Walter Hilton

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Part of "The English Mystics"

Conference 3: Walter Hilton

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Afternoon, Walter Hilton, this wonderful English, really spiritual director, a few rave notices. I hope you all know Evelyn Underhill, the marvelous English woman, a mystic and historian who helped us all rediscover the English mystics, and not just the English mystics, but in a time that was given to church activism and service, etc. She stressed this contemplative side to the Christian vocation. She was a wonderful Anglican who had a splendid, deep Roman Catholic as her spiritual director, Beren Bonhugel, and it's at that level that ecumenism can really happen. Anyway, she writes of Walter Hilton, Probably no English devotional book has had so wide and enduring an influence as the Scale


of Perfection, perhaps the most wonderful description of Christ-centered contemplation that exists, the most precious treasury of medieval religion. So high praise, and she knows the whole range, it's not as if she's limited in her scope. Then a wonderful English Benedictine scholar who did the translation and presentation of this version of the Scale by Geoffrey Chapman, Ilted Trethewin writes, The greatest of our 14th century medieval writers. Now many would very much contest that. Merton says that Julian is certainly the greatest, and others would insist the cloud, but how do you determine the greatest? But anyway, it's enough to get our attention. And there's a splendid image edition of the Stairway of Perfection, and it's a pocketbook so you can carry it places and various, and this has a wonderful introduction by Del Mastro.


And he writes, Despite the almost 600 years that lie between us and Walter Hilton, the Stairway of Perfection is as applicable in the 20th century as any contemporary guide, and sounder than many. So many of us find this, that these writers, they speak with an immediacy that's quite astonishing and quite comforting. Martin Thornton, who's a fine Anglican writer of the medieval tradition and of Anglican spirituality, he writes, The prime source for the English church on the teaching of spiritual direction. This is a very big thing now, spiritual direction. We realize that we shouldn't just travel alone. We shouldn't kind of try to be our own guide. It's so healthy to be able to bounce things off someone else who's wise and who's experienced. And Martin Thornton suggests, well, this is Walter Hilton for us.


A Jesuit, James Walsh, writes, The most complete, lucid, and balanced treatise on the interior life that the late Middle Ages produced. So all kinds of praise. What's his life? We don't know when he was born. He studied in Cambridge. He's another very seriously grounded mystical writer, grounded in theology. Probably he got his doctorate of theology there. Then he went into the hermit's life for a while. He's an Augustinian canon of the Priory of Thurgardt in Nottinghamshire. It was a very important priory at that time. He became a well-known spiritual director. He died about 1395, so towards the very end of the 13th century. He knew Richard Rolle. He knew the author of The Cloud, of Unknowing, and he critiques both of them and also depends upon both. There's now a theory that there was an ongoing dialogue between him and the author of The


Cloud, either directly or indirectly. So a second later treatise of The Cloud even kind of modifies and corrects, so to speak, the writing of The Cloud in the light of some of the criticisms of Walter Hilton. So once you get into the school, you can get very detailed and it gets fun. The school can nourish a whole lifetime of study. But more than that, these are just books that one can pick up and spiritually grow with. A characteristic is that this comes from his lived experience, but not just that. He knows the full tradition, the full, most solid Christian contemplative tradition. So there's a both and. Then there's his own character, which is gentle, which is modest, which wants to be carefully balanced, not dogmatic. You've got to do it this way. He never says that. He says, I'll propose a way. It works for me.


It works for some people I've known. If it doesn't work for you, don't worry, just set it aside. So he's very modest, despite his real knowledge of the whole heritage and that he evidently himself is a man of real prayer and holiness. I find this so refreshing myself. Some people who get a bit involved in the spiritual life and get a bit of a reputation for a teacher, they get kind of a guru complex. They have the answer. They just know it all. This can come from your kind of fundamentalist Protestant TV evangelist on the one hand, or your abbots and hermits on the other hand, or bishops or whatever. But he's saying, we've got to be careful here. The other person is a great mystery. And we want to speak with great caution and hesitation. St. Gregory the Great, one of the chief fonts for Walter Hilton says, this is the most difficult


of arts. It's the art of arts. Because we're dealing with two immense mysteries here. The mystery of God and God's will, and the mystery of the other person. Then there's the mystery of ourself involved here. So let's not kind of be infallible potentates here. His fonts, his sources, it's always good when you read a person to ask, well, did he just make this up? What are his chief sources? How deeply and solidly is he into them? Well, again, he's a Cambridge grad. And the three great fathers of the West, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Bernard. He knows them. And he draws very solidly from them. He knows specifically his own immediate heritage, again, of Richard Goll and the Cloud. This is nice. He's enculturated into the English scene. And then for theologians, he knows St. Thomas Aquinas. So you can do worse than that.


