Reviews for A Little Book of Unknowing

A Little Book of Unknowing

Many readers will be familiar with The Cloud of Unknowing as a well-known  14th century spiritual text. Unknowing involves letting go of control and being open to inner guidance – it is the opposite of a decisive, outwardly driven life, reminding us of its inherent uncertainty that invites and attitude of trust. In this small book, Jennifer explores ‘what we think we know, what we don’t know, what we can and can’t know’ with a special emphasis on letting go of a limited kind of knowing. She sees spirituality as our capacity to be open enough to realise that there are things that we cannot know and fully comprehend and which form part of an unseen order with which we can become aligned. The chapters are short with a couple of pertinent questions at the end. They concern expectation, different ways of knowing and living, creativity, reclaiming the dark and acceptance. This helps to create and inner stillness and receptivity where we can here the inner voice of God. We also find ourselves arriving at a place of love and appreciating the close link between love and knowledge. I recommend this book for contemplative reading and reflection that can lead to a new opening of inner space.

David Lorimer
Programme Director

Scientific and Medical Network
Editor, Network Review

 

A Little Book of Unknowing is a gem of a book, that is slim enough to slip into your bag and ponder its wisdom, provocations and amazing array of quotes on the tube or train to work, as I have over the last 4 weeks….

This treasure of a book sensitively invites us into a greater sense of knowing our own abilities to create and live a life lived in creativity, meditation, love, faith and connection.

Connection to Grace, the Divine, The Great Unknown, Great Spirit, The Universe, God…

Anna Sexton, Open to Create blog

 

This is a delightful little book, in which the author takes on a challenging subject with grace, insight and a most helpful groundedness in the reality of everyday life. Assuming no prior knowledge or intimacy on the part of the reader with ‘the way of unknowing’, Jennifer manages in barely sixty pages both to introduce us to some thorny spiritual subjects such as letting go, the path of darkness (or via negativa) and transcending the ego, and to invite us to go deeper into them.

The basic premise of A little book of unknowing is that any of us may find ourselves on this path of unknowing at any time in our life, often without wanting or expecting it…and that it brings with it extraordinary gifts, if only we are prepared to risk the adventure. The reader is brought face to face through the first half of the book with our very human need to know: to know facts, to know where we are going, to know ourselves, to know God. It quickly becomes clear that, despite our desire for certainty and security, we often simply cannot know these very things in the way we wish to. Indeed, it is pointed out, in the same way that modern science depends on a spirit of enquiry and a preparedness to go beyond the bounds of existing knowledge and experience, so too does our inner life.

As the author develops her theme, we are introduced to ‘another way of knowing’, which enables us to encounter the world, ourselves and the divine in a way that is beyond description, beyond words, beyond knowing with our rational mind. This is the way described by John of the Cross, who advises that ‘to come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing.’ This is the same man who famously speaks of the ‘dark night of the soul’ through which we may come to this deeper kind of knowing – described here as ‘unknowing’.

In case we begin to assume that this way of unknowing is reserved for spiritual masters and desert ascetics, Jennifer illustrates the path with examples from her own lived experience. I found these stories of how the author learned to surrender her own agenda and to follow faithfully as her life unfolded in what she calls ‘a conspiracy of grace’, to be most moving and illuminating. These are tales of business decisions and everyday service in the world, of conversations, magazine articles and inner promptings acting as guides. As I read, I thought ‘I could do that!’ So it’s not about setting off for Kathmandu for five years of meditation in a cave? According to A little book of unknowing, it’s about being prepared to take the leap of faith that says you don’t have to be in charge, that God or love can be trusted as the energy that flows through you and all that is. And that possibility will be there in the very next conversation you have, in the very next thing you read, or the very next movement of your heart. Ben Pink Dandelion is quoted as suggesting that ‘the destination is not important; the process of being led and following fruitfully is all.’ This is still revolutionary stuff, and so this little book is exciting! Dare we follow this way of unknowing in our own lives as did early Friends?

rawing on the writings of mystics and sages ancient and modern, Jennifer weaves in quotations throughout from many who have travelled the path of unknowing. Their pithy, sometimes funny, always insightful, sayings become companions in our exploration, to the extent that I had a sense of being in the company not just of the author, but also friends as varied as the unknown mediaeval author of The cloud of unknowing and Woody Allen, Thomas Merton and Thomas Kelly, the Dalai Lama and Mechtild of Magdeburg.

