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03.12.10, Hilton, Scale of Perfection

03.12.10, Hilton, Scale of Perfection

The image of Western Europe in the fourteenth century has been properly etched in modern consciousness as a civilization trembling into disarray from the successive shocks to the contemporary ethos. Familiar cultural patterns, social traditions, and essential assumptions about truth and reality, were continuously disturbed throughout the century, and thereupon often transformed with the accretion of change. Certainly all civilizations experience challenges to established norms, and all civilizations respond to such challenges according to different strategies: by rejecting out of hand any changes that might emerge; by adopting certain aspects of some changes while decrying others; and, finally, by fully absorbing such transformations into the existing patterns and parameters of culture. Fourteenth-century Europe, however, witnessed a civilization in such broad disarray that it seemed perched on the very edge of final dissolution. The disquiet was a widespread social and spiritual disorder that reached into every village and city of Western Europe. Although the history of the period may be overly familiar, a few critical events bear repeating.

From 1337 until well past the turn of the fifteenth century, the Hundred Years War ravaged the nations of England and France, and caused not only carnage to peoples and places, but gradually corrupted as well the human spirit with despair and cynicism. Within a decade after the inception of the Hundred Years War, the Black Death began its gruesome stalking of Europe, and before it settled into its tentative dormancy by the 1360s, it had consumed nearly a third of the total population of Europe. Moreover, the plague had so savaged the populations of cities and villages that, in many places, a brutal lawlessness and general disregard for order reigned. Such dissolution of accustomed standards and the blatant rejection of traditional figures of authority had impetus from another catastrophic disturbance to the societal structures and religious parameters of the fourteenth century. The spiritual edifice that was Rome was crumbling before the stunned gaze of the faithful. Early in the century, the papacy had suffered the grievous humiliation of the "Babylonian Captivity" in the dislocation of the papal court to Avignon. Thereafter, in the latter quarter of the century (in fact, until 1417), western Christendom staggered under the onus of what would be known as "the Western Schism," the implausible horror of the Church enduring the presence of two popes: the lawfully (although, subsequently, for many of the cardinals, regrettably) elected Urban VI and, by 1378, the more compliant, yet finally moot, Clement VII of Avignon. The schism thrust many believers into a spiritual confusion and a hardened distrust of ecclesiastical process that eventually emerged as desperate complaints for reform, as well as open challenges to papal authority, and for some, to the very legitimacy of the papacy. A noxious chill of fear and bafflement crept through and among the peoples of Western Europe in the fourteenth century and addled despair to the soul of a civilization already besieged with too many disturbances.

In addition to the general discord of the time, England suffered as well from her own particular set of troubles. During the course of the fourteenth century, two anointed monarchs of Great Britain (Edward II, d. 1327, and Richard II, d. 1399) were deposed, imprisoned and murdered; moreover, throughout the century, there were significant episodes of political intrigue and competition, social unrest, and class hostility that troubled the governance of the realm. Smoldering resentment of the imperial rule, notably that of the Commons with the royal courtiers, resulted in louder voices of rebellion against and impeachment of the authority of the throne. Adding a bitter sting to English woes was the persistence of Scotland, under Robert the Bruce and later under his son David, in its bid for independence; throughout the century, Scotland continued to worry England, especially in the villages of her northern border. In 1381, sparked by the final insult of the levying of a poll tax on a population already fueled with angry discontent and unrest, the common people of England erupted into the Peasants' Revolt, propelling a stormy mob of frustrated commons towards London and towards the hapless young King Richard II. However, it was not only in the political arena that the general populace felt betrayal, disconnection, and frustration. Among the faithful in England, there had been a growing discontent with the power and wealth of the clergy and, in 1327, as the monarchy was overthrown, so also were both Bury St. Edmunds and St. Albans abbey the scenes of mob violence and attack. Yet dismay with the church reached far more deeply than the secularized affairs of the clerical hierarchy. A robust movement for ecclesiastical and theological reform took hold of English souls; indeed, the rise of John Wyclif and the Lollards, England's first 'real" heresy, can be considered a response to the troubling disorder and anarchy and confusion of the times. The fourteenth century in England then, as throughout Europe, was a time of turbulence, awakening, fearsomeness, fearfulness, and possibility. It was in this world in which Walter Hilton lived and wrote.

