Richard Rolle was born in Yorkshire and was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich. By nature he had questions about everything, especially about the meaning of life. Although not a Franciscan himself, he was one with them in his love of God and delight in poverty and simplicity. His desire was always to know God rather than to know about God.
The exact date of Richard Rolle’s birth is uncertain although we know that he was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich and Walter Hilton (around 1300). He was born at Thornton le Dale near Pickering in Yorkshire and it is probable that his parents were poor for they were glad to have the help of the Archdeacon of Durham, Pastor Thomas de Neville, when Richard was at Oxford.
He was probably 14 when he went to Oxford and he must have found the city much different from his beloved Yorkshire moors. Rather than the space he was used to, he found himself living in narrow streets of timbered houses and low Norman towers with the spire of St Mary’s overtopping the rest.
The history of the university at this time is one of turbulence and disorder and has been referred to as ‘seething masses over which no control could be exercised’ and that ‘students were subject to little or no discipline and for economics were living in inns or hostels’.
Richard, we are told, was given every opportunity for study. He made great progress and his five or six years spent in Oxford must have been among the most interesting and varied of his life. As he grew, he naturally questioned all kinds of things. What was the meaning of life? There were all sorts of problems to be worked through, but Rolle’s desire was always to know God rather than to know about God. In a way he had a dread of learning and, although not a Franciscan, was with them in their love of God and their delight in poverty and simplicity.
There is no evidence that Rolle had affairs during his time in Oxford, though Dr Horsman, writing on Rolle during this period, says: ‘It seems he passed through an early love with all its bodily consequences’ and specifies the young woman as being the same who continued to haunt his imagination.
Rolle certainly loved beauty and desired beautiful women. In his writings he warned others to be careful, for ‘the beauty of women beguiles many men. Flee women wisely and always keep thy thoughts far from them’. Rolle himself passed through more than one temptation and in Incendium Amoris (The Fire of Love), he relates how he was rightly reproved by three women because he was too familiar with them.
However conflicting the reasons might have been why he left Oxford, he is clear he is being called to solitude in the ‘wilderness’, as he often called it.
Song and singing are dominant notes in his mysticism. ‘The high love of Christ stands in three things – in heat, song and sweetness’ and, like St Francis, he sings for love.
We have the delightful story of his persuading his sister to meet him:
After he had returned from Oxford to his father’s house, he said one day to his sister, who loved him with tender affection: ‘My beloved sister, thou hast two tunics which I greatly covet, one white and the other grey. Therefore, I ask thee if thou wilt kindly give them to me, and bring them tomorrow to the wood nearby, together with my father’s rain-hood.’ She agreed willingly and the next day, according to her promise, carried them to the said wood, being quite ignorant of what was in her brother’s mind. And when he had received them, he straight-away cut off the sleeves from the grey tunic and the buttons from the white and, as he could, he fitted the sleeves to the white tunic so that they might in some manner be suited to their purpose. Then he took off his own clothes with which he was clad and put on his sister’s tunic next to his skin but the grey, with the sleeves cut out, he put over it and put his arms through the holes which had been cut; and he covered his head with the rain-hood aforesaid, so that in some measure, as far as then was in his power, he might present a certain likeness to a hermit. But when his sister saw this she was astounded and cried: ‘My brother is mad! My brother is mad!’ Whereupon he drove her from him with threats and fled himself at once without delay lest he should be seized upon by his friends and acquaintances.
To us it might sound mad but the description of the dress is similar to that which the Austin hermits wore and Richard would have been familiar with these. He took off across the moors and stopped some 24 miles away at Dalton or Topcliffe. It was the eve of the Assumption and he went into the church to pray. He was so rapt in prayer that he was unaware when the lady of the Manor and her sons entered for Vespers. Rolle was praying in her pew but she prevented him from being disturbed or moved.
After the service, her sons recognised him as a fellow student from Oxford. We’re not told where he spent the night (he could have spent it in prayer) but in the morning he was in a surplice and serving at Mass. After the gospel, with the celebrant’s blessing, he preached a wonderful sermon, one of such virtue and power that the congregation was moved to tears and many people said they had never heard the like before.
After Mass, John Le Dalton, Squire of the village and constable of Pickering Castle, took Rolle home for a meal. On reaching the house, Richard ran off to a garret room. It’s possible that he became frightened that this old friend of his father’s would try to stop his plan. However, he was found and ate a meal in silence. John of Dalton told him to stay afterwards and talk. Rolle admitted that he had become a hermit without his father’s knowledge and against his wishes because he loved God more than he loved his earthly father. John believed in Rolle’s calling and helped him by providing food, clothing and shelter so that he could test his vocation.
