|THE SCALE OR LADDER OF PERFECTION
PART I -- CHAPTER I
That the inward State of the Soul should be like the outward
GHOSTLY Sister in Christ Jesus, I pray thee that in the calling to which our Lord hath called thee for His service, thou rest contented, and abide constantly therein, travailing busily with all the powers of thy soul to fulfil in truth of good life (by the grace of Jesus Christ) the state which thou hast taken in exterior likeness and seeming; and as thou hast forsaken the world, as it were a dead man, and turned to our Lord bodily in sight of men, so thou be in thy heart as it were dead to all earthly loves and fears, and turned wholly to our Lord Jesus Christ; for be thou well assured that a bodily turning to God without the heart following is but a figure and likeness of virtues, and not the truth in itself. Wherefore wretched men and women are they who, neglecting the care of their interior, show only exteriorly a form and likeness of holiness, in habit or clothing, in speech and outward carriage and works, casting their eyes upon other men's deeds, and judging their defects, esteeming themselves to be something, when indeed they are just nothing, and so deceive themselves. Do not thou so; but together with thy body turn principally thy heart to God, and frame thy interior to His likeness, by humility and charity and other spiritual virtues, and then art thou truly turned to Him. I say not that thou mayest early on the first day be turned to Him in thy soul in perfection of virtues as thou mayest with thy body be enclosed in a house; but my meaning is, that thou shouldst know that the end of thy bodily enclosure is that thou mightest thereby the better come to a spiritual enclosure; and even as thy body is enclosed from bodily converse with men, even so thine heart might be enclosed from the inordinate loves and fears of all earthly things. And that thou mayest the better come thereto, I shall in this little treatise yield thee the best instructions and helps that I know or can.
Of the Active Life, and the Exercises and the Works thereof
THOU must understand that there are in the holy Church two manner of lives (as saith St Gregory) in which a Christian is to be saved. The one is called Active, the other Contemplative; without living one of these two lives no man may be saved. The Active consisteth in love and charity exercised exteriorly by good corporal works, in fulfilling of God's commandments and of the seven works of mercy, corporal and spiritual, towards our Christian brethren. This life pertains to all worldly men that have riches and plenty of worldly goods to dispose of, and to all those (be they learned or unlearned, lay men or spiritual persons) that are in office or state to govern, or have care of others; and generally all worldly men are bound to the practice of this kind of life according to their best knowledge and ability, and as reason and discretion shall require. If he much good have, then much good for to do; if he little have, less may he do; and if he naught have, then must he have a good will. Such works as these (be they corporal or spiritual) are works of the Active life. Also a great part of it consists in great bodily deeds which a man exerciseth upon himself, as great fasting, much watching, and other sharp penance, to chastise the flesh with discretion for sins formerly committed. As also to mortify thereby the lusts and likings of the flesh, and to make it pliable and obedient to the will of the spirit. These works though they be but Active, yet they help very much, and dispose a man in the beginning to attain afterwards to contemplation, if they be used with discretion.
Of the Contemplative Life, and the Exercises and Works thereof
CONTEMPLATIVE life consisteth in perfect love and charity, felt inwardly by spiritual virtues; and in a true and certain sight and knowledge of God and spiritual matters. This life belongs to them especially who for the love of God forsake all worldly riches, honours, worships and outward businesses, and wholly give themselves soul and body (according to all the knowledge and ability that is in them) to the service of God, by exercises of the soul.
Now then, since it is so (dear sister) that the quality of thy state requireth of thee to be contemplative (for that is the intent of thy enclosing, that thou mightest more freely and entirely apply thyself to spiritual exercises), it behoveth thee to be right busy both night and day in labour of body and spirit, to attain as nigh as thou canst to that life by such means as thou mayest find to be best for the said end. But before I tell thee of the means, I shall tell thee a little more of this contemplative life, that thou mayest somewhat see what it is, and so set it as a mark in the sight of thy soul, whereto thou shalt tend, and direct all thy exercises and doings.
