Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Words of Fire and Fruit: The Psychology of Prayer Words in the Cloud of Unknowing

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Words of Fire and Fruit: The Psychology of Prayer Words in the Cloud of Unknowing

Article excerpt

In chapters 35 to 38 of the Cloud of Unknowing {c. 13 90s), the anonymous author makes a series of remarks regarding the nature and form of effective prayer. He makes a sharp distinction between two classes of people: the 'contemplatiff prentys', and those who 'contynuely worchen in ]}e werk of jfis book'.1 Each exemplifies a specific form of prayer. For those 'biginners & profiters' prayer is part of 'Redyng, Pinkyng and Preiing' - the Middle English translation of the first three stages of the lectio divina-, lectio, meditado, orador All three are 'so couplid to-gedir' that preier 'may not goodly be getyn in bigynners & profiters wij}outyn jfinkyng comyng bifore'.3 Prayer for the novice is rich in words, associations, and figures, and is inspired by preaching, reading, and aspects of the liturgy. It is dependent upon 'menes of redyng or heryng comyng before'.4 The prayers of 'hem J>at be parfite' are utterly different.5 Their prayers 'risen euermore sodenly vnto God, wija-outyn any meenes or any premeditación in special comyng before, or going ]}cr-wi]}'.6 Independent of liturgical formulae, or prior reading or thinking, such prayer possess the utmost potency and 'peersij} J}e eres of Almy3ty God j>an do]} any longe sauter vnmyndfuly mumlyd in j}e tee]}'. Linguistic brevity is stressed as key:

& 3if fiei ben in wordes, as j}ei ben bot seldom, j>an ben j>ei bot in ful fewe wordes; 3e, & in euer fie fewer j>e betir. 3e, & 3if it be bot a lityl worde of o silable, me junk it betir ]}en of to, & more acordyng to j}e werk of j}e spiryte; sij>en it so is J}at a goostly worcher in fiis werk schulde euermore be in fie hi3est & j>e souereynest pointe of j}c spirit.8

The prayer of the perfect is rarely verbal, and when it is it consists of the smallest unit of language possible: the syllable. In this respect the Cloud author is drawing upon a tradition of monastic prayer that can be traced back to Ephraem the Syriac (d. 373), Evagrius (d. 399), and John Cassian (d. 435). For these early monks prayer was understood as part of a long process of increasing intimacy with God.9 In its ideal form it is continuous and pre-phatic. As Cassian asserts,

quae non solum nullis imaginis occupatur intuitu, sed etiam nulla uocis, nulla uerborum prosecutione distinguitur, Ígnita uero mentis intentione per ineffabilem cordis cxcessum inexpugnabili spiritus alacritate profcrtur, quamque mens extra omnes sensus ac uisibiles effecta materias gemitibus inenarrabilibus atque suspiriis profundit ad Deum.

([This prayer] is not concerned with any consideration of an image, nor characterized by any sound nor set of words. It comes forth from a fiery mental intention through an ineffable rapture of the heart by means of an inexplicable burst of the spirit. Freed from all sensations and visible concerns, the mind pours itself out to God with unspeakable groans and sighs.)10

These groans and cries are akin to those monosyllables, each one a succinct unit that stands on its own and is 'uninflected, syntactically uninhibited'.11 Each syllable is a tool of focused expression, deeply connected to '^>e werk of J)e spiryte', and able to channel it into its highest and most intense point. It is prayer born not out of conceptual or rational thinking, but of the raw affective powers of the soul:

A man or a womman, affraied wí]d any sodeyn chaunce of fiir, or of mans dec]), or what elles [)at it be, sodenly in ]^e heÍ3t of his speryt he is dreuyn upon hast & upon nede for to crie or for to prey after help. 3e, how? Sekirly not in many woordes, ne 3k in o woorde of two silabes. & whi is j^at? For hym ]knke[) to longe tariing, for to declare ]>e ncdc & ]:>c werk of his spirit. & bcrfore he brcsti]) up hidously wi]? a grete spirit, & crye[:> bot a litil worde of o silable, as is [>is worde FIIR or [fis worde OUTE.12

Urgency and emotional intensity, not tranquillity and calm, distinguish this form of prayer. …

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