Best known works: Incendio Amoris (The Fire of Love), written c. 1343, and Deemendatione Vitae (The Mending of Life), c. 1320s, both composed in Latin. The first English edition of the Fire of Love was translated by Richard Misyn and published in 1435. Sections of the Latin edition were published in the Officium prepared by the nuns of Hampole for Rolle's canonization, an event which never took place. (Testimonies of miracles compiled for consideration of the latter show that the best means for asking favours from Richard were to have candles, custom made to one's height, burn in petition. The relation to "fire" apparently was confusing for some.)
Author Karen Armstrong speaks of Richard as one who was confirmed in whatever errors he had because he would not listen to anyone else, and any review of his most famous works confirms this strongly. The Mending of Life, composed when Richard was a very young man, shows clear anger (however justifiable) at the deficiencies of many within the Church, indeed bordering on disgust. Yet it does seem strange that, in the Fire of Love, a mystic who was now bordering on what (for his day, not ours) would seem an advanced age expresses the same sentiments. Perhaps his own idealism and dedication, in the tradition so common amongst "two-edged swords," prevented Richard from conceding that those with whom we disagree may still have much to teach us, and his tendency, powerfully shown in his writings, to judge others in an "all or nothing" fashion comparable to his own, was not improved by maturity.
Evelyn Underhill compares Richard to Francis of Assisi, but that analogy seems a bit strained. Poet, musician, and mystic though Francis was, His image of the God he adored would remain, first to last, that of the Perfect Love which rescued Francis from his own blindness. Francis was an enthusiastic "herald of the great king," yet saw himself mainly, if not exclusively, as a penitent. Many of Francis's writings show that his attitude was that, if he, who had been such a sinner (and still could be!), had been so blessed, anyone who was exposed to "the fragrant words of My Lord" would be inclined to embrace the gospel message merely by the hearing.
Francis, knowing well from his own experience how self-deception could cloud the Christian vision, was firm, even severe, in chastening his friars, but had too much awareness of his own weakness to be concerned with pointing out that of others outside of the correction that was an expression of fraternal charity. Avid preachers that they were, Franciscan friars were to address errors not by focussing on others' faults but on presenting the contrary virtues.
Though Richard was no stranger to the importance of poverty of spirit, and poured out his love for God with no less intensity (and far better style) than did Francis, his image of divine grace's action in his own life was of quite another sort. He informs his readers that, within a period of three years beginning in his late teens, he had gone through the classic purgative and illuminative ways of the spiritual life, then reaching infused contemplation. Selections from his writings can be quite awe-inspiring, yet his works as a whole have a highly critical, indeed angry, tone. He criticises not particular words or actions of others, but rather condemns the entire "group" - whether the scholastics, towards whom he had a pronounced aversion, or the Franciscans whom he saw as deceitful, or just about anyone else in whom he could see a gap between ideal and practise. (Considering that, for eternity, such a gap would exist for everyone in existence, to win Richard's approval would be obviously futile.)
If Francis's deficiency was in being so unaware of his great gifts that he over-estimated others' capability for understanding and adapting the message of the gospel, Richard's was in quite another direction. Francis was a great mystic who saw himself as a lowly penitent. Richard, by contrast, was all too aware (one is tempted to say, rather smug about) his own higher calling.
Francis's conception of God, so often expressed in relation to the humanity of Christ, presented images which would have a great appeal, and consequent understanding, in those he served. Richard's God is strictly the transcendent. Ironically, doctrine can be unwittingly absent in some Franciscan devotions because of the very stress on Jesus's humanity, and the divine Logos who Richard would have contemplated indeed meets theological definitions. But Richard's is the God who is light, fire, the Yahweh before whose presence Moses would stand. Without Moses's awareness of a God who works in spite of the weakness of a creation he must forever rescue, a substantial part of the total picture is missing.
Richard's approach seems to be one so focussed on heaven that earth is intolerable. The Church is not a community of other sinners, but largely a mass of people with awareness and dedication that could not hope to match his own. It is interesting that, even in his early life, Richard has no doubts of his own perception and discernment, where most mystics were most cautious about both of these. For example, the decision that he has reached infused contemplation seems Richard's exclusive observation, and one he never stopped for a moment to question.
Richard's contribution, both to mystic
writings and to theology, is undeniable. Yet his works are vaguely
because he seems one who came very close to holiness but could not
make that final step of resignation. His heart reached out to divine
but he could not reconcile himself to the imperfection of the human
- indeed, assumed that everyone who fell short of his ideal was
blind. Sadly, his own vision was restricted in the process.
Rolle, Richard (del Mastro, M.L.,
Mending of Life
Chapter 3, page 53:
What is "poverty
of spirit" but the humility of spirit by which a man recognises his own
infirmity? Seeing himself unable to attain to perfect stability, except
by the grace of God, he forsakes all those things which are able to
him from that grace which ought to be seized, and he places his desire
in the joy of the Creator alone. And just as from one root many
spring, so from voluntary poverty …. Virtues and inestimably good
This is not like the behaviour of
men(1) who change their tunic and not
soul. On the contrary, these men seem to abandon riches and do not
from gathering innumerable vices. For what is worse than a proud
And what is more execrable than an envious beggar?
