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The Form Of Perfect Living And Other Prose Treatises by Richard Rolle


Richard Rolle of Hampole is the earliest in time of our famous English Mystics. Born in or about 1300, he died in 1349, seven years after Mother Julian of Norwich was born. Walter Hilton died in 1392.

An exhaustive account of Rolle's life is given in Vol. ii. of Professor Horstman's Edition of his works, a book unfortunately out of print. The main facts are recorded in a brief |Life| appended to Fr. R. Hugh Benson's A Book of the Love of JESUS. Therefore, it will suffice to say here that Richard Rolle seems to have been born at Thornton, near Pickering, in Yorkshire, in or about 1300; that, finding the atmosphere of Oxford University uncongenial, he left it, and for some four years was supported, as a hermit, by the Dalton Family. By the end of that time, through prayer, contemplation and self-denial, he had attained the three stages of mystical life which he describes as calor, dulcor, canor; (heat, sweetness, melody.) The next period of his life was less easy. Having left the protection of the Daltons, and being without those means of subsistence which are within the reach of priest or monk, this hermit depended for his daily bread on other men's kindness. Not that he was a useless person: apart from the utility of a life of Prayer, he could point to counsel and exhortation given; to the existence of converts consequent upon his ministrations. To add to his difficulties, he preached a doctrine of high pure selflessness with which, the average man, in all times, seems to have no abundant sympathy: and to crown all he was endowed by nature with a sensitive temper. His remarkable gifts forced him into public notice; his cast of thought and his temperament were not calculated to win him ease or popularity. Professor Horstman is peculiarly severe to those among his enemies and detractors |who called themselves followers and disciples of Christ.| The insertion here of this painful passage would introduce a jarring note; moreover, the raked embers of past controversy seldom tend to the spiritual improvement of the present. An interesting judgment by Professor Horstman on Rolle's place in mysticism is too long for quotation; but the following sentence may be taken as the pith of it: -- |His position as a mystic was mainly the result of the development of scholasticism. The exuberant luxuriant growth of the brain in the system of Scotus called forth the reaction of the heart, and this reaction is embodied in Richard Rolle, who as exclusively represents the side of feeling as Scotus that of reason and logical consequence; either lacking the corrective of the other element.|

It is consoling to know that Rolle's last years were passed in peace, in a cell, near a monastery of Cistercian nuns at Hampole, where the nuns supported him, while he acted as their spiritual adviser.

In the book mentioned above, Fr. Hugh Benson has translated some of Richard Rolle's Poems, and certain devotional Meditations. In this Volume, four of his Prose Treatises have been selected from the rest of his works, in the belief that they may supplement those parts of Rolle's writings with which, those who are interested in these phases of thought, are already familiar.

The first, The Form of Perfect Living, is a Rule of Life which he wrote for a nun of Anderby, Margaret Kirkby, of whom Professor Horstman writes: |She seems to have been his good angel, and perhaps helped to smooth down his ruffled spirits. This friendship was lasting -- it lasted to their lives' ends.|

This treatise was written of course to meet the requirements of the |religious| life. It has seemed expedient, because supplementary, then, to put next to it his work on Our Daily Life, which was meant for those who are |in the world|; and which may give pause to some who might otherwise criticise the first hastily, perhaps condemning it as unpractical, or even objectionable in a world where, after all, men must eat and drink and live, and where some, therefore must provide the necessary means. Most intensely practical is this second treatise, and perhaps nowhere more so than when it meets the needs of those who are inclined to split straws over the definition of the word |good.| What is a good action? -- such people love to inquire, and like |jesting Pilate,| sometimes do not |stay for an answer.| Richard Rolle has no manner of doubt about his reply. An action must be good in itself, i.e., so he would tell us, pleasing to God in its own nature. But the matter by no means ends there for him. This good action must be performed, -- and it is this which is, now palpably, now subtly, hard -- entirely for the sake of goodness, without the slightest taint of self-seeking, of vanity, of secret satisfaction that we are not as other men are, not even as this Pharisee or this Publican.

Such a motive, inspiring each person's whole work, would surely go far to remove what is known as the Social Problem. It would make many a house the dwelling of peace, many a business-place an abode of honour. If we could get back to Richard Rolle's simplicity and to his unmovable faith, then, his goal, even the acquisition of perfect love, might seem to all of us less distressingly remote.

