Mindfulness and mysticism have become very much in vogue over recent years as modern Western people try to find space and time to unwind and calm down in the midst of busy lives. For this they often turn to Eastern meditation techniques such as those to be found in Yoga. However, what is sometimes not realised is that within Western Christianity there is also a contemplative, meditative tradition. For example, in the fourteenth-century there were authors writing in Middle English about their own deep experiences of God. One of these authors is Richard Rolle, whom I discovered while researching monastic spirituality. Some details of Rolle’s life are known from the Legenda that nuns at Hampole wrote in preparation for his expected canonization as a saint, which never actually happened. It is thought that Rolle was born in 1300, and died in 1349, possibly from the Black Death. Rolle studied at Oxford University as a young man, but probably never took his degree, preferring instead to live the life of a hermit in Yorkshire, having first made himself a habit from two of his sister’s tunics, and his father’s hood. Rolle sometimes wrote in Latin, but by the end of his life he was writing in English for ordinary people, and was revered as a holy man.
Rolle wrote many works, and among them are Incendium Amoris (The Fire of Love), Emendatio Vitae (Emending of Life), and an English Psalter. In The Fire of Love Rolle explains his intense experience of being close to God in the emotional terms of heat, sweetness, and music. A copy of this work does not exist in the Cathedral Library, but we are fortunate to have a fifteenth-century translation of Emendatio Vitae (in F172) and two copies of Rolle’s English Psalter (F158 and F166) among the Cathedral’s manuscripts.
Their preservation is testament in itself to Rolle’s perceived value for bygone generations. Modern translations of some of Rolle’s works are available (for example, Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love, trans. Clifton Wolters (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1972), which was the basis of the information about Rolle in this blog). These would provide useful reading for anyone who would like to explore further the deep spirituality of this man who tried to live only for God, and share that experience, in writing, with others.
Edden, Valerie, The Index of Middle English Prose. Handlist XV. Manuscripts in Midland Libraries (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000).
Rolle, Richard, The Fire of Love, trans. Clifton Wolters (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1972).