1340?-96 - Priest;
Canon of the Augustinian Priory of Thurgarton (near
Nottingham); practised both civil and canon law before he was
a priest; probably educated at Cambridge. Hilton's "Scale of
Perfection" (books one and two) is the first exhaustive work
of ascetic and mystical theology to be written in the English
The scope of Walter’s work is far beyond the limitations of this essay, but several outstanding points, illustrated in his works, are both inspiring and delightful, if our 21st century blinders are removed. Walter dealt with many problems in his readership that continue to exist (and had existed for fourteen centuries in his day!) He presented eternal truths and sought to clarify equally eternal confusion.
Walter is the truly learned man, and his works include hundreds of references to the Scriptures and the works of the Fathers and theologians which spanned many centuries. His gift was for relating them to the current situation (and 14th century England was a tough proving ground for faith and virtue!) without compromising their eternal truths.
God may not be an Englishman, but He does understand the language
Hilton's "Scale (or Ladder) of Perfection" is the first work of ascetic and mystic theology in the English language, and composing this in the vernacular was a massive undertaking, particularly in a time when there was a vague notion that theological works in the common tongue were dangerous. (And, in some sense, indeed they could be.) Adapting theological terms to a constantly evolving vernacular terms (minus the previous precision of Latin and Greek!) presented the irony of causing as many problems of understanding as it remedied (as still exists with the terminology of law, medicine, psychology, and theology in particular.) Hilton's Scale was aimed at anyone seeking contemplation, not an "academic" work, to be shared with other theologians. He could not assume that the readers had a previous background in the subject, where the scholarly works up to that point presumed extensive knowledge.
Heresies were rampant in Walter’s era and land, and those who propagated them most vigorously tended to be rather a rough lot. The heretics, counting on their followers’ lack of knowledge of such matters, often used incorrect but convincing English translations of the Scriptures, and the general attitude was that English verses are a tricky business. Walter, the consummate lawyer, solved this problem with his usual neatness. He quoted the Scriptures in Latin, then provided his own English translations, which both remains "within the law" and shows, quite cleverly, that education and interpretation can be artfully incorporated.
Gift according to the manner of the recipient
One of the most delightful tactics of divine providence is God's using our natural tendencies and abilities in bringing us to love and service. Walter Hilton's work, staggering though it is, shows a wonderful blend of his own strengths. There is a constant balance between the skilful man of law and the warm, homely pastoral father. The precision and order of the former, which makes some of his references nearly humorous, is accompanied by constant insertion of references to prevent problems with application. Here are a few examples:
Some of Walter Hilton's traits will later be reflected in the Church of England at its best (…even if repentance seemed a formidable concern in the 1662 BCP … particularly in the fate mentioned in the first exhortation to the Eucharist…)
Truth is eternal, but emphasis can change depending on the circumstances of an historic period, in theology as in all else. To place this in focus, we can recall that the faith in man's basic goodness, and the optimism presented by writers of the Victorian era, would seem far too idealistic after two World Wars. Our dignity as creatures of God, and our potential for union with Him, will never change, but theologians treating of this in later years would need a far different approach than that which was popular amongst the upper classes in the late 19th century.
There can be no new gospel – and there are no really new heresies, either, though they may be given different names in different periods. Saints walk the eternal tightrope, insofar as pastoral work and preaching are concerned, between accepting that they are products of their time and standing in opposition to the norms of their era when the latter contradict the gospels. For teachers such as Walter, yet another element arises. Wonderful truths, presented by great saints, are to be shared with one's "pupils," but with allowance for how the accidental of the presentation can confuse the essence of the message.
In Western Christendom, it may be said that all roads eventually lead to Augustine, and many theologians of the 14th century were returning to the "Augustinian model," rather than that of the 13th century scholastics, Walter being a prime example.
Two schools of theological thought from the previous century, wonderful though some of their effects were, were becoming problematic in the 14th. The scientific approach of the scholastics, where reason of such magnitude that, of itself, it could bring us to know there was a God, was questioned.