The present rendering has been taken from the longer and more elaborate of the two MSS. containing the Treatise. The shorter form of his work On Grace and the Epistle have been added in the hope that they may meet the need of all, contemplative or active as they may chance to be.

There is, among his voluminous writings, a curious and interesting Revelation concerning Purgatory, purporting to be a woman's dream about one, Margaret, a soul in Purgatory. Amidst much natural horror, not however exceeding that described by Dante, there are many quaint side-lights thrown upon our forefathers' ways of thought; as e.g., when Margaret's soul is weighed in one scale, against the fiend, |and a great long worm with him,| in the other; the worm of conscience, in fact. But the work has not been included in this volume, lest it should prove wholly unprofitable to a generation which if it be not readily disturbed by sin, is easily and quickly shocked by crude suggestions concerning its possible consequences and reward. They will find enough, perhaps, in the treatise on Daily Work.

If any one should think that there, and in one portion of the treatise on Grace, Rolle has dwelt harshly on considerations of fear, rather than on those of love, he must not make the mistake of concluding that these admonitions represent the whole of Catholic teaching on the point. Men's temperaments differ, and teachers, meeting these various tempers, differ in their modes of helping them. Side by side with Richard Rolle may be put the words of S. Francis Xavier, in what is perhaps the most beautiful of Christian hymns: --

My GOD, I love Thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
Nor yet because who love Thee not
Are lost eternally.

. . . . . .

Not for the hope of gaining aught,
Not seeking a reward;
But as Thyself hast loved me,
O ever-loving Lord!

Moreover, no reader of the Epistle on Charity can entertain any doubt as to whether our English Mystic understood the mystery of limitless love.

It is no doubt, easy to complain, as we read certain passages, that Richard Rolle's recommendations are neither new nor original: but if instead of dismissing them as familiar, we tried to put them into practice, we should perhaps have less leisure for idle criticism of others, and ourselves be less evil and tiresome people.

On the other hand, the accusation may be brought that he proposes an impossibly high aim. No doubt, in such a pitch of devotion as is suggested, e.g., in ch. viii. of The Form of Perfect Living, some may think they find extravagance: but no doubt it was this same spirit which inspired SS. Peter and Paul, and the other Apostles; which built up the Early Church; which made Saints, Martyrs and Confessors; which suggested such apparently forlorn hopes as that of S. Augustine of Canterbury, when, to bring them the Gospel of JESUS Christ, he bearded the rough Men of Kent, and (according to Robert of Brunne) reaped, as his immediate reward, a string of fishtails hung on his habit, though later, the conversion of these sturdy pagans. It was doubtless, too, the spirit which inspired the best men and women in the English Church, before they began to confuse the spheres of Faith and Reason, and to disregard S. Hilary's warning about the difficulty of expressing in human language that which is truly |incomprehensible,| -- incomprehensible in the old sense, as in the Athanasian Symbol, |Immensus Pater, immensus Filius, immensus Spiritus sanctus|; till, indeed, men forgot, for all practical purposes that infinity transcends the grasp of finite minds (in fact, as well as in placidly accepted and then immediately neglected theory); and can be apprehended only, and that imperfectly, by the best aspirations of a heart, set of fixed purpose on that high goal.

To the modern Englishman, immersed in business anxieties, imperial interests and domestic cares, the invitation repeated so often by Richard Rolle, to love GOD supremely, may seem incalculably unreal and remote, even though he might hesitate to confess it baldly. But what if the Englishman who so loved GOD, were also the greater Englishman? And what answer does history return to that plain question?

|Richard Rolle,| Professor Horstman does not hesitate to write |was one of the most remarkable men of his time, yea, of history. It is a strange and not very creditable fact that one of the greatest of Englishmen has hitherto been doomed to oblivion. In other cases, the human beast first crucifies, and then glorifies or deifies the nobler minds, who swayed by the Spirit, do not live as others live, in quest of higher ideals by which to benefit the race; he, one of the noblest champions of humanity, a hero, a saint, a martyr in this cause has never had his resurrection yet -- a forgotten brave. And yet, he has rendered greater service to his country, and to the world at large, than all the great names of his time. He rediscovered Love, the principle of Christ. He reinstalled feeling, the spring of life which had been obliterated in the reign of scholasticism. He re-opened the inner eye of man, teaching contemplation in solitude, an unworldly life in abnegation, in chastity, in charity.... He broke the hard crust that had gathered round the heart of Christianity, by formalism and exteriority, and restored the free flow of spiritual life.|

This passage, to those who feel that there has been no age since the Birth of Christ when the great principles of religious life have been wholly lost, and who remember that Richard Rolle lived in the age of Dante, may seem overstated. But it shews sufficiently at least, and for that reason is quoted here, what a great Englishman he was, and what a debt his unaware countrymen owe him; a debt which they could pay in the way most grateful to him, by listening to his words.

