July 16, 2018—Walter Hilton was born in 1343 and studied church law at Cambridge. At about the age of forty-three, after spending some period of time as a hermit, he began to lead a semi-monastic life with other priests in Thurgarton, England. He considered himself a spiritual director and wrote The Scale (Or Ladder) of Perfection as a guide book for the spiritual journey of contemplation of the perfect love of God. He believed that all Christians should seek the grace and sensitivity of the Holy Spirit through contemplation. The Scale was printed after his life and was popular in the fifteenth century. It enjoyed several publications. The work is made up of three books, comprised of a total of six parts and eighty-seven short chapters. The three parts of book one deal with the state of the soul, prayer, and knowledge of the soul. Book two discusses the image of God in the soul and failures in reforming souls. Book three relates the role of Jesus in reforming souls. Each of the chapters has scriptural references bearing witness to the truth of Hilton’s points.
There two portions of the Christian life according to Hilton. He says “Two manner of lives in which a Christian is to be saved. The one is called Active, the other Contemplative…” The active life is our exterior life made up of the things we do and our characteristics. Like most spiritual writers, Hilton lists virtues which are useful for avoiding evil and leading a righteous life. He discusses sin, following the general listing of the “seven deadly sins.” He lists some remedy to sin, such as implementing virtues which are useful for righteous living. But he concludes the discussion of resolving sin by encouraging the imitation of Christ and perfecting the virtues. He especially emphasizes humility and charity as important virtues. He encourages people to “Turn principally thy heart to God, and frame thy interior to His likeness, by humility and charity and other spiritual virtues.”
The second or interior part of our life is contemplative. The contemplative life has three parts. The first part is knowing God. This is learning what we can about from God through teachings. This is made up of mainly intellectual learning. The second part is more of a feeling. It is the feeling of love one receives when contemplating the life of Christ or the forgiveness of sin or fear toward God. This comes with prayer and quietness. The third is the knowing and perfect loving of God, when one conforms to the perfect image of Jesus. This third part “may be felt in this life, but the full perfection of it is reserved unto the bliss in heaven.” Through the process of contemplation, a person learns of themselves. Hilton says “One work more… in our working to contemplation… to know his own soul and the power thereof.”
We are not alone in our work of contemplation. The Holy Ghost is a partner. Hilton says, “When the meditation of Christ’s passion, or any part of his humanity is wrought in thy heart by such a spiritual sight… know well that it is not of thy own working, … but by the grace of the Holy Ghost. For it is an opening of the spiritual eye…” We learn of ourselves by the meditation on the image of Christ. Against his image, we are wretched. “By meditation shalt thou see thy wretchedness, thy sins, and thy wickedness.”
Hilton makes a case for the importance of prayer: “This spiritual work is the food of the soul… It keepeth the soul in the feeling of grace and working of love and nourisheth it ever alike hot, as sticks nourisheth the fire.” He points out the failure of people who do not pray. “Wherefore wretched men and women are they who, neglecting the care of their interior, show only exteriorly a form and likeness of holiness…” This is hypocrisy to project a holy image while neglecting to increase in holiness. This holy life begins with finding the meaning of the life of Christ. Hilton points out “For the whole business of the soul is to think upon Jesus with reverent love, constantly…” Through this effort he tells people “Thou shalt build thy spiritual house by prayer and meditation and other spiritual virtues.” Part of meditation involves emptying our minds of distractions and finding quiet opportunity to quietly focus on the object of our contemplation or prayer. He warns “Soothly there is so much din and noise in thy heart of vain thoughts and fleshly desires, that thou canst neither hear Him nor see Him.”
Hilton gave an interesting example of the spiritual eye. He says that “Through the opening of the spiritual eye into Jesus the love is turned, and the soul is raised up according to its own nature above bodily creatures.” So the soul has heavenly characteristics which are seen in Christ. By contemplating on Jesus, the soul recognizes its better characteristics and rises above its creaturely characteristics.
Through Hilton we learn that we are never in a state of steadiness or completion, “For a soul cannot stand still always in one state, for it is either profiting in grace, or decaying through sin.” Yet he is encouraging when he says, “No man suddenly or hastily becometh supreme or perfect in grace, but beginneth with little and proceedeth on by little and little, until that he come to be perfect, the which God grant that we all may one day be.” Hilton focused a good deal on the journey to spiritual perfection. My interests were mainly in his teachings related to personal devotion. I found him helpful in separating the active life and contemplative life. He presented several ideas that are useful guides for personal devotional practices through the contemplative or interior actions to know about God, meditate on Christ, and set a quiet time for prayer.
Walter Hilton, The Scale (Or Ladder) of Perfection. Memphis: General Books, 2012.
Rev. Paul Sherwood is pastor of the Oakmont Presbyterian Church, Hoover AL and a DMin candidate at Columbia Theological Seminary.
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