Not Richard Rolle

 The Fire of Love (Excerpt)


Introductory Note

Among the strangest types of religious contemplatives in Western history were the anchorites and anchoresses of medieval Europe. These recluses chose to be enclosed for life in small, doorless cells called anchorholds, which were attached to churches. As they were sealed into their cells for the first time, a service resembling the funeral rites was read, declaring them dead to the world. Small windows allowed parishioners to attend to the anchorites’ physical needs, and to ask them for spiritual advice. Among those whose names have come down to us is the Yorkshire anchoress Margaret Kirkby, who lived from about 1322 to 1391. She was the chief disciple of the influential religious writer Richard Rolle. Among his famous works are The Form of Living, a guide to spiritual life which he wrote for her, and his account of mystical communion with God, entitled The Fire of Love.

The Open Door


As a girl, she loved to run. Over the moors that she thought of as hers, as if they were her own mind, spread outside.

Her heart beat hard in her thin chest as her legs carried her far, fast across the hills and dales. She ran until her lungs ached and her muscles screamed and when she could bear no more, she threw herself down in the grass. She lay there, rejoicing in the blood she could feel coursing as if in floods through her veins. Feeling the hammering of her heart and heaving of her chest as she breathed, and the sweet warmth of her muscles, relaxing now into rest. She closed her eyes.

The bees buzzing in the heath and the linnets chirping on every side made a bright, busy haze of sound. It enveloped her, like the rays of the sun that shone warm, almost too hot, on her dress and her skin. They are coming, she thought. She waited. Until the thought felt as strong as vision, the idea as true as fact.

Then she opened her eyes, and scanned the huge, blue bowl of sky. There they were, so far above they were only just becoming perceptible to the eye. The peregrines, masters of flight: discernible as arcs, as pale lines, curving and circling through heaven. Drawing her heart upward to join them, in joy.

They are in their nests now, she thought. In the cliffs, in the crags. She imagined the pairs, roosting together in their aeries, their feathers ruffled up for warmth. Their sharp eyes peering far across the sweeping expanse, scanning the snow-covered moors.

I will never see that far again.

The high window glowed faintly with the setting sun. Her throat constricted. My first night enclosed. She breathed deeply in, felt her muscles soften. Breathed fully out.  Looked again around her cell.

A room built of smooth and even stones, against the north wall of the church. Large enough for her to walk three paces down and two across. With one window, covered with oilcloth, facing the outside for light. Another window, shuttered now, gave unto the dim passage outside the vestry. Through that window will come all and go all I henceforth exchange with the world. Food and waste. God willing: counsel, and help.  There was no window to the sanctuary: she would not hear or see the Mass.

She drew her cloak closer around her and moved her bench nearer the hearth. She thought of him: Richard. His warm brown eyes, his genial smile. His hands, large as a workman’s, but soft as a scribe’s. His many deeds, and words.

We must strive, he said, to clothe ourselves in love, as iron or as charcoal do in fire. The charcoal is so imbued with fire that we find the whole aflame.

He was weary from his twelve-miles’ journey over the rough roads as he neared his hermit’s hut beside the church. A light snow was falling, gathering in his beard, and a chill wind reddened his cheeks. The sexton—like Richard, a man past fifty—met him in the yard, and took the bridle of his horse.

“Sister Margaret has taken her vow?” he asked.

Richard’s boots crunched on the frosted ground as he dismounted.  He met the other man’s eyes as he spoke.

“Praise be to God.”

Inside, before the fire, he knelt alone. Stirred the pot of gruel above the coals, then ladled it into his bowl. Ate with his cloak wrapped about him, feeling an unaccustomed shiver shake his limbs.

Dear Lord, keep her warm enough, he prayed. The walls around her were thick, well-mortared. He had seen to it himself, had directed the workmen, watched them do with steady hands the work at which his own would have trembled, faltered. He had led the others in chanting the rites, hearing his own voice flow through him as though it were a stranger’s, a sonorous baritone he hardly recognized. He had watched her, finally, as the last bricks were sealed into place, keeping his eyes fixed on her face until she vanished from view. She had been kneeling, motionless as a statue, with her eyes closed and her long black hair unbound, flowing over her shoulders. As lovely and as placid as an icon of the Virgin.

Richard’s hands, now, resting folded in his lap, felt alive with the memory of how he had touched her that day. His palm on the crown of her head, giving a priestly blessing. His fingers, just for a moment, grazing her cheek as he stood before her, caressing the curve of her chin.

