Medieval Christian mystics describe a “Cloud of Unknowing,” an apparently impenetrable darkness that obscures our view of transcendent reality. Surprisingly, some recommend that we learn to live in this cloud without getting too bent out of shape. Why? Because, they say, there may be something more important than knowing, something beyond knowing.
The Greek word for “unknowing” is agnosis (literally: without knowledge). Thus, one who does not know is “agnostic.” Generally, we use that term for one who does not know the truth about the ultimate mystery of divinity. But what about the proximate mysteries of humanity?
I mean, do we know—can we really know—what makes humans tick? We can read poetry, we can study spirituality and psychology and philosophy, but when a young man blasts his way into an elementary school and murders several dozen people, mostly small children, can we really know what it means? Can we “explain” it? Make sense of it? Are we not, in times like these, agnostic too? Are we not enveloped in yet another cloud of unknowing?
In her poem, “What Is There Beyond Knowing” (New and Selected Poems, 2005), Mary Oliver frankly admits that what she knows is so insignificant it could fit in a backpack slung casually over a shoulder, almost weightless. She admits that she has only “follow[ed] a thought quietly to its logical end” on a few occasions.
“Mostly,” she says, “I just stand in the dark field, / in the middle of the world, breathing / in and out.”
Ironically, I chose this poem for Lectio Poetica several days before the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012. That Sunday morning, just two days afterward, it seemed particularly poignant. A small group of us sat together for a few hours in a dark field in the middle of a world gone mad, unable to follow a thought to any logical conclusion, just breathing in and out. Not knowing.
Curiously, however, the poem and the silence and the quiet conversation that followed somehow began to transform the darkness of not-knowing into something else. Something more luminous. Something like . . . compassion. Not only for the victims and their families, but also for ourselves and, yes, even for the one who perpetrated such unimaginable violence.
Mary Oliver asks a Socratic sort of question: “What is there beyond knowing that keeps calling to me?”
Certainly the need for explanation, for understanding, for knowing and even for believing, keeps calling to me. But as I reflect on what I experienced in our contemplative circle that Sunday morning a few weeks ago—as I recall what I saw in the faces and hearts of those who gathered—I realize that at least one thing beyond knowing keeps calling as well: compassion. The word means, in Latin, “to suffer with” another.
Compassion is a mystery, beyond logic, often beyond comprehension. Yet it’s real. It’s weighty and substantial, unlike so much that I know, or think I know or merely believe. Compassion, in fact, can be quite heavy. In times like these, it can seem nearly impossible to bear. Who wants it?
Ah, but compassion is that which—beyond all reason—keeps calling to me, to us.
As we begin the mysterious and unpredictable journey of new year, may we have the strength to take up the burden of compassion again and again as we move, at times, through dark clouds of unknowing. May compassion, like rain, condense out of those clouds and water parched souls. May we stand in the dark field of the world, breathing in suffering and breathing out peace.
Even when it makes no sense at all.
- Jay E. Valusek