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Augustinian mystic, d. 24 March, 1396. Little is known of his life, save that he was the head of a house of Augustinian Canons at Thurgarton, near Newark, in Nottinghamshire. He was closely in touch with the Carthusians, though not a member of that order. A man of great sanctity, his spiritual writings were widely influential during the fifteenth century in England. The most famous of these is the "Scala Perfectionis", or "Ladder of Perfection", in two books, first printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1494. This work may be described as a guide-book for the journey to the spiritual Jerusalem, which is "contemplation in perfect love of God". The soul is reformed to the image and likeness of God, first in faith only, and then in faith and in feeling. Speeded by humility and love, it passes through the mystical dark night, which "is nought else but a forbearing and a withdrawing of the throught and of the soul from earthly things by great desire and yearning for to love and see and feel Jesus and spiritual things". By the gift of love all the vices are destroyed, and the soul at length becomes a perfect lover of Jesus, "fully united to Him with softness of love". His presence is the life of the soul, even as the soul is the life of the body. Purified to know His secret voice, its spiritual eyes are opened to see His workings in all things and to behold His blessed nature. Hilton's mystical system is, in the main, a simplification of that of Richard of St. Victor, and, like Richard, he humbly disclaims any personal experience of the Divine familiarity which he describes, declaring that he has not the grace of contemplation himself "in feeling and in working, as I have it in talking". The book is distinguished by beauty of thought and simplicity of expression; it is illustrated by homely, but effective imagery, and in spite of its high spirituality it is full of practical guidance. "A soul", it concludes "that is pure, stirred up by grace to use this working, may see more of such spiritual matter in an hour than can be writ in a great book." It was translated into Latin, as "Speculum Contemplationis", or "Bacculum Contemplationis", by Thomas Fyslawe, a Carmelite.
Two other treatises by Hilton were printed in 1506 and 1521 by Pynson and Henry Pepwell, respectively: "To a Devout Man in Temporal Estate", and "The song of Angels". The former contains spiritual counsel for the guidance of a religious man of wealth and social position in the world, one of those to whom the mixed life, that is both active and contemplative, pertains; it shows how the external works that such a one has to perform may be made acceptable to God, and a means to inflame the desire to Him and to the sight of spiritual things. The latter is more purely mystical, dealing with the Divine visitations and spiritual consolations vouchsafed to a contemplative soul on earth that is in perfect charity and purified by the fire of love. A number of other works, attributed with more or less probability to Hilton, remain still unpublished. A curious tradition, dating from manuscripts of the fifteenth century, attributes to him a treatise both in Latin and in English, entitled "Musica Ecclesiastica", which is identical with the first three books of the "De Imitatione Christi". For this reason, the latter work, now almost universally assigned to Thomas à Kempis, has been frequently ascribed to Hilton. The probable explanation is that the "De Imitatione" reached England anonymously, and when translated into English was naturally attributed to the one mystical writer whose name was universally known throughout the land.
WYNKYN DE WORDE, The volume of Waltere Hylton namyd in Latin Scala Perfeccionis englisshed the Ladder of Perfection (London, 1494); The Scale or Ladder of Perfection written by Walter Hilton, ed. CRESSY (London, 1659), ed. GUY (London, 1869), ed. DALGAIRNS (London, 1870); HORSTMAN, Richard Rolle of Hampole anad His Followers (London, 1895); MARTIN, in Dict. of Nat. Biog., s.v.; DE MONTMORENCY, Thomas à Kempis, his Age and Book (London, 1906); INGE, Studies of English Mystics (London, 1906); GARDNER, The Cell of Self-Knowledge (London and New York, 1909). The last-named volume includes a reprint of the treatises published by PEPWELL; the Letter to a Devout Man accompanies all later editions of the Scala Perfectionis.
Edmund G. Gardner.