Again, if you want to get deeper into him, the wonderful introduction to him in the image edition by Del Mastro, the wonderful, solid introduction into the Paulist edition by John Clark, wonderful Jesuit scholar, about 50-some pages here. This is a very recent edition, 1991. And then all kinds of other books. This is another, I use this because I read it so many years ago, and a nice introduction here by Trethewin. So he sets up a ladder. He wants to see the whole range of the Christian life. And this is helpful, to see the overview. And then try to ponder, where am I, more or less? And this ladder is basically based on growth in intimacy with God. And this is characterized by different ways of praying.


And so he has four basic steps, and they're just so logical that I think they're quite wonderful. First is this characteristic of prayer, of set vocal prayer. You're taught certain prayers. You're taught the Our Father. You're taught the Hail Mary. You're taught the Rosary. You pray them, and that's prayer for you. They come from outside. They come from teachers, and you obey and you pray them. This can be a very deep way of prayer in its own way, but it's not terribly interiorized yet. So set vocal prayers from without. The second step is vocal prayers from within, now out of your own experience, moved by the Holy Spirit. You're starting to dialogue with God. This is becoming claimed, personal, existential. That's the second. The third step is an entering into silence beyond words.


Just there's nothing to say. It's so profound. This will correspond to all the later mystics. Let's see. I've got so many translations here, and I go back and forth according to ... I think this is the triplet one. But just beautiful brief snippets of his careful love description. The third degree of prayer is in the heart alone. It is without words and is accompanied by great peace and tranquility of body and soul. So this can be for periods. Then, as this becomes our way of being with God, it can indeed become habitual. As a result, their affections become wholly spiritual. Their hearts are continually at prayer, and they can love and praise God without serious hindrance from temptations or worldly thoughts. Of this kind of prayer, St. Paul spoke when he said, if I pray with my tongue only by an


effort of the will, the prayer is commendable, but my soul is not satisfied. So to move into this silent prayer. And then the fourth step is what we're just drawn above ourselves in ecstasy. And here he uses language that's characteristic of Richard Rowe, that is the spousal language. He does it with great sobriety. He writes definitely prose. Rowe is just, I think, a wonderful early English poet, but here's his prose. This stage of contemplation is so perfectly accompanied by a soft, sweet, burning love in him that the soul for the time being is made one with God and conformed to the image of the Trinity by this ravishing of love. So he also is a love mystic, but rather more soberly. The beginning of this kind of contemplation can be experienced in this life, but its fullness is reserved for the bliss of heaven. Here in other words, whoever is fastened to God by the ravishing of love is fastened so


that God and his soul are not two, but one, one in spirit, and truly by this union a marriage is made between God and the soul, which shall never be broken. So this is a basic ladder, which it seems to me makes eminent sense. It's not that in the higher rungs, you don't go back to vocal prayer. Of course, you do daily if like him, you're an Augustinian or a monk or someone who loves the Psalms. And also out of your heart, you pray spontaneously. That's fine. But the deepest, each stage is characterized by a new advance, a new threshold. And suddenly you are praying at that level also, whereas people who haven't attained to it, it's hard for them to imagine it. The little child of Sisyphus Pyrrhus gets on his knees and recites the Our Father, but doesn't dream of just resting in silence for long periods with God. This is, it seems to me, so reasonable, it's absolutely parallel to any growth of intimacy


with another person. You date a person and you start out with these fixed forms. How are you? And my name is, and this is my work, and what is your work? They're phrases that we learn. And then slowly, out of the spontaneity of the heart, there's the dialogue. Then if the relationship really grows, the two feel very comfortable simply in silence. And finally, there's the ecstasy of the union in the high moments of the matrimony bliss, etc. So it's a way of characterizing maturity in God that has nothing esoteric or weird to it. It certainly has nothing to do with seeing more visions or having more prophecies or anything like that. It's growing in love and in this inevitable development of love. So it's a developmental theory of the Christian life that's centered on prayer, that is centered on communion with God, and it's just, it seems to me, it's hard to take exception to


