The Ladder of Perfection
The following quotations are taken from a book on spiritual guidance by Walter Hilton, a fourteenth-century hermit often viewed as one of England’s three great mystics (Julian of Norwich and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing are the others).
Mystics have little difficulty in breaking convention when seeking enlightenment, sometimes drawing attention to the futility of the social customs of the day or, as with Walter Hilton, democratizing access to the scriptures. During a period in which the Christian church in England was powerful and its language of choice Latin, Hilton produced the first English-language book on mysticism. He spent most of his life in a monastery, writing several texts, although The Ladder (Stairway) of Perfection is by far his most popular and attracts new readers to this day.
Published as a single text, The Ladder of Perfection combines two separate works, written at different points of time, and possibly for a different readership. His aim was to provide an easy-to-read, foundational text on spirituality for beginners. By contrast, other books of the time predominately targeted experienced spiritual practitioners. The Cloud of Unknowing, for instance, gives a warning in its prologue, in which readers are cautioned to continue reading only if they are fully committed to cultivating a contemplative life.
That Hilton is not readers’ preferred mystic is an observation recently made by a contemporary contemplative writer. Most readers tend to pass over Hilton’s plain-speaking, stern tone and his emphasis on discipline and the hard work required to inwardly experience the divine. Readers seem to prefer what one author terms “spiritual goodies” – books discussing spiritual awakening and all that this bestows. Imagining a blissful future is a more inviting read than one offering guidance on self-improvement – virtue, humility, motivation and so on – in preparation for a contemplative life.
And yet perhaps it’s specifically because of Hilton’s style and approach that, nearly seven hundred years after it was written, his book’s insights and observations resonate with our experiences of trying to reach the eye-centre. Certainly we can relate to his assertion in the first quotation that our receptivity to divine grace ebbs and flows.
In the second quotation, Hilton counsels readers to make it their life’s mission to “feel the sweetness of His [the Divine’s] love.” His impassioned plea is all the more inspiring since he maintained that he was simply a struggling soul, working towards rather than enjoying the experiences described in his writings. This is strangely reassuring. For all that has changed, there is much in the twenty-first century which is the same as in the fourteenth: spiritual liberation is just as difficult now as it was several hundred years ago.
The awareness of special grace that accompanies the invisible presence of God and makes the soul perfect in love does not always continue at its highest intensity, but comes and goes unpredictably.…“The Holy Spirit breathes where he wills, and you hear his Voice; but you do not know whence he comes or whither he goes.” Sometimes He comes secretly when you are least aware of Him, but you will recognize Him unmistakably before He goes, for He stirs your heart in a wonderful way, and moves it strongly to contemplate His goodness. Then your heart melts with delight at the tenderness of His love like wax before the fire, and this is the sound of His Voice. Then before you realize it He departs. He withdraws a little, He departs. He withdraws a little, but not entirely, and the soul passes from ecstasy into tranquility. The intense awareness of His presence passes away, but the effects of grace remain as long as the soul keeps itself pure, and does not willfully lapse into carelessness and worldliness, or take refuge in outward things.
We should desire always to be conscious (so far as we may) of the lively inspiration of grace brought about by the spiritual presence of God within our souls. We should desire to contemplate Him constantly with reverence, and always to feel the sweetness of His love in the wondrous nearness of His presence. This should be our life, and this our experience of grace, for God is the source of all grace, and grants this gift as He wills, to some in greater measure and to others less.
For He grants this experience of His presence in various ways, as He sees best. And this experience is the goal towards which we should direct our lives and exertions, for without it we cannot live the life of the spirit. For just as the soul is the life of the body, God is the life of the soul by His gracious presence.