Richard Rolle’s Fire of Love

Richard Rolle’s Fire of Love January 20, 2024

Richard Rolle
Radcliffe College Monographs No. 15









A couple of years ago I offered a small reflection on the medieval Christian mystic Richard Rolle, together with an excerpt from his Fire of Love. Here I expand a bit my reflection about him and his spirituality, and include again the Fire of Love.

The Church of England marks out the 20th of January as a feast in his honor.

Richard Rolle was born into a farming family sometime around 1300. He attended Oxford, studying philosophy, theology, and the Bible. It seems he was dissatisfied with the emphasis of the academic life, and left without completing his master’s degree to become a hermit. About three years into his solitary life Rolle began to have spiritual experiences. These mysterious encounters would become the foundation of his inner life. It is possible at some point Rolle traveled to France and studied at the Sorbonne. Perhaps taking a master’s degree. He may also have been ordained there.

What is certain is that around 1330 Rolle began writing.

His general advice seems to have been normative for his time. Reading the Bible and joining in liturgical prayer were foundational. Rolle also advocated for an imaginative prayer life. But he also wrote of contemplative prayer. His writings are deeply personal. He describes his personal suffering as he entered the way.

And then, as Evelyn Underhill wrote:

It was brought to an end, as with so many of the greater mystics, by an abrupt shifting of consciousness to levels of peace and joy: a sudden and overwhelming revelation of Spiritual Reality—“the opening of the heavenly door, that Thy face showed.” Rolle than passed to that affirmative state of high illumination and adoring love which he extols in the “Fire”: the state which includes the three degrees, or spiritual moods of Calor, Dulcor, Canor—“Heat, Sweetness and Song.” At the end of a year, “the door biding open,” he experienced the first of these special graces: the Heat of Love Everlasting, or “Fire” which gave its name to the Incendium Amoris. “I sat forsooth in a chapel and whilst with sweetness of prayer or meditation muckle I was delighted, suddenly in me I felt a merry heat and unknown.”

“Now, when we ask ourselves what Rolle really meant by this image of heat or fire, we stand at the beginning of a long quest. This is one of those phrases, half metaphors, yet metaphors so apt that we might also call them descriptions of experience, which are natural to mystical literature. Immemorially old, yet eternally fresh, they appear again and again; nor need we always attribute such reappearances to conscious borrowing. The fire of love is a term which goes back at least to the fourth century of our era; it is used by St. Macarius of Egypt to describe the action of the Divine Energy upon the soul which it is leading to perfection. Its literary origins are of course scriptural—the fusion of the Johannine “God is love” with the fire imagery of the Hebrew prophets. “Behold! the Lord will come with fire!” “His word was in my heart as a burning fire.” “He is like a refiner’s fire.”

“But, examining the passages in which Rolle speaks of that “Heat” which the “Fire of Love” induced in his purified and heavenward turning heart, we see that this denotes a sensual as well as a spiritual experience. Those interior states or moods to which, by the natural method of comparison that governs all descriptive speech, the self gives such sense-names as these of “Heat, Sweetness, and Song,” react in many mystics upon the bodily state. Psycho-sensorial parallelisms are set up. The well-known phenomenon of stigmatization, occurring in certain hypersensitive temperaments as the result of deep meditation upon the Passion of Christ, is perhaps the best clue by which we can come to understand how such a term as “the fire of love” has attained a double significance for mystical psychology. It is first a poetic metaphor of singular aptness; describing a spiritual state which is, as Rolle says himself in “The Form of Perfect Living,” “So burning and gladdening, that he or she who is in this degree can as well feel the fire of love burning in their soul as thou canst feel thy finger burn if thou puttest it in the fire.” Secondly, it represents, or may represent in certain temperaments, an induced sense-automatism, which may vary from the slightest of suggestions to an intense hallucination: as the equivalent automatic process which issues in “visions” or “voices” may vary from that “sense of a presence” or consciousness of a message received, which is the purest form in which our surface consciousness objectivizes communion with God, to the vivid picture seen, the voice clearly heard, by many visionaries and auditives.

