Richard Rolle
The Fire of Love

Electronic Text by Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Richard Rolle, a fourteenth-century Yorkshire hermit, authored numerous popular works on contemplation, or "mysticism." In the excerpts below, he recounts his experience of mystical union with God and argues for the superiority of the contemplative life over the active life.



Prologue

More have I marvelled than I showed when, forsooth, I first felt my heart wax warm, truly, and not in imagination, but as if it were burned with sensible fire. I was forsooth amazed as the burning in my soul burst up, and of an unwont solace; ofttimes, because of my ignorance of such healthful abundance, I have groped my breast seeking whether this burning were from any bodily cause outwardly. But when I knew that it was only kindled inwardly from a ghostly cause, and that this burning was nought of fleshly love or concupiscence, in this I conceived it was the gift of my Maker. Gladly therefore I am molten into the desire of greater delight and ghostly sweetness; the which, with that ghostly flame, has pithily [to the core] comforted my mind.

First truly before this comfortable heat, and sweetest in all devotion, was shed in me, I plainly trowed [thought] such heat could happen to no man in this exile: for truly so it enflames the soul as if the element of fire were burning there. Nevertheless, as some say, there are some, burning in the love of Christ, because they see them despising this world, and with busyness given only to the service of God. But as it were if thy finger were put into the fire it should be clad with sensible burning, so, as beforesaid, the soul set afire with love, truly feels most very heat; but sometimes more and more intense, and sometimes less, as the frailty of the flesh suffers.

O who is there in mortal body that all this life may suffer this great heat in its high degree, or may bear for long its continual existence? Truly it behoves him fail for sweetness and greatness of desire after so high an outward love; and no marvel though many, passing out of this world, full greedily would catch it and yearn after it with full hot desire; so that unto this honey-sweet flame with wonderful gifts of mind he might yield his soul, and so be taken, and forthwith enter the companies of them that sing praises to their Creator withouten end.

But some things happen contrary to charity; for filth of the flesh creeps up tempting restful minds; bodily need also and the frail affections of man, imprinted with the anguish of this wretched exile, sometimes lessen this heat, and the flame which under a figure I called fire, because it burns and lightens, they hinder and heavy [grieve]. And yet truly they take not fully away that which may not be taken away, for it has umbelapped [enwrapped] all my heart. But this most happy heat, sometimes absent on account of such things, appears again; and I, as it were abiding grievously cold, think myself desolate until the time it come again, whiles I have not, as I was wont, that feeling of ghostly fire which applies itself gladly to all parts of the body and soul, and in the which they know themselves secure.

And, moreover, sleep gainstands me as an enemy; for no time heavies me to lose save that in which, constrained, I yield to sleeping. Waking truly I am busy to warm my soul, thirled [pierced] as it were with cold, the which, when settled in devotion, I know well is set on fire, and with full great desire is lifted above all earthly things.

Truly affluence of this everlasting love comes not to me in idleness, nor might I feel this ghostly heat while I was weary bodily for travel, or truly unmannerly [immoderately] occupied with worldly mirth, or else given without measure to disputation; but I have felt myself truly in such things wax cold, until, putting aback all things in which I might outwardly be occupied, I have striven to be only in the sight of my Saviour and to dwell in full inward burning.

Wherefore I offer this book to be seen: not to philosophers nor wise men of this world, nor to great divines lapped in infinite questions, but unto the boisterous [simple] and untaught, more busy to learn to love God than to know many things; for truly not disputing but working is to be known and loved. For I trow these things here contained may not be understood of these questionaries; in all science most high in wisdom but in the love of God most low.

Therefore to them I have not written, except, all things forgetting and putting aback that are longing to this world, they love to be given only to the desires of our Maker. First truly they must flee all earthly dignity, and hate all pride of knowledge and vainglory, and at the last, conforming themselves to highest poverty, meditating and praying, they be constantly given to the love of God.

Thus no marvel the fire within of unwrought charity shall appear to them; and dressing their hearts to receive the heat with which all darkness is consumed, it will lift them up into that most lovely and merry burning, so that they shall pass temporal things and hold for themselves the seat of endless rest. The more knowledge they have, truly the more they are able to love rightly, if they be glad to be despised of others, and gladly despise themselves.

And since I here stir all manner of folk to love, and am busy to show the hottest and supernatural desire of love, this book shall bear the name: "Burning of Love."

Chapter 21

By some truly it is doubted which life is more meedful and better; contemplative or active. It seems to not a few that active is meedfuller (more meritorious) because of the many deeds and preachings that it uses. But these err unknowingly, for they know not the virtue of contemplative. Yet there are many active better than some contemplative; but the best contemplative are higher than the best active.

Therefore we say the contemplative life is altogether the better, the sweeter, the more worthy, and the more meedful as to the true meed, that is joy of the unwrought good, because the contemplative more burningly loves God. And more grace is asked if contemplative life be led rightly, than active.

The reason of more fervent love in contemplative life than in active is because in contemplative they are in rest of mind and body, and therefore they taste the sweetness of eternal, before all mortal love. The active truly serve God in labour and outward running about, and tarry but little in inward rest, wherefore they can not be delighted save seldom and shortly; the contemplative soothly love as if they were continually within the halsing of their Beloved.

Forsooth some gainsetting say: active life is more fruitful; for it does works of mercy, it preaches and works other such deeds; wherefore it is more meritorious. I say, nay, for such works belong to accidental reward, that is, joy of the thing wrought. And so one that shall be taken into the order of angels can have some meed that he that shall be in the order of cherubim or seraphim shall not have; that is to say joy of some good deed that he did in this life, the which anotheróthat without comparison surpasses in God's loveódid not. Also ofttimes it happens that some one of less meed is good, and preaches; and another preaches not, that mickle (much) more loves. Is not this one better because he preaches? No; but the one that loves more is higher and better, although he be less in preaching he shall have some meed, because he preached not, that the greater was not worthy of.

Therefore it is shown that man is not holier or higher for the outward works that he does. Truly God that is the Beholder of the heart rewards the will more than on the deeds. For the more burningly that a man loves, in so mickle he ascends to a higher reward.

Truly, in true contemplative men, there is a full sweet heat and the plenteousness of God's love abiding, from the which a joyful sound is sent into them with untrowed mirth; and this is never found in active men in this life, because they take not heed only to heavenly things, so that they might be worthy to joy in Jesu. And therefore active life is worthily put behind; and contemplative life, in this present and in the life to come is worthily preferred.