Affectivity in prayer

Daily Reading for September 28 • Richard Rolle, 1349, Walter Hilton, 1396, and Margery Kempe, c. 1440, Mystics

In the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there was in England no more highly esteemed devotional writer than Walter Hilton, author of the massive Scale of Perfection. The appeal of this masterwork over the centuries owes much to the exceptional breadth of Hilton’s teaching. So wide and capacious is the Scale that almost any reader can find a place in it: Hilton teaches the rudiments of prayer as well as the highest reaches of contemplation, the initial steps of conversion as well as the final degrees of purgation.

Between these poles the author charts an interior course that consists not so much of a rigid step-by-step formula for spiritual ascent as a broad, yet detailed, description of our entire movement towards God. He delineates what is for him the crucial process of “reformation in faith and feeling” with enough psychological precision to be helpful, yet without overwhelming the reader with minute, idiosyncratic diagnoses. . . .

In every age, affectivity poses a dilemma: how can we pursue prayer that is emotionally engaged without becoming dependent upon particular affective states? How do we gain a measure of freedom from our vacillating feelings without cutting them off from the process of redemption? How are our affections sanctified, and how do we manage them in the meantime? Hilton’s response to the ambiguity of human emotion is as many-faceted as the problem. His treatment entails neither an uncritical endorsement of states of emotion, whether religiously inspired or not, nor an equally simplistic rejection of all intense feeling. Like every other aspect of human nature, affectivity needs to be interpreted, disciplined, and ultimately redeemed.

From Three Spiritual Directors for Our Time: Julian of Norwich, The Cloud of Unknowing, Walter Hilton by Julia Gatta (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1986).

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