He wrote in both Latin and English. The unsigned article about him at the Encyclopedia Brittanica, observes his “writings in Latin are overly rhetorical, but his English prose style is lively, flexible, and persuasive.” He is considered one of the founders of English letters.

Today it isn’t always clear what we have he wrote or was the composition of admirers. One of Rolle’s writings, the Fire of Love describes his inner life, and with it a map of sorts of the mystical way. His four stages, the open door, heat, song, and sweetness would become markers for generations of seekers.

Among his disciples was the anchoress Margaret Kirkby. Rolle wrote the Form of Living for her as a guide to her inner life.

He died during Michaelmas in 1349, possibly of the plague. And was buried in a graveyard set aside for Cistercian nuns.

Richard Rolle is usually counted with the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unkowing, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich and, often, although a bit later, Margery Kempe, as the great Medieval exemplars of the English mystical way.

He was wildly popular throughout the Middle Ages and it is clear he was considered for canonization. For reasons no longer clear that never happened within the Roman Church. However, he is remembered as I noted above in the Church of England on the 20th of January, as well as in the Episcopal together with Wlater Hilton an Margery Kempe on the 28th of September.


Excerpts from Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love

(The Fire of Love, Incendium Amoris, is believed to have been written prior to 1343, and survives in 44 manuscripts. It describes his personal mystical experiences. This version is by Clifton Wolters.)

I cannot tell you how surprised I was the first time I felt my heart begin to warm. It was real warmth, too, not imaginary, and it felt as if it were actually on fire. I was astonished at the way the heat surged up, and how this new sensation brought great and unexpected comfort. I had to keep feeling my breast to make sure there was no physical reason for it! But once I realized that it came entirely from within… I was absolutely delighted, and wanted my love to be even greater. [prol.]

I offer… this book for the attention, not of the philosophers and sages of this world, not of great theologians bogged down in their interminable questionings, but of the simple and unlearned, who are seeking rather to love God than to amass knowledge. [prol.]

Men of action and rank, even if they are outstanding for their virtue or knowledge, should always put contemplatives before themselves, reckoning them to be their superiors before God, and admitting that they themselves are not capable of contemplation unless, maybe, God’s grace should inspire them to it. [c.3]

Good Jesus, scourge me, wound me, slay me, burn me;
do with me here and now whatever in your goodness you decide;
that in the days to come I may know and feel
not evil but your love–and that, for ever!
To be despised, rejected, insulted by all,
for your sake, is sweeter to me
than to be called the brother of any earthly monarch,
honoured among men, and praised by all…. [c.9]

…in him who attains the heights of contemplation with joy and ardent love, the desires of the flesh now lie virtually dead…. Now it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in him [Gal 2:20], and as a result he is overwhelmed by love and longing for him. He almost dies because it is so beautiful; he can hardly live because of such love His is the soul that says, “tell my Beloved I am pining for love [Cant 5:8]; I am wanting to die; I long to pass away; I am burning to pass over. See I am dying through love! Come down, Lord. Come, Beloved, and ease my longing. See how I love, I sing, I glow, I burn. Spare a thought for this poor wretch: order me to be brought before you.” [c.11]

There have been people, and there probably still are, who have without hesitation put communal life above the solitary…. [T]hey do not approve of the solitary life because they know nothing about it…. I do not doubt that if they did in fact have some knowledge of the [solitary] life, it would be this life they would be praising rather than the other…. A man is alone indeed if God is not with him…. On the other hand he who for God’s sake has chosen the solitary life, and lives it properly, knows not so much “woe” as “wonderful strength,” and rejoices continually as he recalls the Name of Jesus. The less men fear to embrace for God a life that has no human comfort, the more will it be given them to glory in divine consolation. For they are the recipients of fre;quent spiritual visitations which certainly they would not know in community… There are those who have been divinely taught to seek solitude for Christ’s sake, and to hold on to it tight…. Many of their number, although they live physically among people, are mentally remote from them; they never falter in their heavenly longing, because in spirit they are far removed from a sinful way of life. [c.13]

As far as my study of Scripture goes, I have found that to love Christ above all else will involve three things: warmth and song and sweetness. And these three, as I know from personal experience, cannot exist for long without there being great quiet…..