Walter Hilton, like his European contemporaries Johannes Tauler, Henry Suso, and Catherine of Siena, and his countryfolk Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, responded to the general social unrest and religious dissatisfaction by turning away from the public, ecclesiastical forms of Christianity, and toward the more affective tradition of Christianity, the interior path of the mystic that relies upon personal reflection and private contemplation for spiritual nourishment and enlightenment. While never divorcing themselves officially from the Church and from the essential doctrine of Church teachings--indeed, most remained steadfastly committed to the authority and primacy of Rome--the mystics of the fourteenth century opted for a spirituality as old as Christianity itself, yet roundly discounted by ecclesiastical authorities and influential schoolmen as bending too far from approved church structure and, therefore, from the necessary direction of the ordained clergy. Still, impassioned mystics like Rolle and spiritual directors like Walter Hilton encouraged the validity of personal devotion, and wrote treatises that posited the interior life of the individual believer as an authentic locus of salvation. They insisted that the pedantic intellectualism of the schools were insufficient to sustain the life of the spirit, and must be enriched by a program of humble penance, devout prayer, and loving contemplation of the person and the passion of the Christ. Only through an active participation of the spiritual faculty in Christ, they emphasized, can an individual achieve the full measure of a meaningful existence. Hilton himself wrote that:

Jhesu is tresoure hid in thi soule; thanne yif yow fynde myght Hym in thi soule, and thi soule in Him, I am siker for joie of it thou woldest gyve alle the likynges of alle ertheli thinges for to have it. Jhesu slepeth in thyn herte gosteli...Doo thou so stire Him bi praiere and waken Hym with criynge of desire,and he schal ryse sone and helpe thee. (I, 49, 1437-1442)

As the Hilton excerpt indicates, the use of the vernacular was fundamental to the intent of the spiritual guidance, for texts written in the contemporary language of the people would be available to a more broadly based and more diverse audience than if they had been written only in the traditional Latin. In fact, by the fourteenth century, it was quite likely that few prelates in England, except those in the highest clerical ranks, and even fewer lay people, with the obvious exception of illustrious scholastics, were thoroughly conversant in Latin. Therefore, in order to facilitate its access by both clerical and lay devotees, a book of spiritual direction such as the Scale would find its widest distribution if it were composed in the language of the people. A treatise that instructs the faithful how best to pray should, reasonably, be in the language in which the faithful will pray.

To their great credit, Thomas Bestul and the TEAMS committee have provided both students and scholars with an edition of Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection in its original Middle English, and the distinctions in tone, idiom, meaning, and affect between the many modern English "translations" and the authentic ME text are remarkable, to say the least. With the turn of each page, the text and its author, and the fourteenth-century panorama of faith and spiritual practice, come to life as never a modern reading would be able to capture. In addition, Bestul has wisely provided the modern reader with both a linguistic apparatus of modern English, on the bottom of each page, for those words and phrases that are the least accessible or intelligible to the modern idiom, as well as an abbreviated but quite welcome glossary of about 150 of the most frequently cited words. For those readers of Scale who are not scholars of Middle English dialects or medieval English literature, such as scholars of religious history or medieval spirituality, the availability of such critical details will prove invaluable in making use of the TEAMS text. Also for novices to the intricacies of fourteenth- century English Christianity, Bestul has appended to the fourteen page Introduction a five page "select" bibliography which affords the student fundamental sources and secondary references for further study of Hilton and his works. The bibliography is serviceable, but somewhat dated, and should not be considered (nor does it claim to be) an exhaustive review of Hiltonian studies; nevertheless, it offers the reader new to Hilton's Scale essential secondary references to Hilton, his works, and the context of medieval English mysticism.