Of three Sorts that be of Contemplation and of the First of them
CONTEMPLATIVE life hath three parts. The first consisteth in knowing God, and of spiritual things gotten by reason and discourse, by teaching of men, and by study in holy Scripture, without spiritual gust, or affection, or inward relish felt by them; for they have it not by the special gift of the Holy Ghost, as persons truly spiritual have their knowledge, which, therefore, is very tasteful to them in their interior.
This part have especially in them learned men and great scholars, who, through long study and travail in holy Writ, attain to this knowledge more or less by the abilities of their natural wit, which God giveth to every one, more or less, that hath use of reason.
This knowledge is good, and may be called a kind or part of Contemplation, inasmuch as it is a sight of verity and a knowledge of spiritual things. Nevertheless it is but a figure and shadow of true Contemplation, since it hath no spiritual gust or taste in God, nor inward sweetness, which none feels but he that is in great love of charity; for it is the proper Well or Spring of our Lord, to which no alien is admitted. But the aforesaid manner of knowing is common both to good and bad, seeing it may be had without charity, and therefore it is not very contemplation. Of this kind of knowledge St Paul speaketh thus: If I knew all mysteries and all knowledge, and have not charity, I am nothing.42
Nevertheless, if they that have it keep themselves in humility and charity, and according to their might fly worldly and fleshly sins, it is to them a good way, and a great disposing to true Contemplation if they desire and pray devoutly after the grace of the Holy Ghost. Other men have this knowledge, and turn it to pride and vain-glory, or unto covetousness and desire of worldly dignities, worships and riches, not humbly using it to the glory of God, nor charitably to the soul's good of their brethren. Some of them fall either into heresies and errors, or into other open sins, by which they discredit themselves and the holy Church. Of this knowledge St Paul speaks in these words: knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifies.43 This I knowledge alone lifteth up the heart to pride; but mix it with charity, and then it turns to edification.
How learned men may become pious.
This knowledge alone is but water, unsavoury and cold. And, therefore, if they that have it would humbly offer it up to our Lord, and pray for His grace, He would by His blessing turn their water into wine, as He did at the prayer of His Mother at the marriage feast; that is to say, He would turn their unsavoury knowledge into true wisdom, and their cold naked reason into spiritual light and burning love, by the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Of the Second Sort of Contemplation
THE second part of Contemplation lieth principally in affection, without spiritual light in the understanding or sight of spiritual things; and this is commonly of simple and unlearned men who give themselves wholly to devotion, and is had and felt in this manner: When man or woman being in meditation of God, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, feeleth fervour of love and spiritual sweetness, by occasion of thinking of Christ's passion, or of some of the works done by Him in His humanity; or he feeleth cause of great trust in the goodness and mercy of God for the forgiveness of his sins, or admires the liberality of His gifts of grace, or else feeleth in his affection a certain reverential fear towards God, and His secret judgements and justice, which yet he seeth not; or being in prayer, he findeth all the powers of his soul to be gathered together, and the thought and love of his heart to be drawn up from all transitory things, aspiring and tending upwards towards God by a fervent desire, and spiritual delight, and yet, nevertheless, during that time he hath no plain sight in the understanding of spiritual things, nor in particular of any of the mysteries or senses of the holy Scriptures; but only that for that time nothing seemeth so pleasing and delightful to him as to pray, or think as he then doth for the savoury delight and comfort that he findeth therein, and yet cannot he tell what it is, but he feeleth it well, for it is a gift of God, for out of it spring many sweet tears, burning desires, and still mournings, or contrition for sin, which scour and cleanse the heart from all filth of sin, and causeth it to melt into a wonderful sweetness in Jesus Christ, and to become obedient and ready to fulfil all God's will, insomuch that it seems to him he makes no reckoning what becomes of himself, so that God's will were fulfilled in him, and by him, with many other such good inspirations and desires which cannot be reckoned. Such feelings as these cannot be had without great grace, and whoso hath any of them or other such like, he is at that time in charity and the grace of God; which charity let him know to his comfort, will not be lost or lessened in him (though the fervour thereof may abate) but by a deadly sin. And this may be called the second part of Contemplation, nevertheless, this part hath two degrees.
