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Walter Hilton

June 23, 2015

WHWalter Hilton was born about 1340. He was a hermit, and he wrote to a devout layman of wealth and household responsibility, advising him not to give up his active life to become a contemplative, but to mix the two. He wrote about the value of the sacraments but not all the rules and “obligations” which later would be attached to them. His stressed that there is no love of God unless there also is love of neighbour (one cannot love the head of the Body and neglect the feet) He suggested that Christians progress from fear of punishment to fear of offending love. He said that heretics were often the deeper explorers into the mystery of God, which the church regarded as a threat because it did away with the need for priests to be the only arbiter of what was ‘right’.

He talked about the parable of the lost coin as symbolising our search for God so we are going to do a meditative exercise on that story.

A venial sin of your own is a greater obstacle to your experiencing the love of Jesus Christ than the sin of anyone else, however great it may be. It is clear, then, that you must harden your heart against yourself, humbling and detesting yourself more strongly for all the sins that hold you back from the vision of God than you detest the sins of others. For if your own heart is free from sin, the sins of others will not hurt you. Therefore, if you wish to find peace, both in this life and in heaven, follow the advice of one of the holy fathers, and say each day: “What am I?” and do not judge others. Book I, ch. 16 (p. 18)

WH2 The purpose of prayer is not to inform our Lord what you desire, for He knows all your needs. It is to render you able and ready to receive the grace which our Lord will freely give you. This grace cannot be experienced until you have been refined and purified by the fire of desire in devout prayer. For although prayer is not the cause for which our Lord gives grace, it is nevertheless the means by which grace, freely given, comes to the soul. Book I, ch. 24 (p. 28)

WH41340-1396 Some of Walter Hilton’s traits will later be reflected in the Church of England at its best (…even if repentance seemed a formidable concern in the 1662 BCP … particularly in the fate mentioned in the first exhortation to the Eucharist…)

  • Truth and integrity of doctrine are maintained, yet the emphasis is on a pastoral rather than judicial approach.
  • Primacy of the Scriptures is clear in Walter’s presentation. His work is rich in concepts of many theologians, but, in case the reader had any doubt, the scriptural references are always included.
  • Original sin, redemption, atonement, etc., are clearly referenced, but Walter avoids the scholastic emphases on the “how” of each that so pre-occupied the Council of Trent a few centuries later. (It would have astonished Thomas Aquinas, himself a great mystic and one with deep humility, that he would be depicted as the last word on everything during the Counter-Reformation, when the tumult of a divided western Church would lead those in authority to take an increasingly judicial approach.)
  • Awareness of both the wonderful accessibility and the potential confusion that resulted from use of the vernacular. (There still are practical difficulties which can result here. I defy anyone to read the 26th chapter of Acts from the King James Version aloud without admitting the possibility of unseemly hilarity.)
  • His incorporation of references to many schools of thought shows diversity at its best: truth need not be compromised because emphasis and presentation vary.
  • The academic Hilton uses many different theological sources – Augustine, Bernard, Aquinas, and Franciscans of the period, the Fathers. This was a refreshing blend in the last centuries when one could be eclectic – displaying the (very English) love for an inquiring mind, rather than the “faith excludes curiosity” attitudes of Trent

Hilton incorporates elements that are particularly suited to the tumult of the period

  • Presentation of solid ascetic theology (with references to various forms of emphasis and presentation) and incorporating these into one’s personal “climb”, not as an academic exercise, addresses the eternal difficulty of confusing secular education with a response to divine love.
  • The value of the “mixed life” of action and contemplation (which Augustine had noted as the “best route” – despite his own justifiable grumbling about the active life he hardly wanted!) was an apt concept. It applies not only to the laity (in a time when there were more in the professions, and more taxed by the economic crises and lack of labour force that resulted from the Plague). The “mixed life”, such as that of the Augustinians and the mendicant congregations, was a fairly new development, at least insofar as established Orders were concerned. (The Rule of Augustine pre-dates the establishment of the Canons Regular by nearly a millennium.)
  • Stressing particular areas specifically because they were those being opposed by heretical groups of the area, of which his “readers” would certainly have had some knowledge (if only through the gossip against which he gently cautions them).
  • Guarding against the tendency to think of asceticism as extreme mortification rather than the practise of virtue
  • Papal authority, law, and benefices all had increased as the outcome of refuting the heretical movements, and there was much legitimate opposition in England. Hilton is very skilful in presenting the authority Christ gave to his church in a prudent, limited, and most benevolent fashion.

WH3Prayer life influenced by “stage” (each building upon, not eliminating, that previous)

  • First stage – rational knowledge of the truth
    • Humanity of Christ is an essential emphasis in the “first stages”
    • Twelfth century models – the Passion, the Holy Name (calling upon the Saviour was acknowledging salvation) – were intensely popular during the high middle ages. Hilton affirms the value of devotion to Christ’s humanity, but cautions against excessive exuberance in devotion and attachment to its emotional accidents
    • Then as now, those attracted to quasi mysticism without understanding the entire “package” fell into confusion. Walter needed to address dangers which had arisen: seeking of feelings alone; assumption that private revelations were to be sought and revealed unquestionable truth; stories of the saints stressed revelations and miracles as if the mark of holiness were a sort of elite, infused knowledge confined to the individual. Sensible consolation is secondary to sanctifying grace and charity
    • Christ first comes to us in His humanity where we are able to receive him, but His humanity appeals to our humanity, which has a “fallen nature.” Sensible consolations need to be withdrawn so that we may have a spiritual knowledge of him
    • The approach to God in Christ must be formed by the mind of the Church
    • Importance of common, vocal prayer – particularly the Liturgy of the Hours
    • Awareness of personal sin leads to an awareness of and reverence for divine mercy and love
  • Illuminative – affective devotion
    • Freer, affective prayer – but still derived from the liturgy, especially the Psalter. New dimensions of liturgical prayer, not rising above the need for it nor for the Church.
    • Progression from love of God’s benefits to love of God for Himself
    • Aridity in prayer and violent temptations – accompanied by unity with God through infused virtues
    • Progress from wishing to avoid grave sin to striking at its roots, especially pride. Hilton notes that humility and charity are interlaced, are the only antidote to sin.
  • Very contemplation – unity of knowledge and love

