What the 14th-century mystic Richard Rolle has to say is not merely inspiring but challenging. In it we find the same axis that is throughout the Bible, the unyielding fact that you cannot love both the world and God. At least not very well. Like me, you may find yourself busy with both but getting the best of neither relationship.
Of late there has been a refreshing current in Christian thought, a return to the doctrine of creation and God’s judgment “it is good.” But the hard words remain: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (I John 2:15-17). “Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God?” (James 4:4). “You cannot serve both God and Mammon [money]” (Matthew 6:24). In our current, unprecedented material prosperity, it is well to remember these verses and the teachings of Richard Rolle.
For a 14th century man much is known about Richard Rolle. All I will say here is that he was a student at Oxford when a Master’s degree was a seven-year program, but he abandoned his studies. He stole two cloaks from his father and ran away from home to be a monk. Theft! An inauspicious start to a holy life, as many have noted.
The Fire of Love
Further, perfect souls who have been caught up into this friendship–surpassing, abundant, and eternal!–discover that life is suffused with imperishable sweetness from the glittering chalice of sweet charity.* In holy happy wisdom they inhale joyful heat into their souls, and as a result are much cheered by the indescribable comfort of God’s healing medicine. Here at all events is refreshment for those who love their high and eternal heritage, even though in their earthly exile distress befell them. However, they think it not unfitting to endure a few year’s hardship in order to be raised to heavenly thrones, and never leave the. They have been selected out of all mankind to be the beloved of their Maker and to be crowned with glory, since, like the seraphim in highest heaven, they have been inflamed with the same love. Physically they may have sat in solitary state, but in mind they have companied with angels, and have yearned for their Beloved. Now they sing most sweetly a prayer of love everlasting as they rejoice in Jesus:
Oh honeyed flame, sweeter than all sweet, delightful beyond all creation!
My God, my Love, surge over me, pierce me by your love, wound me with your beauty.
Surge over me, I say, who am longing for your comfort.
Reveal your healing medicine to your poor lover.
See, my one desire is for you; it is you my heart is seeking.
My soul pants for you; my whole being is athirst for you.
–From chapter 2 in The Fire of Love by Richard Rolle. Translation and copyright 1972 by Clifton Wolters. Penguin Classics.
*Not today’s common usage of “charity” but from caritas (Greek agape), which means the type of love that is unconditional, giving, self-sacrificing, divine.