Thursday, January 20, 2022

The strange visions of Richard Rolle

Today (20 Jan) is the commemoration of Richard Rolle of South Yorkshire – one of the great English divines of the last millennium - and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you’ve never heard of him!  However, if you had lived in England in 15th Century, you would certainly have been familiar with him.  He was one of the most widely read English writers at that time.  His works survive in nearly four hundred English manuscripts, and at least seventy on the Continent.  In the 15th Century, he was better known, and more widely read, than even Chaucer – not least by a population who were keen to understand how to live a more holy, Christian life.  In the 15th Century, Rolle was the ‘go-to Christian writer’, much like C.S. Lewis might be to us today.

Rolle was a hermit, who set himself apart from the world in order to draw closer to God.  As time went on he became less and less interested in earthly matters.  His focus shifted towards his knowledge of God, and on how that knowledge might be constantly deepened.   Among his best known works is a book called ‘The Fire of Love’, in which Rolle gives an account of his more mystical experiences.  He describes these as being of three kinds: first, a ‘physical warmth’ in his body, secondly, ‘a sense of wonderful sweetness’ and thirdly ‘a heavenly music’ that he said accompanied him as he chanted the Psalms.  

Mystical experiences like these are common among saints and divines throughout history.  These days, we might be more tempted to wonder whether they were also people with very active imaginations, or perhaps even afflicted by some kind of hallucinatory psychosis.  But, as with all the great mystical writers, if it was true that they experienced hallucinations, it is also true that they had the wisdom, and the deep rooting of faith, to interpret their dreams and visions in positive life-giving ways.

It’s a challenge, without years of study and a knowledge of 14th century English for modern readers to easily get to the heart of what Richard Rolle taught.  But I’d like to offer you some of his more famous sayings, translated into contemporary language – in the hope that you can at least glimpse his wisdom, and his heart.  Much of his theological wisdom was focused on Love, and specifically the love between God and human beings.  He wanted to help his readers to grow in that love, and to make that love the very centre of their existence.  So, he said things like…

“Your love is Singular (that is, special or unique) when all your delight is in Jesus Christ, and when you can find no joy or comfort in any other thing”.  Rolle encourages us to make Jesus the object and the focus of our love – such that nothing else on earth can give us the same joy or comfort.  We know what he means, don’t we?  All of us, I daresay, have focused on love on another person, to find that they let us down in some way or another.  Or we’ve imagined that we can find joy or comfort in acquiring some new possession, or job, or honour, or gift.  But over time, the joy and comfort of such things fades.  But a love which is exercised, focused and directed towards Jesus will never fail.  It will always be ‘singular’, to use Rolle’s word.  Unique, special, delightful.  

Rolle expands on this theme in this quote (which again I’ve updated in its language): “Lord Jesu, I ask you, give me movement without measure in your love; desire without limit; longing without order, burning without discretion.  Truly, the better the love of you is, the greedier it is; for neither by reason is it restrained, nor by dread distressed, nor by doom tempted”.  Speaking out of his hours of contemplating God, his daily recitation of the Psalms, his practice of always seeking God and loving God, Rolle has found that his desire for God’s love has become, in his word, greedy!  I’m reminded of a saying of Martin Luther, who wished that his love for God could be like the fixed gaze of his family dog upon a piece of meat.  “Ah!” commented Luther, “if only I could pray the way that dog looks at meat. All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, wish, or hope.”

Writers like Rolle can be a little disheartening to us, can’t they – or perhaps a little intimidating?  We might wish that we too could give up all our earthly comforts to live the life of hermit, entirely focused on God from morning till night.  But the reality is that few of us are built that way.  I know I’m not.  Life without a little home comfort (and things to keep me busy) would quickly be intolerable to me.  We should not feel guilty that God doesn’t call everyone to the hermit’s life – it’s an extreme way of living, indeed.  But hermits, like Rolle, can help us to see possibilities.  They can encourage us to take at least a step towards the kind of deep, profound union that they find with God.  They can advise us about where to put our focus and our attention – even amid the pressures of normal life.

In Rolle’s case, I think his most helpful line might be this:  “For love is a wilful stirring of our thoughts unto God…that is the perfection of this life”.  Can you see what Rolle is suggesting?  He wants us to understand that loving God is primarily an act of WILL.  We can choose to love God.  Love is not an emotion, nor even a mystical feeling – although both may be experienced along the path of love.  It is primarily a decision, and act of saying ‘this I will do’.  A daily decision to put one foot in front of the other towards the final destination of being caught up in the love, and the embrace of God.

I hope Rolle has encouraged you today, as he has me, to direct your energies, your mind and your will towards loving God, just a little more devotedly, each day.  Amen.

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