The Way of Unknowing

Ken loved John of the Cross and often contemplated his poetry, using inspiration drawn to write prose and prayers, both during his time in the monastery and throughout our 33 years together. I could sense the depth of Love written in text and yet myself, struggled to find its meaning in my life. Everyone who knew Ken, loved him because he was humble and embraced the way of unknowing. It translated into our feeling the warmth of his heart and love.

Without thinking too much, I saved many books from Ken’s collection and am invited over and over to come closer to John of the Cross’s hidden secrets imbedded within his works. Some of these paths, calm me with exquisite resonance. Pema Chodron, writes plainly and to the heart of the practical, about the “glorious” and “wretched” and how one cannot exist without the other. The “dark night” is like this. Ripe with mystery, paradox and uncertainty, within the solitude of the darkness is a return to the infinite…ever watching, welcoming and so patiently waiting for our homecoming.

I have gratitude for the free, daily meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation, that arrive daily in my email. Fr. Richard Rohr brings many spiritual people from diverse backgrounds and anchors the sharings with a rich, non-dual spiritual depth. It is best I think to reprint the text in its totality from today’s daily meditation. There’s a lot to ponder.

“…the “dark night” as a gift can be misleading because such times of unknowing are almost always endured more than enjoyed. However, the experience of mystery, paradox, and not-knowing brings to our lives a rich and unexpected grounding.Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

The following text is reprinted from The Center for Action and Contemplation:

Descriptions of the “dark night of the soul” from the Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542–1591) have become the marker by which many Christians measure their own experience of unknowing. He fits an entire life spent exploring God’s mystery into memorable poetry, and even dares to call unknowing “an ecstasy”! Here are several stanzas from his poem “Stanzas Concerning an Ecstasy Experienced in High Contemplation”:

1. I entered into unknowing

Yet when I saw myself there

Without knowing where I was

I understood great things;

I shall not say what I felt

For I remained in unknowing

Transcending all knowledge.

. . . .

4. He who truly arrives there

Cuts free from himself;

All that he knew before

Now seems worthless,

And his knowledge so soars

That he is left in unknowing

Transcending all knowledge.

. . . .

6. The knowledge in unknowing

Is so overwhelming

That wise men disputing

Can never overthrow it,

For their knowledge does not reach

To the understanding of not-


Transcending all knowledge. [1]

John’s poetry is exquisite in its humility—knowing that he does not know, can never know, and doesn’t even need to know! He goes so far as to call this dark night “a work of His mercy, / To leave one without understanding.” [2] John’s teaching contains paradoxes that are difficult to absorb, but modern readers have the good fortune of many good translations, including that of Mirabai Starr. Like the other friends whose work I have shared this week, Mirabai knows the via negativa, the way of unknowing, personally and intimately, and describes what happens between the soul and God in the “dark night:”

The soul in the dark night cannot, by definition, understand what is happening to her. Accustomed to feeling and conceiving of the Beloved in her own way, she does not realize that the darkness is a blessing. She perceives God’s gentle touch as an unbearable burden. She feels miserable and unworthy, convinced that God has abandoned her, afraid she may herself be turning against him. In her despair, the soul does not recognize that God is teaching her in a secret way now, a way with which the faculties of sense and reason cannot interfere.

At the same time that the soul in the night of spirit becomes paralyzed in spiritual practice, her love-longing for God begins to intensify. In the stillness left behind by its broken-open senses and intellect, a quality of abundance starts to grow inside the emptied soul. It turns out that the Beloved is longing for union with the lover as fervently as she has been yearning for him. . . . God will whisper to the soul in the depth of darkness and guide it through the wilderness of the Unknown until it is annihilated in the flames of perfect love. [3]

[1] John of the Cross, “Stanzas Concerning an Ecstasy Experienced in High Contemplation,” The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Institute of Carmelite Studies: 1979), 718–719.

[2] John of the Cross, Collected Works, 719.

[3] Mirabai Starr, introduction to Dark Night of the Soul, by John of the Cross, trans. Mirabai Starr (Riverhead Books: 2002), 20. [Richard Rohr: The best translation in my opinion.]