Chapter 11, Concerning the Love
God, pages 78-79:
O Holy Spirit, Who breathe where you
come into me and snatch me up to yourself. Fortify the nature you have
created, with gifts so flowing with honey that, from intense joy in
sweetness, it may despise and reject all which is in this world, that
may accept (you giving them), spiritual gifts, and through melodious
it may entirely melt in holy love, reaching out for uncircumscribed
Burn my inmost being with your fire,
my heart will burn on your altar forever.
Come, I beg you, O sweet and true
Come O most desired sweetness! Come my Beloved, who are my whole
to my soul languishing for your sake and toward you, and slip into it
most sweetly flowing love. Set ablaze with your heat the penetrable
of my heart and, by illumining its inmost places with your light, feed
the whole with the honey-flowing joy of your love, in order to snatch
mind and body.
…Love, moreover, does not allow the
soul to remain inside itself. Rather, love carries the soul outside
toward the Beloved, so that the soul would rather be there, where it
than where the body (which feels and lives by it) is.
Regarding "Three steps to the love
..Love is "insuperable," when it
can be overcome by no other affection, and when it freely rejects all
for the sake of Him. It extinguishes all temptations and carnal desires(2),
when, for the sake of Christ, it endures patiently all confining
and is not overcome by any delectation or flattery(3).
Every labour is easy to a lover, nor does he conquer that labour better
than through love.
Love is, in truth, "inseparable"
when the spirit, already set ablaze by the most vehement love and
to Christ by inseparable thought, at no moment indeed allows Christ to
recede from his memory, but, as if he were tied to Him in heart, he
of Him and he sighs(4) for Him. He cries
out to be held by his love so that He might unchain the shackle of
that he might arrive at Him Whom alone he has desired that he might
And most greatly he honours and loves this name Jesus(5),
in so much that It will continually rest in his spirit. When,
the love of Christ works in the heart of the man who loves God and
the world in contempt, so much that it cannot be overcome by
love, it is called the highest. But when it clings to Christ
by thinking of Him, and by forgetting Him in no action, it is called by
the name "inseparable" and "everlasting."
And what love is able to be greater or
higher than that love, if it is highest and everlasting? For this, the
third step remains, which is called "singular" love. It is one thing to
be alone, and another to be highest, as it is one thing to take the
and another to admit no other as an equal. For we can have many
and, nevertheless, hold a higher place before all of them.
…Love ascends to the "singular stage,"
therefore, when it excludes every consolation except the one which
in Jesus, and when nothing besides Jesus can satisfy it. In this
the established soul loves One - Him alone. He desires Him alone,
Christ. He pants in a single desire, for Him. He sighs for Him; from
he is kindled; in Him, burning, he rests.
Continuing this chapter, page 83:
The lover of Christ, in loving, neither
pays attention to any order nor desires any level, for in the present
however much he has been burning and rejoicing in divine love, he aims
at this - more and more ardently and joyfully to love God. And if he
able to live in this condition always, he would not at any time imagine
that he might be able to stand still and not progress further in love.
But rather, the longer he lived the more fully he would burn in love.
For the God of infinite magnitude, of
goodness, and of unspeakable sweetness which is incomprehensible to any
creature, can, thus, never be comprehended by us as He exists
within Himself. But when the spirit has already begun to burn with
desire for the Creator, it is given a capacity for uncreated light.
by such joy as is allowable to mortals, and, transcending all visible
it is raised up to the sweetness of eternal life. And when, by the
of the Godhead and the heat of Creating Light, it is poured out in a
to the eternal King, offering and accepted, it is wholly consumed.
…Perfect love is shown when the
intention of the spirit, the hidden works of the whole body, are raised
up into divine love; the power of this love is as great as its
and so great is its joy that no joy of the world and no carnal commerce
may be pleasing to it, even if it is licit(6).
The Fire of Love
Prologue - Page 95
I offer this book for consideration not
by philosophers, not by the worldly wise, not by great theologians
in infinite questionings(7), but by the
unsophisticated and untaught(8), who are
trying to love God rather than to know many things. For He is in
and in loving, not in arguing.
Page 141 ff.
Richard's singular "heat,
In the beginning of their conversion,
hermits …. Are wearied by many and diverse temptations. But after the
of wicked impulses, God pours in the serenity of holy desires, so that
if they have worked manfully in weeping, in meditating, and in praying,
in seeking the love of Christ alone, after a short time they seem to
rather to live in delights than in tears of in the anxiety of labour.
For they will have him Whom they
loved(9), Whom they have sought, Whom
have desired. And then they will rejoice and they will not mourn.
what is it to rejoice but to obtain the good one has loved, to meditate
upon Him, to rest in His very Self?
