Of mysticism, as of all the greatest things in life, the characteristic notes are sincerity and simplicity. Its nature and birth are better felt by the heart than uttered by the tongue. Therefore the increasing interest in mysticism, evidenced by the multiplication of books, essays, criticism, and correspondence on the subject, is rather to be dreaded than welcomed by the mystic. For mysticism like love is shy as the wild bird. Criticism destroys it; discussion frightens it away. Doubtless it can live in the heart of every man; only that heart must be pure, and free from anxiety and worldly love; since to the Christian mysticism is nothing else that that love which is the sole definition of God that man can comprehend.
He that has found the secret of this love, which possesses alike the world of nature and of man, has found the secret of the mystic. For it is not a respecter of persons, nor reserved for the few. The old woman sitting over her peat fire, the shepherd upon the lonely hills, the workman breaking stones by the roadside, even the |great divine lapped in infinite questions| or the anchoress in her cell; all indeed who are |more busy to know God than many things,| have glimpses of this secret. And it was for those who would rather know God's love than know about it that this book was written so long ago.
For six centuries the dust of oblivion has hidden Richard Rolle from our knowledge. True, his name was known as the author of a long Northern poem called the Prick of Conscience, but it has lately been proved that, whatever else he may have written, this most certainly he did not write. Of him and of the other English mystics of his time, we knew but little. As we may have stood by and watched a statue, modeled by some sculptor dead these many hundred years, being slowly and carefully unearthed in a villa garden near Rome, so now we look on with interest as scholars, mostly of other nations than our own, are laboriously restoring to us the mystical writings of these Englishmen, long ago dead, and now for the most part nameless.
Yet Richard Rolle, the first of these great mystics, had revealed himself to us in his writings. Race counts for much in character, and in reading his books we can never forget that he comes of the sturdy stock of Yorkshiremen. Honest, somewhat blunt and plainspoken, especially in regard to women, and full of common sense, it is the more remarkable that he should in so many ways recall to us the sweet singer of Assisi. And yet, as Miss Underhill has shown us, he joins hands across the century with the poet of love and poverty who preached to the birds under the ilex-tree at the Carceri; while from another point of view he has kinship with the monk of Windesheim, the words of whose Ecclesiastical Music are constantly recalled to our minds by this other Melody of Love. As we read it we find that the problems which confronted Richard in his hermit's cell at Hampole are the same as confront the thoughtful man today. He is distressed by the friendlessness, rather than the poverty, of the poor; the oppression and worldliness of the rich; the wrong and selfish acquisition of land; the utter destructiveness of sin; the hypocrisy and backbiting of those who |fill the kirks.| Then, as now, men desired to escape from the transient to the eternal; from the overwhelming power of the material to the spiritual; from the turmoil and confusion of strange ideas and social upheaval and crying injustice, to the rest and peace to be found in humility and brotherly love. As in the old emblem of the two crossed pieces of wood bearing the wayfarer safely over the stormy sea, the love of God laid athwart the love of man bears the soul safely over the waves of this life.
And this love is the sum and substance of Rolle's mysticism. We find in his writings few definitions or classifications, which are so frequent in many mystical works; for it was as impossible for him as for Saint Francis -- who in his life was the greatest exponent of mysticism that the world has ever seen -- to lay down rules regarding love. The love of child and parent, of young man and maid, with all the deeds of heroism and sacrifice which such love has engendered, are but as pale symbols of the love which has given birth to the ancient literature of mysticism. This love is as a fire or a raging flame. |It verily inflames the mind,| says Richard; |Love sets my heart on fire,| sings Francis.
To most this love comes only as the reward of long search and striving. It is a quest on which a man may start out in company, but he must end alone -- with God: and in proportion as we attain to it we find the solution of many problems, the secret of life, and the key to the |mysteries of the Kingdom.|