Seeking perfection

Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House


The Olympics! There are sixty thousand competitors in the Olympics and Paralympics, and all of them have been seeking to fulfil their potential in their chosen discipline, but only a fraction of them will win a prize or create a new record. Even those who achieve the ultimate goal will soon realize that their crowning glory is only temporary; they will inevitably be challenged and overcome.

The life of the athlete was famously taken by St Paul as a comparison to the endeavour of the spiritual life; he says that the Christian goes into ‘strict training’ to get a crown that will last for ever (1 Corinthians 9). In other words the goal and the ‘perfect performance’ of our life as Christians is not to be found in this life. We will always ‘fall short of the glory of God.’

This came home to me recently as I studied the work of Walter Hilton, a fourteenth-century Augustinian from near Southwell in Nottinghamshire. One of his major works is The Scale (or Ladder) of Perfection; in this book of spiritual direction for an anchorite (a solitary nun) he stresses that there is no completion and no true experience of the love of God in this life.

He argues that love is the total union of the loved and the beloved, and this is not possible whilst we remain anchored in time and space in our bodies. This chimes again with the teaching of St Paul when he writes ‘now we see through a glass darkly but then we shall see face to face, now I know in part but then I shall know as I am fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13) and he writes elsewhere that it is to dwell in heaven that we are created and we ‘have been given the spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come’ (2 Corinthians 5).

The ‘ladder of perfection’ which Hilton describes is a way to heaven – it is a method or rule of life that will form the heart, mind and will to pass through this life to come to the life that lasts for ever. It is first of all the work of God’s grace, and prayer is the flame of the gift of God’s love rising up in our hearts.

We feed this flame by both works of devotion and works of service to others. Humility and knowing our need of God is the essential attitude to scale the ladder, and our companion must be Jesus who we must claim as an intimate companion and friend on the journey. We must adore him for his incarnation, and his whole work of redemption.

We cannot climb the ladder without holding on to true faith, by being active in the life of the Church and strengthened by its sacramental life. It is a life marked by thankfulness for the whole of creation and for the hope of the ‘freedom, joy, healing and unimaginable beauty of heaven,’ that we can never know in this life. This is the ‘wreath that lasts for ever’ for which we train ourselves our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice.