Saturday, December 03, 2005

Spiritual voice (20): from the "Fire of Love" by Richard Rolle

[Born in Thornton, England, Richard Rolle (1290-1349) was one of the great spiritual leaders of England. Although he was an outstanding student in Oxford, he quit before finishing his master’s degree because he did not want to get mixed up in the vanity of the academic world. Rolle returned to Yorkshire, where his hometown is, and became a hermit. While there he was rapt in a deep experience of prayer so astonishing hat onlookers could only marvel as he prayed through the night. And when he would later preach at a nearby church, it marked the beginning of a powerful ministry. He lived in different towns and villages throughout his life: sometimes in a monastery, sometimes in a nunnery. He also became famous for his writings, especially his work "The Fire of Love." Rolle wrote with a kind of passion and energy that few writers have demonstrated. For 200 years following his death he was much revered as “St. Richard the Hermit,” and his writings were treasured by both religious and non-religious.]

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, that this fire of love had no cause, material or sinful, but was the gift of my Maker, I was absolutely delighted, and wanted my love to be even greater. And this longing was all the more urgent because of the delightful effect and the interior sweetness which this spiritual flame fed into my soul. Before the infusion of ths comfort, I had never thought that we exiles could possibly have known such warmth, so sweet was the devotion it kindled. It set my soul aglow as if a real fire was burning there.

Yet as some may well remind us, there are people on fire with love for Christ, for we can see how utterly they despise the world and how wholly they are given over to the service of God. If we put our finger near a fire, we feel the heat; in much the same way a soul on fire with love feels, I say, a genuine warmth. Sometimes it is more, sometimes less: it depends on our particular capacity.

What mortal could survive that heat at its peak–as we can know it, even here–if it persisted? We must inevitably wilt before the vastness and sweetness of love so intense and heat so indescribable. Yet at the same time we are bound to long eagerly for just this to happen: to breathe our soul out, with all its superb endowment of mind, in this honeyed flame, and, quit of this world, be held in thrall with those who sing their Maker’s praise.

But some things are opposed to charity: carnal, sordid things which beguile a mind at peace. And sometimes in this bitter exile physical need and strong human affection obtrude this flame (which metaphorically I call “fire” because it burns and enlightens). They cannot take away what is irremovable, of course, because this is something which has taken hold of my heart.

Yet because of these things this cheering warmth is for a while absent. It will reappear in time though until it does, I am going to be spiritually frozen, and because I am missing what I have become accustomed to, will feel myself barren. It is then that I want to recapture that awareness of inner fire which my whole being, physical as well as spiritual, so much approves; with it, it knows itself to be secure.

Nowadays I find that even sleep ranges itself against me! The only spare time I have is that which I am obliged to give to slumber. When I am awake, I can try to warm my soul up though it is numb with cold. For I know how to kindle it when the soul is settled in devotion and how to raise it above earthly things with overwhelming desire.

But this eternal and overflowing love does not come when I am relaxing, nor do I feel this spiritual ardor when I am tired out after, say, travelling; nor is it [there] when I am absorbed with worldly interests or engrossed in never-ending arguments. At times like these I catch myself growing cold: cold until once again I put away all things external, and make a real effort to stand in my Savior’s presence; only then do I abide in this inner warmth.

I offer, therefore, this book for the attention, not of the philosophers and sages of this world, not of the 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. For he is not known by argument but by what we do and how we love.

I think that while the matters contained in such questionings are the most demanding of all intellectually, they are much less important when the love of Christ is under consideration. Anyhow they are impossible to understand! So I have not written for the experts unless they have forgotten to put behind them all those things that belong to the world; unless now they are eager to surrender to a longing for God.

To achieve this, however, they must, first, fly from every worldly honor; they must hate all vainglory and the parade of knowledge. And then. Conditioned by great poverty, through prayer and meditation they can devote themselves to the love of God. It will not be surprising if then an inner spark of the uncreated charity should appear to them and prepare their hearts for the fire which consumes everything that is dark and raises them to that pitch of ardor which is so lovely and so pleasant.

