Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 11 July 2010

11 July 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence

Some Late Medieval Spiritual Classics (2): The Ladder of Perfection by Walter Hilton

This week I want to look at a longer book, written shortly after The Cloud of Unknowing: The Ladder of Perfection by Walter Hilton.  Hilton invites us all, nuns and monks, lay people and clergy, to experience in prayer what God longs to give us – which is above all the gift of his peace.

At the end of the Middle Ages, there was some wonderful Christian writing.  During the Sundays of July I am looking at five classics from that time to see what they have to teach us today.  Last week I spoke about The Cloud of Unknowing which emphasises how little we really know about God: what matters is not what we think we know about God but whether we truly love God: ‘By love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never’.

This week I want to look at a longer book, written shortly after The Cloud of Unknowing:The Ladder of Perfection by Walter Hilton.  Hilton was an Augustinian canon who lived in the priory of Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire and died on 24 March 1396, in the reign of Richard II.  He wrote his book to help an anchoress, a woman who had adopted a rule of life and lived alone in an enclosed cell, so she could devote herself to prayer.

Hilton imagines the anchoress saying, ‘I have forsaken the world, I am enclosed in a cell, I have no dealings with others.’ (p.67)  Nevertheless, people clearly did come to talk to her because he gives her advice about dealing with them.  He says,

Although you are an enclosed anchoress and unable to leave your cell to seek opportunities of helping your fellow-men by acts of mercy, you are still bound to love them all in your heart, and to show clear signs of this love to all who come to you.  So when someone wishes to speak to you, whoever it may be, and you have no idea who and what he is, or why he comes, always be ready and willing to find out what he wants.  Do not be aloof or keep him waiting for a long time.  … And although you may be at prayer and reluctant to abandon it, thinking it is not proper to leave God in order to speak to a [human being], I do not think you would be right in this instance, for if you are wise, you will not leave God by so doing.  You will find [God], possess Him and see Him as fully in your fellow-[human] as in prayer, but it will be in a different way.’ (pp. 100-1)
What delightfully practical advice – Walter Hilton clearly had a very human touch.

Hilton is concerned to encourage us to build on what we know about God.  He believes we can be confident in the teaching of the Church and we should trust to that completely.  He offers clear advice as we learn the path of prayer.  He recognises that what he says is not for everybody.  There are those who are called to the active life, serving God by what they do in the world, and there are those who are called to the contemplative life, like the nun to whom he is writing.  He is writing to someone who has made contemplative prayer the central priority in her life – but there are things here for all of us to learn. 

Hilton talks of three degrees of contemplation.  The first, he says, consists in ‘knowledge of God and of spiritual matters’.  This is reached by the use of reason, learning about the teaching of the Christian tradition, and studying the Bible. He says that all of this is good, but it is only ‘a figure and shadow of true contemplation’, because it does not bring with it any ‘spiritual experience or inward savour of God, for these are graces granted only to those who have great love for Him’ (p.3-4).  Hilton is much less suspicious of knowledge about God than the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, but he is in agreement that intellectual knowledge about God does not necessarily lead to experience of God, and real contemplation is a way of experiencing God.

So, Hilton speaks of a second degree of contemplation.  This, he says, ‘consists principally in loving God, and does not depend upon intellectual light in spiritual matters’ (p. 5).  At this level, the Christian may have experience, perhaps of love for God, of trust in his goodness and mercy, or delight in his presence.  Through this experience the Christian will probably learn nothing new intellectually, but so profound is the experience that the person who has it ‘does not care what becomes of him (or her), provided that God’s will be done’.  Hilton is clearly speaking about what has happened to him.  He talks of a lower and a higher stage: at the higher stage, the Christian desires ‘nothing more than to live quietly in constant prayer to God, and in meditation on our Lord.’   Hilton speaks about the joy at this stage of using prayers like the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and also the name of Jesus.  At this stage the person very much wants to go on to the third degree of contemplation. 

The third degree of contemplation, he says, is the ‘highest attainable in this life’.  It consists of both knowledge and love; that is in knowing God and loving Him perfectly.  The soul is restored to the likeness of Jesus and endowed with grace, leaving behind earthly and bodily affections.  ‘The grace of God’, he says, ‘then illuminates the mind to see all truth – that is God – and spiritual things in Him with a soft, sweet burning love’ (p. 7).   This is a foretaste of heaven – a glimpse of Jerusalem, city of peace - which cannot last in this life.  It can only be given in its fullness to the contemplative, not the person living the active life. 

All of this is eminently sensible and low-key.  Hilton goes on to explain that visions or revelations, whether seen in sleep or in imagination, do not constitute true contemplation (p.10).  Spiritual experiences may or may not be given to the Christian who sets out to learn how to pray, and there comes a stage in Christian growth where they no longer matter any more.  One of the best known writers in Hilton’s time was Richard Rolle, who spoke about the ‘fire of love’ which the contemplative experiences.  Hilton sounds a warning, arguing that this divine fire is not a physical or bodily sensation. There may indeed be those who, like John Wesley many years later, feel their heart ‘strangely warmed’, but we should not actively seek this or that particular bodily experience in prayer.

Just as Hilton sets out three degrees of contemplation, he sets out three stages of prayer, but they don’t follow the degrees of contemplation precisely.  The first stage of prayer is the simple use of set prayers like the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary.  We can all join in with the prayers used by the church, as we do when we attend Morning Prayer.  The second stage of prayer comes when we learn to speak to God ourselves, talking to him simply to express what is in our heart.  The third stage, he says, is ‘in the heart alone’.  It is accompanied by ‘great peace and tranquillity of body and soul’.  This tranquillity is the gift of God.  At this stage, the heart is continuously at prayer.  This is the level to which he hopes the anchoress will aspire.  T.S. Eliot, who knew the fourteenth century mystics well, wrote about it when he spoke of

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything).

Hilton expects that the person to whom he writes will attain this condition.  After all, she has made contemplation the central priority in her life.  He doesn’t expect her, or us, to have any particular spiritual experiences as we climb the ladder of perfection, though we may.  He does expect that the Christian who learns to pray will have an inner peace which is truly the gift of God.  And lest we should lose heart and think that this peace is only for dedicated Christians, like monks and nuns, he makes it clear that in a busy life active Christians can also experience something of this inner peace and joy, resting in God’s love for us, despite the pressures of daily life.  Hilton invites us all, nuns and monks, lay people and clergy, to experience in prayer what God longs to give us, and what God longs to give us, as we learn something of the contemplative way, is above all the gift of his peace.

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