Most likely written to an anchoress, Walter Hilton offers instruction and guidance concerning the spiritual journey towards God in his Ladder (or Scale) of Perfection. This text, however, is prefaced by Clifton Wolters in the introduction; Wolters reflects on Ladder and Hilton specifically with a sense of objectivity mingled with admiration. Wolters, familiar with Hilton’s medieval writings, deposits the mystic’s guiding ideas into several larger topics: the mystic life and the age of Hilton’s “contemporaries,” the path of contemplation including its stages as well as its potential frustrations, and the joining of one’s spirituality with Christ.
Wolters begins his introduction with acknowledging the desire that all humans have to seek retreat, to seek union — and in some cases re-union — with God. The driving force of that desire for retreat varies among individual, and the form that retreat takes can vary as well. Some seek monasticism while others seek complete isolation as an anchoress or hermit. Wolters defines the difference between an anchorite and a hermit, yet both seek retirement from immediate community for the purpose of drawing closer to God. Wolters notes that Hilton, at one point in his life, lived a similar life of spiritual contemplation in communal isolation and can attest to its challenges.
Wolters moves in his introduction to reference other mystics of this age in the mid-1300s: Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Interestingly, these mystics were likely not in communication with one another and were not reading one another’s pieces, yet their works shaped the inward journey of spirituality and remain a significant foundation of the contemplative life even today. What was it about these writers, or the age in which they lived and wrote, that kept their letters and instructions from falling away into obscurity? Why them? What was it about this age that needed this intentional spiritual reflection in such a keen way? What were the people of this 14th century and soon after needing that they were not getting in their doctrine or dogma?
It was Hilton, according to Wolters, who was the foremost leader of spiritual reflection both historically as well as theologically. Because he was the “pioneer” of this style of direction, his works are some of the most prolific of this age. With Ladder Hilton wrote his instruction to his anchoress as a confirmation of her vocation as a contemplative. He shared with her the “ways” or “grades” of spiritual contemplation. These ways are neither easy nor consistent; therefore, Wolters notes that Hilton shared the nun’s frustration in that he too did not always find unity with Christ. He spoke to her as one who speaks to a diary, reflecting on what he should do and what God’s gift of communion would be, and yet, Hilton often failed in his attempts to maintain his own contemplative path.
Wolters concludes his introduction reflecting on Hilton’s desire to see the anchoress pursue “prayer and meditation” reinforced with “humility, orthodoxy, unswerving purpose, and the utmost energy.” The contemplative life is work, is struggle, is a breaking of oneself for the purpose of reforming into the image and likeness of Christ. Wolters reflects on this vocation from the view of Hilton’s Ladder, and through his introduction we see the immediate pain but eternal joy that can evolve from responding to the call of this vocation.
This piece was written as a reflection of Walter Hilton’s The Ladder or Perfection, the Penguin Classics edition.