it. Then he gets into, then he nuances it. That's our first model there. We should have four rungs there. But then he gets into all the possible focuses of prayer, the various virtues, the various practices, and at that point, he seems to become terribly untidy because he'll discuss one theme in chapter three, and then you think, well, he's gotten beyond it as he gets to chapter five and seven, but suddenly he's back on that theme in chapter nine, and then maybe he addresses it again in chapter 14. So some scholars have said, this chap is just not systematic. That was Evelyn Underhill's judgment. The model is nice of a stairway. You go from one thing to another, but in fact, it's not that at all. And David Knowles, who was so critical of Richard Rohl as a more advanced mystic, though he appreciates him as an early mystic, he says there's much medieval digression and disorder


in this book. So that's a problem. But the introduction of this book comes up, I think, with a brilliant defense and proposal del Mastro, saying it's a stairway, it's a spiral stairway. That's what this is trying to represent. Think of this as one of these marvelous stairways that goes right up to heaven. So del Mastro says, this is the literary genre of incremental, balanced, advanced. It is repetition, but carrying forward, upward. And so a same theme is addressed further on, but from an advanced stage, from a wider horizon on things. And the author of this introduction says, this is extremely wise, because this is precisely the way it is in our spiritual life. If you're working on humility in the first years, and then you go on to work on hope, et cetera, then to your astonishment, the whole agenda of humility comes back five years later.


Is it that you just sunk back again to rung one? No. You're with the same theme, but quite higher on. And then don't be astonished if maybe seven years later, the same theme comes back, or struggles with chastity, or insights about whatever, Christian love or whatever. So it's a more nuanced model that permits an incremental growth of insight. So it seems to me that's marvelous. And whether he had this explicitly in mind, or more at the level of just implicit wise experience one can debate, Mastro insists this is a characteristic model of the more subtle of the medieval teachers. So I think that answers the question of repetition. But apart from in this book, again, this is something that comes up very much in the spiritual


life. One might deal with distractions in the first period, and be astonished that they come back so powerfully. Maybe temptations against chastity, or whatever, get down the line, thoughts of pride, or whatever it is. But this is the answer. Don't be surprised if things come back. Of course they do, because there is this spiral. He's again extremely cautious. He proposes a thing, and then he says, or so me thinketh. This is my opinion, but this is, again, not written in concrete. He offers a scheme, and a method, and a discipline for growth, but he doesn't want to impose it as absolute. He says, others are different, and so take it if it helps, but don't get obsessed with imposing it if it doesn't work. Now I have told you a little about reforming in faith.


Now I have also touched a little for you on the process of going forth from that reformation to the higher reforming in experience. Lovely, also these modest adjectives, it's a little here. Saint Benedict calls his, a little rule for beginners. There's no arrogance here, and that's the ultimate Christian temptation, is spiritual pride, and he's always on his guard personally against it. It is not my intention in saying these words to subject God's working to a law that I have formulated, as much as to say, this is how God may work in a soul, and not, as if to say, this is how God may work in a soul, and not otherwise. No that is not what I'm saying. What I'm doing is saying, from my simple experience, that our Lord Jesus works in this way in some creatures as I believe, and I believe he works in other ways as well, which go beyond my intelligence and experience.


This is wonderful. I don't know it all, but this is one way that works for some. It's a little way. I find this so refreshing in the spiritual life. If you don't find this in a book or in a director or in a teacher, I'd say be very careful. One professor of spirituality at Berkeley says, this is what distinguishes the authentic Christian teacher from the suspect, this sense of modesty, this fear and trembling, this hesitation to pontificate. So there are many ways up the mountain, and we can rejoice in this diversity, but he has the courage to say, there's one summit to the mountain, and as Teilhard in our own time says, all that rises must converge. So this is our joy. You may have quite a different path than I. We'll get there. We'll come together at the top. That's wonderful.


