Richard Rolle (1300-1349)
It is our rare privilege to enter into the heart and mind of Richard Rolle, a self-described hermit who devoted his entire adult life to living in the present moment. Although he was a Christian and necessarily used religious language to describe his experience, we recognize that he is speaking of Simple Reality as he understood it. While a student at Oxford, “at the age of eighteen, it became clear to him that it was his vocation to be a hermit, devoting himself completely to a life of holy contemplation and of religious instruction.”[i]
His book, The Form of Living, is a series of essays written for Margaret, one of his disciples. From the essay entitled The Life of a Recluse we get a taste of his deeply-felt poetic expression of the “feeling” experience of the NOW. “Men think that we are in pain and in great penance, but we have more joy and more true delight in a day than they have in the world all their life. They see our body, but they see not our heart where our solace is.”[ii]
The rationale for the life of a hermit is based on the principles of solitude, simplicity and silence, a contemplative life that empowers the practitioner to choose response over reaction, compassion over fear. “The state that thou art in, that is to say solitude, is most suited of all others to the revelation of the Holy Ghost [intuition or ‘the still small voice’].”[iii]
Here he describes the contemplative’s equivalent of The Point of Power Practice in Simple Reality: “For ever the more temptation [conditioned habits of reaction], and the more grievous, they stand against and overcome, the more they shall rejoice in his love when the temptations have passed.”[iv]
From the Christian perspective, as Richard Rolle confronts the false self survival strategy, we get a feel for the magnitude of the challenge we all face in affecting a paradigm shift as we engage in the transformation of our identity and behaviors. “While awake they are sometimes tempted with foul thoughts [mind], vile lusts, wicked delights [sensations], with pride [power], anger, envy, despair, presumption, and other sins many.”[v]
Fortunately, today we don’t interpret religious metaphors as literally as did the Christians of Medieval England, so we can recognize angels, the devil, demons and other figments of an overactive imagination as the products of religious superstition.
Compassion is key and we can see that Rolle understood the transformative power of transcending fear and making one’s life a continuous, ever-vigilant meditation, as well as the consequences of not doing so. “See how good a thing compassion is! If we suffer ourselves to be slain, if we give all that we have to help the poor, if we know as much as all men know on earth—to all this, without compassion, is ordained nothing but sorrow and torment. Love is a turning away from all earthly things [illusion of P-B].”[vi]
“Proud men and women love not stalwartly; for they are so weak, that they fall [react] at every stirring of the wind, that is to say temptation.”[vii]
“But whoever is truly meek [without reaction], they do not wish to have their will in this world. In nothing may men sooner overcome the devil [false self] than in meekness, which the devil mightily hates. For the devil can watch and fast and suffer pain [delusion] more than any other creature can; but meekness and love he cannot have.”[viii]
So the choice is clear, and we can choose the contemplative life today just as Richard Rolle did seven hundred years ago.
[i] Lieder, Paul Robert. British Prose and Poetry, Volume I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1950, page 83.
[ii] Ibid., page 84.
[iv] Ibid., pages 84-85.
[v] Ibid., page 85.
[vi] Ibid., page 86.
[vii] Ibid., page 87.
Find this essay and much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.