In these three things (which are the sign of love in its most perfect form) the utmost perfection of the Christian religion is undoubtedly found…..

I call it fervour when the mind is truly ablaze with eternal love, and the heart similarly feels itself burning with a love that is not imaginary but real. For a heart set on fire produces a feeling of fiery love.

I call it song when there is in the soul, overflowing and ardent, a sweet feeling of heavenly praise; when thought turns into song; when the mind is in thrall to sweetest harmony.

This twofold awareness is not achieved by doing nothing, but through the utmost devotion; and from these two there springs the third, for unspeakable sweetnessis present too. Fervour and song bring marvellous delight to a soul, just as they themselves can be the product of very great sweetness.

…[T]he soul in whom are met these three things I have been speaking of remains completely impervious to the darts of the enemy; she continues to think all the time of her Beloved, rising ever higher, with her will unbroken, and her love stimulated. [c.14]

Death, why do you delay?… Yes, I burn, I pant for you. If you come I will be safe. Ravished though I be with love, yet I still cannot enjoy fully what I so desperately want; not until I taste that joy you are going to give me. For if I must, or rather because I must, like all my forbears, pass your gate, I beg you do not delay too long, do not be too far off. You can see how I am pining because of love, how I am longing to die, how I am aflame for you. Not, of course, for your sake, but for the Saviour’s, my Jesus, on whom, once I have got what I want from you, I hope to gaze eternally. [c.16]

…I long for love, the fairest of flowers, and inwardly burn with fiery flame…. The heat is such that no one can imagine it unless he has experienced its comfort for himself. His heart is bursting with song, a captive in the care of charity. For of all the things I experience here, this is the most delightful: I nearly die while it builds up its fervent love [c.16]

It is the mental wound caused by the flame of divine love that is referred to in “I am wounded with love.” Similarly when one pines for love, and is carried away by it, one can say, “I languish for love.” For it is thus that a man regards his Beloved. He forgets himself and everything else for Christ’s sake; and so he says, “Set me as a seal upon your heart” [Cant 8:6]. For what is love but the transforming of the desire into the loved thing itself? Or if you prefer, love is a great longing for what is beautiful, and good, and lovely, with its thought ever reaching out to the object of its love. And when he has got it a man rejoices, for joy is caused only by love. Every lover is assimilated to his beloved: love makes the loving one like what he loves…

It is the nature of love to melt the heart (as, for example, “My soul melted when my Beloved spoke” [Cant 5:6]). For sweet love and a devout heart so dissolve in the divine sweetness that the will of man is united with the will of God in a remarkable friendship. In this union there is poured into the loving soul such sweetness of warmth, delight, and song that he who experiences it is quite unable to describe it.

The nature of love is that it is diffusive, unifying, and transforming. It is diffusive when it flows out and sheds the rays of its goodness not merely on friends and neighbours, but on enemies and strangers as well. It unites because it makes lovers one in deed and will, and draws into one Christ and every holy soul. He who holds on to God is one in spirit with him, not by nature, but by grace and identity of will. Love has also the power of transforming, for it transforms the lover into his Beloved, and makes him dwell in him. Thus it happens that when the fire of the Holy Spirit really gets hold of the heart it sets it wholly on fire and, so to speak, turns it into flame, leading it into that state in which it is most like God…. [c.17]

…whether this state of [perfect] love once attained can ever be lost is not an improper question to ask. For all the while a man can sin, it is possible for him to lose charity. But to be unable to sin means that a man is not still on the way but has reached his fatherland. Therefore however perfect a man may be in this life he is still able to sin, and sin mortally…. Yet I think there is a degree of perfect love which once a man reaches he will never thereafter lose. It is one thing to be able to lose it; it is another always to hold on to it because one does not want to let it go, even if such were possible…. When a man is perfectly converted to Christ, he will hold in contempt all things that are transient, but keep a tight hold on his longing for his Maker–as far as is given to mortals, who have to allow for the corruption of the flesh. [c.19]

