27 August 2009

Cloudy day

Had a really weird serendipity thing happen yesterday. I was cruising the second-hand bookshops around Cuba St in Wellington, on the hunt for a copy of the Rule of St Benedict. No dice for the Rule, and my second-hand book guru Matthew at Arty Bees Books tells me that it hardly ever comes up for sale - I guess because people don't want to sell it (which is of course exactly why I'm trying to get my hands on it and read it!).

However, I did have a bit of luck. I have heard a number of times over the years of a little wee book called The Cloud of Unknowing. It's a very short book on prayer written anonymously, originally in Middle English - which is actually where I first read part of it, years ago in a university tutorial! We were doing a translation and discussion exercise, when we were comparing the early English mystical writers such as Julian of Norwich and the anonymous author of the Ancrene Riwle [Rule for Anchorites/Hermits] with the author of the Cloud, and looking at how this writing had gone beyond the mostly monastic context of the day (very few people apart from monks and nuns were literate at the time).

However, I digress. A good modern English translation of this very small book (141 pages, about half of which is discussion and commentary) was waiting on the shelf for me at Pegasus Books. And it was perfect. I started reading it last night and it is exactly the right thing for me to be reading right now. In fact, I only read about ten pages - then stopped and went back to the beginning and read them over again, more slowly.

The first chapter talks about the fact that there are stages in the life with God, that the author calls Common, Special, Solitary, and Perfect (these seem to roughly correspond with my very vague memory of Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle) - the solitary, or third stage, is the focus of the book, as a preparation for the fourth stage of union with God. This solitary stage seems to be about letting go and is entirely dependent on grace (but I've only read about 6 chapters so might be wrong!). Thinking about it, there is a lot of similarity with parts of The Dark Night of the Soul and the more modern application by Thomas Green, Drinking from a Dry Well.

But it was this phrase that got me: 'he [God] is not content to leave you [in the second stage] ... but in his own delightful and gracious way has drawn you to this third stage, the Solitary.' It was like a personal message: I had got too comfortable where I was and needed shaking up, hence the interior invitation to the "new thing" I'm waiting on.

What was even more freaky was that the community I wrote to the other day is called the Community of Solitude.

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