Unknowing and living with uncertainty


Jennifer Kavanagh gave up her career as a literary agent to work in the community. She is a microcredit practitioner, facilitates conflict resolution workshops and is active in the Quaker community. She has published six books of non-fiction. In 2015 JHP Books published her latest titles, A Little Book of Unknowing, and her first novel The Emancipation of B. Her bestselling title with JHP Books is Simplicity Made Easy. She is a Churchill Fellow and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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.”

The concept of unknowing is best known from The Cloud of Unknowing, a little book by an anonymous fourteenth-century author, but it has its roots in the earlier and influential Dionysius the Areopagite, and in the austere spirituality of the fourth-century Desert Fathers and Mothers. It is at the heart of what is called the via negativa, an approach to God through emptiness, through a stripping away of concepts or images, through an acceptance of the fallibility of the ego-driven life.

The way we run our lives is dependent on what we know of the world, and we have expectations and make assumptions accordingly. But what if the facts on which we base our lives are shown to be unreliable? What if our expectations are confounded? Then, what if we let go of our familiar, habitual ways of thinking? What if we let go of those assumptions and expectations? What if we let go of the very need to know? The sense of release might surprise us. The opportunity is there.

In my book, A Little Book of Unknowing, I encourage the reader to explore what we think we know, and what we don’t know, what we can and can’t know. We look at the nature of our knowing, and how letting go of a limited kind of knowing will open us to a fuller, richer experience. We consider how we can lead our lives with an understanding that there is much that we do not know; and how we might be able to experiment with spaciousness and leave room for the creative energy of the Spirit. We see how by practice and attention we can move into an acceptance of unknowing, and deepen our experience of life, love and the Divine.

The unexpected

The unexpected not only plays a large part in our lives, it is so much more interesting than what we expect. When we open ourselves to the richness and joy of the unexpected, we notice so much more: a man riding a Penny Farthing bicycle in central London; a group of school children running along the street with swimming towels over their heads to protect them from the rain; a man juggling as he waits to cross the road. What such experiences call out in us is also unexpected: a lurch of joy or of sadness, an unexpected tear or memory.

How our lives develop is unpredictable; career advisors’ horizons are limited, and so are our imaginations. We often end up doing things we had never dreamt of, let alone planned. Some of the jobs I have done in my life I had never even heard of ten years before. If anyone had told me twenty years ago that I would have done some of the things I have done in the last fifteen, I would never have believed them.

We cannot know either how we will react in a given situation; we do not know until we are faced with it. We might imagine fear or heroics – the reality is often different. People who risk their lives to save or comfort a stranger talk of obeying a natural impulse, of having no choice. The moment brings its own truth and calls out from us an often unsuspected response.

Expectation is both misleading and limiting. For me, creative growth is learning that there is much that I do not know, and trying to let go of my forward-looking compulsion.

A Little Book of Unknowing by Jennifer Kavanagh is published by Christian Alternative Books, ISBN: 978-1-78279-808-8 (Paperback) £4.99 $9.95.