We ought always to be praying, or reading, or meditating, and doing other useful things, so that our enemy never finds us idle. [c.20]

Some people are doubtful as to which life is the more meritorious and excellent, the contemplative or the active. To many of them the active life seems more deserving because of the amount of good works and preaching it performs. But this is the mistake of ignorance, because they do not know what the contemplative life stands for. True, there are many actives who are better than some contemplatives. But the best contemplatives are superior to the best actives. So we say therefore that the contemplative life, taken in itself, is sweeter, nobler, worthier, and more meritorious in respect of its fundamental principle, which is delight in uncreated good; in other words it is because this is the life which loves God more ardently…. There is in the contemplative life the basic principle which calls for a more fervent love than the active life affords; and because contemplatives are quiet in mind and body, they can savour the sweetness of eternal love more than others do. Actives, to be sure, serve God with their toil and outward activity, but they spend little time in inner quiet. And the result is that they can only rarely and briefly know spiritual delight. On the other hand contemplatives are almost always enjoying the embrace of their Beloved….

If any man could achieve both lives at once, the contemplative and the active, and sustain and fulfil them, he would be great indeed. He would maintain a ministry with his body, and at the same time experience within himself the song of heaven, absorbed in melody and the joy of everlasting love. I do not know if anybody has ever done this: it seems to me impossible to do both at once. We must not reckon Christ in this respect as an ordinary man, nor his blessed Mother as an ordinary woman. For Christ did not have wandering thoughts, nor did he contemplate in the way that saints in this life commonly do. He did not need to work at it as we need, because from the moment of his conception he saw God.

….Let him who manages his active life well set about rising up to the contemplative. But let not him who has reached the supreme degree of contemplation in the manner we have described come down to the active unless perchance he is obliged to accept office in the Church, a thing which as far as I know has never, or scarcely ever, happened…. For lesser saints are sometimes better fitted for ecclesiastical office than are greater ones, because for the matters of everyday business those unable to persevere quietly in interior longing are more suited. [c.21]

…just as air is suffused by the sun’s rays and becomes itself splendid with the splendour of its light, so the devout mind, inflamed by the fire of Christ’s love and filled with desire for heavenly joys, seems to be all love. It is totally transformed into something different, indescribably delightful, though it retains its fundamental essence. For when the mind is kindled by the fire of the Holy Spirit, it is liberated from all idleness and uncleanness. It is made sweet in the torrent of God’s love, for it is always looking at him, and not considering earthly things at all, until that day when it is glorified with the perfect vision of its Beloved. [c.28]

If anyone wants to honour a martyr’s triumph worthily let him show his devotion to his virtue by his imitation of it; let him share the martyr’s cause even if he does not have to submit to his pain; let him persist in patience, for in so doing he will have complete victory. [c.29]

The lover of the Godhead, whose whole being is shot through with love for the unseen Beauty, rejoices in the deep recesses of his soul; he is gladdened by that most delightful fire, for he has given himself to God with utter devotion. And so,… when Christ wills it, he will receive into his heart a sound sent from heaven; and then his meditation will be turned into melody, and his mind will dwell in marvellous harmony…. [H]is melody is similar to that of the angels, though again it is not as great or exact, for he is still hampered by corruptible flesh. He who has experienced this sweetness, has at the same time experienced the songs of angels, because they are both of one and the same kind: one here, the other in heaven. It is the tune that makes the song, not the words that are chanted. [c.32]

A man raised to holiness can know that he has the song of which I have been speaking in this way: he cannot abide the noise of psalmody unless his own inner song is mentally attuned to it; it is destroyed if he has to speak outwardly. Some indeed are distracted in their singing and psalmody, not because they are perfect, but because they are not yet settled in their own minds. [But] those who are well founded cannot be distracted from prayer or meditation by noise or tumult or anything else: it is only from song that such things pluck them. For that sweet, spiritual song is very special, and given only to the most special! It is not an affair of those outward cadences which are used in church and elsewhere; nor does it blend much with those audible sounds made by the human voice and heard by physical ears; but among angel melodies it has its own acceptable harmony, and those who have known it speak of it with wonder and approval. [c.33]

Once he has been purged of his obscenities and all those thoughts which are not directed to this one thing, the lover, ablaze through these same spiritual caresses, strains with all his might to gaze upon his Beloved. And his shout, excited and bursting out from the core of his longing love, goes up, of course, to his Maker, though to him it seems as if he were shouting from far off….

