Walter Hilton was an innovator. He was the first man to write a book of mysticism in the English language. At that time, Latin was the language of the church--although Wycliffe and his Lollards had worked hard to circulate manuscripts of an English Bible.
Hilton urged holiness. Every Christian is called to overcome sin, he said. As he saw it, this would come through ascetic practice and contemplation of God. His Ladder of Perfection sets out to describe the steps by which a soul attains the new Jerusalem. According to Hilton, the soul is formed in the image of God, first by faith, then in both faith and feeling. After passing through a dark night (in which humility and love stand it in good stead) the soul learns a longing "to love and see and feel Jesus and spiritual things." When true love comes, vice is destroyed and Jesus becomes the life of the soul. A man is now able to see Christ working in all things.
Curiously enough, this man who set himself up as a guide for others admitted that he had never experienced the familiarity with the Divine that he described in his writings. This has not kept mystics from embracing his system. It was a fairly common outline of spirituality in Medieval Europe.
Little is known about Hilton, although there is evidence that he trained as a canon lawyer and spent years as a hermit before joining the Augustinian friars around 1386. He was well educated as his many quotes show. He translated Latin works into English and quoted Latin scripture in his book, with his own English translations.
Walter Hilton died March 24, 1396. His books, printed about a hundred years later, influenced 15th and sixteenth century mysticism.
Works by Walter Hilton
Known as the first book of mysticism to be written in the English language, Hilton's Scale of Perfection describes the ascent of the human soul from sin to perfection. Hilton suggests that all humankind should reform from their sinful souls and embrace a life of ascetic practice, firm faith, and godly contemplation. The reforming of the soul takes time and is only possible through the grace of God. Scale of Perfection contains a series of meditations on the seven deadly sins to help Christians recognize the areas of sin in their lives. Hilton hopes that, upon recognition, Christians will reject their immoral ways and repent of them. The metaphor of a disciple journeying to Jerusalem is frequently used to represent the process of the soul reforming in faith. Upon reaching Jerusalem, the disciple is filled with an overwhelming sense of peace; likewise, a soul properly reformed will, at the end of its journey, reach spiritual peace in the contemplation of God's perfect love.
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"There be in the Holy Church two kinds of life, by which Christian souls do serve and please God, and procure their own salvation. The one is corporal, the other spiritual." So begins Walter Hilton's Treatise Written to a Devout Man. Hilton was an English mystic born in the middle of the fourteenth century whose works were highly influential in fifteenth century England. Nevertheless, they still counsel Christians today on how to live Godly lives. His Treatise defines the two kinds of life within the church. The corporal is the life of a young Christian who "deal[s] with worldly businesses and affairs." Christians must spend time in the corporal and work to "mortify" all unholy desires in order to graduate to the spiritual life, where they spend much time in fasting and prayer. Hilton goes on to give thoughts on the humanity of Christ, the virtue of the saints, and ends with three things helpful to every Christian reader: what to do when prayer meditation bring us no comfort, various warnings not to become too engrossed in our meditations, and advice to take faith little by little because no one becomes righteous in a day. Anyone who desires to strike a balance between worldly and spiritual life will find Hilton's direct and instructive prose a useful resource.
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