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Clouds of unknowing
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Reminder to paid subscribers: The next Cottage live gathering is MAY 25 — a lunchtime conversation with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War. DETAILS BELOW.
Today is the seventh and final Sunday of Easter.
In the weeks since Easter Sunday, we’ve been exploring different angles on “practicing resurrection.” To this point, the journey has given us five windows into what this phrase (from a Wendell Berry poem) means for us today: 1) live with the wildness of surprise; 2) look for God in unexpected places; 3) enact God’s manifesto of solidarity, friendship, hospitality, and prayer; 4) dwell in the spirit of God, and 5) cherish God’s commandments.
This Sunday’s lectionary reading is from the Book of Acts. Even though the Ascension was on Thursday, many Christians celebrate it today. Acts relates the story of Jesus’ final appearance of the Easter season and his disappearance into the clouds.
It is a strange story in a series of odd stories following Mary Magdalene’s proclamation, “I have seen the Lord!”
Practicing resurrection sometimes means letting go — not only of what we expect but even of our capacity to understand the mysteries of the divine. The end of Easter isn’t certainty. Rather, the journey of practicing resurrection invites us to not know.
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
I confess: I’m tired of flying Jesus. I think my resistance to Jesus going up into the clouds on Ascension has something to do with all the years I spent in evangelicalism. Back then, we didn’t talk about Jesus going up into the clouds. We looked forward to Jesus coming down with the clouds — and us going up to meet him “in the air.” Up, down, or in-between, all this heavenly elevator coming and going doesn’t make much sense as a historical account or future event.
But it does make sense as a mystical experience. The New Testament records a number of mystical experiences, and two of those experiences involve Jesus and clouds.
Three months ago, on the Sunday before Lent, we read the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus and some of his disciples went up to a mountain. There, the disciples had a vision of Jesus speaking with Elijah and Moses. Peter excitedly comes up with a plan to build three temples on the site. But something else happens:
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
In this mystical experience, the presence of God in the form of a cloud descends and envelops Jesus and his friends. They are within the cloud — only once they are inside of the divine do they finally hear the voice of love. No wonder they were afraid. Can we even begin to imagine what it would be like to be completely enfolded in sacred belovedness without trembling?
The Ascension is, in effect, the opposite mystical experience. Jesus alone is covered with the presence of God — the cloud — and disappears from the disciples’ view.
Unlike the Transfiguration experience, however, the disciples aren’t included. They must have felt confused. After all the strange experiences they have had of Jesus in the weeks since the empty tomb, when they saw the cloud they must have thought this would be a reprise of what had happened on the mountaintop. They would again be absorbed into God’s love — and perhaps the voice would reveal the meaning of the risen Christ. Maybe the Kingdom had finally come.
Instead, two angels appear to them and basically tell them to go on with life. Why are you standing there gawking? If angelic beings mocked humans, it would probably sound pretty much like this. One day, the cloud will return and Jesus will be in that presence. In the meanwhile, you’ve got work to do.
The disciples aren’t really afraid. They probably didn’t know what to think, having witnessed the cloud and this miraculous event from without instead of within. Unlike the deep oneness they discovered in the Transfiguration event, this was a distancing experience from God. After all the joy, wonder, and intimacy since the resurrection — now they were excluded from the cloud that took Jesus from them.
Unsure of what had just happened, and unsure what to do, they returned to their safe place — that upper room where they’d had their last meal with Jesus and where Jesus came to the men after first appearing to the women. Now, Jesus was gone and wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon. They might have felt like it was a second death. They’d lost him again. They did the only thing that made sense to do: they prayed.
And prayer is the key to understanding the clouds — and these spiritual experiences.
The Christian tradition holds that there are two kinds of mystical experiences in prayer: first, the kind that reveal who God is — that which can be known; and, second, the kind that reveal who God is not — that which cannot be known.
The Transfiguration illustrates the first kind. The cloud surrounded Jesus and his friends — and they heard the voice of God, “You are my beloved.” Something of the divine was spoken, the words assert a loving God claiming Jesus as a chosen recipient of that love. The disciples hear God, they received a mystical revelation. God is love. God loves. Jesus is beloved. God calms fear. In mystical experiences like the Transfiguration, all of these things are known.