Still, the author of Scale endures as a shadowy figure in the realm of medieval writers. Little can be actually verified about the life of Walter Hilton-- which is, as one suspects, as he preferred. It is generally accepted that by 1375 or so, he was a canon of the Augustinian Priory of Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire; it is also likely that, much prior to his residence at the Priory (where he continued to live until his death in 1395/96), he had been a student of theology at Cambridge. Less verifiable, but not at all unlikely, is the speculation by some scholars that Hilton himself had, at some point, led an eremitical life, a life not dissimilar from the one led by the anchoress whose need for spiritual counsel formed the pretext for the composition of Scale. While there is no proof of that possibility, the text itself does evidence an authentic ease with and clear- sighted understanding of the spiritual life of a solitary, as well as a keen regard for the psychological and physical complications that trouble the isolated pilgrim. Whatever the facts of his life, Hilton's Scale of Perfection is known to have been one of the most popular spiritual texts in late medieval England, as the number of extant manuscripts (about forty-five) demonstrate. It was translated into Latin by about 1400, and it was that Latin version that soon found its way to Europe, particularly among communities of (male and female) Benedictines and their more ascetic brothers, the Carthusians. In England, the original Middle English tract was copied and "amended" over successive centuries, with the result that no one manuscript can claim primacy. For the TEAMS volume, Dr. Bestul selected a fifteenth-century manuscript from Lambeth Palace, London, MS 472. This manuscript is, in fact, a collection of works by Hilton, including Eight Chapters on Perfection and Mixed Life, as well as Scale. Bestul notes (8) that the Lambeth manuscript he used is interesting for reasons apart from its contents. MS 472 exists, in fact, as an example of a fifteenth-century "common profit" volume, that is, a manuscript incorporating several spiritual writings and works of religious counsel that was commissioned by a lay person (in this case, one 'John Killum, grocer') hoping to enrich his/her life of faith, and the lives of those descendents to whom the original owner later bequeathed the manuscript.

The textual history of the Scale is complicated not merely by scribal emendation, or geographical and cultural variance. At some later date from the initial publication, Book One of the two-book Scale seems to have undergone a revision, an embellishment of the original text with a more personal Christology, with the result that at least two versions of Book One of the Scale are extant. Some scholars suggest that Hilton himself may have revisited his work, in his later and, possibly, wiser years, and altered the text himself; however, most scholarship rejects that claim and prefers to attribute the apparent changes in language and focus to the deliberations of zealous scribes. Nevertheless, it is indeed a testimony to the fluidity of the treatise, in consonance with the spiritual journey it delineates, that Hilton (purportedly) advised his readership that, "thise wordes that I write, take hem not to streiteli, but there as thee thenketh bi good avysement that I speke to schorteli...I prey thee mende it there nede is oonli" (Scale, I, 92). Hilton understood that the spiritual advice he was providing would probably not be effective simply as a fixed manual of instruction, but must be able to evolve continually as the context and culture demanded.

That Hilton's work today no longer enjoys the popular esteem in which it was held in its own time is due in no small part, it seems, to the proclivity of the modern age to be overly impressed with Richard Rolle's mystical passion or to be absorbed by Julian of Norwich's evocative examination of her vibrant "showings." Walter Hilton's style is one which bespeaks a teacher: deliberate and considered, almost placid in its order and rationale, and generous in its broad applicability, notably to the laity. Written ostensibly to a cloistered anchoress who sought from him guidance in her chosen devotion to the contemplative life, Hilton's Scale of Perfection opens with a tacit recognition of the universal application of its rationale: one must embark upon the interior journey of spiritual perfection because

...a wrecchid man or a woman is he or sche that leveth al the inward kepinge of hymself and schapith hym withoute oonli a fourme and likenes of hoolynesse, as in habite and in speche and in bodili werkes... wenynge hymsilf to be aught whanne he is right nought, and so bigileth hymsilf. Do thou not so, but turne thyne herte with thy body principali to God, and schape thee withinne to His likenesse bi mekenesse and charite and othere goostli vertues, and thanne art thou truli turned to Hym. (I,1)

