The Scale of Perfection, widely considered to be one of the great masterpieces of English medieval mystical writing, was authored by an Augustinian friar named Walter Hilton. Hilton lived at the same time as Julian of Norwich and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing; he was born probably in the 1340s and died in 1396 — compare that to Julian, who was born in 1342 and died sometime around 1412. He wrote a number of books and treatises, including The Goad of Love, The Mixed Life, and Eight Chapters on Perfection. But his most important book remains The Scale of Perfection (also published as The Stairway of Perfection or The Ladder of Perfection).
The title of the book isn’t important — it was likely added at a later date by a scribe or editor — and the book actually consists of two books, that appear to have been written at different times and possibly with different readers in mind, although the first book was written specifically for a woman recluse (hermit), and the second book claims to have been written in response to some further questions from that original reader. In this sense the book is similar to The Cloud of Unknowing — it is, in essence, a book of spiritual guidance or direction, written by an elder contemplative for a younger reader.
But unlike The Cloud, Hilton’s book seems to be much more basic and foundational in the material it covers and the directions it gives to its readers. For this reason, Evelyn Underhill had this to say:
The Scale of Perfection, although commonly described as a mystical classic, is really — like many of the works of the mystics — concerned as much with the moral and ascetic as it is with the contemplative life. It is not a storehouse of esoteric wisdom, but a way-book for the soul travelling in spirit to Jerusalem, “the which betokeneth contemplation in the perfect love of God”; and has more to tell us of the difficulties of the road than of the consummation at the journey’s end.
This book — like Mary Margaret Funk’s Thoughts Matter or St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life — is meant for beginners on the contemplative path. The Cloud of Unknowing is famous for a “warning” in the book’s prologue, that no one should read it unless they are fully committed to the contemplative life. In other words, it’s not for beginners. But The Scale of Perfection is. And that makes it simultaneously more useful than many other mystical books, but also more challenging.
A Book for Beginners (Like All of Us)
Elsewhere I have written about how the classical formulation of the Christian mystical life includes three “stages” or “phases” — Purification, Illumination, and Union. As beginners we embrace a path of purgation or purification, turning away from sin and self-absorption to ready ourselves for the cleaning action of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
A sustained commitment to the spiritual life invites us into the path of illumination, where we discover the light of Christ shining in our lives, beckoning us ever forward into the heart of God, while continuing to call us to ever-greater surrender and repentance. The mature life in the spirit reveals the union that is given to us in baptism, but that we often do not fully embrace or realize until we have truly become at home in silence, solitude, and self-forgetful love.
Look at the three great English mystics, all from the fourteenth century: Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing.
- Walter Hilton, with his emphasis on the reformation of life as the preliminary practice for a contemplative practice, is a companion for the path of purification.
- Julian of Norwich, whose visions of Divine Love are luminous and inspiring, is the natural companion for the path of illumination.
- The Cloud of Unknowing, with its radical program of nondual prayer and trust in God beyond all words and concepts, is the perfect companion for the unitive life.
So — wouldn’t it make sense for anyone serious about learning the contemplative life, to begin with Hilton? I should say so. Yet I must confess: I myself read Hilton far less than Julian or The Cloud. Not because Hilton is difficult to read: on the contrary, his writing is down to earth and accessible.
No, I’m afraid for many of us, Hilton is not a “preferred” mystic because his language is stern — lots of talk about seeing the self and all our works as “nothing” — and because, frankly, we post-moderns don’t like being told that we need to radically re-calibrate our lives in order to meaningfully embrace the contemplative path.
We have a tendency to want to skip all the talk about the hard work of spiritual discipline, and go straight to the “goodies” of visionary spirituality (like Julian) or radical transformation of consciousness (like The Cloud).
But that’s too bad. I firmly believe that we are always beginners in the spiritual life — so no matter how “advanced” or “mystical” your spiritual practice might be, a good old fashioned book on virtue, repentance, and reformation of one’s heart is always worth a read.
And that’s what you’ll get with The Scale of Perfection.
Integrity, Humility, and Other Contemplative Virtues
The book begins with a clarion call for spiritual integrity: that a person’s inner life should be like their outer life. In other words,
… wretched is the man or woman who abandons the inward guarding of the heart to concentrate on cultivating only the outward appearance of virtue — the form and image of holiness in habits or clothing, speech, or physical actions.
As I’ve heard more than one monk say, “The habit does not a monk make.” In other words, if we are serious about the spiritual life, we need a basic alignment between an inner commitment to virtue and an outer simplicity of life.
Hilton goes on from there to offer a survey of the different elements of a contemplative life, the necessity of discernment, the cultivation of virtue, the necessity of humility, the importance of intention… and only then does he get around to talking about the practice of prayer.
And as you might expect, he begins at the beginning: with vocal prayer.
Don’t get me wrong: I still maintain that anyone who is serious about contemplative spirituality needs to get to know the wisdom of Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing. Julian gives you a grounding in healthy theology, while The Cloud offers detailed instruction and advice in the prayer of silence.
But don’t forget about Walter Hilton. What he has to say may not be as exciting or inspiring — but his teaching is like learning how to play scales when you first are taking piano lessons. What it lacks in pizzazz it more than makes up for in solid grounding — a foundation that will serve you well for years to come.
To learn more about Walter Hilton — and his more-famous contemporaries, Julian of Norwich and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing — please check out Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages.