Richard Rolle is one of our least known mystics, but in medieval times he was more widely read than Chaucer. Hazel Sillver looks at the devout hermit who has been dubbed the English St Francis.
Today Yorkshire isn’t famed for its mystics, but in medieval times it was a spiritual heartland. Being so vast and unpopulated, it attracted those seeking the solitude that led to God. The three Ridings were dotted with umpteen abbeys and priories, and many anchorites and hermits lived there, the most famous of them being Richard Rolle (also known as Richard of Hampole).
Not many people have heard of this Yorkshireman, who is thought to have been born around 1290-1300 at Thornton-le-Dale, but in the 14th and 15th centuries, he was a famous figure and his book The Fire of Love was more widely read than Chaucer!
Rolle’s modern-day low status could be put down to many of his writings being out of print and in turn that may be because he often takes the medieval tone of brutal judgment and condemnation of anyone who wasn’t devoting all their time to God, as he was. He could also be very misogynistic.
That aside, Rolle was a fascinating character and at the heart of his writings is a highly beneficial message of love.
Having been born into a poor farming family, Rolle was sponsored to study at Oxford from the age of fourteen by the Archdeacon of Durham. At this time the city of Oxford was rather unclean, rather cold and, because relations between the English, Welsh and Irish weren’t amiable, it was dangerous too. There were students from all over Britain and Europe and some carried weapons.
Perhaps this was the reason Rolle left early. It was said that he ‘made great progress’, but he returned to Yorkshire at the age of 19, without finishing his MA. Some scholars believe, from what he has written, that there was an incident involving a woman, which made him leave. Since he forever refers to ‘the sins of the flesh’, this seems likely.
Yet another reason for his fleeing Oxford could have been his dislike of philosophy. Rolle repeatedly made it clear in his writings that he couldn’t abide the arrogance of ‘the learned’. His belief was that God cannot be known via intellectual thought, reason or discussion: ‘To know God perfectly is to say he is incomprehensible,’ he said.
The main positive of Oxford was the strong presence of the Franciscans there (including William of Ockham) and it seems that their way of loving God in poverty and simplicity both brought out and carved Rolle’s faith. Indeed, he has even been dubbed ‘the English St Francis’ by some.
From Oxford, Rolle went to his Father’s house, but soon left having been labelled ‘mad’ by his family. He travelled across country to Topcliffe church, where he delivered a moving sermon that led to him being given shelter (and eventually his own hermitage) in the house of a squire. He stayed there for three years. After this it is unclear what Rolle did – some evidence suggests he went to Paris to study theology at the Sorbonne, since the university has records of a Richardus de Hampole enrolling in 1320.
Perhaps it was this that sparked his loathing of intellectualising God. He didn’t write of a time spent in Paris, so we will never know. It’s likely that Rolle lived most of his life as a hermit in what he called the ‘wilderness’, loving the solitude of the countryside, as St Francis did. We also know that he spent a lot of time at the Cistercian nunnery at Hampole, where he was director and where he is buried.
In his blessed solitude, Rolle continually experienced what he called ‘the fire of the Holy Spirit’.
‘Words fail me to express that first feeling when my heart grew warm,’ he wrote. ‘That was no figment of the imagination, but, as it were, a real physical fire. I was truly astonished as the burning in my soul flared up. It brought with it such a rare feeling of wellbeing. I have often searched my breast to see whether this heat had some external cause! When, however, I realised that this fire of love was kindled only from within, that it was not brought about by any fleshly desire, but was a spiritual gift from my Creator, rising in me and locking me in, I was only too happy to dissolve into more of this abundant love.’
He would experience this fire on and off throughout the course of his life. Whenever the flames died down or went out, Rolle put it down to his own mind, which had drifted away from God into fear, anger, lethargy, desire or mundane thoughts of everyday external things. But if he refocused himself on God, the sensation would return. ‘I, stone cold and desolate, await its return,’ he wrote. ‘(Then) I once more experience that feeling of fire deep inside, permeating my whole being, body and soul, and know that I am home.’
In conjunction with the warmth of love, Rolle would experience divine song when he was united with God: ‘These are the sounds of eternal praise and the sweetness of unheard melody. Such sounds cannot be known or heard except by the person experiencing it.’
This ‘song’, he suggests, is the state of a mind so in love with the divine that it thinks of nothing else. When he writes in this vein, he reminds us of the medieval Sufi poets, who spoke of the music of worship.
‘Their outlook is changed,’ says Rolle, of those whose focus is holy. ‘Their mind passes into everlasting song; their thoughts from now on are made into song, sorrow having been flung out. Their soul’s inner room fills with music most wonderful.’
In his writing, he repeatedly encourages us to focus our attention on Christ, learning to hone our minds, instead of letting them drift. This brings the Lord close or, rather, we are able to sense his closeness (for He is everywhere), turning all our disquiet to peace. ‘The presence of my Beloved brings the greatest joy and confidence,’ wrote Rolle, ‘and with him I forget all my trouble.’