Various points

  • All are called to contemplation – but contemplation is not necessary for salvation.
  • “Scale” does not imply that one reaches a point and cannot stumble – they coexist. (Certain popular heresies promoted the idea that individuals reached a point where they had the union with God we can only have in heaven; that new gospels could be written by those who’d achieved an advanced state; that we could become incapable of sin and weakness in this life; there was the eternal beckoning of gnosticism. The upsurge of interest in mysticism then caused more difficulties than it solved.)
  • Self-knowledge particularly crucial – the closer one comes to created nature, the greater the possibility of a huge tumble!
  • Stresses how our self-deception / pride can make us cast our sins in the role of virtues
  • Seeking unusual experiences (heretical movements of the time believed we reach a point of mystic perfection where we are incapable of sin and beyond the church and sacraments) often leads us entirely off the path
  • The excessive emphases on “ascetic” practises of another kind (flagellants, Spirituals, etc.) had such extreme effects as leading to violence and libertine ways, because their practitioners were convinced of their own unique insight and excellence

Hilton continually uses the term ‘prayer’ in his writings, and we need to amend this to ‘contemplation’ or an inward reaching out to the Divine which, perversely usually means going deep within!

“Seek that which is lost, God wishes to be found. Every one who seeks will find. The search may at times be arduous, but the finding is full of joy, dig deeply for it, you shall find it; you must dig deeply in your heart, you must cast out love and desire for Earthly things together with the sorrows and fears that go with them. In this way you will find true wisdom.”

This situation has its counterpart in the parable of the woman looking for a lost coin, the money representing having The Divine operating within one, elsewhere described as the “pearl of great price”. So in Luke 15; 8-9 we read in the Catholic ‘Jerusalem’ Bible: “What woman with ten drachmas would not, if she lost one, light a lamp and sweep out the house, and search thoroughly until she found it? And when she had found it, call her friends and neighbours, “Rejoice with me” she would say “I had found the drachma I had lost.”

 Bodily pride should only affect the men and women of this world; but spiritual pride is always there, waiting for us to succumb to it. Hilton says that this will turn us into hypocrites. An example of how even folk like Hilton can reproduce the arrogance of the Church, which condemned any deviation from their nonsense as this pride, applied to ‘heretics’ which he did. We all know how those who the church thought of as.

“It is no achievement to fast until your head aches and your body sickens; or to go to Rome and Jerusalem on your bare feet (on pilgrimages) or to rush about preaching as though you are expected to convert everybody. Nor is it an achievement to build churches, to feed the poor, to build hospitals. But it is a great achievement to Love, to hate the sin but to love the sinner .Although the above actions are good in themselves, they can be done by bad as well as good men alike for anyone can do them if they had the means. But to love your fellow man whilst hating the sin can only be done by the Grace of God and not through his own efforts”. By nature we take pride in any physical efforts we make to build this or do that, and we need God’s help to overcome the natural instinct to hate those who do wrong to ourselves and others. This

help is through the Great Spirit, our Love for it being in harmony with the Love that the Source has for us, This Divine Love comes to our aid to go against natural instincts: “The Love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us…. this gift of love is granted only to chosen souls.”

 The “food” of the world is as a poison. This is the propaganda we receive in schools, colleges and universities as well as governmental philosophies and Society pressures, often bent on loveless sex, drugs, alcoholism, and physical violence. We may not be all of these, and have just a small smearing of it in our lives, but Hilton advises; It is a shame to act in this way, so returnhome to yourself and remain there. Do not wander abroad begging for the food of swine…do not wander about like a beast from the flock any longer, or like a worldly person who has not the pleasure of anything except his bodily senses.” This returning home is but a returning to the Divine who evolved us, and our Spiritual journey is one that eventually ensures, perhaps eons later will be the terminus of this journey. However far we may get on this particular phase of the Journey to God, it will be a mere episodic scrap compared with the Infinite Depths we can go. So let us never be full of ourselves or feel superior, we have done but a microscopic step or two towards this Infinity. This mention of our feeding on the food of swine is a reference to the

prodigal son who left the home of his father (representing God) and went into the world of riotous living having asked for his share of the family fortunes in advance. He spent all his inheritance, almost starved, and was forced to eat the food of the pigs. This is a parable concerning our leaving the world of the Divine Source, and going into the world and its excesses. He decided to return home to his father and on doing so was not condemned but welcomed, and was given his place in the family back again. How true we find this in our own Spiritual lives! The subsequent return is made and we feel the Spirit within that brings us back to the “flock” and that peace within is ours once more.

Do your utmost to guard your heart, for out of it comes life.

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