Then will they pass beyond the things of time and sit enthroned in infinite peace. The more learned they are, the more ability they naturally have for loving, always provided of course that they do not esteem themselves highly nor rejoice in being highly esteemed by others. And so, because I would stir up by these means every person to God, and because I am trying to make plain the ardent nature of love and how it is supernatural, the title selected for this book will be the Fire of Love.

Everyone of us who live in this life of ours knows that we cannot be filled with a love of eternity or anointed with the sweet oil of heaven unless we are truly converted to God. Before we can experience even a little of God’s love, we must be really turned to him, and, in mind at least, be wholly turned from every earthly thing. The turning is indeed a matter of duly ordered love, so that, first, we love what we ought to love and not what we ought not, and, second, our love kindles more towards the former than to the latter.

God is to be loved, of course, most of all: heavenly things too are to be much loved; but little love, or at least no more than is necessary, may be given to earthly things. This surely is the way we turn to Christ: to desire nothing but him. To turn away from those “good things” of the world, which pervert rather than protect those who love them, involves the withering of physical lust and the hatred of wickedness of any sort. So you will find there are people who have no taste for earthly things and who deal with mundane matters no more than is absolutely necessary.

Because those who amass fortunes find comfort in such things—they do not know who will ultimately reap the benefit!—they are not entitled to enjoy even a little cheerful, comforting, heavenly love. Yet they reckon they have had already some experience of future bliss—at least they say so—because of their devotion, a devotion which is feigned, and not genuinely holy.

But surely it is this graceless presumption that will bring about their downfall, for their love of earthly treasure is unlimited. What is more, they will fall from the sweetness with which God delights his lovers. All love which is not God-directed is bad love and makes its possessors bad, too. And this is the reason why those who love worldly splendor with an evil love catch fire of a different sort and separate themselves ever further from the fire of divine love, further, in fact, than the distance separating highest heaven from lowest earth.

Indeed such people become like what they love, for they take their tone from the greed of their day and age. Because they will not give up their old ways, they come to prefer life’s specious emptiness to the warmth of happiness. They exchange the glory of incorruptible charity for a fleeting lust of “beauty.” And this they could not possibly do were they not blinded by a counterfeit “fire of love” which both devastates virtue at it source and encourages vice in its growth.

Yet on the other hand there are many who, because they care nothing for feminine beauty or riotous living, reckon therefore that they will be sure of salvation. Because of this chastity, outward and visible, they see themselves as saints standing out from the rest. But this is a wrong and silly assumption if they are not at the same time destroying the real root of sin, greed.

As the Bible says, there is nothing worse than the love of money (1 Tim. 6:10), for it means that one’s heart is everlastingly bothering about the love of the transitory and not giving itself a chance to acquire devotion. Love for God and love for the world cannot coexist in the same soul: the stronger drives out the weaker, and who follows Christ. The strength of people’s love is shown in what they do.

The devil has got hold of many whom we count good. For he possesses those who are merciful, chaste, and humble—self-confessed sinners to a man, of course, hair-shirted and penance-laden! Very often indeed are mortal wounds obscured by the odor of sanctity.

The devil may have the busy worker, or even the compelling preacher, but not, surely the person whose heart is aglow with charity, ever eager to love God and indifferent to vanity. The eager love of the wicked, on the other hand, is always for what is shameful. They have ceased from all spiritual exercise, or at least are flabby and feeble. Their love has no pattern, being given more to things that are of this world than of the next, more to bodies than to souls.

[Questions to think about:

*Rolle wirtes, “People become like what they love.” What or who are some of your loves, and how have you become like them?

*The devil, notes Rolle, may have possession of those who appear religious on the outside. What three characteristics clearly help us stand in opposition to the devil?

*Rolle describes his spiritual experiences as being accompanied by a sensation of warmth, which he compares to a fire. Have you ever felt any physical sensations in a time of worship or devotion?]

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