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The Mending of Life

The fourteenth century was a mystical century. It followed an age of prodigious activity, mental, artistic, and religious. Men and women longed to be guided in the Divine way. Richard Rolle had a message for such, which he put down in writing. One of his books, The Mending of Life; shows that he was one of the precursors of the Reformation in England. He was born about the year 1300 at Thornton, in Yorkshire. After his schooldays he was sent to Oxford at the expense of Archbishop Nevile of Durham. Here we are told that "he desired more fully and more deeply to be imbued with the theological doctrines of Holy Scripture than with physics or with discipline of Secular Science."

But Oxford was not suited for Rolles. He left it to become a hermit. The story is told by Miss F. M. M. Cowper in the following words: "After he had returned from Oxford to his father’s house, he said one day to his sister who loved him with tender affection: "My beloved sister, thou hast two tunics which I greatly covet, one white and the other grey. Therefore I ask thee if thou wilt kindly give them to me, and bring them me tomorrow to the wood, nearby, together with my father’s rain-hood." She agreed willingly, and the next day according to her promise, carried them to the said wood, being quite ignorant of what was in her brother’s mind. And when he had received them he straightway cut off the sleeves from the grey tunic and the buttons from the white, and as best he could he fitted the sleeves to the white tunic, so that they might be in some manner suited to his purpose. Then he took off his own clothes, and put on his sister's white tunic next his skin, but the grey, with the sleeves cut out, he put on over it, and put his arms through the holes; and he covered his head with the rain-hood aforesaid, so that thus in some measure as far as was then in his power, he might present a certain likeness to a hermit. But when his sister saw this she was astounded, and cried "My brother is mad, My brother is mad." Whereupon he drove her from him with threats, and fled himself without delay, lest he should be seized by his friends and acquaintances."

He then passed through the five mystical "steps," which may be called Conversion, Purgation, The opening of the heavenly door, Fire of Love, Sweetness, culminating with "songs of rejoicing." This jubilation gave Rolle his "whole desire,” He says: "My thought was changed to a continual song of mirth, and I had, as it were, praises in my meditation, and in my prayers and psalm-singing I uttered the same sound, and henceforth for plenteousness of inward sweetness I burst out singing what before I said, but forsooth privily, because alone before my Maker." It will be observed that Rolle, hearing the singing, immediately responded to it, even as a passing note is responded to by the sounding-board of a piano.

But Rolle was not only a mystic. The last years of his life were spent in constant efforts for the spiritual teaching of others. At the age of forty he settled down as the religious mentor and adviser of a community of nuns, at Hampole, near Doncaster, where he died in 1349.

We will close with Rolle’s words on “The Love of God;"

"O thou undepartable love! O thou singular love, which that no tormenting of wicked men may overcome! He that hath Thee would rather suffer pain which passeth man's mind than he would sin deadly. If thou lovest thus, then lovest thou God well, and naught else but Him, nor thyself but for Him; and then there is nothing in thee but that is loved of God. O thou clear charity come in to me, and I to Thee, that I may be presented before my Maker. Forsooth Thou art a noble savor, Thou art odor well smelling, Thou art a pleasant sweetness, Thou art heat that cleanseth, Thou art solace everlasting, Thou makest men to be contemplative; Thou openest heaven gates, Thou shuttest the mouths of them that accuseth. Thou makest God to be seen, Thou hidest the multitude of sins. We praise Thee, we preach Thee, whereby we overcome the world, whereby we stye up the ladder of heaven. Fall Thou down to me. To Thee I commend and give me and mine ever without end."


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J. G. Wright, F. R. S. L.

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  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature

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