It may be remarked, by the way, that Rolle is not inclined to substitute individualism for the authority of the Church; a change which has been brought against some mystics. There is immense emphasis laid, all through his writings, on the importance of conduct. The penetrating analysis, in ch. vi, of The Form of Perfect Living, of the possible sins humanity can commit on its journey through the wilderness of this world, hardly leaves a corner of the heart unlighted; lets not one possible shift, twist or excuse of the human conscience go free. But it all has the Church as its immediate background; the Mystical Body, not the individual soul in isolation, is everywhere taken for granted. Man lives not to himself nor dies to himself, even though he be Richard Rolle the hermit, or Margaret Kirkby the recluse, that is the plain teaching of these plain-speaking pages. And all through them too is a tough common sense, and an unusually alert power of observation; and there is perhaps an element of that business capacity, which some of the Saints and Mystics have shewn, in his inclusion among |sins of deed| of |beginning a thing that is above our might|; for in that there is not only pride, but a kind of stupid incapacity surely.

It is quite possible that Rolle's tendency to repetition may tire any one who reads him |straight on,| as the phrase is. But it is doubtful whether that be the best means of approach. If he be read in bits, he will prove far more effective: and his ability to hit the right nail on the head, and to hit it wonderfully hard, may occasionally bring his words home to our immediate circumstances with an appositeness that may be more than a coincidence.

In the past, the learned and ignorant alike have been guilty of the operation which may be described as cutting man up into parts: i.e., they have been inclined to treat him now as if he were all intellect, then as if he were all feeling; while to the will a kind of intermediate part has generally been allotted, as if it were the handmaid instead of the master of the other two. And there is still, in some quarters, a tendency to relegate the will and the feelings to an inferior plane, if indeed they be allowed any place at all. In other quarters, the onslaught is made on intellect. Men are bidden to be humble, to become as little children; as if there were any humility in thinking incorrectly or not at all; as if the odd, though suppressed, assumption that children have no intellects had any ground in fact. It is surely a true apostrophe --

|GOD! Thou art mind! Unto the master-mind,
Mind should be precious.|

The Angelic Doctor himself paid a tribute to the importance and special difficulties of intellect, and also to the necessity of uniting it with will: -- |the martyrs had greater merit in faith, not receding from the faith for persecutions; and likewise men of learning have greater merit of faith, not receding from the faith for the reasons of philosophers or heretics alleged against it.| Richard Rolle, following on the same lines as S. Thomas Aquinas, has nothing of this spirit of division: the whole being is what he would fain see offered to GOD, whether it be so by Margaret Kirkby, or by those who are |in the world,| for whom Our Daily Work was written. In the image of GOD was man made, and therefore GOD suffices for all the needs of man's nature: that, at least seems to be the underlying idea when Rolle writes: -- |GOD is light and burning. Light clarifies our reason, burning kindles our will.| May we not say here too? -- |What GOD has joined together, that let not man put asunder.|

Above all things, Rolle aims at a perfect balance, culminating in a harmony ruled by one power, and that the greatest in the world, Love. Real love, he asks; not the degraded things to which men give that great name, as to every passing gust of feeling, to every unworthy untamed emotion: but the divine quality, when to the |lastingness,| which he requires, is also joined that which is the inner essence of Love, viz., sacrifice. |Love is a life,| he writes, |joining together the loving and the loved.| And then he remembers the other great gift to men, intellectual sincerity, which has inspired all |who follow Truth along her star-paved way|; and he gives to that its place and due: |Truth may be without love: but it cannot help without it.| Even then, the whole tale is not complete; the way of the Saints is not |Primrosed and hung with shade.| Love, with Rolle, is no easy sentimentality: it involves definite sacrifice in more directions than one; it demands thought, perseverance, supernatural strength, natural strenuousness; it is not a selfish enjoyment of a circumambient atmosphere wrapping humanity, without responsibility or effort of its own: |Love is a Life.|

