Guest Columnists

Fog Represents the Cloud of Unknowing

by John Garvey

It was foggy this morning. I found it cozy. I always have. I love the fog.

When I was a boy, we lived on a small lake in Pennsylvania. I liked to get up early to see the fog sitting on the bay. When the sun rose, it would roll out toward the deep water and scatter.

As newlyweds, my wife and I lived in San Francisco and liked to go camping. I remember pitching a tent one weekend afternoon on Mount Tamalpais. We sat up high in the sunshine and watched the fog creep in over San Francisco Bay, the way Carl Sandburg once described. It enveloped everything but the tips of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica building.

I like the feeling of watching the fog from above, and I also like being inside it. Noises are muffled and scattered. Like sounds underwater, they seem to come from some indistinct place. And, of course, you can’t see very far. It’s dangerous to drive in it. If you are on foot, you can stop within your range of vision. Animals have a hard time seeing and hearing inside the fog, too. As you walk along in the fog, scared rabbits will scamper in the grass and frightened pheasants will flush near at hand.

This is the part I love best – the sense of enclosure in a small and quiet world. A psychologist might have a field day ascertaining why it appeals to me. Perhaps some genetic memory, common to prey animals, tells me it’s easier to hide. I wonder, though, if there might not be a different reason for my fascination.

In the upper church at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, there is a famous cycle of 28 paintings depicting the life of St. Francis. Each painting depicts a single event in his life. The series follows the life of St. Francis as written by St. Bonaventure.

The 12th in the cycle is the Ecstasy of St. Francis. Here is how St. Bonaventure describes the scene: Francis “was lost in ecstasy and had no idea what was going on around him. … He was occasionally seen raised up from the ground and surrounded with a shining cloud.”

In Giotto’s painting, Francis is immersed in a cloud, looking up toward heaven. Jesus reaches down toward him in an attitude of blessing. Four of Francis’ companions look on from the left, mightily impressed.

Both Giotto and Bonaventure might have had in mind St. Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John went up the mountain with Jesus and witnessed the event. Peter was so stunned that he started babbling about building tabernacles. While he was still talking, “a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.’”

Why is it that saints and mystics are shrouded in fog when they approach God? Is it because the experience so surpasses our poor ability to see and describe that it is, as we say, ineffable? An anonymous 14th-century English mystic called it “the cloud of unknowing.”

My prayer life is too mundane to contribute anything about this from my own experience. I feel like one of the companions at the periphery of paintings depicting St. Francis’ life – the one leaning back open-mouthed, as if to say, “Holy cow!”

But I think that’s why I love the fog. I like to go into it with a prayer to St. Francis on my lips.[hr] Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.

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