Daily Meditations

Unknowing: Knowing that We Don’t Know

I encourage you, then, to make experience, not knowledge, your aim. Knowledge often leads to arrogance, but this humble feeling never lies to you. —Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing [1]

In meditation, we move beyond doctrines and dogmas to inner experience. When we move to the level of experience, we see that this self, which is primarily a “radio receiver,” is not to be taken too seriously, for it is always changing stations and is filled with static and interference. When I am faithful to meditation, I quickly overcome the illusion that my correct thinking, or thinking more about something, can ever get me there. If that were so, every good PhD would be a saint!

You see, information is not the same as transformation. Even good and correct thinking is trapped inside my little mind, my particular culture, my form of education, my parental conditioning—all of which are good and all of which are bad. Great mysteries are naturally experienced and known within our small and limited contexts, so we should be much more humble about our own opinions and thoughts. How could the Infinite ever be fully or rightly received by the mere finite?

Alongside all our knowing must be the equal and remaining “knowing that I do not know.” That’s why the classic schools of prayer spoke of both kataphatic knowing—through images and words—and apophatic knowing—through silence, symbols, and beyond words. Apophatic knowing is the empty space around the words, allowing God to fill in all the gaps in an “unspeakable” way. The apophatic way of knowing was largely lost to the West by the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, and Western Christianity has suffered because of it. We wanted to match the new rationalism with what felt like solid knowing, and we mimicked the secular mind instead of what Paul calls “knowing spiritual things in a spiritual way” (1 Corinthians 2:13). We lost the unique access point of the mystics, the poets, artists, and saints (who usually did not even know they were using this alternative consciousness).

Strangely enough, this unknowing is a new kind of understanding. We do have a word for it: the old word faith. Faith is a kind of knowing that doesn’t need to know for certain and yet doesn’t dismiss knowledge either. With faith, we don’t need to obtain or hold all knowledge because we know that we are being held inside a Much Larger Frame and Perspective. As Paul puts it, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known myself” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It is a knowing by participation with—instead of an observation of from a position of separation. It is knowing subject to subject instead of subject to object.

It took me years to understand this, even though this is straight from the Franciscan school of philosophy. Love must always precede knowledge. The mind alone cannot get us there (which is the great arrogance of most Western religion). Prayer in my later years has become letting myself be nakedly known, exactly as I am, in all my ordinariness and shadow, face to face, without any masks or religious makeup. Such nakedness is a falling into the unified field underneath reality, what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness,” [2] where we know in a different way and from a different source. This is the contemplative’s unique access point: knowing by union with a thing, where we can enjoy an intuitive grasp of wholeness, a truth beyond words, beyond any need or capacity to prove anything right or wrong. This is the contemplative mind which religion should have directly taught, but which it largely lost.

~Adapted from Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer (Paulist Press: 2014), 15-16.

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009), 224-225.

[2] Thomas Merton, “Hagia Sophia: Dawn,” In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton, ed. Lynn R. Szabo (New Directions: 2005), 65.


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