On June 1st 2013 Contemplative Outreach in the East and Southeast of England celebrated its first year as an independent Chapter with an Enrichment Day held at St. John’s, Waterloo. The day was hosted by Contemplative Outreach London and attended by delegates from all over the UK. We were fortunate to have the workshop taught by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault who spoke on
The Cloud of Unknowing: Centering Prayer and the Foundations of Unitive Consciousness.
The quotations below should help to give you some of the flavour of her three talks.
The prayer of The Cloud … is the key source of the method of Centering Prayer. Over the years … the practice of the prayer has been informed by other streams of Christian contemplative practice … but still The Cloud of Unknowing is the immediate source of Centering Prayer. This is a core text.
Because you come to know The Cloud in a different way when you’re actually doing the practice … it’s possible to understand what the author … is talking about in a much more subtle way than academic scholars and even historians of religion have picked up.
What we have learned from our practice of Centering Prayer can help us to unpack and understand what may be difficult and confusing in the instructions in The Cloud… In a compatible way the instructions in [the book], once we can read them – and decode them – according to our practice, give us profound, new and deeper resources to encourage us along the radical path of transformation that Centering Prayer is.
The only thing that’s really lamentable and disgraceful from the point of view of spiritual work is the distracted nature of our attention and our society is full of it to-day. Everything in our culture is set up to “grab our attention” … and that weathercocking attention is basically useless spiritually.
What you’re finding here that is embedded in The Cloud is very sophisticated teaching on the placement of attention … through the withdrawal of attention from objects – even holy objects.
[In Centering Prayer we] practice the letting go motion with the thing we have in constant supply – our thoughts; and as we practice with our thoughts and as we practice with this letting go … we begin to discover that it does create gradual but very definitive changes in the way we are able to be in the world. …It actually helps us to put on the mind of Christ and participate in the transformation of the structures of our own consciousness.
Even though you may have sat there daydreaming your way through eighteen of the twenty minutes of Centering Prayer, the one moment you catch that and let it go you are in the Garden of Gethsemane and you are in solidarity with Christ.
What we have in The Cloud of Unknowing completely undetected by scholars is the description of the transition from one kind of consciousness – separated consciousness – into another kind of consciousness – non-dual perception, which is what he means by “contemplative work”.
It is only as we really begin to access this language of the non-dual that we see the world in a way which is compatible with the survival of this planet. There has been a general sense that Christianity lacks this tradition; we say, “No it doesn’t at all – here it is in the 14th century, 600 years ahead of it’s time!”
And the bottom line is – practice, practice, practice …