In The Scale of Perfection, medieval guide Walter Hilton writes that one of the biggest dangers of our spiritual pilgrimage is the temptation to give up or turn back. In his book, he personifies this temptation as a group of enemies who badger us as we try to move forward. Fear is one such enemy. Another is carnal desire, which speaks to our inclination to embrace comfort rather than challenge. When I become aware of a deficiency in my spiritual life or sense that all is not right with my heart, I often will attempt to fill the gap with food, TV, sex, or sleep rather than taking the difficult steps toward growth.
Hilton’s description of temptation as a group of menacing thugs resonates with me. He personifies these temptations so that we will grasp their danger. There is nothing abstract about them; they are true enemies of our journey. Sidling up to us, these enemies begin with flattery. Maybe no one else sees how hard you’ve been working, but we do. You deserve to take it easier. Seeing us waver, they grow bolder, trying to convince us that the way is just too difficult. Finally, our foes pronounce, “And therefore turn home again and leave this desire, for you will never carry it through to the end.”
The twentieth-century mystic and theologian Howard Thurman notes that not just enemies, but also the demands of daily life, can wreak havoc on our journey. In one of his meditations, he describes a weakening of the “high resolve” with which he began his own spiritual path:
There was no intent to betray what seemed so sure at the time. My response was whole, clean, authentic. But little by little, there crept into my life the dust and grit of the journey. Details, lower-level demands, all kinds of crosscurrents—nothing momentous, nothing overwhelming, nothing flagrant—just wear and tear. If there had been some direct challenge—a clear-cut issue—I would have fought it to the end, and beyond.
Thurman writes that he asked God to “keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that . . . I may not forget that to which my life is committed.”
Walter Hilton and Howard Thurman help us to see why all spiritual pilgrims from time to time feel tempted to turn back. Enemies and daily wear and tear sound the siren call of Egypt. There is no shame in hearing this call. Our pilgrim mentor Felix Fabri heard it, and so will we. Our resolve, like Felix’s, might weaken. Sometimes, we may even have to step away from the path for a bit. Our backpack becomes so heavy that we must set it down.
Such pauses are a normal part of the pilgrimage process, says spiritual writer Christine Valters Paintner. Setting down our backpack does not mean that we’re failing or that we’ve lost our faith, she assures us. It simply means that we’re human. “The problem is not with the waning of our inner fire and perseverance,” she writes. “We are human beings and go through times of dryness.” But we don’t pause forever. Paintner continues: “What becomes soul killing is not returning at all . . . We need practices to act as touchstones so they can sustain us during our journey.”
A key practice, Paintner finds, involves “beginning again.” We should expect to falter and be willing to rejoin the path as many times as it takes. This practice is rooted in the wisdom of Saint Benedict of Nursia, often called the “father of Western monasticism.” Benedict called his rule for monasteries a “little rule for beginners.” I appreciate the gentleness of this practice. Sometimes it is just what I need, especially when I try to convince myself that I shouldn’t need periods of rest or resetting. At these times, I remember that I may (temporarily) leave the path, but the path is still there, waiting for me. I can always begin again.
Sometimes, though, I need a bit more prodding. I need the fire of Howard Thurman’s meditation or Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, which offer bold advice for persevering on the pilgrimage road. Thurman suggests that we pray for resolve, while Hilton tells us to talk back to our spiritual enemies. Let’s explore in more detail what Hilton means by this unusual piece of advice. When we are tempted to turn away from our path, Hilton writes, we should first say to ourselves, “I want to be in Jerusalem.” Recalling our goal, we refuse to be distracted or to give in to fear-mongering. If our enemies persist in their badgering, we should speak directly to them. We turn up the volume and confront them with these words: “I am nothing; I have nothing; I desire nothing but the love of Jesus alone.”
This phrase, Hilton writes, puts humility and love in our heart. “Humility says, I am nothing; I have nothing. Love says, I desire only one thing, and that is Jesus.” This humility is not a devaluation of ourselves, but a way to inspire greater confidence in Jesus. Taken together, Hilton’s words give us courage by reminding us—and our enemies—why we are making our pilgrimage. We want to be in Jerusalem.
In his book, Hilton repeats this phrase three times, with slight variations. For those on a spiritual pilgrimage, it’s his number-one piece of advice for staying the course. The meditative nature of Hilton’s phrase, coupled with its repetition, has the quality of a mantra—a short, repeated saying meant to boost concentration or awareness. While mantras are often associated with Eastern religions, the Christian contemplative tradition has short sayings and prayers that are intended for a similar purpose.
Christian contemplation includes a variety of practices: lectio divina, or sacred reading; imaginative gospel meditation, in the vein of Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises; and resting in silence with God. This third practice is often called contemplative or centering prayer. Centering prayer typically uses a single word, which Trappist monk and priest Basil Pennington calls a love word, to be repeated or held in awareness as a person sits silently with God. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a fourteenth-century contemplative guide, advises choosing a very simple word, such as God. One could also use Jesus or maranatha. Pennington writes, “I know a very beautiful sister for whom the prayer word is ‘let go.’” The point is not the word itself, but the way in which it announces our intention to be present to God or helps us return to God when our attention wanders.
Another prayer mantra is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” This mantra originated in the early centuries of Eastern Christianity and also forms the central prayer of the nineteenth-century book The Way of a Pilgrim. It is meant to be recited at intervals and then as a matter of habit. Through this practice, the Jesus Prayer becomes rooted in a pilgrim’s heart and mind, helping her to pray continually and remain focused on the inner path.
Alongside the love word and the Jesus Prayer, Walter Hilton’s affirmation is a short burst of encouragement we can put in our scrip and repeat on our pilgrimage. “I am nothing; I have nothing; I desire nothing but the love of Jesus alone.”
Once, when leading a retreat, I asked participants to repeat this mantra as they walked the labyrinth on the retreat grounds. We found that it helped focus the mind while following the slow and winding course to our “Jerusalem” at the center of the path. If you enjoy labyrinths or meditative walks, Hilton’s mantra can be an effective aid for these journeys.
I also pause and recite Hilton’s mantra when the going gets rough during the course of a regular day. It slows me down. It quiets my mind. It reminds me that I am a pilgrim on my way to Jerusalem. You, my fellow travelers, might find it useful, too. Say Hilton’s mantra to remind yourself where you’re going and why. Say it often, because you will need it often. “I am nothing; I have nothing; I desire nothing but the love of Jesus alone.” These words will not take away the hardships of your journey. They will not prevent you from yearning to turn back. But they might give you courage to stay the course. They will remind you that you can attain your heart’s desire.