Nevertheless, whether he works this way or another way, by various means, in a longer or shorter time, with much labor or with little effort, if all this work comes to the same end, that is to the perfect love of him, then it's all good enough. So we're getting, it's the same summit for all of us, the perfect love of God. You can't put it in any other terms, but there are many ways to get to the top of the mountain. Then he says, in some people, he'll give the gift of contemplation maybe in a month. In other people, it'll take years. That's all right. The people it takes years shouldn't have envy and think, well, they should get it in a month because the other person shouldn't get into spiritual pride there. It's just pure grace. One may take this particular approach, another, another, but that's just part of the wonderful diversity of gifts. Tonight, in Vespers, we're reading from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul is trying to drum into


this very problematic 1 Corinthians community that has all these gifts in the spirit, but still is so problematic and so messed up. No, there's a diversity of gifts, a marvelous diversity of gifts, and if you've got one gift, you shouldn't sneer at another gift. Well, this is this basic New Testament Pauline message that he's trying to get across. So he says, when you're trying to discern what method of prayer to use, how long to pray, how much fasting to do, just see what unites you more to the Lord. It's a very simple criterion. Don't ask yourself again, what is so-and-so doing, or what does such-and-such book say, or that kind of thing. But very carefully, very personally, in a very existential way, discern, is this helping me now to grow into Christ? That's the basic bottom line. So whatever form of prayer, meditation, or activity leads you to the highest and purest


desire for Him, and to the deepest experience of Him, will be the means by which you may best seek and find Him. So that's our way. It's the way that's, it's our way. Then he can put this in just specifically Christological terms, in terms of Jesus. Whatever pursuit or spiritual exercise fosters and strengthens your desire for Jesus, detaches your mind from worldly desires and concerns, and kindles a deeper, fuller love of God, whether it be prayer or meditation, silence or speech, reading or listening, seclusion or company, walking or sitting still, continue to employ it for as long as it is helpful. So again, there's not this dogmatism, we're all called to solitude. If you're not in solitude, you're failing. No, some need more solitude, some need more community. Some need more silence, some need more speaking.


And it's a very individual, personal criterion of discernment. Not in terms of, again, what this book says, or what that book says. And then he can turn around and put it in negative terms. Whatever pulls you away from Jesus, drop that. But it's the basic criterion. He offers a suggestion of really moderation when it comes to ascetical means. He's writing for a solitary, but also definitely for a wider community, he says, be careful here. As you get more and more intense, you might think, well, if I'm praying 10 hours today, I'll try to pray 12 hours tomorrow to convince myself that I'm always progressing. If I'm only eating half a slice of bread today, I'll try to eat only a quarter of a slice tomorrow. That's not what it's all about. It's all about basically communing with Jesus.


And this other stuff can actually be very harmful in that regard. And as regards your food, drink, and sleep, behave sensibly and follow the guidance of your superior, as a pilgrim does. Sleep is not some concession to the devil or to the fallen flesh or something. Sleep is part of our human nature that God has created and blessed. Deep insights can come in sleep. So also in eating. Eating is very archetypical in scripture. Jesus is constantly sitting down to eat and drink with his friends, and he scandalizes the Pharisees. He's off to parties, he's a wine bibber, et cetera. But sensibly, it's a wonderful English, I think, proposal. We're not here to destroy our body for God. We're here to enter in a deeper union with God, and that requires body, mind, and spirit. For in however great a hurry the pilgrim may be, he must eat, drink, and sleep.


Do the same, for although sometimes it may delay you, at others it will help you on your way. So very reasonable stuff here. Moderation regarding the means, because the end is so important. So be careful of too much penance. What's this other one? I like these little snippets. I believe such penance hinders the fervor of love and contemplation. This can only be experienced soberly in great rest of body and spirit. If you're constantly just on the verge of falling asleep because you've been engaged in too many vituals, that's not Christian or contemplative life. Therefore do reasonably what you're supposed to do. Protect your physical health. Live within reason, and let it suffice that God send you what he wills. Be it health or sickness, take it gladly and don't ever deliberately grumble against God. So the goal again is this perfect union with God.


These other things are only means, vituals, fasting, silence, solitude. They're not ends in themselves. We'll see this very emphatically in The Cloud of Unknowing. God is not vituals. God is not fasting. God is not an absence of words. God is God and can be encountered in and through vituals and fasting, but also in and through sleeping and eating, in and through silence, but also in and through words. But the key is the union with God. It's a strong love mysticism, just like Richard Roll, but in much more sober terms, much more quiet and reserved, kind of dignified English stuff. The big problem, if we're going to go the way of prayer, is distraction, temptation.