Of the Lower Degree of the Second Sort of Contemplation
THE lower degree of this feeling, men which are active may have by grace, when they are visited by our Lord, as mightily and as fervently as they that give themselves wholly to Contemplation and have this gift. But this feeling in his fervour cometh not alway when a man would, nor lasteth it full long. It cometh and goeth as He will that giveth it; and therefore whoso hath it, let him be humble, and thank God and keep it secret, unless it be to his confessor, and let him hold it as long as he may with discretion; and when it is withdrawn, let him not be daunted or troubled, but abide constant in the light of faith, an humble hope, with patient expecting till it come again. This is a little tasting of the sweetness of the love of God, whereof David saith thus in the Psalms: Gustate et videte quoniam suavis est Dominus -- Taste and see how sweet our Lord is.44
Of the Higher Degree of the Second Sort of Contemplation
THE higher degree of this part may not be had nor held but of them which be in great rest and quiet both of body and mind, who by the grace of Jesus, and long travail corporal and spiritual, are arrived to a rest and quietness of heart and clearness of conscience. So that nothing is so pleasing to them as to sit still in quiet of body and to pray always to God, and to think on our Lord, and sometimes on the blessed name of Jesus, which is comfortable and delightful to them, by the remembering whereof they feel themselves moved and fed in their affection towards God. And not only the said name, but also all other kind of prayers (as the Pater Noster, the Ave, the Hymns and Psalms, and other devout prayers and sayings of holy Church) are turned, as it were, into a spiritual mirth and sweet songs, by which they are comforted and strengthened against all sins, and much relieved in their bodily pains or diseases. Of this degree speaketh St Paul thus: Be not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Holy Ghost, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody an your hearts to our Lord.45 Whoso hath this grace, let him keep himself in humility and be ever desiring to come to more knowledge and feeling of God, which is to be had in the third sort of Contemplation.
Of the Third Sort of Contemplation
THE third sort, which is as perfect Contemplation as can be had in this life, consisteth both in knowing and affecting; that is, in knowing and perfect loving of God, which is when a man's soul is first reformed by perfection of virtues to the image of Jesus, and afterwards, when it pleaseth God to visit him, he is taken in from all earthly and fleshly affections, from vain thoughts and imaginings of all bodily creatures, and, as it were, much ravished and taken up from his bodily senses, and then by the grace of the Holy Ghost is enlightened, to see by his understanding Truth itself (which is God) and spiritual things, with a soft, sweet, burning love in God, so perfectly that he becometh ravished with His love, and so the soul for the time is become one with God, and conformed to the image of the Trinity.
The beginning of this Contemplation may be felt in this life, but the full perfection of it is reserved unto the bliss in heaven. Of this union and conforming to our Lord speaks St Paul thus: Qui adhaeret Deo unus spiritus est cum eo;46 that is to say, he who by ravishing of love is become united to God, God and that soul are not now two, but both one. And surely in this oneing consisteth the marriage which passeth betwixt God and the soul, that shall never be dissolved or broken.
Of the Difference that is betwixt the Second and Third Sort of Contemplation
THE foresaid second sort of Contemplation may be termed a burning love in Devotion, and is the lower; this third a burning love in Contemplation, and is the higher. That is sweeter to the bodily feeling, this to the spiritual feeling inwardly, and is more worthy, more spiritual, more wonderful. For, indeed, it is a foretaste (so little as it is) and an earnest or handsell47 of the sight or Contemplation of heavenly joy, not clearly, but half in darkness, which shall be perfected and made a clear light and sight in the bliss of heaven; as St Paul saith: Now we see as through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.48 This is the enlightening of the understanding in delights of loving, whereof David saith in the Psalter: Et nox illuminatio mea in deliciis meis -- My night is my light in my delight.49 The other is milk for children, but this solid meat for perfect men, that have their senses exercised (as St Paul saith) for the discerning of good from evil.
