The following is excerpted from the spiritual classic, “The Ladder of Perfection” by the fourteenth century English mystic Walter Hilton. After studying at the University of Cambridge, Walter Hilton later became a hermit and eventually joined the Augustinians at Thurgarton Priory and there lived out the rest of his years. This particular work of his is addressed to a Carthusian recluse and teaches the soul how to advance in perfection by the removal of sin and earthly thoughts and occupations. It also defines the differences in the lives of ascetics, mystics, contemplatives and actives. It is considered one of the great treatises on contemplation. Walter Hilton was in close touch with the Carthusians and has been mistaken as a Carthusian, though he was not.
I pray that in the calling to which our Lord has called you for His service, that you are contented, stand firm in it, travailing busily with all the powers of your soul; and by the grace of Jesus Christ, to fulfill in true righteousness the state which you have taken in exterior likeness and appearance; and as you have forsaken the world like a dead man, and turned to our Lord bodily in the sight of men, so let your heart be as if dead to all earthly loves and fears, and turned wholly to our Lord Jesus Christ. For you must know that a turning of the body to God, not followed by the heart, is but a figure and likeness of virtues, and not the truth in itself.
I do not say that on the first day you can be turned to Him in your soul through the full mastery of virtue as easily as you can be enclosed with your body in your cell, but you should know that the cause of your bodily enclosure is that you may the better come to spiritual enclosure; and as your body is enclosed from bodily association with men, just so should your heart be enclosed from the fleshly loves and fears of all earthly things.
The contemplative life consists in perfect love and charity, felt inwardly through spiritual virtues, and in a true knowledge and sight of God in spiritual things. This life belongs especially to them who for the love of God forsake all worldly riches, honors, worships and outward businesses, and give themselves entirely, body and soul, to the service of God through spiritual occupation, according to their strength and ability.
It is your duty to be busy night and day in labor of body and spirit, to attain as near as you can to that life by such means as you think best for you. In your prayer you must not aim your heart at a material thing, but your effort must be to draw your thoughts inward from any attention to such things, so that your desire might be as it were bare and naked from all that is earthly, always rising upward into God. You cannot see Him in the body, or imagine Him in a bodily likeness, but you can feel His goodness and His grace when your desire is eased and helped, and as it were strengthened and set free from all carnal thoughts and affections; when it is greatly lifted up by a spiritual power into spiritual savor and delight in God, held still in this for much of your prayer time, so that you have no great thought of any earthly thing, or else the thought harms you only a little. If you pray like this, then you know how to pray well.
For prayer is nothing but a desire of the heart rising into God by its withdrawal of all earthly thoughts; and so it is compared to a fire, which of its own nature leaves the lowness of the earth and always goes up into the air. Just so, when desire in prayer has been touched and set alight by the spiritual fire which is God, it keeps rising naturally to Him from Whom it came.