So our life is a battle. It's a battle against temptation, against distraction. And this struggle itself is extremely educative, maturing, and humbling, precisely because humbling. We're not beyond all temptation. Jesus was tempted ferociously so that we are tempted. Fine. There's a great deal to learn from the temptation. He's also influenced by the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers say, if a man's not tempted against chastity, there's no virtue in his chastity. It's when there's ongoing battle that there's the virtue, the merit, and the growing in commitment to God. If one fights against temptation, you need to have little fear of yielding to it finally, for the struggle itself will dispel any false sense of security, any vainglory. It is right that a person should be at peace with all things except the devil and this


sinful image against which he must fight constantly in mind and body until he has overcome them. But, why not overcome them? This is a real downer, after years and years of trying. But he will not entirely overcome them in this life while he carries this image with its evil influence with him. He's talking about the fall. He's soberly Augustinian here. The fall has not been this destruction of the image and likeness of God in us, but it has been the wounding, the smudging over of the image and likeness. So, we will fall quite regularly as we go up the ladder. But that just means get up and try again. If we're focused on Christ, we'll be more aware of all our failings and distractions. If we just don't care, if we can be carried by any latest thing that comes, there's no problem whatever. So, precisely the awareness of problem and being pulled this way and that is an indication


that one is really trying. One has, in the highest level of one's will and in hope and intention, one has that objective who is God. For so long as a person allows his mind to roam freely over a wide range of subjects, he is not aware of many difficulties. But as soon as he directs his whole mind and desire to a single objective, desiring to possess it, see it, know it, and love it, that objective being Jesus himself, he will certainly encounter many distressing obstacles. For everything that he encounters, other than the object of his desire, is a hindrance. So, it's a wonderful paradoxical kind of wisdom. It's emphatically Jesus Christ centered. It's extremely biblical. If you're wandering, if you're finding it difficult, go back to scripture. That's our basic source of nourishment.


This is wonderful. Again, had the church stuck with this stuff, perhaps something like the Reformation might not have happened with the whole idea of the vernacular, of centering on Christ, of centering on scripture. Suppose you've found, suppose you've lost the coin who is Christ. This coin is Jesus whom you have lost. If you wish to find him, light the lamp of God's word, as David says. By this lamp, you will see where he is and how you may find him. It's a lovely image. So, go back to the Gospels, go back to the letters of Paul, and you'll find Jesus again. And this other help is the name of Jesus, cling to the name. And here again is a theme that we found in Richard Rowe. This is the theme that will be launched precisely in this century so emphatically in the Eastern Church. The name of Jesus, cling to this name. It's a wonderful spiritual prayer resource.


If then you feel a great longing in your heart for Jesus, by the remembrance of his name or any other word, prayer or deed, and if this longing is so strong that its force drives out of your heart all other thoughts and desires of this world and the flesh, then you are indeed seeking your Lord Jesus. So, the cling to this name, so that you are enclosed in Jesus alone, resting in him with a warmth of tender love. Then you have found something of Jesus. So it's a wonderful, also Jesus-centered spirituality. But as with Richard Rowe, that means love of neighbor, especially friendship, but that also means struggling with the neighbor you don't like so much. This isn't a theme in Richard Rowe so much. But obviously this is a man who has to live in community, and in community some people are easier for us and some people are more difficult.


He says living in love with those people who are more difficult for us, this is tremendously helpful. This is more helpful than all sorts of other extraordinary acts and things. It is no achievement to watch in vigils and fast until your head aches and your body sickens, nor go to Rome and Jerusalem on your bare feet, nor to rush about preaching as though you expected to convert everyone on the earth, nor is it an achievement to build churches and chapels, to feed the poor, to build hospitals, but it is a great achievement for a person to be able to love his fellow Christian in charity and to be discerning enough to hate his sin and yet love the sinner. I think this is just wonderful. This was a century of rushing off on pilgrimage and the extraordinary and visionaries, as in every century of the later church. So this century was filled with these people doing extraordinary things and hearing prophecies.


