The author of The Cloud of Unknowing used this endearing phrase in his free rendering of Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theology. In his more famous work, the author advised that ‘no one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his knowledge; but each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love’ (ch. 4, Bill Johnston’s translation). He invited us to be at home in the darkness of the cloud that seems to exist between our mind and God, feeling nothing but a ‘naked intent towards God’. It is, of course, the central paradox of mystical theology that so many words are used in the attempt to describe our reaching out towards the unknowable God who first reaches out towards us. Even the great ‘doctor de la nada’, St John of the Cross, indulged in a great many complex and technical words in his account of the ascent of a mountain whose way and end is nothing, nothing, nothing. Surely, the wise course would simply be to say nothing about the One of whom nothing can be said.
Appealing as this may seem to weary theologians and exhausted preachers, I think it simply won’t do. This is not because we can ever fully grasp with our minds that which may only be grasped through love (here meaning self-transcending ‘naked intent’) but because it is a very real temptation to say wrong or unhelpful things about God, even if we must retain a certain hesitation about saying anything at all. More than that, it seems to me to be a very noble thing to seek to understand that which is most important in life, humbly admitting at the outset that there are limitations to such an enterprise. Of course, the work of theology will always be something of a vertiginous looking into the abyss of the unknown, but should we fear to do so, once we have admitted our proper sense of hesitation?
Unsurprisingly, it is often the theology that is expressed without such hesitation that is the most dangerous – theology that confidently claims God for our own causes or that sets out a simple formula whose reliable output is salvation. The response to this, surely, is not to abandon the project altogether but to do it better, more carefully, more generously, more mystically. Mysticism is not an excuse not to think but an invitation to think the unthinkable as far as one can before falling back into the silence from which the exploration sprang. It is quite appropriate to recognise the absurdity of trying to say anything about God, but let’s not give up trying.