It is the author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ who has given us this practice. The starting point for this practice is where we are now: here, now. We allow ourselves to be present to the immediate existential situation. Nothing else needs to be postulated. No ideas or beliefs are required. Everything is open to the light of experience.
“Know thyself” is an injunction that brings us back to the present moment; the experience of a self. To postulate anything more allows for escape. We can get quite lost in ideologies and devotions; they allow us to hide from the present moment. The experience of a self is the one essential. We need nothing else. We need concern ourselves with nothing other than what we know beyond all doubt: our own existence.
We simply focus on the experience of a self: the experience of a self as a whole, not on any particular attribute of the self. Take any and all attributes of the self and roll them up all together in a lump. Experience all attributes as one single lump of self: the experience of a self – out of which all particular attributes arise.
This is the practice. We search for the experience of self at its most fundamental level and develop familiarity with this simple process of experiencing a self – at its most essential.
The second step is to take the experience of a self, the ‘lump of self’, and set it aside. We set our gaze beyond it. This is prayer. A simple orientation away from self toward the incomprehensible. The practice of presence gives way to the prayer of Presence – and our life becomes an oscillation between the two.
Through practice we soon come to see the author’s meaning in the observation that ‘sin is nothing other than the self ‘. Sin being that which separates us from God. Consequently, St John of the Cross writes:
‘Reveal Your presence,
And may the vision of Your beauty be my death.’
This particular expression of the practice has been given us by an Englishman of the 14th century. An anonymous Englishman best known for the treatise ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. He was a man who was concerned with nothing other than practice. Practice is experience. We begin where we are, the experience of the present; the experience of a self. Attentive to this experience of a self, we watch it. Throughout daily life we keep returning our awareness to this experience of a self. It is under scrutiny.
Joseph Ratzinger makes an important point when he states that conversion needs to go on all through the day, every day. Conversion is a matter of practice. Conversion of our attention, our awareness, all through the day, every day, from the outward running mind and senses, back to the source.
The source is the self. Awareness is returned to the self, the experience of a self. However, we can go further – to the source of the experience of a self. We enter the realm of prayer when the juxtaposition of the experience of a self on the true Self comes to our awareness.
To return to Joseph Ratzinger, we find he uses terms such as ‘primordial being’ and ‘ground of being’ in reference to God the Father. As the author of ‘The Cloud’ clarifies, God is our being, the true Self, the source of the everyday experience of a self. The practice of Presence is the experience of ourselves as we actually are. God is our being. Any experience of a self other than this needs to be abandoned. This is Christian prayer, simplicity itself. Which is to say, no artifice, no constructions or projections, no cleverness or innovation; just the simple, universal, surrender of the self into the Self.
Forgetting all, my quest
ended, I stayed lost to myself at last.
all ceased: my face was pressed
upon my Love, at rest,
with all my cares among the lillies cast.
– St John of the Cross