So, how do we move towards acceptance and trust as we ‘walk with a smile into the dark’ (Thomas Kelly)? Jennifer writes warmly and engagingly about the need to engage our spirit of creativity, which she sees as ‘an approach to the whole of life’ not just the preserve of artists and specialists. She encourages us to engage with the joyful curiosity seen in the young and those we call ‘fool’, to make space for aimlessness in our lives and to practise becoming ‘fearless about making mistakes’.

There is also a chapter about the need for us to find practices to help us to align ourselves with the divine energy of love, whether these be prayer, meditation, silence or anything else that helps us to venture to the place beyond words, where we can be guided by our own ‘deep, inarticulate longing’. James Nayler, another guide to this way of darkness, is quoted as urging us to ‘wait in patience ‘til Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee.’ There was something so tender about this advice, addressed to the reader with the intimate Quaker ‘thee’, that I found myself encouraged and upheld in this venture into the dark.

Indeed, the entire book serves as an invitation to explore this subject for ourselves experientially. Each of the short chapters ends with questions for personal reflection relating to the theme of the chapter. Many of these have the capacity to bring you up short, and to be food for deep contemplation: What do you know? How are you obedient? How does darkness affect you? all leapt out at me. They sounded like the questions a wise elder might ask with a tender fierceness – as I wander off into the night, her question remains and becomes food for my inner journey.

It is a book that asks for a response …to journey, to pray, to touch another in love, to walk by the shore, to sit in meditation, to play, to fool, to risk all. It is an invitation to us above all to live fully and not to be afraid of the adventure.

Ginny Wall, Quaker Voices

 

This “little book” is a high-level survey of a very big
subject. As such, it will leave most readers wanting
more. Fortunately, the book’s strong organization and its
wealth of source materials combine to make it into a solid
guide for readers who want to locate in-depth works on
“knowing” and “unknowing” by a broad range of great
minds, including Rumi, Thomas Kelly, and Matthew Fox.
As Kavinaugh states in her introduction, “This is not a
book about theology or a particular religion. Its frame of
reference is a faith-filled life that is available to all . . . Nor
is it an in-depth book about mysticism, but a little book
about a particular way of being in the world.” As such,
Kavinaugh does not presume to resolve discrepancies
among the various authors she references, nor does
she presume to analyze or draw conclusions. Instead,
each chapter presents several evocative quotations on a
particular aspect of knowing / unknowing, and follows
those quotations with simple questions like, “What do
you know?” and “How do you let go of certainty?”
The book begins with an account of the origins of the
concept of unknowing, best known as deriving from The
Cloud of Unknowing, a book written by an anonymous
14th century author, but which in turn draws from even
deeper roots in the austere spirituality of the 4th century
Desert Fathers and Mothers. The book goes on to present
various aspects of knowing / unknowing in eleven
chapters, which include: The need to know, Expectation,
This is not . . . an in-depth book
about mysticism,
but a little book about
a particular way of being . . .
The creative spirit, Reclaiming the dark, and Acceptance.
Underlying all seems to be the prayer, “Thy will be done.”
Kavinaugh’s purpose in this book seems to be to remind
us to pay attention to how we devote our time, that we
don’t need to know everything, that we need to be open
to the possibilities – and that those habits of mind can
transform our spiritual lives. I agree with her.
This book will appeal to mystics from various faith
traditions (including Friends, Buddhists, and Native
Peoples), as well as those who seek a more transcendent
experience of daily life. Much of the book considers
relationships between contemplation and worldly activity.
For Kavinaugh, one major reason to actively pursue
unknowing is to make us more faithful in the ways we live
out our beliefs. Historically, early Friends had a great
interest in this topic. An important part of the mystic
tradition, the concept of unknowing is also an important
component of Friends’ faith in continuing revelation.
I recommend this book as a short, well-organized
overview of writings on this important topic. An excerpt
from A Little Book of Unknowning (2015) is available at:
westernfriend.org/media/little-book-unknowing-excerpt

Regina Renee, Western Friend

 

Ian Kirk-Smith, The Friend

‘Cogito, ergo sum.’ I think, therefore I am. René Descartes came to this memorable conclusion after subjecting his ‘world’ to the most rigorous, uncompromising doubt. Even his senses, he believed, could deceive him. What could he be certain of?