To the perfection of this high Contemplation may no man come till he be first reformed in soul to the likeness of Jesus in the perfection of virtues: nor can any man living in mortal body have it continually and habitually in the height of it, but by times when he is visited. And as I conceive by the writing of holy men, it is a full short time, for soon after he returneth to a sobriety of bodily feeling; and of all this work charity is the cause. Thus, as I understand St Paul speaks of himself: For whether we be beside ourselves, it is to God, or whether we be sober, it is for your cause; it is the love of Christ that constraineth us;50 that is, whether we overpass our bodily senses in Contemplation, or we are more sober to you in our bodily feeling, the love of Christ straineth us. Of this part of Contemplation and of reforming to God speaketh St Paul openly, thus: But we all with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of our Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the spirit of the Lord.51 Which is as much as if in the person of himself and all perfect men he had said thus: We, first being reformed in virtues, and having the face of our soul uncovered by opening of our spiritual eye, behold as in a mirror the heavenly joy, being withal fulshaped and oned to the image of our Lord, from clearness of faith into clearness of understanding, or else from clearness of desire into that of blessed love; and all this is wrought in a man's soul by the spirit of our Lord, as saith St Paul.
This part of Contemplation God giveth where He will, to learned and unlearned, to men and to women, to them that are in government, and to solitary also. But it is special, and not common. And although a man who all his lifetime is active happen to have the gift of it through special grace or favour, yet the fulness of it may no man have, but he that is solitary and in life contemplative.
How that Appearings or Shewings to the Corporal Senses or Feelings may be both good and evil
BY this that I have said may you somewhat understand that visions, or revelations, or any manner of spirit in bodily appearing, or in imagining, sleeping or waking, or also any other feeling in the bodily sense, made as it were spiritually, either by sounding in the ear, or savouring in the mouth, or smelling at the nose, or else any sensible heat, as it were fire glowing and warming the breast, or any other part of the body, or any other thing that may be felt by bodily sense, though it be never so comfortable and liking, yet be they not very Contemplation, but simple and secondary (though they be good) in respect of spiritual virtues, and of this spiritual knowing and loving of God accompanying true Contemplation. But all such manner of feeling may be good, wrought by a good angel, and they may be deceivable, wrought by a wicked angel, when he transfigureth himself into an angel of light. Wherefore sith52 they may be both good and evil, it appeareth they are not the best. For, mark ye well, that the devil may, when he hath leave, counterfeit in bodily feeling the likeness of the same things the which a good angel may work; for just as a good angel cometh with light, so can the devil. And as he can do this in matters of seeing, so can he do it in matters of the other senses. Whoso hath felt both, he can well tell which were good and which were evil. But he that never felt either, or else but one of them, may easily be deceived.
These two be alike in the manner of feeling outwardly, but they are full different within, and therefore they are not to be desired greatly, nor to be entertained lightly, unless a soul can by the spirit of discretion know the good from the evil, that he be not beguiled, as St John saith: Trust not every spirit, but essay first whether it be of God or no.53 Wherefore by one trial that I shall tell thee, methinketh thou shalt know the good from the evil.