|Love,| he writes, |is a perfection of learning; virtue of prophecy; fruit of truth; help of sacraments; establishing of wit and knowledge; riches of pure men: life of dying men. So, how good love is. If we suffer to be slain; if we give all that we have (down) to a beggar's staff: if we know as much as men may know on earth, all this is naught but ordained sorrow and torment.| Then, with that sound sense, which is not the least element in the sum of his attractiveness, he utters a subtle warning against that all too common sin, judging one another: |If thou wilt ask how good is he or she, ask how much he or she loves: and that no man can tell. For I hold it folly to judge a man's heart, that none knows save GOD.|

After this it cannot be necessary to say that Rolle is a true mystic. |Many,| so he tells us in this same chapter x., |Many speak and do good, and love not GOD.| But that will not suffice his exacting demands. A man is not |good| until his interior disposition be all filled and taken up with pure love of GOD. And as he analyses the Christian Character, there is a pleasant blunt directness about this holy man: -- |he that says he loves GOD and will not do what is in him to shew love, tell him that he lies.|

It is possible that the alarming list of sins of the heart, in chapter vi., may give the heedless and even the heedful matter for grave thought, as each one finds himself ejaculating with spontaneous fear -- |Who can tell how oft he offendeth? Cleanse thou me from my secret faults.|

Surely no one need fear that the outcome of a study of Richard Rolle will be effeminacy. Not that that indeed is the special temptation of the English: a chill commonplace acquiescence in a convenient, if baseless, hope that somehow |things will come all right,| is far more likely to lead them astray than any |burning yearning to GOD with a wonderful delight and certainty.| Is not George Herbert's cry apposite still?

|O England, full of sin, but most of sloth!|

Nor can any one argue fairly that this absorption of the mystic is just selfish idleness. It is, so it seems, as we read Rolle's injunctions, of the nature of hard exacting toil. No doubt, there must be those who do the material work of the world; who gain, among other things, those |goods| which go to support the Mystics. But there will be no lack of such workers, through the inroads of religion; the broad ways of daily life are in no danger of contracting suddenly in to the path to the strait gate. Moreover, natural life itself is a poor thing unsupported by an unseen stream of spiritual refection. Here, as elsewhere in the ordered economy of things, two forms of life are found to be complementary. It is true, as Dr. Bigg once wrote: -- |If Society is to be permeated by religion, there must be reservoirs of religion like those great storage places up among the hills which feed the pipes by which water is carried to every home in the city. We shall need a special class of students of GOD, men and women whose primary and absorbing interest it is to work out the spiritual life in all its purity and integrity.| It is indeed the idlest of criticism that condemns such people as slothful or selfish.

There is one charm in our own Mystics which we may miss in S. John of the Cross or S. Teresa for example; viz., that with all their zeal, there is also an amazing reality and simplicity down at the bottom of it, which may seem to us not present in the rhapsodies of more southern lovers; though in all probability such seeming is purely racial. Nevertheless, we may be thankful if we find the antidote to our national prosaic ways in the sane zeal of others of our nation.

Lastly, as men read, they may be overcome perhaps by despair. This pure untainted selflessness of which Richard Rolle writes almost glibly, how can it be possible here and now? How can men and women, fixed in and condemned to the dusty ways of common life, unable as they are to leave the world even if they would, how can they so much as dream of such unattainable heights? Is there no help for them in the often quoted lines of a later English Mystic? --

|Who aimeth at the sky
Shoots higher much than he who means a tree.|

For plain men and women, the key to the problem may lie in the question put by Robert Browning into the mouth of Innocent XII.: --

|Is this our ultimate stage, or starting place
To try man's foot, if it will creep or climb,
'Mid obstacles in seeming, points that prove
Advantage for who vaults from low to high,
And makes the stumbling-block a stepping-stone?|

Even though the goal be not reached, to have willed deliberately here the first step may prove to have been not wholly unavailing.


Quoted by Fr. Joseph Rickaby, S.J., in Scholasticism, p.121.

Wayside Sketches, p.135.

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