Little Book of Unknowing, A
There is another way
What if the facts on which we base our lives are shown to be unreliable? What if our expectations are confounded? What if we let go of those assumptions and expectations? What if we let go of our familiar, habitual ways of thinking? What if we let go of the very need to know?
Unknowing is at the centre of spiritual life. It is only by creating a space in which anything can happen that we allow God to speak; only by stepping back that we allow space for that unpredictable Spirit that brings us gifts beyond any of our imaginings... "God dwells only where man steps back to give him room."
Follow this link for the launch event which took place at Watkins Bookstore in London : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6n1P_qfhxO0
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Jennifer Kavanagh is a Quaker and a retreat leader. In this little book she writes from her own experience, but also draws on the works of well-known spiritual writers, Julian of Norwich, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and Evelyn Underhill to mention a few. She points out that Homo sapiens means 'wise man' not 'Homo omnisciens', 'man all knowing'. However we often behave as if we are the latter when really we are the former. She explores what it is to 'know', in the sense of know someone. Can we really say that we fully know anyone, even a life partner or close friend ? If we cannot say that, how can we say that we 'know' God? She then takes the reader through a series of interlinked chapters to show a way of 'unknowing'. I think many Julians, as I did, would find this a helpful and encouraging book, as we try to 'be still and know'. ~ Anne Stamper, The Julian Meetings magazine, April 2017 issue
Marvellous. Not as wonderful as meeting and chatting with Jennifer in person, but pretty impressive all the same. She continues in her books to nourish both the spirit and the ever inquisitive mind with ease and panache. So many of the insights ring true. Highly recommended. ~ simon, Amazon
I read Jennifer Kavanagh’s book A Little Book Of Unknowing in the course of a long train journey from Edinburgh and was so engaged by it that by the time I had reached London I had finished it in its entirety. As the title indicates it deals with our human urge to know, not just about the date of the Norman invasion or how metal expands when heated but also the deep existential questions: how did the universe come into being, how can we lead a good life, and what happens when we die? The author considers different ways of knowing, of searching for truth, and briefly looks at the relation between science and religion. She goes on to deal with the reality of not knowing the ultimate answers and not being able to control our own lives or predict the future. Kavanagh continues with some proposals about how to live in the state of unknowing and uncertainty, how to trust, how to have faith. Much of the rest of this book is about prayer, meditation, mindfulness and ‘letting go’. There is a chapter devoted to darkness, ‘the visual equivalent of silence’ and a further few pages on acceptance. The writer’s style is fluid, articulate and sensitive. Although she draws on a wide range of sources, this is by no means a purely academic treatise and she bravely draws on her own life experiences to illustrate her points. As you might expect from the title, the Bible gets little or no attention; this is written in true modern Quakerly fashion where nothing is accepted on authority and all conclusions reached are from the here and now of existential experience. 25 I particularly appreciated the comments on human subjectivity and the related issue about the impossibility of universal agreement about the certainty of ‘facts’. It seems that recent research (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/365} confirms that individuals experience different physical realities at a neural level. ‘We cannot say (what individuals)… hear when they listen to a song of a thrush’. She adds (I paraphrase here) that every person forms his or her own provisional model of reality which is updated in the light of his/her own experience; she makes the obvious link with science and research, roundly doing away with the proposition that science and religion are implacably opposed. I found myself endorsing her view of prayer, which to me seems not the attempt to control the future by drawing the attention of an absent-minded or forgetful deity to a matter needing his assistance, (my words, not hers) but rather as silently orienting our attention, of opening ourselves up, of leaving room for the spirit to work. She attempts to define spirituality by quotes and this is one I preferred: Rowson and McGilchrist “Spirituality is simply a question of having an open enough mind to see that there are things in the world that transcend what we can know and fully comprehend, that are not fully accounted for in a reductionist, materialist account.” That’s socked it to Dawkins and co., I thought! Particularly challenging (personally, not theoretically) was the passage about our need to control the future, to be in charge of our own lives. “I found that the way forward was not about making decisions, but of allowing things to unfold realising that matters would become clear”. For me the most powerful passages were firstly, the account of the author’s own life; following a practical and spiritual crisis she gave up the day job, as it were, and began to follow the practice of opening herself to what might come, leading to consequences that surprised her. Secondly, I was surprised to learn that our ‘modern’ unknowing can be sited within the tradition of the via negativa dating back to the fourth century. 