How thou shalt know whether the Showing or Apparition to the bodily Senses and Feelings be good or evil
IF it be so that thou see any manner of light or brightness with thy bodily eye or in imagination, other than every man seeth; or if thou hear any pleasant, wonderful sounding with thy ear, or in thy mouth any sweet sudden savour, other than what thou knowest to be natural, or any heat in thy breast like fire, or any manner of delight in any part of thy body, or if a spirit appear bodily to thee, as it were an angel to comfort thee or teach thee; or if any such feeling, which thou knowest well that it cometh not of thyself, nor from any bodily creature, beware in that time, or soon after, and wisely consider the stirrings of thy heart; for if by occasion of the pleasure and liking thou takest in the said feeling or vision, thou feelest thy heart drawn from the minding and beholding of Jesus Christ, and from spiritual exercises, as from prayer, and thinking of thyself and thy defects, or from the inward desire of virtues, and of spiritual knowing and feeling of God, for to set the sight of thy heart and thy affection, thy delight and thy rest, principally on the said feelings or visions, supposing that to be a part of heavenly joy or angels' bliss, and thereupon comest to think that thou shouldst neither pray nor think of anything else, but wholly attend thereto, for to keep it and delight thyself therein: then is this feeling very suspicious to come from the enemy; and therefore, though it be never so liking and wonderful, refuse it and assent not thereto, for this is a sleight of the enemy. When he seeth a soul that would entirely give itself to spiritual exercises, he is wonderfully wroth; for he hateth nothing more than to see a soul in this body of sin to feel verily the savour of spiritual knowledge and the love of God, which he himself, without the body of sin, lost wilfully. And therefore, if he cannot hinder him by open sinning, he will let and beguile him by such vanity of bodily savours or sweetness in the senses, to bring a soul into spiritual pride and into a false security of himself, weening that he had thereby a feeling of heavenly joy, and that he is half in paradise, by reason of the delight he feeleth about him, when indeed he is near to hell gates; and so by pride and presumption he might fall into errors or heresies, or phantasies, or other bodily or spiritual mischiefs.
But if it be so that this manner of feeling let not thy heart from spiritual exercises, but maketh thee more devout, and more fervent to pray, more wise to think ghostly thoughts, and though it be so that it astonish thee in the beginning, nevertheless afterward it turneth and quickeneth thy heart to more desire of virtues, and increaseth thy love more to God and to thy neighbour, also it maketh thee more humble in thy own eyes -- by these tokens mayest thou know that it is of God, wrought by the presence and working of a good angel, and cometh from the goodness of God, either for the comfort of simple devout souls, for to increase their trust and desire towards God, to seek thereby the knowing and loving of God more perfectly by means of such comforts. Or else if they be perfect that feel such delight, it seemeth to them to be an earnest and as it were a shadow of the glorifying of the body, which it shall have in the bliss of heaven; but I wot54 not whether there be any such man living on earth. This privilege had Mary Magdalen (as it seemeth to me) in the time when she was alone in the cave thirty years, and every day was borne up with angels, and was fed both body and soul by their presence, as we read in her story.
Of this way of discerning the working of spirits speaketh St John in his Epistle, thus: Omnis spiritus qui solvit Jesum, hic non est ex Deo -- Every spirit that loosed or unknitteth Jesus, he is not of God.55 These words, I confess, may be understood in many manners, nevertheless, one way I may understand them to this purpose, as I have said. This knitting and fastening of Jesus to a man's soul is wrought by a good will and a great desire to Him, only to have Him and see Him in His bliss spiritually. The greater this desire is, the faster is Jesus knit to the soul; and the less this desire is, the looser is He knit; whatsoever spirit, therefore, or feeling it is which lesseneth this desire and would draw it down from the stedfast minding of Jesus Christ and from the kindly breathing or aspiring up to Him, this spirit will unknit Jesus from the soul, and therefore is not of God, but is the working of the enemy. But if a spirit, or a feeling, or a revelation make this desire more, knitting the knots of love and devotion faster to Jesus, opening the eye of the soul into spiritual knowing more clearly, and maketh it more humble in itself, this spirit is of God.
And hereby you may learn that you are not to suffer your heart willingly to rest nor to delight wholly in any such bodily feelings of such manner of comforts or sweetness, though they were good; but rather hold them in your sight naught, or little in comparison of spiritual desire and stedfast thinking on Jesus; nor shall you fasten the thought of your heart over much on them.
