“Cease not in thine intent, but strike evermore
upon this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt you and your God
with a sharp dart of longing love,
and loathe for to think upon ought under God,
and go not thence for anything that befalleth.”
~ The Cloud of Unknowing, ch. 12
The dawn-to-dusk workday offered scarce light and no rest. What impelled me through the hours was the prospect of relaxation and fresh air that evening. By mid-afternoon, I had decided upon a hot bath as a clarified and appropriate reward. My chilled walk through the dark streets going home began the process of exhaling thick dust and grime out of my lungs. A good bubbly hot water immersion needed some efficacious thoughts, so I coincidentally brought Baxter’s The Saint’s Everlasting Rest with me. Sinking into the suds, the 17th century orator’s words wafted to me from my weary arm’s reach: “A heart seldom thinking of heaven can fetch but little comfort here.” The hardworking chaplain of Kidderminster held to the ancient contention that “there remaineth a rest” in the eternal future. We are unsettled in our earth-bound lives, Baxter claimed, because we neglect to meditate upon heaven. Impressed by these poetic reminders, while draining away the day’s travails, it occurred to me how I don’t think much at all about what we refer to as “heaven.”
Admittedly, I do get bogged down, if not diverted, with immediate concerns and the weight of keeping as many jumps ahead of deadlines as possible. Indeed, this culture refers to the stuff of heaven as the “afterlife.” When I stop to ponder, I realize how far one can perpetuate distorted perspectives. Rather defensively, my response is there’s so much “down here” in the “real world,” occupying my energies and all personal resources. Perhaps projecting some ingrained ideas from my uninterrupted working life of grinding and burning-out, looking ahead to some yonder break. The intermissions are never enough, and I tend to spend half of those times trying to stabilize myself with rest so that I can actually enjoy wherever I am and whatever I’m doing. Unfortunately that taints my view of heaven: that I’ll work on numerous well-intended projects and self-improvements until I simply can no longer. Then my life will be followed by some sort of ‘perpetual paid vacation,’ entailing a lot of harp-playing inside the fabled pearly gates. Merciful heavens, this can’t be it.
The problem is that I interpret references to heavenly eternity with terribly distorted and uninviting imagery. Quite the opposite of goodness and peace. No wonder these pictures of a hazily simplistic heaven are never in my thoughts or dreams. I begin to regret the notion that it may not look like Paris. Or eastern Maine. Surely there must be gentle people, books, good coffee, and bicycles. I, too, apply my own humble human projections. A bit more Robert Doisneau and a whole lot less Fra Angelico; I’d like that. Indeed, Richard Baxter himself- and the biblical sources- cannot spell out what we will see and do not bend to the limits of the scale of human perception. Baxter calls heaven “our own happiness,” and that a life of praise and inclination toward the infinite Divine, draws us away from being devoured by our convenient miseries. Whatever it is, or can resemble, will be our very utmost good. At this point it’s more than enough to get me to visualize a 4-day weekend, let alone heaven. Still, meditating upon these things helps me re-learn how a heavenward focus causes a more balanced earthly view. This evening it’s easy to imagine a perfect rest. That everlasting rest for all who have labored and knew heavy burdens. “On earth as it is in heaven,” begins to look to me like “in application as it is in ideal.” The place is for later.
Piercing those clouds of unknowing is a concerted effort and a constant need. Each day begins with a former perception to shard away. Perhaps darts that transcend cloud-coverings are not about the world to come, but really about an undaunted pursuit. These are aspirations. An unseeing intent that reaches forth to the Divine attains to the absolute. Yes, going forward even when unable to see through the void of a fog bank; even without sonar. The anonymous writer of Cloud of Unknowing wrote of the blind intent stretching to God, which, if wholeheartedly directed toward God, will surely meet its goal. The sharp dart of longing love is essentially an unfettered desire through which the soul attains the absolute, which really cannot be apprehended by any particular contrivance or method. Hidden between the rigidity of contraries- such as speaking and silence, eating and fasting, company and aloneness- is the sublime spirit discovered. “Up there,” as so commonly gestured, becomes “close at hand,” with distances delineated not by miles but by the will of the heart. Perhaps a better view I might have of what life manifests beyond might be to contemplate the passing away of the unknowing. Knowing even as we are known.
It seems I am reaching forth by faith toward something for which my understanding is evolving. But knowing enough to reach, and even to strike upon the clouds, envelops the pursuit in this very assuring mystery. A vivid recollection involves hiking to a favorite place of solitude, close to home and along the ocean. One of those countless ledges of crags and pines. This time, I encountered a dense and palpable fog, so dense that it was impossible to see the edge of terrain. My steps became vignetted by the same blanched smoky void that was straight ahead of me. The sound of crashing waves informed my advances. Of course while knowing what was on the other side of the fog, I couldn’t tell how near. Standing on a jutting rock, I simply marveled at the upward view being undifferentiated from the views ahead, left or right. What vistas await, surpassing the unknowing? Details are less important, but the goal must not be forgotten. Sowing must not hesitate with fears about quantitative results. “Contemplatives,” wrote Thomas Merton, “must empty themselves of all created love in order to be filled with the love of God alone.” With this in mind, my imaginings of what follows might remain at the edges of peripheral sight, yet the heavens are surely present.