The scale (or ladder) of perfection

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How through gracious Opening of the Spiritual Eye a Soul is made Wise, humbly and truly to see the Diversities of Degrees in Holy Church, as Militant, and for to see the nature of Angels; and first of the Reprobate

NEVERTHELESS, other spiritual things there be also, which through light of grace are showed to the soul, and are these: the nature of all reasonable souls, and the gracious workings of our Lord Jesus in them; the nature of angels, both good and bad, and their workings, and the knowledge of the Blessed Trinity, according as grace teacheth. Holy Writ saith of the Spouse thus in the Canticles: Surgam et circuibo civitatem, &c. -- I will arise, and go about the city, and will seek Him whom my soul loveth.337 That is, I will rise into highness of thought, and go about the city. By this city is understood the University of all creatures, corporal and spiritual, ordered and ruled under God by laws of nature, of reason and of grace. I go about this city when I behold the natures and causes of bodily creatures, the gifts of grace, and the blisses of spiritual creatures. And in all these I seek Him whom my soul loveth. It is pleasant looking with the inner eye on Jesus in bodily creatures, to see His power, His wisdom and His goodness in ordering of their natures; but it is much more beautiful to look on Jesus in spiritual creatures: First in reasonable souls, both elect and reprobate, to see the merciful calling of them to election, how He turneth them from sin by the light of His grace, how He helpeth them, teacheth them, chasteneth them, comforteth them; He sanctifieth, cleanseth and feedeth them; how He maketh them burning in love and in light through plenty of His grace. And thus doth He, not to one soul only, but to all His chosen according to the measure of His grace.

Also concerning the reprobate, he seeth how justly he forsaketh them, and leaveth them in their sins, and doth them no wrong. How He rewardeth them in this world, suffering them to have the fulfilling of their own will, and after to punish them endlessly. Lo, this is a little beholding of holy Church, whilst it is militant in this life, by seeing how black and how foul it seemeth in souls that are reprobate; and how fair and how lovely it is in chosen souls.

And all this spiritual sight is nought else but the sight of Jesus, not in Himself but in His merciful secret works, and in His righteous judgements every day showed, remembered and renewed to reasonable souls. Moreover, to see with the spiritual eye the pains of the reprobate and the joy and bliss of chosen souls is full comfortable. For truth cannot be seen in a clean soul without great delight and wonderful content of blessed burning love.

Also the sight of the nature of Angels, first of the damned, then of the blessed; as it is a full pleasant contemplation concerning the devil in a clean soul. When grace bringeth the fiend into the sight of the soul, as a clumsy caitiff bound by the power of Jesus that he cannot hurt; then the soul beholdeth him not bodily, but spiritually, seeing his nature and his malice, and turneth him upside down and spoileth him and rendeth him all to nought, scorneth him and despiseth him, and setteth nought by his malice. Thus biddeth holy Writ, when it saith thus: Verte impium, et not erit. -- Turn the wicked, that is, the fiend, upside down, and he shall be as nought.338 Much wonder hath the soul that the fiend hath so much malice and so little might. There is no creature so weak as he is; and therefore it is great cowardice that men fear him so much. He can do nothing without leave of our Lord Jesus, not so much as enter into a swine, as the Gospel saith339, much less can he do then to annoy any man.

And therefore if our Lord Jesus give him leave to tempt us, it is full worthily and mercifully done, that he doth so; and therefore welcome be our Lord Jesus by Himself, and by all His messengers. The soul feareth no more the blustering of the fiend than the stirring of a mouse. Wondrous wroth is the fiend when we say nay to his temptations, but his mouth is stopped with his own malice. His hands are bound like a thieve's, worthy to be judged and hanged in hell. And then the soul accuseth him, and doth justly condemn him according to his deserts. Wonder not at this saying, for St Paul meant the same, when he saith thus: Fratres, nescitis, &c. -- Brethren, know ye not that we shall judge the angels?340 namely, those that are wicked spirits through malice that were made good angels by nature. As who should say, yes; this judging is figured before the day of judgement in Contemplative souls, for they feel a little tasting in likeness of all that shall be done afterwards of our Lord Jesus openly in truth. Shamed and troubled341 is the fiend greatly in himself, when he is thus used by a clean soul. He would fain fly away, but he cannot, for the power of the Highest holdeth him still, and that grieveth him more than all the fire of hell. Then falleth the soul wonderfully humble under Jesus with hearty praises, for that He so mightily saveth a simple soul from all the malice of so cruel an enemy by His great mercy.