An ache beneath his ribs swelled, lurched. Rising, he moved to the space beside his cot and knelt on the rough rug before it, his gaze fixed on the crucifix on the wall.

I can feel her spirit, Lord, he prayed in silence. Like a column of starlight, a vortex of warm wind, she is rising from within her circle of stone. Anchored to that piece of Earth and yet tethered to You in Heaven, far above.  Lend her your power and your strength, dear God of all, that she may offer your people succor in the terrible time to come.

“I thought I would find you here,” he had said, entering the convent garden. His tone was one of delight.  She rose from where she had been kneeling, tending the herbs, and came towards him.

“You know it is my favorite place to labor,” she said.

“And to contemplate God’s bounty,” Richard replied. She nodded; together they walked the paths, surveying the progress of the beans, the berry bushes. The morning sun was warm and gentle upon their backs.

“From the fruit of His works the earth shall be filled,” he said when they were seated together at the bench beside the hedge. It was Psalm 104, she knew. He had talked with her so often of the poetry of David: these songs that came into the world through Hebrew and that he could read in Latin. How she wished that she, too, could study the holy tongues forbidden to her by her sex. But Richard was writing about the Psalms in English, for the first time, so that everyone would understand. It thrilled her, he knew:  Margaret understood, better than anyone else, his calling. To bring the Word not just to the elite but to all the common people, to every searching soul.

It was a strange pairing.  Who would expect Richard, now more than fifty, a monk and recluse all his life, to find—by accident, when invited to serve as spiritual advisor to these nuns—one among them unlike every other. She was young, but no longer a child; at an age when the spiritual life can quicken like a babe within the womb. Maidens, he had written once, not old women or girls, are strong and powerful and know divine love.  And yet he had known many maidens, and none like her.

I am singular, she had laughed, once, when he remarked upon her difference. Perhaps we are singular together, he had replied, meeting her eyes. They were dark, like her hair, and shone with a liquid fire; her thoughts, they made clear, were ever active, reaching, perceiving and conceiving as she sought to learn.

“So, too, God nurtures apostles and contemplatives with His highest secrets,” Richard said in the garden. “For from the fruit he imparts to all good men, his lovers are made replete.” Margaret had closed her eyes to listen. But now a cloud passed over her face, and her brow furrowed. He knew her well enough not to ask why. Thoughts, feelings, sensations, often passed through her, and with him, she could give them voice. The meaning was not always, in the moment, apparent. But time and again, they had found it later. It was a feeling as of God directing their joint attention. Saying listen to this.  Or look.

As soon as she spoke, now, he knew she was reciting the end of the Psalm.

“He looks at the earth and it trembles. He touches the mountains and they smoke.”

She opened her eyes and he saw a wave of something—fear, it looked like, and puzzlement—pass across them, like a wave, then flow away.

A waft of wind brought them the scent of the ripening dewberries, growing close by where they sat. She reached out to pluck one, two, into the palm of her hand.  She offered him one. He took it. The juice, in both their mouths, was sweet.

For Margaret Kirkby Richard Rolle wrote The Form of Living, to guide her in her anchoritic life. Of food and drink, he wrote: “Some are deceived with excessive desire and pleasure for food and drink. So they destroy the full powers of their soul.  But there are many who think everything they do is worthless, unless they are in such great abstinence and fasting that everyone who knows them is talking about them! In my opinion they would please Jesus Christ much more, if, for love of him, in gratitude and praise of him, they accepted whatever God sent at that time and place with which to sustain their body in his service. Savor, then, what is given to you, and eat with full presence of spirit, neither conversing nor reflecting on ideas, but directing the mind to sensation alone. Taste sweetness of apple, salt of bread, smoothness of milk—for all these are attributes of the gifts of God. Feel the warmth, too, in your belly as the nurturance is received, and do not deny your needs, for your bodily strength roots your spirit in this world. But notice when you have received enough, and take no more; and fast at regular intervals, so that you may know the hunger of the poor, and help them learn to bear it when it cannot be assuaged.”

“You are a strange sort of recluse,” she had told him once, at a harvest bonfire. They stood far enough away to avoid the fire’s sparks, but she could still feel its heat, coming in waves when the wind moved, rippling through her skirts. Around them the villagers danced and shouted, celebrating the bounty of their land.

“I am one who lives alone to serve the life of all,” he replied, but his voice sounded weary.

He moved away, out of the circle of the fire’s light, into the deeper darkness of the field. She followed him onto the path that led back to the convent. Soon they were walking two abreast, finding their footing easily in the starlight.

