The Singing Hermit 1295–1349

Richard Rolle is the first of four English Mystics born in Thornton le Dale near Pickering, North Yorkshire, who, when he was a student at Oxford had an overwhelming spiritual experience which overturned his life. He left Oxford and threw himself at the mercy of his friend John Dalton asking for shelter until he could sort out his calling, which was to be a hermit. He took Richard’s vocation very seriously. He fined him with long habits of rough clothing, sandals and a long warm cloak although it was summertime. He arranged for a shelter for him in the grounds of his estate where he could be quiet and undisturbed where he remained there until his vocation was clearer. He was to go north making Hampole his centre as a hermit, and go from there as a preacher with a song. Yes! he was to give the depressed north a cheerful note. He writes:

Song is the great happiness of thinking of eternal things and eternal joy.
Breaking out into sound of praising
So may we love you our God within a cheerful mood.

His preaching was cheerful.

Preacher and Mystic

Certainly his magnificent voice attracted the congregation and then he put forth his message to good effect. He was widely venerated as a preacher and mystic and was known in England as: ‘Blessed Richard, Confessor and Hermit’ as late as the seventeenth century until Protestantism rose to power.

He was held to be an exponent of ‘affective mysticism’ which depends on sensible experiences in prayer. He describes his prayer as

‘heart, sweetness and song’. He writes: ‘At the beginning of my conversion I thought I wanted to be like the little bird that languishes for love of his beloved, but is gladdener when he that lover comes and sings with joy with him, If the nightingale sings night and day, how much more should I sing with great sweetness to Christ my Jesus that is the spouse of my soul.’ Certainly his voice has a sweetness, which was attractive but brought him also his critics and the suspects.

Richard Rolle’s ecstatic lyrical outpouring of devotion to Jesus is in ornate Latin, translated into Middle English. He describes his experiences of God’s love, although he says that inexpressible joy of God’s love can never be described.

Three degrees

The first degree is called insuperable and means unable to overcome. The second degree is called inseparable and means cannot be separated. The third degree is called singular and means one with God. In the first degree there are many. In the second degree there are few. In the third degree there are scarcely any. For always the greater the perfection the fewer followers it has.

Your love for God is insuperable when nothing that is contrary to God can overcome it. It is stalwart against all temptations, and stable even when you are at ease, anguish, in health or sickness. That you would suffer all that might come and not displease God. In this manner your love is insuperable, nothing can bring it down, but it ever springs up on high. Blessed is he or she that is in this degree, but more blessed to win the next degree, inseparable.

Great grace

Your love is inseparable when heart, thoughts and mind are perfectly set and established in Jesus Christ. In this the Psalmist says, ‘Have I not thought upon thee, when I was waking, because thou hast been my helper.’ There is great grace in this degree.

The third degree is the highest and most wonderful to win, for it has no peer. It sees no other joy than that of Jesus. It is like the nightingale that loves song and melody and is comforted in the praise and singing of God. If you would know what kind of joy this song has, I tell you that no man knows, except he or she that has it. This praise is of heaven and God gives it to whom he wills, but not without great grace coming before.

On the wounds of Christ

Richard Rolle describes the use of the senses to perceive the fragrant perfume of Mystery in the Blessed Sacrament.

By his wounds we are healed.
Sweet Jesus your body is like a meadow
Full of scented flowers and health giving herbs.
Sweetly aromatic for devout soul

Like Anselm his meditation prayers are deeply imbued with Scripture

Sweet Jesus,
Your life is like a book
Send me the grace to read this book and make me understand
Something of the sweetness of the reading.
Allow me the grace to grasp something of the matchless love Jesus Christ,
And to learn from that an ensemble of love
To love again in return as I should.

He died at Hampole.

Sister Katherine Maryel, SSB Society of the Sisters of Bethany. Short extracts taken from ‘Christian Spirituality’.