Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dark Clouds

Thursday, June 13, 2013 -- Week of Proper 5, Year One
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Apologist and Writer, 1936
[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today's scripture readings.]

[Note:  I'll be suspending writing Morning Reflections at the end of this week.  I've been doing these for almost ten years, and it's time for a break.  It seems that this early-morning time of writing is also the time when my 2-year old granddaughter most needs my attention.  I need to take up that wonderful opportunity.  Tomorrow will be my final posting, at least for the time being.  I'm delighted that my associate the Rev. Dr. Lora Walsh will begin posting Morning Reflections on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, which will be picked up on the Speaking to the Soul blog on Episcopal Cafe as well.  All but the first few years of my posts will remain archived on my blog --]

Today's Readings for the Daily Office
     (Book of Common Prayer, p. 970)
Psalms       [70], 71 (morning)    //    74 (evening)
Ecclesiasticus 44:19 - 45:5 (found in the Apocrypha)
2 Corinthians 12:1-10
Luke 19:28-40

Today we pick up reading a section of Ecclesiasticus (also known as the Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach, a Jerusalem scribe who lived around 180 BCE).  Our reading begins with his famous Hymn in Praise of the Ancestors.

Ben Sira has an interesting phrase in his passage about Moses: "He [God] allowed him to hear his voice, and led him into the dark cloud."  One word-association for "dark cloud" implies the kind of experience that feels oppressive.  When we feel like we are living in a dark cloud we have little energy or direction.  It is a depressive existence. 

But the dark cloud that Ben Sira references is Moses' direct experience of God.  On Mount Sinai, Moses entered the dark cloud of God's presence and communed with God "face to face."  It was within the dark cloud that God gave Moses the commandments, "the law of life and knowledge."  An anonymous Christian mystic of the 14th century speaks of the contemplative experience of communion with God as the "cloud of unknowing."

These clouds have their similarities.  Both the dark cloud and the cloud of unknowing are places where we exercise little energy or direction.  Whatever energy and direction is present is of God.  And they can both be fearful places.  But the cloud of Sinai and the cloud of unknowing are each a dazzling darkness that is filled with God's presence.  They are life giving. 

In today's reading Paul speaks of an experience of revelation that happened to him.  "I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven -- whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows."  He doesn't seem to have words to describe his experience.  But linked to this exhilarating spiritual revelation is another kind of darkness.  "Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.  Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.'"

Paul relates together the ecstatic revelation and the thorn in the flesh.  He is given both gift and challenge.  Weakness seems to be a catalyst for each.  The revelation of being caught up into an altered state of consciousness is a gift that bypasses even his awareness of his body.  The fleshly thorn in the flesh is something he is powerless to overcome.  Yet Paul finds both to be mediators of God's presence.  The revelation for encouragement, the thorn for humility to trust.

Dark clouds are places of encounter with the divine.  That's especially good to remember when the dark cloud feels more like the thorn in the flesh than like the third heaven.


Audio podcast:  Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week.  Go to:

About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at

Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

See our Web site at

Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 2:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just came upon your comments concerning that confusing "dark cloud" issue - so contrary to God the Light of the universe. I am most grateful for your considerate thoughts on this difficult imagery. Also thanks for your comments on Br Lawrence. It was my understanding that the C of E Bible did not contain Sirach, glad it is not so in your case. Blessings/Jonr

At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Jonr --
One of the classics of Christian Spirituality is "The Cloud of Unknowing", an anonymous piece from a 14th century English mystic. From that tradition comes the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer, made popular again in the 20th century by Thomas Keating and others. Centering Prayer has been an important part of my spiritual practice.



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