“I have always loved the night of the new moon,” she said. She stopped and looked up. They were so many stars they almost seemed to blend together, into a blaze of gentle light. She felt him watching her.

“As a girl I used to wake at midnight, on nights like these, and slip out of the house,” she said. “I’d sit for hours against the wall of our barn, looking out at the moors and up at this kind of sky.”

“You were a mischievous lass,” Richard said, with a chuckle.

“My mother thought so,” Margaret acknowledged. “Especially when I fell asleep, there, once, and one of the stable boys found me at dawn.”

She looked suddenly grave, as she always did when she mentioned her mother. She had been that lady’s only child until a sibling promised to arrive, one summer morning in Margaret’s eighth year. She had only told only Richard, no one else, about how she felt it and saw it, in her mind’s eye, from the room adjoining the one where her mother was confined. It was like a stream seeking to flow into a larger river, pressing its way in—but then withdrawing suddenly, pulling with it a thousand streams and eddies from within that river, draining them away, and seeming to pull the very blood from Margaret’s own veins along with it too. She cried out with a sharp shriek that brought a servant woman to her door. She did not need to be told that her mother and the baby were dead.

At the convent gate, Richard pressed her hand, briefly, in goodnight.

“May God grant you peaceful rest,” he said, his voice low and warm in the night.

“And you as well.”

The sensation of his fingers lingered on her skin even after he was gone.

In the Form of Loving, Richard wrote about sleep: “Some are tricked by overdoing abstinence from sleep; this comes from the devil’s tempting, in order to make them collapse in the middle of their activities, so that they do not bring them to any conclusion. You may be sure that the soul is always active, even in sleep, and that God often speaks to us in dreams.”

“Come in,” he said, as she came to the door, which stood ajar.  She hesitated; he was writing.

“I would not disturb you.”  hey had discussed so often the process of composition, especially for his poetry. How it needed unbroken time and peace. But he stood up from the table and smiled at her.

“Please come—I have just finished.”  She crossed the room to stand before the fire. He gathered the pages before him and came to join her.

“I have written a new verse to the Virgin.”

“Read it to me.”

He was silent a moment, feeling the strength of her desire for the language, the learning he had and she did not. She would not understand the nuances of meaning, the content of the words. But her ear for the formal elements of poetry—the cadences and rhythms, the feelings sounds evoke—was as sharp, he knew from experience, as his own. His eyes fell to the page in his hand. He recited, in the warm baritone she’d come to know so well:

Puella pulcherima prostravit ludentum

Fronsque serenissima facit hunc languentum

Crines auro similes carpunt conquerentum;

Gene preamabiles solantur sedentum.

“It is beautiful.”

He found he could not take his eyes from her face.

“Teach me.” Her gaze was steady.


She held his eyes a moment, then turned sharply away from his refusal, unspoken this time, but understood. She looked out the window, at the open fields outside the convent, at the laborers busy there, rolling hay.

“Is it true,” she asked, “What they say about the night Lady Dalton visited you with her entourage?”

Richard smiled at her tone, which was teasing—as if there were some impropriety in the anecdote to which she referred.

“What do they say?” He took a step closer to her, his eyebrows raised.

“That you received in their presence a revelation of Christ.” Now Margaret’s expression was grave, and yet challenging.

“They say you wrote for hours without stopping, even while you conversed with them, questioned them, and even laughed,” the young woman went on. “That your hand and the quill seemed to move without your will, as if driven by an unseen power.”

He paused, remembering. The ladies—the wife of his patron, the squire Dalton, and her foolish friends, traipsing to his cell in their finery after a feast, filling it with their perfumes and their lilting voices. He was a curiosity to them, a novelty:  evidence of Dalton’s power and prestige. So be it, he had thought at the time, and since.  Only in this humiliation, this degradation, was it possible for him to become the Spirit’s vessel.

He turned toward Margaret, and she watched the light from the window illuminate the lines of his face.  Those lines were growing deep; but the twinkle in his grey eyes was that of a younger man.

“I learned a great deal that evening—about women,” he said. Though no movement of his beard betrayed a smile, Margaret felt a pulse answer him, from deep within her womb, when he named the part of humanity to which she belonged.

“They are closer both to Satan, and to God,” Richard said.

Alone now in her cell, she felt both forces. The terror that gripped her heart must be demonic—one of my soul’s trials, she thought. She knelt, and felt uplifted. Her lips moved in thanks to the Divine.

~ Kimberly Gladman ~