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The cloud of unknowing

My office is lined with hundreds of books about the human condition, but there is only one that I always keep out on the coffee table: The Cloud of Unknowing. I keep it there to remind me that when nothing in the world seems to make sense, love and compassion always make sense.

I’ll come back to that book, but first some reflections after a wedding I attended recently. Familiar words can lose their power, but I’ve never tired of St. Paul’s description of love in his letter to the citizens of Corinth (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7). You’ve likely heard it (“Love is patient, love is kind…”) at umpteen marriage ceremonies. A twist the presiding priest at this wedding put on those words in his homily gave them new juice for me. Speaking to the couple he’d just married, he said: “If you want a vision statement for how you want to be in your marriage, just replace the word love in Paul’s words with your own name. Then put that statement on your bathroom mirror.” Here’s how his suggestion reads with my name substituted throughout the famous passage:

Kevin is patient, Kevin is kind. Kevin does not envy, Kevin does not boast, Kevin is not proud. Kevin does not dishonor others, Kevin is not self-seeking, Kevin is not easily angered, Kevin keeps no record of wrongs. Kevin does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Kevin always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Wow! Kevin is patient, Kevin is kind? Kevin keeps no record of wrongs? Kevin always perseveres? How simple the priest’s suggestion was—and how challenging to live up to! But how does patient, kind love enter the world if not through me and you?

In the section of the letter just before “love is patient, love is kind,” Paul boldly states: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Some see faith as getting their Truths all lined up—and then demonizing those who do not believe as they do. Any truth, Paul tells us, that leads us away from love adds up to zero, zip, nada. If human beings around the world could get Paul’s great insight it would be the biggest moral breakthrough in human history. We might begin to find our way out of the My God vs. Your God and My Truth vs. Your Truth conflicts that fill the daily news with such dreadful reports.

Back to The Cloud of Unknowing. This anonymous book by a Christian writer in the 14th century says that there really is no way to know an Infinite God with a finite mind. If we want to know God we need to let go of what we think we know about God and move into the “cloud of unknowing.” Only when we stop focusing on what we think we know with absolute certitude about God and focus instead on living with the loving, compassionate energies of God can we truly begin to know God.

So whenever I’m so full of my own understandings that I can’t begin to understand another person whose life and ideas seem foreign to me, I need to return to “Kevin is patient, Kevin is kind…” Any ideas of truth that lead me away from that simple vision are convenient illusions.

I like how the priest’s suggestion to substitute one’s own name into St. Paul’s words leads to simple statements in the present tense. It’s not “Someday Kevin might become patient” or “In the future maybe I’ll work on being kinder.” It’s “Kevin is patient, Kevin is kind.” That word “is” says to me: “This is who you say you are—how’s it going?”

Here’s how I put some of these ideas into a nested meditation:

The name “God” makes you think.

The name “God” makes you think

you know what you’re talking about.

The name “God” makes you think

you know. What you’re talking about

is That Which Surpasses All Knowing.

The name “God” makes you think

you know what you’re talking about.

Is That Which Surpasses All Knowing

to be spoken of with such certitude?


Kevin Anderson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, and speaker who lives in the Toledo, Ohio area. His latest book Now is Where God Lives: Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul is available at Amazon or