26 I’ve struggled to find any negatives in this small book. My only caveat, a small one, is that there are questions for discussion at the end of chapters. I understand that these are intended for discussion groups, but dislike them as it gives an impression of labour, duty, homework almost, instead of an intensely absorbing read that speaks to us of our condition. This is a deeply felt, deeply personal account of the author’s spirituality. It could act as a kind of position statement for many modern Quakers and I see it as a must-have for Local Quaker Meetings’ libraries. ~ Jackie Bedford, The Universalist
My rating: 4 of 5 stars In this book, Jennifer explores what we really "know" (not much it turns out) and how we can come to terms with uncertainty in our lives. Her view is that we should embrace uncertainty as it can provide opportunities for growth and a deeper spiritual understanding. As the title suggests, this book is short - it's only 73 pages - and you could probably read it in one sitting if you wanted. But actually, I think it's better to take your time reading it otherwise you might miss out on the points that Jennifer is making (one point being, ironically enough, you sometimes need to wait for the answer to come to you). I certainly think you will get more out of this book if you read it multiple times. Jennifer writes very much with a faith perspective (specifically, a Quaker one), but that doesn't mean her book doesn't have value for people who don't believe in God/The Divine. As she points out science is a faith to some extent, so even the most confirmed atheist could benefit from reading this book (they could always skip passed the bits when Jennifer references the G word). ~ Dawn Powell, http://ebookadventures.blogspot.co.uk/
Well worth reading and benefiting from its Wisdom Jennifer Kavanagh has produced a gem here and I am very glad I purchased it. Anyone interested in the contemplative lifestyle would find this helpful. ~ Ann Taylor, Amazon
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. ~ Karie Firoozmand, Friends Journal
‘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. ~ Ian Kirk-Smith, Editor, The Friend
Loved this book. It is the sort of book to refer to regularly, keep it by my bed ~ valerie scott, Amazon
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
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. So much of our day to day lives are planned to within inches or to do lists about to do lists. We believe we ‘have no room for error’ or that we can’t be a ‘failure’. What would life be like if we just let ourselves go ‘off plan’? “Walk without a destination. Wander aimlessly without arriving, being somewhere rather than going somewhere.” Thich Nhat Hanh Your own truths within are in fact found through the deeper understanding of what it is you don’t or can’t know. Discovered when you least expect it, off the beaten track… Through reading Jenny’s book you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement and be left with as many questions in different ways than before you began and this is a good thing. As someone who for most of my life believed “I had to know it all or else I’d be stupid, a failure, a loser…” learning to know what I don’t know has been at times hugely painful, shameful and now finally liberating. And learning to embrace what it is I do know is a hugely profound, now joyous and relieving experience. “Phew I know what I know, and that which I don’t… now what can I bring into play?” This is when creativity, play, imagination, improvisation comes more into life, moment by moment… “For me, improv, as with all creativity and possibly all of life/Grace, is a matter of getting out of the way.” Tanya This leads to more connected, synchronized and blessed interactions with ourselves, with others and Life. 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? Drawing 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 short book is a tool for reflection and discussion, prompting the reader to move away from a search for certainty to a place of mystery, and acknowledge how little we truly know. We are invited to embrace the state of unknowing. Kavanagh leads us on a journey. She invites us to recognise how our cultural context can induce in us a belief that facts and certainty are crucial in life and in faith. She then considers how we can inhabit a state of being that isn’t dependent on cerebral understanding, and points us to the creativity that can be released by embracing the gifts of uncertainty. Finally, she reminds us how such practice has historically always been a part of Christian