Photograph by Ales Krivec via Unsplash

Cloud of unknowing: meditations in a March mood

March 26, 2024

It’s late March, mud season in southwestern Wisconsin, and although it’s almost noon, it doesn’t appear as if the sun has shown up today. Today we are engulfed in a stratus cloud. As the lowest cloud type, stratus is capable of settling in right at ground level. On a day of thick stratus, the usual cloud and sky dynamic is gone. The sky is all cloud, or cloud is all there is to the sky.

While perhaps not often at the top of most lists for favorite or most beautiful cloud, stratus invites a contemplative mood. A diffuse, featureless cloud, it feels like it is not there, as if the cloud is nothing, or has the feeling of nothingness, while at the same time the cloud seems to be all that there is, and has the feeling of infinity. At one moment, it seems like I could reach out and touch the cloud, or that in fact I already am touching the cloud as the cool invisible mist swirls against my cheek. At the same time, I reach out to grab it and there is nothing or nowhere to hold onto. Stratus feels insubstantial, and yet as the red-winged blackbirds and the thirsty first grass remind me, the moisture from this cloud is indeed very material and substantially nourishing for the dark green earth rousing from its winter rest.

Today the stratus sky seems to be both light and dark at the same time, both glowing and dimming. And the light appears to be directionless, or completely diffuse, spread out evenly over the horizon. In other words, there is no hint of the sun or its position. This means that the particular stratus I am contemplating today is stratus nebulosus opacus—that is, stratus that is nebulous (featureless), and opaque, completely masking the sun. If the stratus were a bit thinner, it might result in a completely different scenario as far as the sun is concerned. Stratus translucidus holds the distinction of being the only cloud type that lets us humans gaze directly at the sun and see the sun’s shape without damaging our eyes. In this way, stratus can both conceal and reveal the sun to us, or maybe better to say that by concealing the sun’s light, the cloud can show the sun to us. By clouding our vision, clouds allow us to see. No wonder, then, that mystics and contemplatives have long turned to clouds as a favorite metaphor for understanding the nature and mystery of God.

Given the unique positioning and power of clouds, it makes sense that in the Bible some of the major moments when humanity and God are said to come into closest contact involve stories about clouds. It was a “pillar of cloud” that protected and led the Israelites in their journey of liberation in the desert. When they reach Mount Sinai the cloud again takes center stage, as God invites Moses up the mountain to receive the details of the covenant between God and God’s people, including the Ten Commandments. “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud,” God says to Moses. (Exodus 19:9 NIV) Jesus was also said to be engulfed by a similar cloud on the mountain of Transfiguration. At the end of the Gospels, when Jesus ascends into the heavens, it is a cloud that is said to welcome him, and in the end of times, in the picture that Revelation paints, the Child of Humanity will return “coming with the clouds.” (Revelation 1:7)

Stratus nebulosus opacus is an actual cloud of unknowing and an actual cloud of forgetting, and the chord it strikes for the day feels fitting for a contemplative, Lenten March mood.

Writing about the prominence of the cloud experience as a way of understanding the divine, fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “The divine is there, where the understanding does not reach.”[i] Picking up on this line of cloud-inspired theology, one of the classics of Christian mystical theology is a short text called The Cloud of Unknowing. Written in the mid-14th-century by an unnamed monk (perhaps Carthusian) somewhere in England (perhaps the East Midlands region), this text is addressed to a novice monk intending to offer instruction in the ways of contemplation and awareness of God. The book counsels the young person to seek God, not through knowledge and the intellect, but through a type of spiritual contemplation that is motivated only by love and longing.

The author calls this spiritual exercise of stripping away our rational striving for God the “cloud of unknowing” (“cloude of unknowyng” in the Middle English), and the exercise of letting go of our knowledge of God’s works the “cloud of forgetting.” With these cloud metaphors, the author suggests that, like with Moses and Jesus, the most direct experience of God one can have in this life is an experience like that of being engulfed in a cloud. And for the author, it’s not knowledge of God, but our love and desire for God which can bring us into this cloud. As the Cloud puts it, God can be loved, but not thought.

While the author of the Cloud doesn’t pursue a theology of clouds beyond their metaphorical meaning, if they did I imagine they’d have a fondness for the type of stratus that keeps its hold on me today. Engulfed by this formless, directionless, spectral cloud that feels at once everywhere and nowhere, today’s cloud has a very Cloud of Unknowing mood to it. Without being able to see much of the world beyond the cloud, I feel dislocated, as if I could be anywhere, or as if I am nowhere. It is an actual cloud of unknowing and an actual cloud of forgetting, and the chord it strikes for the day feels fitting for a contemplative, Lenten March mood.

“I can be jubilant one moment and pensive the next,” Bob Dylan once remarked in an interview, “and a cloud could go by and make that happen.” Just as clouds can help us understand the complex movements of our atmosphere by revealing otherwise invisible wind patterns and temperature changes, so too they seem to be able to help us understand the complex movements of the human spirit as it reveals itself to us through our moods. This must be a major part of our fascination with clouds—that we humans and clouds, we’re like the two moodiest parts of God’s creation. Studying the sky’s mood, then, can help us make sense of, and understand our own moods, and so our own lives, and our own worlds. Just as our own moods are always different and changing, in a similar way the sky’s mood is always different and changing. So if we want to build a diverse and resilient repertoire of moods—if we want to understand our own strange selves, and the strange world we live in, and the strangeness that we call God—we could do well to study, and more than study, to love the cloud-moods of the sky. Even, or maybe especially, the moody clouds of March.

Rev. Daniel Cooperrider is a writer, teacher, and pastor in the United Church of Christ (UCC). He was Pastor of the Weybridge Congregational Church (VT) and has served as Pastoral Resident at the Wellesley Village Church (MA). Daniel is the author of Speak with the Earth and It Will Teach You, and a study on the book of Job. Daniel lives on the edge of the driftless region in Madison, WI on ancestral Ho-Chunk land.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, Book One, section 46. Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. New York: Paulist Press, 1978, p. 43.

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