The Ascension depicts the second kind. The cloud obscured Jesus from the disciples; the cloud vanished to the winds. The final question of the disciples — is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? — remained unanswered. Whatever Jesus meant and whatever Jesus experienced in this last encounter remained a mystery to his friends. Even the white-robed strangers weren’t much help.
This is the cloud of not knowing — a cloud that falls between God and us, a fog that confuses, raises doubt, and casts certainty aside. This is the mystical experience of questions, of emptiness, of separation, the place where God disappears. The only response is silence and stillness. Prayer. In the mystical experiences like the Ascension, all that can be known is not knowing.
The cloud stories invite us into these two experiences of God in prayer. There’s the sort where our imagination and words can actually say something of the divine. God is love, mercy, compassion, kindness, justice. And then, there’s the other sort where we gaze, gape, and gawk as certainty wisps away like clouds in the wind. We are left with nothing except for the experience of the last of the mist wafting on a distance horizon. God is not . . .
A cloud of knowing; a cloud of unknowing.
I find both reassuring. We can know; we can’t know. Sometimes one, sometimes the other. Ultimately, resurrection leaves us with both wonder and wondering.
Whatever the case, Ascension isn’t an out-of-body spiritual experience or escape-from-the world event for those of us left staring at the clouds. We are called to get on with things — witnessing to and working for love and justice to the ends of the earth.
And in these times of great unknowing, surrounded by clouds of uncertainty, it is reassuring that unknowing is part of faith as well.
When we confront the huge pain of the world, we are up against a dark mystery. We are in what the mystics have called a cloud of unknowing and should not expect to see a silver lining immediately.
— Karen Armstrong
Two poems by Denise Levertov frame today’s musing. One is suggestive of clouds and mystical experience; the other is a rich exploration of the mysterious ambiguities of Ascension.
The clouds as I see them, rising
urgently, roseate in the
mounting of somber power
surging in evening haste over
roofs and hermetic
grim walls —
As if death had lit a pale light
in your flesh, your flesh
was cold to my touch, or not cold
but cool, cooling, as if the last traces
of warmth were still fading in you.
My thigh burned in cold fear where
yours touched it.
But I forced to mind my vision of a sky
close and enclosed, unlike the space in which these clouds move —
a sky of gray mist it appeared —
and how looking intently at it we saw
its gray was not gray but a milky white
in which radiant traces of opal greens,
fiery blues, gleamed, faded, gleamed again,
and how only then, seeing the color in the gray,
a field sprang into sight, extending
between where we stood and the horizon,
a field of freshest deep spiring grass
starred with dandelions,
green and gold
gold and green alternating in closewoven
chords, madrigal field.
Is death’s chill that visited our bed
other than what it seemed, is it
a gray to be watched keenly?
Wiping my glasses and leaning westward,
clearing my mind of the day’s mist and leaning
into myself to see
the colors of truth
I watch the clouds as I see them
in pomp advancing, pursuing
the fallen sun.
— Denise Levertov, “Clouds”
Stretching Himself as if again,
through downpress of dust
upward, soil giving way
to thread of white, that reaches
for daylight, to open as green
leaf that it is...
not have been
as the return
from Sheol, and
back through the tomb
now must relinquish
as Man —
Eye of Eternity.
Mothering His birth:
torture and bliss.
— Denise Levertov, “Ascension”
COTTAGE ZOOM GATHERING
THURSDAY May 25, 12:30 EASTERN
Paid subscribers are invited to a live lunchtime conversation with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and the new book, The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War. You may have also seen his Netflix series, The Family — or heard him interviewed on major news networks and radio shows.
These are the kinds of first-rate author discussions hosted by The Cottage. Recordings of the conversation will be sent to paid subscribers who can’t make it to the live session — and all recordings (including past events) are available in the Cottage Archive.
Paid subscribers will receive a link on Thursday morning for the live gathering.
God is mysterious, hidden in a cloud of unknowing. The ways of other human beings are mysterious. We are mysterious even to ourselves. Our deepest reality, and the only lasting reality, is to be found in God.
— The Very Reverend Dr John Hall