Richard Rolle was an English hermit and spiritual writer born at Yorkshire. He began his studies at Oxford, but desiring to be a hermit, he broke off his studies at Oxford at the age of eighteen, and returned to his native Yorkshire and stayed on the estate of his friend John Dalton and in various other places, where he spent the time in prayer, guiding people and writing on spiritual matters. Later, he attached himself to a Cistercian community where he died in 1349, probably from plague. Miracles occurred at his tomb, but despite efforts to have him beatified, the formal process was never completed. He left a substantial body of writing, but the most influential one was The Fire of Love, on the theme of contemplation, composed around the year 1343. All his writings, he said, was greatly influenced by his own experiences and so his understanding of contemplation, as depicted in The Fire of Life is immensely valuable. Thus, in the prologue to the work he describes an experience that he had as he sat in the chapel; he experienced a burning that was not imagined, but real “as if it were being done by a physical fire.” Burning heat boiled up in his soul, bringing with it, “unprecedented comfort.” When he recognized that this heat was not earthly in origin, he “melted rejoicing” in the intensity of what he now knew to be spiritual heat. “I had not thought” he exclaims, “such ardour could come interiorly to anyone in this exile, for it inflamed my soul in such a way that it was just as if elemental fire burned in me.”
The great obstacle to the attainment of such rapture, of course, is the flesh, which interrupts contemplative tranquillity with the needs of the body, human love and the concerns of the worldly exile. But spiritual love will burn away mortal concerns, and therefore, he calls it fire. This “fire of God” is offered to the unsophisticated and untaught of the world, not to the theologians, ensnared in infinite questionings or the worldly wise. The very first condition Richard sets his readers, therefore, is that they flee all earthly rank, hate all the “ostentation and empty glory of learning” and living strictly in poverty, “place themselves in love of God by praying and meditating.” The forty two chapters that make up the work circle around these themes.
Rejection of the world is the point of departure for the spiritual search. Having abandoned the vanity of the world and having become dedicated to spiritual exercise, the seeker must also be a contemplative. Granted that some worldly ecclesiastics are better than some contemplatives, nevertheless, the best contemplatives surpass the best actives. In particular Richard speaks against the idea that God can be studied, revealed through efforts of the human mind, known in usual intellectual sense. He insists every where on the vastness of God, His mystery, and His ineffability. We are presumptuous when we think the human mind an adequate instrument for the discovery of the infinite spirit. The results of such human presumption are vainglory, pride of self, and confusion. Theologians are doomed in their efforts from the start, for “he knows God perfectly who understands him to be incomprehensible.” Richard uses the metaphor of “burning” constantly. The burning that he insists upon is the ardour of the soul for God, the beloved. The imagery is pervasively sexual and is substantiated by relevant biblical quotations and allusions. Christ is the love and the soul is the beloved, burning with desire and with expectations of the supreme joys to come. While Richard is not so daring in spiritual sexuality as for instance John Donne, neither does he try to overlook or disguise the core of his metaphor. Indeed, so important is the love of God that its chief rival on earth, love of women, becomes again and again the topic of discussion. While Richard insists that friendship with women is possible, he considers it greatly hazardous to the contemplative life and best avoided to the extent possible. Richard was often criticized by his contemporaries for propagating an unduly subjective religion and for defending the solitary life in extreme and polemical terms.
(Professor of Church History
at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)