The Book of Privy Counseling
Publisher: New York, NY: Doubleday, 1973. ISBN: 0-385-03097-5
The Book of Privy Counseling, written in the 14th century, is a guide into the practice of inner contemplation on the divine. The author, an anonymous English mystic who also wrote the classic work The Cloud of Unknowing, acts as a mentor to the reader, laying out the purpose of contemplation as well as advice on the joys and challenges encountered in its practice.
The special beauty of this book lies in its deeply personal nature, “My dear friend in God, this book is for you, personally…” and in the humility of the author, “I do not deserve to be his servant, yet in his mysterious designs, he may work through me if he so wishes, for he is free to do as he likes.”
Although the author has experienced the fruits of contemplation himself, he cannot express its value in words.
Believe me, if a contemplative had the tongue and the language to express what he experiences, all the scholars … would be struck dumb before his wisdom. Yes, for by comparison the entire compendium of human knowledge would appear as sheer ignorance. Do not be surprised, then, if my awkward, human tongue fails to explain its value adequately… Whatever we may say of it is not it, but only about it.
He cautions that his words will result in the “confusion of all proud intellects, especially yours, which is the actual reason for my writing at this time.” God cannot be reached by taking action according to our intellect. This point is restated and re-emphasized throughout.
I make this point on purpose to refute the ignorant presumption of certain people who insist that man is the principal worker in everything, even in contemplation. Relying too much on their natural cleverness and speculative theology, they say that God is the one who passively consents, even in this work. But I want you to understand that in everything touching contemplation, the contrary is true. God alone is the chief worker here, and he will act in no one who has not laid aside all exercise of his natural intellect in clever speculation.
The work of contemplation encompasses all others: “…all the virtues are clearly and completely contained in contemplation itself.” The fruit of this work, if it is authentic, “is the cloud of unknowing, the secret love planted deep in an undivided heart.” It is “luminous darkness … unknown knowing … what leads you to a silence beyond thought and words.”
The objective is clear; it is union with God because, “He is your being and in him, you are what you are, not only because he is the cause and being of all that exists, but because he is your cause and the deep centre of your being.”
We are advised to put aside ideas, concepts, and expectations of who or what God is and to allow him to be what he is. “That which I am I offer to you, O Lord, without looking to any quality of your being but only to the fact that you are as you are; this, and nothing more.” We are also asked to lay aside inquiry into our own nature as this is distracting and serves no useful purpose.
Leave the awareness of your being unclothed of all thoughts about its attributes, and your mind quite empty of all particular details relating to your being or that of any other creature. For such thoughts will not satisfy your present need, further your growth, nor bring you and others closer to perfection. Let them alone.
The benefit is clear, “For I want your thought of self to be as naked and as simple as your thought of God, so that you may be spiritually united to him without any fragmentation and scattering of your mind.”
We don’t have to be special or even without faults. Such a concern should not delay our work. “Take the good gracious God just as he is, as plain as a common poultice, and lay him to your sick self, just as you are.”
Freed of our concepts of who God is and who we are, relieved of our burden of understanding others, we can focus on simply seeking his divine being, with and through our own divine self.
When you go apart to be alone for prayer, put from your mind everything you have been doing or plan to do. Reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil… See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out toward God. Leave it stripped of every particular idea about God and keep only the simple awareness that he is as he is. Let him be thus, I pray you, and force him not to be otherwise. Search into him no further, but rest in this faith as on solid ground… It will feel as if your whole desire cried out to God…
The need for a human guide or teacher is also emphasized. Using the word “porter” as meaning one who controls the door to a court, the author writes, “As God, he is the porter; as man, he is the door.” He explains the Lord’s words like this:
As God, I am the all-powerful porter and therefore, it is up to me to determine who may enter and how. But I chose instead to make a common, clear way to the sheepfold, open to everyone who wanted to come. So I clothed myself in an ordinary human nature and made myself utterly available so that no one could excuse himself from coming because he did not know the way. In my humanity, I am the door and whoever comes in by way of me shall be safe.
But this human guide is only the precursor to something greater. This is shown by the fact that, physically, guide and disciple must inevitably part.
Had there been no higher perfection possible in this life beyond seeing and loving him in his humanity, I do not believe he would have ascended into heaven while time lasted, nor withdrawn his physical presence from his friends on earth who loved him so dearly. But a higher perfection was possible to man in this life: the purely spiritual experience of loving him in his Godhead. And for this reason he told his disciples, who were loath to give up his physical presence, … that for their own good he would withdraw his physical presence from them.
By the end of his book, the author as mentor has advised us on the purpose and necessity of divine contemplation, explained its practice, warned how to avoid pitfalls, touched on the pain of physical separation, and extolled the glory of union. In closing he urges patience:
Tell me now, if Christ is the door, what should a man do once he has found it? Should he stand there waiting and not go in? Answering in your place, I say: yes, this is exactly what he should do. He does well to go on standing at the door, for up till now he has lived a crude sort of existence according to the flesh, and his spirit is corroded with a great rust. It is fitting that he wait at the door until his conscience and his spiritual father agree that this rust has been largely rubbed away. But most of all, he must learn to be sensitive to the Spirit guiding him secretly in the depths of his heart and wait until the Spirit himself stirs and beckons him within.
He calls on us for faith and courage, yet assures us of continued grace even when we are beset with dryness, bewilderment, and fear.
Still, do not lose heart. I promise you he will return and soon. In his own time he will come. Mightily and more wonderfully than ever before he will come to your rescue and relieve your anguish… With your enthusiasm gone you will think you have lost him, too, but this is not so; it is only that he wishes to teach you patience. For make no mistake about this; God may at times withdraw sweet emotions, joyful enthusiasm, and burning desires but he never withdraws his grace from those he has chosen…Of this I am certain.
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