One of the benefits of a fine early autumn is some beautiful sunsets. They are often better than summer sunsets, and this is because they include clouds. I have been a (very proud) member of the Cloud Appreciation Society since 2008, which, given that it takes me ages to get round to joining anything on-line, means that I have been admiring and enjoying clouds for a long time. They are dynamic; they are infinitely various; you cannot encompass them, but you can create one if you are really lucky and gifted. They are silent, but they look as though they are creating waves of sound.
We can categorise them, but we keep having to find new terminology, because of their variety; we added a new one only this year. The one thing we can say with certainty about them is that they are beautiful. Even a seemingly uniform layer of grey stratus cloud turns out to have amazing potential when underlit by a setting sun (see below).
Pictures of God
If you want to paint God, and not only in the Western artistic tradition, you tend to picture him surrounded by, or resting upon clouds. It is the clouds which indicate that it is God, not just an old man. They are the symbol of divinity (because of course, we have no idea what God looks like). It’s partly because clouds are above us (unless we go up a high mountain or in an aeroplane), so you have the whole idea of aspiration, for reaching for something higher than ourselves. Clouds are one of God’s most frequent accompaniments in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, his natural element once the gates of Paradise are shut.
Old Testament clouds
‘Clouds and darkness are his raiment’ is from Psalm 96, and it is a thrilling description of God. There are lots of clouds in the Old Testament, sometimes as tools of God (the cloudy pillar in Exodus, the screen in Egypt Ps 104.39, the ‘little cloud […] like a man’s hand’ 1 Kings 18, which turns so quickly into a skyful of louring cloud and torrential rain), but mostly there to veil the Lord from human sight. Simply the cloud itself can represent God: ‘the cloud filled the house of the Lord […] the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord’, 1 Kings 8.11.
Moses finding God in a cloud
God appears to Moses ‘in a dense cloud’ (Exodus 19.10), he calls to Moses ‘from inside the cloud’ (Ex 24.16), and Moses’ authority is established beyond question when he goes up and into the cloud to be with God (24.18). One of the things that strikes me about this narrative is how disoriented Moses must then have been. If you climb (or usually nowadays, for most of us, fly) into a cloud, you lose all your reference points. There is no up, no down, no where from, no where to. There is only presence and there is now. This is the only place to meet God. This is completely different from Adam and Eve’s easy relationship with God when he walks in the garden in the cool of the day. After the Fall, when God is present, he is usually veiled in a cloud, and this continues in the New Testament.
New Testament clouds
The Holy Spirit overshadows Our Lady and she conceives Jesus. God’s voice comes out of the cloud when he is baptised by John. At the Transfiguration there is a ‘bright cloud’ with God’s voice. Clouds mean God’s presence, mean heaven; and the disciples’ hearts must have sunk when they saw Jesus disappear into the cloud at the Ascension, because instead of the cloud being above or around all of them, it now divided him from them. And of course, they would have known about the prophecies in Daniel (the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven) even though the similar clouds in Revelation had not been written about yet.
Clouds in the Psalms
The clouds in the psalms are a bit different, because they are not just symbols of God’s greatness, but real observed clouds, which make the psalmist think about God. God rides on the clouds (Ps 67). He answers, concealed in the storm cloud (Ps 80). Clouds and darkness are his raiment, as we’ve already seen. He makes the clouds his chariot (Ps 103; I hope this is the psalmist recycling the Helios and Phaethon myth, because I’ve always loved it, but I have to admit I don’t have any grounds for that!). Some of the references just seem like exuberant appreciation of natural phenomena: he summons clouds from the ends of the earth…..from his treasuries he sends forth the wind (and there’s Aeolus with only a bagful) Ps 134. He calls the stars by their names and covers the heavens with clouds (Ps 146).
These clouds bring rain, seen as a blessing (Ps 83; cf. the Irish superstition that every drop of rain that falls on a wedding brings a blessing, just as well, really); they make shade, which is both respite and refuge (Pss 62, 120). But they aren’t only real clouds, as there is a rather nice version of the pathetic fallacy here, long before the Romantics : when God is angry, he conceals himself in a dark cloud, a black cloud (Ps 17), a storm cloud (Ps 80); the clouds that take people to heaven or bring them back down again are white. Darkness is as effective as clouds as a covering (that’s why we can only see clouds at night if they are noctilucent), so God can use either or both. Clouds bring a dynamism to our idea of the Almighty. When he walks upon the wings of the wind (Ps 103), I imagine him like a power skater with each foot on a blade of cloud (Ps 17: ‘a black cloud under his feet [..] he flew on the wings of the wind’), like one of those skaters in the park that you need to get out of the way of, as Ps 67 warns: ‘Make a highway for him who rides on the clouds’. Riding on the clouds is exciting.
Other weather events
I was surprised to find that there are more earthquakes and storms associated with God in the Psalms than there are clouds, but I think this is because we do tend to take clouds for granted except when their beauty catches us unawares. Obviously if you are calling for God to come and sort out your enemies, you are hoping for earthquakes and tempests as being more destructive and certainly more showy. But when Elijah goes to meet God, first there is a mighty wind, then an earthquake, then fire, and the Lord is not in any of them. He is a still small voice, or a gentle breeze (choose your translation). When you are the Almighty, you don’t need to shout, you just be. I am who am.
Like the clouds. They are just there, raising our hearts because we look up to see them. If you are ever feeling at all down, go to the Cloud Appreciation Society , click on the gallery of photographs, start the slideshow and just watch. Artists try to paint cloud and rarely succeed. God does it every day.
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