Sweet, certainly, is the joy where lovers truly come together, and the
mutual comforts of touching lovers are present! For the desire of
who love burningly is inexplicable, and their mutual sight and
is sweet to them beyond honey and the honeycomb.
…. Further, as I have been able to
in the Scriptures, I have discovered and recognised for certain that the
highest love of Christ consists in three things: in burning fervour, in
song, and in sweetness. And I, who am an expert, have found that
three are not able to persist for a long time without great quiet in
…When, in truth, in these three things,
which are the signs of the most perfect love, the highest perfection of
the Christian religion is found without any ambiguity, and I, already,
for the small measure of my capacity have received these three (because
Jesus has lavished them on me), I shall pursue this course up to this
by virtue as far as I am able, so that I may love more ardently, sing
liquidly, and experience more fully the sweetness of love….
I call it fervour when my spirit truly
burns with eternal love, and my heart is felt to burn with that kind of
love, not just in my judgement but in reality. For the heart,
in fire, causes the sensation of the fire of love.
I call it song when already in the
burning fervour abounding, the smoothness of eternal praise is taken up
and meditation is transformed into song and the mind lingers in
These two things are not experienced in
idleness, but in the most intense devotion, and from them the third, …
inestimable sweetness, becomes present. For burning fervour and song
marvellous sweetness in the soul, and furthermore, these are able to be
caused on account of the excessive sweetness.
For there isn't any deception in that
forth, but rather the most consummate perfection of all actions…. The
in whom the three things mentioned above run together inwardly remains
impervious to the arrows of the enemy while, meditating on love with an
unchanged intention, she raises herself to the heavens and stirs
1. 1 Possibly a reference to the (heretical?) Franciscan groups, who were creating havoc (just at this time) with arguments regarding poverty. Richard's writings often seem pointed at particular sub-sets of the Church, though his target is more often those of the scholastic school.
2. 2 This statement, on its own, can be taken as dangerously close to a popular heresy of the period, which held that one may reach a point where one is totally incapable of sin. Temptations never cease - but one whose will was turned to God would not yield to the temptation to grave sin, as was discussed in the previous session on the Cloud of Unknowing.
3. 3 Richard makes a number of references to the dangers of "flattery" in his work, though he had more trouble in this department from giving than from receiving. In one section (actually quite harmless and hilarious, but often maintained only in the Latin texts and chopped from the translations), Richard speaks of rebukes he received from three women when he'd made comments about their appearance which made it plain that he was rather more observant than was suitable for a hermit. Naturally, he only had noticed such details in order to caution them against immodesty… admiring fair breasts being a means of warning against the undue exposure that made the comment possible.
Richard's recording (page 135) the words of a woman who told him, "You have nothing except a beautiful face and beautiful talk! You have no performance!" shows the misunderstandings which those called to eremitic life must endure…
4. 4 Richard's being a hermit is undoubtedly the reason he chose this verb, rather than, perhaps, "long". Those who take the command to "sigh" literally do have value, however, as they are a great source of penance to those around them, particularly at Evensong.
5. 5 Devotion to the name of Jesus had been increasingly popular since the 12th century. It was not based merely on loving the name of the Son of God, but on acknowledging him as Saviour, since his name had that specific meaning.
6. 6 There are two general schools of thought in ascetic theology - one being that the end of any action determines its usefulness in one's life, the other, which Richard favours, that pleasures are (not sinful but) distractions if they are not absolutely necessary.
7. 7 Richard's reference, here and in many other places, is obviously to the scholastic theologians, much as many of them cannot be faulted for a lack of love for God. He had no patience with what led to such popular arguments of the day as whether the sacrament of the Eucharist was defiled if consumed by a mouse or exactly what functions the "spiritual bodies" of angels had. Unfortunately, Richard's irritation with others on any level seems to have led to his having no use for any of their thoughts and writings.
8. 8 "Untaught" in mystic theology, presumably, or at the very least in scholastic philosophy. Richard wrote this work entirely in Latin, making it accessible only to the educated.
9. It seems no
accident that Richard is quoting from the Rite for the Consecration of
Virgins, which dates from the 4th century - though this rite
was reserved to women. St. Thomas Aquinas referred to such consecration
(Supplement, 96) as the means to "aureolæ" - particular rewards
to the essential happiness of eternity: "laurel wreaths," crowning
conspicuous victories, and three special points of resemblance to
the victory over the flesh in virginity, the victory over the world in
martyrdom, and the victory over the devil in the preaching of the
(The women who received this rite, in the early centuries, were
deaconesses - by the 14th century, their "preaching" would
been by example. The martyrdom is in dying to self, not necessarily
in the strict sense.) Richard undoubtedly would have loved the imagery,
despite his dislike for the scholastics, which underlines the concept
a particular form of ascetic commitment that is by nature exclusive -
of an intensity that would allow no other options.