Walter Hilton was an English spiritual writer. Practically nothing is known of the life of Hilton. It is clear from his writings that he was a learned man and he probably studied at Cambridge. His early life was perhaps spent as a hermit, his middle years as a scholar and his last, as an Augustinian canon. His fame rests almost exclusively upon two books, The Ladder of Perfection and Mixed Life. The Ladder of Perfection is a treatise on the contemplative life whereby God is reached and Mixed Life teaches holiness to those who live in the world. Standing in the tradition of St Augustine, St Gregory the Great, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Bernard, etc., Walter Hilton had considerable influence on later mystical literature. We shall deal briefly with his book, The Ladder of Perfection.
Book One of The Ladder of Perfection is directed to an anchoress who has apparently requested spiritual guidance from Hilton. It concerns the contemplative life in general. The first degree of contemplation concerns knowing God and such spiritual matters as can be attained by reason. It is simply the application of natural intelligence to study of scripture and the teachings of the church. Improper use of this will lead to the sin of pride. The second degree concerns love, and is generally expressed in unlearned people who think on God and are inspired by the Holy Spirit to great devotion. It concerns not the intellect but the feelings. The third degree involves both knowledge and love and leads to contemplation. Here one’s intellect is able to see God and one’s emotions burn with love. Contemplation absolutely requires humility, firm faith and a right intention. The means to contemplation are prayer and meditation. Prayer has three degrees: vocal prayer using a set formulae, vocal prayer without set formulae and non-vocal prayer which takes place in the heart. Meditation should begin with reflection on one’s sins and prayer for forgiveness from God. Then one moves to the mysteries of the faith, particularly the life of Christ and his passion.
Book Two of The Ladder was written several years after Book One and is addressed to no one person and is distinctly more Christ-oriented and deals more with the advanced states of contemplation. The purpose of contemplation is restoration of the image of God in human beings which was destroyed by sin which he categorises as original sin and actual sin. Grace and one’s own efforts are alike required to achieve the perfect faith and love required for restoration of the image of God lost through sin. Only a person of great humility, charity and faith, prepared to suffer much in body and soul may reach that stage of contemplation where one experiences God. Like a pilgrim he must leave all unnecessary burdens behind and move steadfast and resolute, overcoming all obstacles on the way, stopping only for necessary food and rest. Hilton writes that knowledge of our soul is necessary to knowledge and love of God. But this knowledge itself is a gift of God, caused by God’s love for the soul. It makes possible the exercise of all virtues. It instils love in the soul which destroys sin and instils virtue, destroys pride and creates humility, destroys anger and envy and re-establishes peace, patience, and perfect charity. It destroys all traces of evil. Only a soul thus cleansed can contemplate God which takes place in a state of rest but characterized by great spiritual activity. There the soul sees God and hears his counsels, and is wonderfully consoled. When this special grace is lacking one is dull and inept in performing spiritual exercises. Grace of God leads people in different forms of prayer. The uneducated will be prompted to vocal prayer like the Lord’s Prayer and the educated will be prompted to pray the Psalter. The contemplative will pray in his soul and receives the understanding of the deeper meanings of scripture and thus sees the God who is concealed in the Bible. God’s secret presence in the scriptures is like his secret voice heard in the soul. Only spiritual persons will hear the secret whisper of God and be filled with spiritual joy.
(Professor of Church History
at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)