Being a hermit in the fourteenth century was nothing unusual and in Yorkshire alone there were a 100 (there were also 14 great abbeys, 10 priories, 30 friaries, 13 cells and 20 collegiate churches). Rolle though did not attach himself to any eremitical order but struck out a free and independent course for himself. His rules were self-imposed, although later when he wrote the Regula Heremitarum (Rule for Hermits), he certainly had the hope of forming some kind of community of hermits.
The beginning of his life as a hermit was not easy, as he was faced with God himself and all kinds of temptations. He wrote that the fiend is never tired of bringing our old sins to mind. This time of purgation lasted almost three years and Rolle described it as a time of great hardship of body and mind.
Then followed the time of his mystical experiences. He nearly always spoke of mystical experience in terms of love. Rolle experienced what he called the ‘heat of everlasting love’ and talked of this experience lasting for some nine months. Not only did he liken the union to heat (the fire of love) but also to song and sweetness. He said:
…and while my whole heart and all my desires were engrossed in prayer and heavenly things, suddenly, I know not how, I felt within a symphony of song and I overheard a most delightful heavenly harmony, which remained in my mind. For straightaway, while I meditated, my thoughts were turned into melody of song and for meditation I, as it were, sang songs.
Unlike St Teresa or St John of the Cross, Rolle gives no guidelines for us to follow and very seldom makes any effort to clarify his thoughts or arrange his ideas in order. However, he was a prolific writer in both Latin and English.
It has always been a question as to whether he ever became a priest as there is no record of his ever having received Holy Orders. In his later life, we know he directed the anchoress Margaret Kirkby and acted as if he were chaplain to the nuns at Hampole Convent. Perhaps a sentence from Melos Amoris (Melody of Love) gives us the answer: ‘Unless I had always received the Saviour’s blood for my strengthening…’ So he did receive communion, whereas lay people hardly ever received and never, at this time, received the chalice.
Death seems to have come to Rolle in ministering to others when the plague, the Black Death, broke out in Yorkshire in 1349. In Yorkshire alone three quarter of the population died. For Richard Rolle though, death would come as a friend. He wrote:
For as all that I had in this world or of this world is ended, nought is left but thou lead my soul to another world where my treasure is most precious, and my substance richest and unfailingly abides. Wherefore I shall live without default, I shall joy without sorrow, I shall love without irksomeness, and loving Thee, seeing Thee and joying in Thee, I shall endlessly be fed. Thou art my treasure and all the desire of my heart, and because of Thee I shall perfectly see Thee for then I shall have Thee.
Although after his death twenty-seven healing miracles were recorded and the few remaining nuns of Hampole began to draw up an Office, canonisation never proceeded, probably because after the plague there were so few clergy left even to attend to the most urgent needs.
Rolle had an artistic temperament but with both feet firmly planted on the ground. He was not afraid of speaking out and was disliked by many.
His constant theme was that of love. The fire of love, of which he never ceased to teach and sing, is the refiner’s fire. First, it must burn and scorch the soul with hot flames until purified by long purgation. It so enlightens the soul that there, as in a mirror, one can see the image of Christ. In his book The Fire of Love, written in 1343 and probably his most well-known work, the loving of God is mentioned over 800 times. As Rolle said: ‘No creature can love God too much.’ He believed that one can see how good a person is by how much they love.
There are no half measures for Rolle as he cannot envisage love for the world coexisting with love for God. He believed that in the end the stronger would drive out the weaker. The nature of love is that it is diffusive, unifying and transforming. It is diffusive when it flows out and sheds the rays of its goodness not merely on friends and neighbours, but on enemies and strangers as well. It unites because it makes lovers one in deed and will and draws into one, Christ and every holy soul. Those who hold onto God are one in spirit with him, not by nature but by grace and identity of will. Love has also the power of transforming, for it transforms the lover into the beloved and makes him dwell in him. Thus it happens that when the fire of the Holy Spirit really gets hold of the heart, it sets it wholly on fire and, so to speak, turns it into flame, leading it into that state in which it is most like God.
Rolle was so concerned with God’s love that words poured out of him in song and prose:
Love is a burning yearning in God, with a wonderful delight and certainty. Love is the fairest of all virtues. Love is the thing through which God loves us and we God and each of us the other. Love is the desire of the heart, always thinking of whom it loves; and when it has whom it loves, then it joys and nothing can make it sorry. Love is a stirring of the soul to love God for himself and all other things for God. Love is perfection of learning, virtue of prophecy, fruit of truth, health of sacraments, establishment of wisdom and knowledge, riches of poor men, life of dying men. Without it no man can please God, with it no man sins. His heart shall so burn in love that it shall be turned into the fire of love.