The increasing numbers of educated laity presented new strengths and difficulties. Thomas Aquinas's excellent position that the "image of God" in reason/intellect could make pursuit of any discipline a road to contemplation assumes that the academic, like Aquinas, has the faith and love to wish contemplation in the first place.
Aquinas was writing in Christendom, and in a century which had unparalleled progress in theology and in religious concepts being incorporated into other disciplines. Augustine had been in quite another climate during the time when he needed to draft a response to those who believed the Goths had sacked Rome because the Christians had outlawed worship of the pagan gods. He was familiar, from his own experience, with how even those most blessed with intellect and reason could fall into error.
Augustine's belief that even the knowledge of God eludes us without the gift of faith, and that the greatest mind cannot overcome the weakness of original sin, was more popular. The educated laymen of the day would have been well versed in logic… the question, then and now, is how to incorporate this knowledge into one's personal Christian life. Walter Hilton wisely realised, and allowed for, that one must be quite creative in introducing solutions.
Though, in England, Franciscan scholars were presenting some of the best of sacramental and pastoral theology, friars of that Order had unwittingly caused a great deal of confusion in another land or the past century. The Franciscan Order had increased dramatically, and, with its members being wanderers rather than attached to a monastery, their often sharp, dynamic, entertaining, simple but vivid preaching was accessible to far wider an audience than that of the intellectual sorts (of which the Franciscan variety generally existed in bulk only in England.) Francis, far from intellectual and totally unaware of his holiness, had composed a deceptively simple Rule, and himself had been naďve and poor in judgement. If Aquinas overestimated the powers of reason, and stressed going from the cognitive to the affective, the purely affective Franciscan emphasis on truth as so lovely that we'd all be inclined to embrace it was the more problematic. Many of the worst of the heretics a century later were splinter Franciscan groups
Our lawyer Hilton would have known that there must be order, or the alternative is chaos. The contribution of those who purely accent the positive is of great value to the Church … provided there are others, equally valuable, who address the problems. Whatever failings the Church may have (and probably never more than in the 14th century), its sacramental life, role in divine revelation (which its members may fail in individually but somehow eventually manage to grasp as a whole!), etc., were key in the way which Walter presented. The Augustinian model, which is presented briefly later on this site, was as apt as it was centuries before … or would be centuries later. Part of its strength is that it was developed before the Church was a strong temporal power or judicial force.
Hilton incorporates elements that are particularly suited to the tumult of the period
Christian ascetic and mystic theology is founded on the belief that we all are called to holiness. Our Redemption, through Christ, is the ultimate expression of divine love, and indeed we rejoice in our salvation and long for union with God in heaven, but our current, common vocation to holiness is far beyond being "saved" from any fiery destiny. Regretfully, avoiding damnation rather than responding to a call to sanctification always clouded the Christian vision.
In Walter Hilton's day, while the fear of hellfire was used to terrorise the faithful into repentance (or to fill the Pardoner's pockets), the "saving grace" was that the Church's position (admitted at least by those pressed!) was that any contrition would assure salvation for the believer. Excesses of the Reformation would leave some Christian thought that centred entirely on a singular act of faith that saved the sinner, with little emphasis on classic approaches to growing in holiness, as if the second somehow denied that only Jesus is our salvation. By contrast, though the catholic idea of contrition remained as it had in Walter’s time, there would be much confusion when the common approach became one of stressing obedience to the Church more than seeing oneself as part of a Church called to holiness.
The idea that progress in the spiritual life (that is, advancement in love of God and neighbour) involved stages of development was classic, though it previously had been stressed mainly in relation to monastic life in application. The first part of Walter’s Scale of Perfection is addressed to one who is unlettered and living as an anchorite, at least ostensibly. (It is unclear whether it was specifically aimed at an individual, or whether his writing in that fashion was a technique for presentation.) Despite the austerity inherent in such a life, an anchoress often was visited by others in the village, both sharing and hearing opinions that did not necessarily conform to the principles of mystic theology. Walter’s homely advice against excess, imprudence in speech, and the like have the unexpected effect of giving us a quite clear picture of the reality of the life of your average anchorite!
