Out of the last half of the 14th century comes an unknown writer giving us a spiritual treatise called, The Cloud of Unknowing. This it seems is the basic state of our relation with God – a state of unknowing, symbolized by a dense cloud between us. Sometimes, mercifully, the cloud is pierced by God’s “dart of longing love.” Most of the time we live with the cloud of unknowing above and the cloud of forgetting below.
In my part of the country, winter snow is nature’s cloud of unknowing, nature’s way of mirroring the soul’s way. We rise in early morning to find a steady, thick shower of white falling like a gauzy veil a bride might wear, or a nun. Neither is able to see clearly what lies ahead. They know the mercy of veils.
Pity those who have no veils, who live in the perpetual clarity of summer, whose only clouds are puffy white on azure blue. Wallace Stevens says we must have a mind of winter to appreciate “the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow.” We must have a mind of winter to see the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” John of the Cross might call this the dark night of the soul. Winter people know what he means.
With every heavy storm comes a simultaneous call to shovel, usually a 150-inch backbreaking annual. Sometimes more. What a heavy load of pushing and piling, lifting and heaving. We know what it is like to open the back door, that is, if we can open the back door, and step into a foot of thick white cloud that has come down from heaven to cover every nook and cranny of earth and everything we ever knew of sidewalks, landmarks and boundaries. We strap on cross-country skis and set off for the road, only to find ourselves in the middle of a softball field.
We do the blind groping the author of The Cloud describes, trying to find the car door, the anti-freeze, the keys we have dropped somewhere in the snow, and, what is worse, the path of life we have set upon. Where are those days when the path was clear? Now we stand with thick clouds over our heads, thick clouds up to our knees, a gauzy white veil over our eyes, and no idea where we are going. We are in the cloud of unknowing, looking at the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. How we long for God’s piercing dart of love.
Just as untying is harder than tying, it is difficult to take what we know and are so sure of and to un-know it. One day the cloud does it for us. Along comes a clean sweep of the need to know in the first place – all of those who, what, where, when, and mostly why’s gone under a foot or two of snow. Fifty shades of white, obliterating snow.
Out in the yard of unknowing is the garden ungrowing. The place resembles a desert – vast, disorienting, mirage-like, lifeless. Plows and snowblowers add to the misery. Under the earth, garlic cloves lie frozen in place. Potato eyes search vainly for light.
One unpredictable day, the sun returns to begin the slow melting. Icicles fall and pieces of the roof with them. Bushes rise from their heavy burden, and people, too. The cloud sinks inch by slow inch, until one day crocuses appear. In the end, the disorienting cloud waters the earth it had covered, and life grows luxuriant in the land that was once under the cloud.
And we hope for the same transformation, that the winter of the soul will be no more. Even as we pray, the word of God comes to say:
Arise, my beloved,
my beautiful one,
For see, the winter is past,
the rains are over and gone
and flowers appear on the earth.
Arise, my beloved, and come.
- Song of Songs 2:10-12
[Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, publishes widely in the Catholic press. “We were called Sister” (U.S. Catholic) was awarded first place for Best Essay 2014 by the CPA.]