Walter Hilton Gave Spiritual Advice

Dan Graves, MSL

Walter Hilton Gave Spiritual Advice

Walter Hilton was an innovator. He was the first man to write a book of mysticism in the English language. At that time, Latin was the language of the church--although Wycliffe and his Lollards had worked hard to circulate manuscripts of an English Bible.

Hilton urged holiness. Every Christian is called to overcome sin, he said. As he saw it, this would come through ascetic practice and contemplation of God. In The Ladder of Perfection, he wrote, "But you should ever seek with great diligence in prayer that you might gain a spiritual feeling or sight of God. And that is, that you may know the wisdom of God, His endless might, His great goodness in Himself and through His that you may know and feel with all saints what is the length of the endless being of God, the breadth of the wonderful charity and the goodness of God, the height of His almighty majesty and the bottomless depths of His wisdom. In knowing and spiritual feeling of these should be the exercise of a contemplative man. For in these may be understood the full knowing of all spiritual things."

His Ladder of Perfection sets out to describe the steps by which a soul attains the new Jerusalem. According to Hilton, the soul is formed in the image of God, first by faith, then in both faith and feeling. After passing through a dark night (in which humility and love stand it in good stead) the soul learns a longing "to love and see and feel Jesus and spiritual things." When true love comes, vice is destroyed and Jesus becomes the life of the soul. A man is now able to see Christ working in all things.

Curiously enough, this man who set himself up as a guide for others admitted that he had never experienced the familiarity with the Divine that he described in his writings. This has not kept mystics from embracing his system. It was a fairly common outline of spirituality in Medieval Europe.

Little is known about Hilton, although there is evidence that he trained as a canon lawyer and spent years as a hermit before joining the Augustinian friars around 1386. He was well educated as his many quotes show. He translated Latin works into English and quoted Latin scripture in his book, with his own English translations.

Walter Hilton died on this day, March 24, 1396. His books, printed about a hundred years later, influenced 15th and sixteenth century mysticism.


  1. Gardner, Edmund G. "Walter Hilton." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  2. Hilton, Walter. The Scale (or Ladder) of Perfection.
  3. "Hilton, Walter." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  4. Hinson, E. Glenn. Seekers after Mature Faith. Waco, Texas: Word, 1968.
  5. Miller, Gordon L. The Way of the English Mystics. Ridgefield, CT: Morehouse Publishing, 1996.
  6. "Walter Hilton and His Scale of Perfection."
Last updated May, 2007.
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