Hilton asserts that it is incumbent upon every Christian to "turn" heart and body to God; each Christian, he insists, and not just those literally walled from society, enjoys the capacity of that turning (conversio) to God, which is the familiarly medieval paradigm of the ascent to the Divine. The activity of the ascent must be motivated toward the sure condition of authentic contemplation, which Hilton accords three parts aspects: the "knowing" of God and spiritual matters through study, instruction, and rational discussion of Scripture, cognition empty of true emotion, "unsavery and cold" (I, 4); the pure "affection" for God, most apparent among the devout who, though sincere, possess faith without "undirstondynge of gosteli thynges" (I, 5), and, thirdly, the contemplation of God that lies in both cognition and affection, "in knowyng and in perfight lovynge of God" (I, 8). However, such a contemplative state is, as Hilton says, like a "mark bifore the sight of thi soule" (I, 14), resting on a spiritual height that requires preparation for the soul for so lofty a climb. The individual must first work toward an inner transformation, a personal reformation of his/her condition of virtues, for, as Hilton laments:

(t)here is many man that hath vertues, as lowenesse, pacience,...and siche othere, onli in his resoun and wille and hath no goostli delite ne leve in hem...he doth hem by strenghte and stirynge of resoun for drede of God. This man hath vertues in resoun and in wille, but not the love of hem in affeccion... (I, 14)

Walter Hilton rightly distinguishes between the life of virtue based on reason and fear, which is, in fact, not true virtue at all and so would impede the journey to God, and the life of virtue based on affection and love, which is essential to aid the questing soul toward contemplation, and its final resting in God. The virtues to which he refers are common enough, although Hilton makes a particular point to emphasize meekness, spiritual patience, and purity of heart. Indeed, it is perhaps a cautionary reminder for the modern age that Hilton singles out "meekness," or humility, as the virtue upon which all others build, and the one to which all other tend.

This partie of mekenesse thee bihoveth for to have in thi bigynnynge, and bi this and bi grace schalt thou come to the fulhede of it and of alle othere vertues...(a)s mykil as thu hast of mekenesse, so mykil haste thou of charite, of pacience, and of othere vertues...(mekenesse) is the first and the laste of alle vertues...(d)oo thou nevere so many good dedis,...yif thu have no mekenesse it is nought that thou doost. (I,18)

One cleanses and thereby strengthens the soul through the authentic inculcation of loving virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, a continuous process that does include activities commonly associated, but not exclusively, with the cloistered life, particularly study of the sacred w(W)ord (Lectio), meditation (Meditatio), and prayer (Oratio). Hilton centers true spiritual growth on meditatio and oratio especially, the one a thorough appraisal of one's character, faith life, and capacity for change, and the other a formal recognition of being ultimately helpless in the spiritual journey without being "touchid and lightned of the goostli fier which is God", which "lightening" occurs most at the core of prayer.

Book One of Scale, then, delineates quite carefully the arduous ascent to God by extolling the purification of the soul in stages, and, thereupon, by assessing the spiritual activities of study, meditation, and prayer, that ready the soul for loving contemplation of God. Book II focuses with greater clarity and even urgency upon the human soul as image of God, and the need for reforming one's soul corrupted and lost in sin and debasement. In Book II, Hilton acknowledges with the conviction of experience that such spiritual reform cannot be achieved by humanity itself, but must rely upon the abiding presence of Jesus Christ to affect change: "...for I wot wel that oure Lord Jhesu bringeth al this to the ende...(f)or He dooth al; He formeth and he reformeth. He formeth oonli bi Hymsilf, but He reformeth us with us..." (II, 28). The soul restored to its original condition of light in all its simplicity and love is then able to contemplate by means of grace the Love that is God/Christ, and so abide perfectly in eternal peace and joy.

Dr. Bestul and the TEAMS committee have done well in editing for popular use this text of Walter Hilton's Scale of Perfection, and students as well as scholars of medieval spirituality, medieval history, medieval English literature, western spirituality, and English religious history, will discover in this volume an accessible edition of the unjustly neglected Scale, a forgotten gem among the jewels of mystical writings from the Middle Ages.