Rolle was not a great poet or songwriter but, as he said, he sought to forsake all things that looked to vanity, so that he could be ravished to sing in songful and tuneful melody. ‘Good Jesus you have bound my heart to think of your name and now I cannot but sing it.’
He constantly linked together heat, song and sweetness, though the heavenly melody or song is linked most closely with what he called the 3rd degree of love. The 1st degree he calls insuperable – the longing for love. The 2nd inseparable, when one’s love is wholly fastened on Jesus and never departs. The 3rd degree is singular and, as he wrote:
He or she who is in this degree can feel the fire burn in their soul as thou canst feel thy finger burn if thou puttest it in the fire, and like the nightingale that loves song and melody and falls (dies) for great love, so the soul is only comforted in loving and praising God. In this state of life, so perfect, the soul is, as it were, keeping a perpetual feast with the praises of God in its mouth with a new song of joy and love.
Rolle doesn’t give great plans for teaching prayer but says: ‘The fire of his Holy Spirit shall be in you, leading and teaching you.’ Rolle is very Christ-centred and emphasised the need for Christians to ‘hold fast to the name of Jesus and think of it always’. In The Form of Living, he writes:
If thou thinkest of Jesus continually and holdest it firmly, it purges thy sin and kindles thy heart, it clarifies thy soul and removes anger, it chases the devil and puts out dread, it opens heaven and makes a contemplative way,’
and in The Fire of Love he writes:
I shall think of this full sweet name holding it, joying, in my mind. Nothing is merrier than Jesus to sing, nothing more delightful than Jesus to hear.
Rolle also suggests saying the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer privately, emphasising the quality of the offering rather than the quantity:
It is better to say 7 Psalms desiring Christ’s love, having your heart in your praying, than 700 allowing your thoughts to pass in the vanities of bodily things.
In the 13th century, devotion to Our Lady started coming into prominence. When Rolle mentions the mother of God, we find always a tender note of love and reverence but direct references are few.
We’re told that Rolle himself was often so absorbed in his prayer that nothing disturbed him. Once his cloak was removed from him, patched and replaced without his noticing. Rolle’s personal asceticism was severe. He wrote:
In my nakedness I was assaulted by the bites of flies which no comfortable covering prevented from walking over me and my skin became rough with ingrained dirt, and yet in warm weather I was tormented by heat among men who were enjoying shade, and at other times my teeth chattered with cold. While those who flourish like the grass make holiday, I am tortured with thirst.
Yet he freely admits to having eaten delicacies, although not because he loved them, rather simply to sustain his body. For others, he teaches moderation:
Better for him slightly to exceed the limit if it is done in ignorance and with intention of sustaining thy body, than that he should falter by over-strict fasting and through weakness be unable to sing. (Abstinence was to him a means to holiness.)
The passion of Our Lord was very real to people in medieval England and no less so to Rolle who vividly portrays Christ’s suffering:
The flesh where the cross rubs is all raw, the blains and blisters wan and blue, the pain of the burden hangs on you sorely that each foot that you go stings to the heart.
Your wounds burst and ran sore out, that entirely shackled your body hung.
Jesus that dydest on the rood for the love of me
And boughtest me with Thy blood
Thou have mercy on me.
So, what has Rolle to offer us in the 21st century? Today we are so tied up with theological arguments and questions that I personally find his simplicity refreshing and I can identify with his quest to know God rather than to know about God. He certainly didn’t sit on the fence. Although he was a hermit, he had many friends and knew the fashions of the day:
The women of today need to be rebuked, for to adorn their heads as well as their bodies they have invented new fashions of great and fantastic conceit and have introduced these concoctions so as to strike spectators with horror and amazement! Not only are they going against the word of the apostle with their gold, and braided hair (slaves as they are to show and licence!), but further, against human propriety and God-ordered nature, their wide-spreading horns on their heads, extremely horrible, made up of hair not their own.
He encouraged friendship even if between a man and a woman it might be perilous:
True friendship is a comfort, an increase of holiness, lessening of slander and the multiplying of a good we need. A friend is drawn by healthful counsel. Holy friendship, because that has medicine for all wretchedness, is not to be despised. So we be comforted with the counsel and help of friends until we come to him.
I think, too, we can learn from the joy that springs into praise, for all too often we go around looking very miserable. To have the name of Jesus on our lips and in our hearts is very much a part of our prayer in this day and age. I feel Julian of Norwich knew some of his works as his words are reflected in her writing. What I am sure about is that both would agree that ‘Love is Our Lord’s meaning’. Let us finish with one last quote from Rolle:
It is enough for thee to know that God is, knowing him to love him, loving him to sing in him, singing to rest in him and by inward rest to come to endless rest.
And now my brothers I have told you how I came to the fire of love, not in order that you shall praise me but rather that you might glorify God.
Sr Pamela CAH