But here I have to “give up” because of my inherent stupidity and dullness; I have not the wit to describe this shout or its magnitude, or even the pleasure it gives just to think of it, or feel it, or experience it…. [A]ll I want to say is that the shout is the song….

…what would I give to find a man who was experienced in that melody?… He would reveal to me the song I long to understand, and he would make plain and clear my joyous shout. The more I understood, the fuller would be my exultation, and surely the more fruitful my emulation of him. The fire of love would be shown me, and my joy and song would shine out for all to see. My confused thoughts would then lack no one to put them into praise, nor would I toil to no purpose. [c.34]

It is clear that “enraptured” can be understood in two ways. One way is when a man is rapt out of all physical sensation, so that at the time of his rapture his body quite clearly feels nothing and does nothing. He is not dead, of course, but alive, because his soul is still vitalizing his body. Sometimes the saints and the elect have been enraptured in this fashion, for their own good, and for others’ enlightenment. Thus Paul was rapt to the third heaven [II Cor 12:2]. Even sinners sometimes experience raptures of this sort in visions, and see the joy of the good, or the punishment of the wicked…

But “rapture” in the other sense comes through the lifting up of the mind to God in contemplation; all perfect lovers of God go this way–and only those who love God. It is as accurate to call this “rapture” as the other, because there is a definite seizure, a something outside nature…. This second way is most desirable and lovely. For Christ was always contemplating God, yet it never detracted from his self-possession.

So one way is to be rapt by love while retaining physical sensation, and the other is to be rapt out of the senses by some vision, terrifying or soothing. I think that the rapture of love is better, and more rewarding. For to have the privilege of seeing heavenly things is a matter of God’s gift, not our merit. [c.37]

Sometimes indeed when she would sing she [the soul] is rapt with wonderful sweetness and fluency; yet when the warmth is felt to be less she will often fly off into song with the greatest pleasure, and, in ecstasy, she knows that the heat and sweetness are with her in truth. Yet there is never heat without delight, though sometimes it can be without song, for physical singing or noise can hinder it and drive it back into thought. [c.37]

…still I lack those things which show the Beloved to the one who longs for him. And this wounds me, and fills me with longing, but gives no ease at all; rather it increases it, because with my growing love my longing increases too…. Love it is that tortures me, love that delights me. It tortures, because what is loved so much is not immediately granted me; yet it delights, because it refreshes me with hope, and infuses indescribable comfort through its very heat.

For a mighty longing develops when there is in the soul through its joy and love the song of songs, and the fierce heat produces further sweet delight. For now one likes to think that death is life. For the flower that this thought nourishes can never die, but the splendour which all the while is growing in the lover, and which seems so wonderful, makes of death and music one thing….

But those who do feel in themselves that [Christ] is delightful here, undoubtedly will see him in all his attractiveness there. For what he is to us now, such he will appear to us then; to the lover, lovable and desirable; to the non-lover, hateful and cruel. And the difference will not be in him, but in us. He himself is unchangeably the same, but every creature will see him according to his deserts. [c.38]

A man not consumed with eternal love must needs be purged with tears; but for him who longs with the love of eternity, love is sufficient punishment. No wound is more serious–or more sweet–than that of love. [c.40]

When first I was converted, and became single-minded, I used to think I would be like the little bird which pines for love of its beloved, but which can rejoice in the midst of its longing when he, the loved one, comes. While it sings its joy, it is still yearning, though in sweetness and warmth. It is said that the nightingale will sing her melody all night long to please him to whom she is united. How much more ought I to sing, and as sweetly as I can, to my Jesus Christ, my soul’s spouse, through the whole of this present life. [c.42]

Wolters translation here was edited by Richard Kieckhefer

For Evelyn Underhill’s analysis, go here.

For more of Richard Rolle’s writings go here.

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