How by the same light of Grace the Nature of the blessed Angels is seen. And how Jesus is God and Man above all Creatures, according to that which the Soul may see of Him here

AND then after this by the selfsame light may the soul spiritually see the beauty of the Angels, the worthiness of their nature, the subtlety of their substance, their confirming in grace, their fulness in endless bliss, the diversity of their orders; the distinctions of persons, how they all live in light of endless truth; and how they burn all in love of the Holy Ghost, according to the worthiness of their orders; how they see and love and praise Jesus in blessed rest without ceasing. There is no sight of a body, nor any figure in imagination, in this manner of working, but all spiritual, and of spiritual creatures.

Then beginneth the soul to have great acquaintance and great fellowship with the blessed spirits. They are full tender and full busy about such a soul to help it, they are masters to teach it. And often by their spiritual presence and touching of their light drive out fancies from the soul. They enlighten the soul graciously; they comfort the soul with sweet words suddenly sounded in a clean heart, and if any disease fall spiritually, they serve the soul and minister to it all that it needeth. Thus St Paul said of them: Know ye not that they are all ministering spirits, sent for them who shall be heirs of salvation?342 As if he had said thus: Know ye that all this spiritual working of words and of reasons, brought to the mind, and such fair likeness are made by the ministry of Angels, when the light of grace abundantly shineth in a clean soul. It cannot be told by tongue the feelings, the enlightenings, the graces and the comforts in special that clean souls perceive by the favourable fellowship of blessed Angels. The soul is so well pleased with beholding what they do that it would willingly attend to nothing else.

But then with the help of Angels the soul yet seeth more; for knowing in a clean soul riseth higher above all this, and that is to behold the blessed nature of Jesus. First of His glorious humanity, how it is worthily exalted above the nature of Angels, and afterwards of His blessed Divinity, for by knowing of creatures is known the Creator; and then beginneth the soul to perceive a little of the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity. And this it may do well enough, for the light of grace going before, she cannot err as long as she holdeth her in that light. Then is opened really to the eye of the soul the unity in substance, and distinction of persons in the Blessed Trinity, as it may be seen in this life, and much other truth of the Blessed Trinity pertinent to this matter; the which is openly declared and shown by writings of holy doctors of holy Church. And be you assured that one and the same verity concerning the Blessed Trinity that these holy doctors, inspired through grace, writ in their books for the strengthening of our truth, a clean soul may see in knowing through the same light of grace. I will not express too much of this matter here in particular, for it needeth not.