Certainty, and uncertainly, are at the heart of A little book of Unknowing by Jennifer Kavanagh. It is an excellent read: revealing, perceptive, personal, stimulating and inspiring. It is a book for seekers. It is a book for Friends. It is a book for people who are interested, not in materialism and consumerism, but in exploring the spiritual and mystical side of life.

People, Jennifer Kavanagh writes, crave certainty. Our lives and lifestyles are built on it: built, since the Enlightenment, on a passion to know and on centuries of acquiring knowledge about the world. Today, the author argues, we crave certainty in our career, our relationships and our faith. We want the familiar, the reliable and the predictable. We long for security. We veer towards the road taken. It is hard not to with bombs and bullets shattering lives in the centre of Paris.

The first part of the book deals with the distinction between science and religion. It is not a question, the author writes, of ‘either/or’ but of ‘both/and’. She casts a critical eye on the accepted certainties of science and tells us that scientists themselves work in a world of ‘provisional’ truth. It is good to be reminded that it was the scientist Albert Einstein, not a Medieval mystic, who said: ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’. He also said that ‘there is a world of religious experience’ that is ‘not opposed to science’.

This is Jennifer Kavanagh’s deeply held belief. She writes: ‘Faith is not about certainty but about trust.’ What can we know with certainty? How can we know God? Her answer to this question forms the central thread of the book and is tied, closely, to her own story.

Faith, she explains, came to her by surprise after a personal trauma that prompted her to give up her career, after thirty years in publishing, and to learn to ‘let go’. The decision was life changing. She plunged into the unknown and began to embrace uncertainty. The author’s decision to abandon a successful career took courage. She writes: ‘I had no idea what I wanted to do but it did not matter’. She no longer needed to know, but to allow herself to trust.

A little book of Unknowing is an intimate portrait of a spiritual awakening and journey. Jennifer Kavanagh confesses that, having plunged into the unknown, she had to surrender many things – plans, expectations, ambition and those ego-driven desires that society conditions us to accept over our working lives.

Spiritually, it meant listening, completely letting go and waiting for God. Zen Buddhists talk about ‘having no knowledge’ and behaving ‘as if just born’. Jennifer Kavanagh believes that, to really go deep into a spiritual space, a certain kind of religion is helpful: not a religion based on scripture and ritual and action, but one based on stillness and silence and waiting.

I particularly enjoyed the short chapter entitled ‘Reclaiming the dark’ and would have liked more. It promised seeds that will hopefully be explored by this sensitive writer. Illuminating quotations are thoughtfully used and St John of the Cross, Brother Laurence, Thomas Merton and John O’Donohue are among those selected to assist the reader along the journey.

A little book of Unknowing is an engaging, and tender, invitation to approach the Divine and provides very helpful advice on how to do it.

Friends Journal, March 2016

This very slim book’s title is about mysticism, as is The Cloud of Unknowing, the famous anonymous work it references. Unknowing is not doubt, ignorance, isolation, or lack of connection. It is a way known to mystics, including the Desert Fathers and Mothers; it is what William Penn claimed would make us all brethren when the liveries of this world fall away.

If you are attracted to a sense of aligning your life and spirit with something you will not be able to define; if, indeed, you are excited by the inability to define it and yet feel power in its kinship, this book will be helpful and delightful. Each chapter ends with two queries (Kavanagh is a Friend) of only six or eight words each, and the book ends with a list of suggested titles for further reading. Individuals or groups can read and reflect on this book’s exploration of how to invite unknowing into our lives, and thus enter into a richness we can enter only when we can let go.