experience and can bring us closer to God. This book enters complex and well-documented territory; it is comprehensive in its historical and theological references, but at times I found its brevity a little frustrating. My engagement with the book coincided with the start of Lent, and I found it worked well as a tool for daily reflection; although, I did wonder how helpful it would be for someone engaging with the subject for the first time. Having said that, there is a comprehensive list of resources and references, so this book could open the door to further exploration. It would also provide interesting material for small groups who are able to be honest with each about the way they experience – or don’t experience – God. ~ Rachel Poolman is warden of St Cuthbert’s Centre on Holy Island, Lindisfarne, Northumberland, Reform Magazine April 2015
If you have not read the Quaker writer, Jennifer Kavanagh, then you must. In all her previous books she displays such wisdom and spiritual insight and ‘A little book of Unknowing’ is no exception. Literally a little book of only 56 pages it is easily read, but don’t be put off by the size in the thought that it cannot contain much - it is full of insightful gems. Kavanagh will always push the boundaries of our spiritual assumptions and expectations and challenge our long held certainties. This short book looks at how we can let go of our knowing and our certainties and in so doing have a fuller spiritual life. It is a book that is written for anyone who is exploring their spirituality; in true Quaker style it is totally and refreshingly inclusive. There are lots of quotes from spiritual writers which provide all sorts of connections that can be followed up and cross referenced. The opening quote in the book invites you in; “help me to be quiet, to sit here...slowly unknowing everything, becoming dark, becoming yielding, just sitting.” Gunilla Norris. It is described as a ‘little book about a particular way of being in the world’, I found myself excited by the concept of unknowing and wanting to explore it more. A great read. ~ , Magnet magazine
For March’s Book of the Month, I have chosen A Little Book of Unknowing by Jennifer Kavanagh (2015, Christian Alternative Books). Jennifer worked in publishing for nearly 30 years before becoming a Quaker, and giving up her day job to run a community centre in London’s East End. She then set up the charitable trust Open Wing Trust, supporting people as they change their lives to work with and for people in need. Jennifer has published ten non-fiction books and two novels. Her website is https://www.jenniferkavanagh.co.uk. A Little Book of Unknowing is a short, powerful book about the acceptance of the simple yet profound truth, that despite all the knowledge we have, we know very little. It encourages us to embrace the mystery of existence and to find our way to spiritual liberation through the practice of acceptance and the relinquishing of control. The subject matter really appealed to me when I came across the book in the library of my local Quaker meeting. While still quite young, I had realised how vast creation is and how helpful it can be to accept that we may never know the answers to many things. The program of living I follow now also guides us to live in humility and acceptance and to avoid depending on expectations. This book led me further down that path, encouraging the practice of self-emptying in meditation to draw us towards a greater experience of God as Love. It proved an easy read which could be potentially life-transforming for people open to change. So there we have it, March’s Book of the Month! ~ Maggie Shaw, https://www.eregendal.com/book-of-the-month-march-23
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, Scientific and Medical Network Review
This little book of unknowing is hugely powerful in its scope, beauty and profound articulation of complex aspects of the spiritual journey of unknowing. The integration of Jennifer's own experiences with her deep noetic knowing of unknowing threaded through spiritual wisdom from well known spiritual teachers is exquisite. I highly recommend this work to both experienced seekers and beginners - both can learn and grow from such a well of wisdom. ~ Rev Dr Lynne Sedgmore, OBE, Ordained Interfaith Minister, Spiritual Director and retreat leader.
A book that insists we accept a simple, yet profound truth - how little we actually know. It insists because through embracing the mystery of existence, hidden doorways to spiritual liberation are revealed. An ancient approach to spiritual exploration, rediscovered for the modern age. An important book that will help many people." ~ Rev Simon Small, Chaplain, Abbey House Retreat Centre, Glastonbury.
The teachings on prayer, on passivity, on patience and waiting, on the importance of openness and trust and the very real need to recognize how we enslave ourselves by our impulses, are excellent. It also introduces some unique ideas about formlessness and the power to make grace work in the moment. Such a special, helpful and very much-needed book for this uncertain time. ~ Lucinda M. Vardey, Editor of The Twelve Degrees of Silence.,