You can imagine the 14th century, the thinking that, well, we're towards the end of the world. It's all going to end soon. That's what the Black Plague is telling us and all these wars and uprisings, et cetera. It's all the apocalypse now kind of thing. He says settle down, just love your neighbor next to you and pray and that'll get us through. Prayer is what helps, what gives us the energy to persevere and here, very much like Richard Rolle, very much like the Eastern fathers, devote all your energies to prayer so that your soul may come to a real perception of God, that is, that you may come to know the wisdom of God, the infinite might of our Lord Jesus Christ, his great goodness in himself towards all his creatures. This is what it's all about. It's just so incredibly simple. Open your heart to God in love.


Again, it's just basically the first commandment. To battle with, against distractions, he suggests these simple, brief prayers. When you pray, begin by directing your will and intention to God as briefly and purely as possible. Then continue as well as you can. It's this intention of the highest point of the will that's the key. Then if distractions come, well, you didn't will the distractions, gently come back to God. God isn't this severe, irrational, tyrant God that just wants to beat you if you're distracted at all. What loving parent, if the child playing in the parent's presence is distracted a little with a toy or something, jumps up and beats the child and says, no, you must only pay attention to me. God knows how fragile we are. God knows that our head is what the spiritual directors call the monkey mind, it's just


bouncing here and there in a thousand thoughts. But it's the heart of the intention, if that's locked on God, then slowly we can find the means readily to come back to God. And also through these brief, intense prayers, and that's the Jesus prayer also, then we'll also have a victory, even in the midst of all these distractions, even if it comes only at the end. Furthermore, a soul who never finds peace of heart in prayer, but has to struggle against so many distractions and troublesome thoughts all her life, provided that she keeps herself in humility and charity, this is the key. Are you loving your neighbor? Are you humble? She'll receive full reward in heaven for all her trouble. So this terrible problem of distractions, no problem at all. It's very much relativized by these masters. If you're trying to cleave to God, slowly the kind of the street savvy will come of


how to work a little better with the distractions, how to be a little more united to God in an ongoing way. But in the meantime, patience with yourself. As you journey, the first experience is joy and enthusiasm and filled with the spirit and light. That's wonderful. Be with that. But as you journey deeper into Christ, it can go into a kind of an aridity, a silence, a desert experience, a night. And he's a good, what, century and a half before John on the cross, but he's very explicitly talking about the night. As mystics way back earlier, Pseudo-Dionysius talked about, as you advance, it's not advancing into more and more inner enthusiasm and consolation and voices, et cetera. It's advancing into a quieter, more hushed, darker kind of experience.


But anyone who realizes that the love of this world is false and transitory, therefore wishes to abandon it and seek the pure love of God, cannot at once experience his love, but must journey a while into this night. He cannot pass suddenly from the first light to the other. The first light is the immediate consolations that God gives us and the enthusiasm, et cetera. That is, from the love of spiritual consolations to the perfect love of God. This night that is experienced is nothing other than a withdrawal of the soul from earthly things by an intense desire to love, see, and know Jesus in himself. This is a real night, for just as night is dark, hiding all consolations and bringing all bodily activity to a halt, similarly, one who sets himself to think of Jesus and desire his love alone must try to withdraw his thoughts and affections from created things.


In doing so, his mind will be set free and his affections liberated from enslavement to anything of a nature inferior to his own. If he can do this, though, then it is night for him, for he is in darkness. So some souls are absolutely thrown off by this. They think, my Lord, I'm failing in my first enthusiasm. God has abandoned me or something. I remember talking to a young monk here who was ready to leave the place. He thought, well, he'd done so well the first months, and then things had just gone dry. No, this is an advancement. This is a maturation. This is getting beyond the first honeymoon enthusiasm. So it's a darkness. But then he uses this beautiful poetic phrase, but this is a night pregnant with good. It is a glowing darkness, for it shuts out the false love of this world and ushers in the dawn of the true day. Indeed, the darker this night, the nearer the true day of the love of Jesus.


So this is some fairly profound stuff. So his exhortation is simply persevere. So what we have with Walter Kilton, I think, is a humble, modest, and therefore, precisely therefore, an extremely solid and extremely wise spiritual director who knows the whole range of the journey from baptism to the deepest union and guides with all kinds of practical hints every stage and knows the recurrences of the problems, but gets us safely there with such a solid and safe path, really of interior prayer that grows evermore in intimacy with God. Amen.