How and in what things a Contemplative Man should be busied
BUT thou shalt ever seek with great diligence in prayer that thou mayest come to a spiritual feeling or sight of God. And that is, that thou mayest know the wisdom of God, the endless might of Him, His great goodness in Himself and in His creatures; for this is Contemplation, and that other mentioned is none, thus saith St Paul: Being rooted and grounded in charity, we may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth.56 That ye may know, he saith not, by sound of the ear nor sweet savour in the mouth, nor by any such bodily thing, but that ye 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 ghostly things. This exercise is that one thing which St Paul coveted after, saying thus: This one thing I covet, which is that, forgetting those that are behind, and reaching forth to those things that are before, I press to the mark of the supernal vocation.57 Which is as much as if he had said, One thing is best for me to covet, and that is, that I might forget all things that be behind or backward, and I shall stretch out my heart ever forward for to feel and to grip the sovereign reward of endless bliss. Behind are all bodily things, forward or before are all spiritual things. And so St Paul would forget all bodily things, and even his own body also, that so he might see spiritual things.
How Virtue beginneth in Reason and Will and is perfected in Love and Liking, or Affection
THUS have I told thee a little of Contemplation what it is, to the intent that thou mightest know it and set it as a mark before the sight of thy soul, and to desire all thy lifetime to come to any part of it by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the conforming of a soul to God, which cannot be had unless it first be reformed by some perfection of virtues turned into affection; which is when a man loveth virtues because they be good in themselves. Many a man hath the virtues of humility, patience and charity to his neighbour, and such other only in his reason and will, and hath no spiritual delight nor love in them, for ofttimes he feeleth grudging heaviness and bitterness for to do them, and yet nevertheless he doth them, but 'tis only by stirring of reason for dread of God. This man hath these virtues in reason and will, but not the love of them in affection. But when by the grace of Jesus and by ghostly and bodily exercise reason is turned into light and will into love, then hath he virtues in affection; for he hath so well gnawn on the bitter bark or shell of the nut that at length he hath broken it and now feeds on the kernel; that is to say, the virtues which were first heavy for to practise are now turned into a very delight and savour, so that he takes as much pleasure in humility, patience, cleanness, sobriety and charity as in any other delights. Verily till these virtues be turned thus into affection he may well have the second part of Contemplation, but the third, in sooth, shall he not have.
Of the Means that bring a Soul to Contemplation
Now seeing virtues dispose us to Contemplation, it behoveth us to use the means that may bring us to virtues. And they be three means which men most commonly use that give themselves to Contemplation: As reading of holy Scripture and good books, secondly, spiritual meditation; thirdly, diligent prayer with devotion. By meditation shalt thou come to see thy wretchedness, thy sins and thy wickedness; as pride, covetousness, gluttony, sloth and lechery, wicked stirrings of envy, anger, hatred, melancholy, wrath, bitterness and imprudent heaviness. Thou shalt also see thy heart to be full of vain flames and fears of the flesh and of the world. All these stirrings will always boil out of thy heart, as water runneth out of the spring of a stinking well, and do hinder the sight of thy soul, that thou mayest never see nor feel clearly the love of Jesus Christ, for know thou well that until the heart be much cleansed from such sins, through firm verity58 and diligent meditating on Christ's humanity, thou canst not have any perfect knowledge of God, Himself witnessing the same in His Gospel thus: Blessed are the clean in heart, for they shall see God.59 In meditation, likewise, shalt thou see those virtues which be needful for thee to have, as humility, mildness, patience, righteousness, spiritual strength, temperance, cleanness, peace and soberness, faith, hope and charity. These virtues thou shalt see in meditation, how good, how fair, how profitable they be; and by prayer thou shalt thereupon desire and get them. Without which third means of prayer thou canst not be contemplative, for Job saith thus: In abundantia ingredieris sepulchrum -- In plenty shalt thou enter thy grave; that is in plenty of bodily works and spiritual virtues shalt thou enter thy grave, that is thy rect60 in Contemplation.