January 14, 2006

The Mountain and the Cloud

I am struck by the archetypal imagery of the mountain (here the Mount of Olives) and the cloud (..'a cloud hid him from their sight'). Obviously this is a real phenomenon which occurs in nature...the mountain tops shrouded with clouds. But in many religions the mountain top is the abode of the Gods and the place holy women and men go to commune with the divine.

In the Bible there are a number of stories in which the mountain and the cloud appear...two in particular come to mind. And I would guess these were in the mind of the writer of Acts.

The first is perhaps the most significant moment in the Old Testament. When Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Law...

Exodus 24

15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

God is within the cloud...hidden, mysterious, transcendent. Like Jesus in the Ascension story Moses ascends and disappears into a cloud. In that place of terrifying unknowing he both communes with the hidden God and he himself is hidden in the process. And in the darkness something of tremendous significance is revealed.

Another story, here from the New Testament which features the same elements is that of the Transfiguration.

Luke 9

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Eli'jah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.
32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah" --not knowing what he said. 34 As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

(Elijah also ascended...like Jesus directly into Heaven)

As in the story of Moses a cloud settles on the mountain and the disciples enter into it. Yet here the cloud both 'overshadows' and brings illumination. It recalls the 'dazzling darkness' spoken of by mystics. Beyond the cloud of unknowing God is experienced directly, overwhelmingly, with awe.

I see in the Ascension something of this. Jesus the man (albeit resurrected) enters into the ineffable mystery of God's presence. And this is not just a historical event or mythic story but an experience open to us now. It was known to Paul who wrote in Colossians 3

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

We are 'raised' in resurrection and ascension...our minds turn to heavenly things and our 'life is hid with Christ in God'.

To me this speaks of the contemplative side of the the spiritual life. Entering in silence and awe the everyday 'visible' me disappears into the mystery of divine presence through the cloud of unknowing.

There seems to me much more to be found in these images and the other similar ones in Scripture. These thoughts are hardly coherent and don't express the felt sense these stories evoke in me. Here is a prayer, in words more simple and profound than mine to end with...

Serene Light, shining in the
Ground of my Being,
Draw me to yourself,
Draw me past the snares of the senses,.
Out of the mazes of the mind.
Free me from symbols, from words,
That I may discover
The Signified
The Word Spoken
In the darkness
That veils the ground of my being. Amen.

(William A. Meninger)


At 1:49 p.m., Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jeff.

You mention The Cloud of Unknowing :-). Thanks for pointing out those other instances of cloud/mountain.

You said - We are 'raised' in resurrection and ascension...our minds turn to heavenly things and our 'life is hid with Christ in God'. To me this speaks of the contemplative side of the the spiritual life.

I see a combination of both the conremplative and the active - there is the part you mention, but the disciples don't stay on the mountain in contemplative bliss but are sent off to be witnesses to others.

Nice poem!

At 4:18 p.m., Blogger jeff said...

I completely agree with you Crystal. I was going to write about contemplation being only part of the spiritual life.My original thought was to write about how a spirituality dominated by 'ascension' could easily become ungrounded and disconnected from real life. I then found myself fascinated with the various images of ascending and hiddeness. And by the time I was ready to explore the fruit of the spirit manifested in action and a life grounded in community I felt I had already written enough. Maybe in focusing on the archetype of Ascension I was myself 'carried away' by its imaginative power.

At 5:33 p.m., Blogger crystal said...

Ascension is very intriguing. It's even a concept in popular culture ... one of my favorite science fiction tv shows, Stargate SG-1, has characters who bodily ascend to a higher plane of existence :-)

At 9:48 p.m., Blogger Twyla said...

I've been wanting to dip into The Cloud of Unknowing.

Beautiful post. And poem.

Crystal - Tom and I recently got turned on to SG-1 and are hooked. We just started on the 6th season. Daniel "ascended" a couple of shows ago.

Which of course has litte to do with this bible study. Oops. Sorry, guys.

At 10:32 p.m., Blogger crystal said...

Hi Twyla ... hey, Stargate has everything to do with Bible study (I'm sure I can find a connection :-). Even more than SG-1, I'm now hooked on Stargate Atlantis.

At 1:02 a.m., Blogger Meredith said...

Nice post, Jeff. I really enjoy this Cloud of Unknowing. Are you familiar with this text? I read that the title comes from the author's metaphor of contemplative prayer as an effort to get beyond a "cloud of unknowing" which separates us from experiencing God's presence. He dismisses the idea of using understanding as a means of reaching God, since God is unfathomable; instead, he suggests, we embrace God with our love. He says that “Love is the beginning, end, and means of deep prayer. Nothing else is necessary, but a willingness to spend time alone with God in love.” The author establishes that love is the means of going through "the cloud," and urges the reader to "beat upon the cloud of unknowing with the hammer of your love," and to "pierce the cloud of unknowing with the arrow of your love." Over and over, the author describes the quiet prayer as love: "this contemplative work of love," "lift up your heart with a blind stirring of love," and "each one, in a different way, can grasp (God) fully through love."

At 4:03 a.m., Blogger jeff said...

Thanks for your comments Meredith. I love the Cloud of Unknowing. The English Mystics of the 14th century (The anonymous author of The Cloud, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton)combine the profundity of contemplative prayer with a gentle compassion and simplicity. All of them ground their spirituality in love of God and neighbour.

You may already know that The Cloud of Unknowing was the text which inspired 'Centering Prayer'. So it is probably one of the most influential books in reawakening contemplative spirituality in our time.

At 6:58 p.m., Blogger david said...

I dip into the Cloud every once in a while -- every 2-3 years I think. The same spiritual director wrote The Book of Privy Counselling which covers the same ground in half the space. Glad to know others around here are into the classics.


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