Wondrous great love feedeth the soul with heavenly delight in feeling of this truth, when it is wrought through special grace; for love and light go both together in a clean soul. There is no love that riseth out of knowing, and from special beholding that can sooner touch our Lord than this can. For why? This knowing of Jesus, God and Man, is alone in itself the worthiest and the highest, if it be specially shown by the light of grace. And therefore is the fire of flaming love hereof more burning than it is of any creature, corporal or incorporal. And all these gracious knowings of the university of all creatures felt in a soul in manner abovesaid, and of our Lord Jesus, the maker and keeper of all this fair university, I call fair words, and sweet speakings of our Lord Jesus to a soul, which He means to make His true Spouse. He showeth His mysteries, proffereth rich gifts out of His treasury, and arrayeth the soul with them full beautifully. She need not thenceforward be ashamed of the company of her fellows, to appear before the face of Jesus her Spouse. All this lovely dalliance of private conference betwixt Jesus and a soul may be called a hidden word; of the which Scripture saith thus: Porro ad me dictum est verbum absconditum, &c. -- Moreover to me there was spoken a secret word, and the veins of His whispering mine ear hath perceived.343 The inspiration of Jesus is a hidden word, for it is privily hid from all lovers of the world, and shown to His lovers; through which a clean soul perceiveth readily the veins of His whispering, that is the special showings of His truth; for every gracious knowing of truth felt with inward savour and spiritual delight is a privy whispering of Jesus in the ear of a clean soul. He must have much cleanness and humility and all other virtues, and must be half deaf to the noise of worldly janglings, that will wisely perceive those sweet spiritual whisperings, that is the voice of Jesus. Of the which David saith thus: Vox Domini praeparantis cervos, &c. -- The voice of the Lord prepareth harts, and shall discover thick woods.344 That is, the inspiration of Jesus maketh souls light as deer, that start from the ground over bushes and briars of all worldly vanities; and He showeth to them the thickets, that is, His mysteries, which cannot be perceived but by a sharp eye. These beholdings, solidly grounded in grace and humility, make a soul wise and burning in desire to the face of Jesus. These are the spiritual things that I spake of before, and they be called new gracious feelings; and I do but touch them a little for direction of a soul; for a soul 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.

Thus finisheth this present book, which expoundeth many notable doctrines in Contemplation, which to me seemeth right expedient to those that set their felicity in busying themselves specially for their souls' health.

The following verses form the colophon to Wynkyn de Worde's edition of the "Scale," and are reprinted from the 1659 edition.

Infinite laud with thankings manifold,
I yield to God, me succouring with His grace;
This Book to finish, which as ye behold,
Scale of Perfection's called in every place:
Whereof th' Author Walter Hilton was,
And Wynkin de Word this hath set in print;
In William Caxton's house, so fell the case,
God rest his soul, in joy there may it stint.
This heavenly Book more precious than gold
Was lately directed with great humility,
For godly pleasure thereon to behold,
Unto the right noble Margaret as ye see,
The King's Mother of excellent bounty,
Harry the seventh, that Jesus him preserve,
This mighty Princess hath commanded me
T'imprint this Book, her grace for to deserve.


Written to a devout man of secular Estate

Teaching him how to lead a spiritual life therein



That he who intends to become a Spiritual Man must first use much Bodily Exercise in Penance, and in Destroying of sin

DEAR BROTHER IN CHRIST, -- There be in the holy Church two kinds of life, by the which Christian souls do serve and please God, and procure their own salvation. The one is corporal, the other spiritual.

Corporal working appertaineth principally to the men and women of the world, who for the nature of their estate do lawfully use worldly goods, and intermeddle and deal with worldly businesses and affairs. This life also belongeth to all young beginners in spirituality who be but newly converted from sensual and worldly sins to the service of God; and this life is to dispose and enable such persons for spiritual working, by taming the body by corporal works and exercises, and thereby bringing it into obedience and subjection to the spirit, whereby it may become supple and ready, and not much contrarious to the spirit in her spiritual exercisings; for as St Paul saith, that woman was made for man, and not man for woman. Even so corporal working was ordained for spiritual, and not spiritual working for corporal. Corporal working is to go before, and spiritual working cometh after, as the same St Paul saith in these words: That is not first which is spiritual, but that which is sensible (or corporal), afterwards cometh that which is spiritual. And the reason why it should be so is this, that we are born in sin and in corruption of the flesh, by the which we are in souls so blinded and so overlaid that we neither have the spiritual sight or knowing of God by light of understanding, nor the spiritual tasting or feeling of Him by a clean desire of loving; and therefore we cannot suddenly start out of the dark night of this fleshly corruption into the spiritual light; for we are not as yet able to endure such spiritual light, by reason of the sickness of our souls, any more than we can with our bodily eyes, when they are sore, behold and look upon the light of the sun; and for that cause we must expect and work by degrees and process of time. First, by corporal works diligently, till we be discharged, or much lightened, or eased from this heavy burden of sin and sensuality, that hindereth us from spiritual working; and till our souls be somewhat cleansed from great outward sins, and enabled for spiritual workings.

