman.

I worked for six years on translating and paraphrasing this 650 year old spiritual/devotional classic into language that is accessible to contemporary readers, dividing the work into 366 daily readings, adding a scripture passage and a reflection question, published under the title Cloud Devotion: Through the Year with The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Paraclete Press in early 2020.

The Cloud of Unknowing opens with a classic prayer by Alcuin of York, as a frontispiece, a prayer that acts like a door knob, opening our hearts to God as we open the first pages of this work:

Dear God, open my heart and teach me to listen. Nothing is hidden from You. Cleanse the intent of my heart with the unspeakable gift of Your grace, that I may more perfectly love You, more fully live in your presence, and more worthily praise You. Amen.

(A prayer of Alcuin, 735–804; used in the early manuscript editions of The Cloud of Unknowing)

The Cloud of Unknowing is one of the great classics of Christian spirituality, especially focusing on the immediate, contemplative way of entering more fully into God’s loving presence by entering into what the author calls “the Cloud of Unknowing,” the mysterious, loving presence of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. As I write in the introduction to Cloud Devotion,

The Cloud of Unknowing was written in the middle of England perhaps near Nottingham, in the middle of the fourteenth century, by an anonymous author who wrote in the language of common people, not in Latin. One of the reasons this work may have been written anonymously is that it may have been written by a woman. If that is true, it would be the first book written by a woman in the English language. The Cloud—as it is often known—describes spiritual life with God in down-to-earth, domestic language, with a holistic and humble vision of everyday spirituality. Though very little is known about the author, what is known for certain is that she or he lived in a land of clouds.

“I’ve lived most of my life in the Pacific Northwest, a land of clouds. Since 1993, my wife and I have lived on the north Oregon coast, a few minutes’ walk from the beach. Our beach village averages over ninety inches of rain per year and 240 cloudy days per year. With such an abundance of clouds, we often enjoy weeks of mist, fog, and rain. When rain falls on my face, I feel as though my life has been blessed by God. No wonder I am drawn to devotional writing that focuses on clouds as a daily way into life with God.

“In this edition of The Cloud of Unknowing, I’ve sought to remain as true as possible to the voice of this medieval classic. Cloud Devotion follows the original Middle English text sentence by sentence, with my own translation and paraphrase. I’ve divided the work into 366 small portions, adding a Scripture passage related to the theme from each daily reading. I invite you to walk with God as you read this book. My hope is that you will hear Christ’s personal and intimate invitation to come closer to God within the Cloud of Unknowing. As the writer of the book of Hebrews proclaims, “We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Along with the great cloud of witnesses across the centuries who have encountered God through The Cloud of Unknowing, may you also enter more fully into the brightness and glory of God’s presence.”

I write in an appendix of Cloud Devotion regarding the authorship of The Cloud of Unknowing: “One of the easily overlooked clues to the affiliation of the anonymous author lies in the length the author chose for the book. The Cloud of Unknowing consists of a prologue, seventy-three chapters, followed by a two-chapter epilogue. Those two chapters function as an epilogue because she repeats themes and even word-for-word sections from the prologue in these chapters, and concludes the entire manuscript with a benediction. Like The Rule of St. Benedict, The Cloud has seventy-three short chapters woven through with scriptural quotations and allusions. Why seventy-three chapters? The author was most likely a Benedictine monastic who lived daily according to The Rule of St. Benedict, a spiritual guidebook written by Benedict in the early sixth century. As a Benedictine oblate, I read medieval Christian classics through the eyes of Benedict and found The Cloud to resonate deeply with Benedictine spirituality, including such themes as humility, Christ-centered devotion, and moderation in the practice of the spiritual life. Benedict’s Rule consists of a prologue and seventy-three short chapters. The author of The Cloud also followed Benedict’s style of writing with numerous scriptural quotations and allusions, as I’ve noted throughout the text. I’ve also sought to trace the Benedictine spiritual roots and influences within the text of The Cloud, as can be discovered in the notes. As the proverb goes, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” A Benedictine monastic would design her writing to emulate the great classic of early medieval monasticism, The Rule of St. Benedict.”

I also assert the likelihood that the anonymous author may have been a woman. “The author of The Cloud speaks with a feminine voice, writing organically and holistically, connecting body and soul as a united whole. She welcomes our natural powers as God-given assistants in our spiritual journey. The Cloud of Unknowing is bathed in grace. In the fourteenth century, England was in a time of turbulent theological and political controversy, with such people as John Wycliffe challenging the status quo. Yet, very little of that intense, conflictive voice is heard across these pages. Instead, we find restraint, humility, wisdom, and moderation as would be found in the heart of a Benedictine cloistered sister. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with my thesis regarding the gender the author of The Cloud, I think we can agree that the author was a mature spiritual director offering wise, practical, down-to-earth instructions to lovers of God, to both men and women, no matter if they lived six centuries ago or are living today. This remarkable author continues to speak quietly and persuasively today, offering wisdom and encouragement for the spiritual journey into the Cloud of Unknowing. Anyone desiring to live more fully in God’s presence will find this enduring classic to be a bright light for the steps ahead on our spiritual journey through a dark world.”