The second part of his work apparently is addressed to an educated layman. In toto, the Ladder of Perfection presents details of the classic concepts which make them understandable and accessible to those in any state of life. It was by no means the laity alone to whom spiritual development may have been a new concept. The purgative stage could well have been far more extensive for members of the clergy …
Walter expounded (and expanded) on the concepts of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive states of prayer, with the constant awareness that the idea of a universal ascetic vocation needed to be balanced by the understanding that holiness is not a matter of achievement, but a loving response to divine grace. No doubt, his use of the imagery of the ladder required a constant balancing act on his own part, lest those exposed to the ideas spend more energy on deciding how "high up" they are (... and how much lower are others..) than on the love that exists on all rungs!
Walter Hilton is very frank about the temptations of various stages, particularly in that those who have climbed the ladder a bit are subjected to those so subtle that the impetus to pride, despair, and the like can masquerade as virtue.
The following examples show how Walter adapted this specifically to his "readership":
Prayer life influenced by "stage" (each building upon, not eliminating, that previous)
(Augustinian model. Also emphasised by Thomas Aquinas, who defines love as "willing the best" for the other - the other's salvation is implicit.)
As is common for the best of English mystics, Walter Hilton's writings were not popular after the Reformation, in any "camp." His stress on Church, the liturgy, and the sacraments would dissuade the Protestant. Certain of his essential points of moral and ascetic theology (such as the distinction between mortal and venial sin) would be very misunderstood concepts later, when one school of thought insisted "faith alone", and the other gave "grades" of sin a highly judicial approach, where one could easily think that forgiveness from God Himself was impossible. Though nothing in Walter’s writings contradicts Roman Catholic theology, his emphasis and explanations do not meet the interpretations of the Council of Trent, and typical commentaries on his work in later centuries (when they existed at all) would be akin to one miserable 19th century manuscript I consulted, the bulk of which was devoted to cautioning readers that the warm and comforting "warrant" Walter speaks of in relation to sacramental confession must not lead them from the obligation to confess all grave sins.
....There are times when it seems as if a frank, detailed, solid presentation of the call to holiness does not have a prayer....
As Walter looked back through the centuries to Augustine (and all Christians need to remember events of the first century!), we can recognise the honesty of the Middle Ages to help us on our own "ladder" to Christian love in the 21st century. The medićval awareness of God, and of our relationship with Him as a blissful bond for eternity, has special impact when we realise that eras such as Walter's were times of horrible suffering, war, disease, poverty, and corruption within the Church that led to its more often being a hindrance than aid to holiness. No holier that we are by nature, those in the Middle Ages nonetheless were sustained by their acceptance of mystery. However abused the concept was, only mystery - an awareness of our own limitations, concurrent with our awe at the Divine Power which is not a detached "Source" but a loving bond which overcomes our own weakness - can let us grasp the truth that there is much beyond us, and much potential we can achieve in the recognition.
The greatest hindrance to a sincere believer's grasping the truths presented by medićval authors is our smug assumption of our own superiority. Our need to foster the supposedly enlightened viewpoints of 21st century society leads us to forget that Christianity (in the true sense, not as membership in a group or a political entity!) has always been radically different from our natural (fallen?) nature. We deny reality lest we be accused of being "out of touch" with reality! Sin is "bad self-esteem" - virtue violates the rule of "self first" - service a neurotic expression of guilt or a way to dominate others - counsel "co-dependence". Accepting Christianity as truth, revealed by God, somehow insults non Christians, and evangelism is a lack of respect for other cultures or for personal conscience.
Walter Hilton, scholar though he was, was not an academic removed from those for whom his books were intended. His pastoral work was with those who'd seen the harsh reality of the stake, the Plague, the Peasants' Revolt, economic depression, and a Church that presented them with a model of excess and unjust use of power. His work was aimed at those interested in sanctification, but he could have had no illusions about the (small) numbers who would flock to such a call. Perhaps he found the passage which follows to be some sustenance:
Augustine — The Trinity 1, 8 (particularly appropriate to Walter Hilton's approach)
It is also necessary—may God grant it! — that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore, at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.
© 2000 by Elizabeth G. Melillo, PhD