By the corporal working that I speak of, thou must understand that I mean all manner of good works or deeds that thy soul doth by the senses or the members of thy body, either upon or towards thyself, as in fasting, watching, or in restraining thy fleshly or sensual desires, by penance-doing, or other acts of mortification. Or upon, or towards thy Christian brother, in performance of the works of mercy, spiritual or corporal. Or to, or towards God Himself, by suffering (for the love of Him and His justice) all manner of bodily pains and afflictions that shall occur for thee to undergo, either as immediately from His own hands, or by the means and from the hands of other creatures of His. All these kind of works done in faith and out of charity (without which they are of no worth) do please God. Therefore whoso desireth to become a spiritual man, it will be securest and profitable for him that he be first, for a long time, well exercised in these corporal workings, for these corporal deeds are practices and tokens of moral virtues, without which a soul is not able to work spiritually. Break down first pride within thee by bodily sufferings and bearings, and also by thinking in thy mind of something that will help to humble thee; and, moreover, by eschewing and avoiding all ostentations, boastings, or praising of thyself, either privately by thyself in thy mind, or by thy words or external deeds, or carriage towards, or with others; by this means casting away and mortifying within thee all vainglory and complacence in thyself for any talent, gift, or thing corporal or spiritual that God hath bestowed on thee. Also mortify and destroy within thee, so soon as thou art able, all envy and anger towards thy Christian brethren; whether they be rich or poor, good or bad, hate them not, nor disdain them, nor willingly offend them by words or by deeds. Likewise destroy and mortify in thee all coveting of worldly goods, and see that neither for the getting, or holding, nor saving of them, thou do not offend thy conscience, nor break verity with God, or thy Christian brother, for the love of any earthly thing; but what thou gettest, or hast, keep it without inordinate love or affection to it, and spend it as reasonable occasions shall require, for the honour of God, and the succour of thy Christian brother. Mortify also, and destroy as much as thou canst, all yielding to bodily sloth, and unnecessary bodily ease, and the sensual vices of gluttony and luxury, with the inordinations that rise out of them. And after that thou hast been well exercised and tried in all such kind of corporal works, thou mayest then by the grace of God, ordain thee and apply thee to spiritual working.

