Acta Sanctorum: Bl. Richard Rolle (Jan 20)
January 20, 2024
Fr. John Colacino C.PP.S.

January 20
Bl. Richard Rolle

Life (1290-1349)

Blessed Richard Rolle lived most of his adult life in solitude as a hermit writing about his mystical experiences, making him one of the first great medieval English mystics. He was born into a small farming family in 1300 at Thornton-le-Dale, Yorkshire. 

He studied at the University of Oxford but became dissatisfied with the subjects of philosophy and secular studies. He left Oxford at age 18 or 19 to become a religious hermit, causing his family to worry about his sanity.

He had financial support from a few patrons, including John Dalton, on whose estate Richard lived for about three years. It is unclear where Richard went after leaving the Dalton estate because most of what we know about him is from the pages of the books he wrote. 

One theory is that Richard spent the early 1320s at the Sorbonne becoming trained in theology. He probably began writing in the early 1330s and continued until his death, but there is no certain chronology of his various works.

He wrote beautiful and insightful accounts of contemplative life in Latin and English in books, such as Emendatio vitae (The Mending of Life) and Incendium amoris (The Fire of Love), the latter of which became one of his best-known works. He described his mystical experiences as being of three kinds: a physical warmth in his body, a sense of wonderful sweetness and a heavenly music that accompanied him as he chanted the Psalms. 

Editor Bernard Bangley writes in Butler’s Lives of the Saints that Richard gave clear instruction to those who would lead a Christian life. He also did not hesitate to criticize misdirected interests of clergy or shallow religious behavior, writing:

“Not everyone who leaves the things of this world behind comes to Christ. When Christ says ‘sell everything,’ he means change your point of view. If you are proud, now you must become humble. If you are angry, learn how to forgive. If you are greedy, be transformed into a generous person.”

Even though he spent years as a hermit, he enjoyed people and had a strong interest in seeing them grow spiritually. John Delaney writes in the Dictionary of Saints that Richard was one of the first religious writers to write in the vernacular as well as in Latin. His works are often classified into commentaries, treatises and epistles. Some examples of his commentaries are “Readings in the Office of the Dead,” taken from Job; and his “Commentary on the Apocalypse.” Other commentaries were on the Lord’s Prayer, the Magnificat and the Apostles’ Creed. 

Some of Richard’s importance is due to the devotional prose he composed in the vernacular for women readers. His English or Latin epistles and treatises reflect his fervent devotion and emphasize his rapturous mystical union with God. 

Throughout his writings, he exalts the life of contemplation and solitude. He was one of the most widely read of English writers, whose works survive in nearly 400 English and at least 70 Continental manuscripts. 

He spent the last years of his life settling at Hampole in a cell near the priory of a community of Cistercian nuns who were under his spiritual guidance. Around 1348, Richard met the Yorkshire anchoress Margaret Kirkby, who became his principal disciple and the recipient of much of his writings. She would be important in establishing his later reputation.

Blessed Richard died of the Black Death on Sept. 29, 1349.

— Mary Lou Gibson

Scripture (Rom 11:33-36)

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.


(Year B). Responsible prayer for the soul of a Christian consists in looking and asking day and night for the love of Jesus Christ, so that the soul may really love him, feeling comfort and delight in him, rejecting the ideas of the world and dishonest enterprises. And you may be certain that if you long for his love faithfully and enduringly, so that no promptings of your own body, nor vexations of the world, nor conversations, nor antipathy of other people can pull you back and embroil you in a frenzy of activity about material things, then you are bound to receive his love and find and feel that one hour of it is more delightful than all the wealth which we can behold here could supply from now to doomsday. And should you fail, and succumb to temptations or vexations or to too much affection for your friends, it isn’t surprising if he should keep back from you something which you don’t want wholeheartedly. He declares that he “loves those who love him, and those who rise early to meet him will find him.”
The love of Jesus Christ is a most precious treasure, a most delectable pleasure, and most reliable for anyone to put their confidence in. For this reason, he refuses to give it to silly people who don’t know how to guard it and preserve it tenderly, but gives it to those who will never allow it to escape from them, either through good luck or bad, but would sooner die before they would make Jesus Christ angry. As an instance of this: on no account would anyone pour precious liquid into a putrid container, but rather into a purified one; in the same way, Christ does not pour his love into a heart contaminated by sin and constricted by loathsome sensuality in physical habits, but into a heart which is beautiful and purified by virtues. Notwithstanding this, a dirty container can be made pure so that an extremely precious object can be safely put into it; and similarly Jesus Christ frequently purifies many a sinful person’s soul, making it by his grace capable of receiving the delectable sweetness of his love, and of being his living-place in sanctity, and all the time, the purer it becomes, the more joy and heavenly consolation does Christ place in it; for this reason, in the early stages when someone is converted to God he or she is not able to detect that sweet liquor until they have grown thoroughly accustomed to the service of God, and their heart has been purified with prayer and self-denial and devout thoughts of God. This is because one who is indolent in the service of God cannot be burning in love unless he or she exerts all labor and strength day and night to fulfil God’s will. And when that glorious love is in anyone’s heart it will not permit them to remain inactive; instead it stirs him or her to do something good that is sure to be pleasing to God, like praying, or making useful things, or talking about Jesus Christ, and above all meditating, so that an awareness of Jesus Christ is never absent from that person’s thoughts. This is because if you really love him faithfully he will make you glad as nothing else will, if you are willing to concentrate on him, rejecting all other thoughts. But if you are disloyal, and take someone other than him, and gratify yourself with earthly things contrary to his wish, know this for a fact, he will abandon you as you will have done him already, and will condemn you for your sin. For the purpose of loving him loyally, you must realize that love for him can be proved by three things: by thinking, by speaking, and by acting.  (The Commandment)

Musical Selection (Taize')

Veni Sancte Spiritus, tui amoris ignem accende. 
Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle the flame of your love. 
Almighty God, 
who taught Richard Rolle 
to delight in the solitary life 
and in the poetry of human language: 
grant that we may sing spiritual songs 
that burst from the inner fire of knowing you, 
so that we may delight in Christ, 
who is beyond all creation, 
and lives and reigns with you, 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
God, now and for ever. Amen. (English Missal)