The grace and goodness of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He hath showed to thee, in withdrawing of thine heart from the love and liking of worldly vanity, and from the use of fleshly and sensual sins, and in turning of thy will entirely to His service, bringeth into mine heart much matter to love Him in His mercy; and also it greatly moveth and urgeth me to strengthen thee in thy good purpose, and in the work which thou hast begun between thee and God, so that it may be brought to a good end. And so far as may be in my power to help thee in it, my best endeavours in it I shall most willingly afford thee, first and principally for the service and honour of God, and next in requital of thy tender affection of love thou bearest to me, though I be a wretch, and unworthy of thy love or favour. I know well the desire of thy heart, as how that thou greatly covetest to serve our Lord both in soul and body, fully and wholly, without intermeddling or troubling thyself in worldly businesses, that so thou mayest, by the grace of God, attain to more knowledge, and spiritual feeling of God, and of spiritual things. Such desire of thine is (as I hope) good, and from God, for it is set upon Him in charity spiritually. Nevertheless, as in regard of external matters and workings in them, such desire of thine is to be moderated and ruled with discretion, according to the nature and quality of thy estate, which thou art to regard in thy spiritual intentions; for charity unruled, that is, not rightly ordered, turneth sometimes into a fault or vice. And therefore it is said of our Lord by a holy soul in the holy Scripture: He hath ordered charity in me; 345 that is to say, our Lord giveth to me charity, hath set it in order and good rule within me, whereby it might not err in its exercise, nor be lost through my indiscreet doings. Even so the said desire and charity which our Lord hath wrought in thee, out of His goodness and mercy, must be so ruled and moderated, that in the exercises of it, it do regard the nature of thy estate and condition of life, and the manner of living, which in former time thou hast held, and the measure and quantity of virtues that now are in thee. Thou must not altogether follow thy said desire in giving over or neglecting those businesses and cares of the world that are necessary, and do belong to thee, either for thee upholding of thy own person in his degree, or in the ruling or ordering of other persons or things that pertain to thy charge, and give thee wholly to retiredness, spiritual devotions and holy meditations, as if thou wert a Friar or Monk, or another man that were not bound (as thou art) to the world by children or servants; for it is not for thee to do so, and if thou dost, then keepest thou not the order of charity. Also if thou wouldst altogether leave and forbear all spiritual exercises (especially now after the grace and calling that God hath given thee for them) and give thyself wholly to the businesses of the world, in fulfilling of the works of the active life, as fully as do other men, that never felt such devotions nor had such grace or calling as thou hast, thou dost then leave the order of charity; for thy state requireth of thee to attend to each of them in divers times. Thou shalt mingle the works of active life with the spiritual works of the contemplative life, and then thou dost well; for thou shalt sometimes be busy, with Martha, for to order and govern thine household, thy children, thy servants, thy neighbours and thy tenants. If they do well, comfort and help them therein; if they do amiss, then tell and teach them for their amendment, and chastise them as there shall be cause. Thou shalt also wisely look after and know thy things and thy worldly goods, as that they be well and duly used or preserved by thy servants, well ordered and reasonably spent, whereby thou mayest the more plenteously, out of thy temporal means, fulfil the deeds of mercy and charity towards thy Christian brethren. Also thou shalt sometimes, with Mary, leave or lay aside the businesses of the world, and shalt sit down at the feet of our Lord with humility, in prayers and holy thoughts, and in Contemplation of Him, according to the grace that He shall give thee for it, and so thou shalt go from that one to that other, profitably and fruitfully, and fulfil them both; and so doing thou observest well the order of charity.

To what kind of Men the Active Life pertaineth

BUT that thou mayest the less wonder at that that I have said, and that thou mayest better understand the reason thereof, therefore I shall declare the matter a little more fully to thee. Thou must understand that God is served by three kinds of life, as either by an active life, or by a contemplative, or by a third, that is mixed of them both, and therefore is commonly called a mixed life. The active life belongeth to worldly men and women that are gross and ignorant, as to the understanding or knowledge of spiritual exercises or ways, for they neither feel nor taste devotion by fervour of love as other men do, nor can they well conceive what it is or how it may be come by; and nevertheless, they have in them the fear of God and of the pains of Hell, and therefore they eschew and forbear sin, and have a desire for to please God, and to attain to Heaven, and a good will they bear to their Christian brethren. Unto these men it is needful and speedful to use the works of the active life as diligently as they can in the help of themselves and of their Christian brethren, for more they cannot do.

To whom the Contemplative Life appertaineth

THE Contemplative life appertaineth only to such men and women as for the love of God have forsaken all notorious sins, both of the flesh and of the world, and have given over all intermeddling with the affairs and businesses of the world, or with worldly goods, as also all care and charge over others, and all superiority or offices that concern the government of others (if ever they had any such) and make themselves poor and, as it were, naked from all the things of this life save for what their corporal nature doth merely need and of necessity require. Unto these men and women it appertaineth diligently and seriously to employ themselves in internal exercises for to get thereby (through the grace of our Lord) cleanness in heart and peace in conscience by destroying of sin and gaining of virtue, and so to come to Contemplation; since such cleanness (necessary for Contemplation) cannot be had without much exercise of body and continual travail or industry in spirit, by devout prayers, fervent desires and spiritual meditation.

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