September 28:Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Margery Kempe; Mystics, 1349, 1396, c. 1440

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About this commemoration

Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Margery Kempe were three early and prominent figures associated with Christian mysticism in the Church of England.

Richard Rolle was an English hermit about whose early life we know little. At the age of 18 he gave up his studies at Oxford for the ascetic life out of which grew a ministry of prayer, writing, and spiritual direction. Rolle lived his final years near the Cistercian convent near Hampole. Among his chief writings are several scriptural commentaries, some theological writings originally written in Latin and translated into English, and many poems. Though criticized by many for promoting a highly subjective form of religion, he was an ardent defender of the contemplative life he practiced.

Similarly, we know little of the early life of Walter Hilton, though evidence suggests that he studied at Cambridge. Hilton spent time as a hermit before becoming an Augustinian canon at Thurgarton Priory in Nottinghamshire late in the fourteenth century. In his great work, The Scale of Perfection, he develops his understanding of the “luminous

darkness” which marks the transition between self-love and the love of God. Similarities between his work and The Cloud of Unknowing have convinced some to attribute that latter work to him. Hilton’s spirituality and writings were highly influential on figures such as Anselm of Canterbury.

Margery Kempe, who wrote the book bearing her name, and from which we attain most of our knowledge of her, was a mystic who experienced intense visions followed by a period of emotional disturbance, subsequent to which she went on pilgrimage to Canterbury. She later made pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to Santiago de Compostela and was encouraged in her efforts by Julian of Norwich. She describes these travels as well as her mystical experiences in the Book of Margery Kempe. In it, she describes long periods of consciousness of and communion with Jesus, experiences that developed in her deep compassion of the sins of humanity.


Gracious God, we offer thanks for the lives and work of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Margery Kempe, hermits and mystics, who, passing through the cloud of unknowing, beheld thy glory. Help us, after their examples, to see thee more clearly and love thee more dearly, in the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Gracious God, we give you thanks for the lives and work of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Margery Kempe, hermits and mystics, who, passing through the cloud of unknowing, beheld your glory. Help us, after their examples, to see you more clearly and love you more dearly, in the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Job 26:1–14

Romans 11:33–12:2

Matthew 5:43–48

Psalm 63:1–8

Preface of a Saint (3)

Text From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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8 thoughts on “September 28:Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Margery Kempe; Mystics, 1349, 1396, c. 1440

  1. Church of England/? These are decidedly pre-Reformation figures.

    Margery Kempe was illiterate and dictated the story of her life to a priest who took it down. Her life was far more vivid than is suggested here, but when you have 3 people on one day, I guess you have to cut corners. Isn’t it interesting that of the 3, she is the one whose life story is most thoroughly known. She once told off the Archbishop of York, who questioned her orthodoxy. She made her husband agree to cease having marital relations with her. When overcome with mystical experience, she burst into loud weeping. In early life, she went mad until healed by a vision of Jesus. People thought her mad or drunken. She may not rate a whole day, but she certainly rates a more accurate bio than she gets here.

  2. September 28:Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Margery Kempe; Mystics, 1349, 1396, c. 1440
    Listing the death dates in parentheses after each name in the title would be easier to comprehend at first glance (or mention) than the list of numbers at the end of the title.
    The first paragraph mentions they were “associated with Christian mysticism,” but the title simply says “Mystics.” Since mysticism is not restricted to Christian manifestations, I would like to see “Christian Mystics” in the title, as well. In fact, all three wrote (or dictated) books on the life of prayer, religion, and spirituality, so the mere “given” that they happened to be inclined to mystical modes of communion seems to me to be more a matter of style than substance or accomplishment as a feature by which to identify them.
    Some editorial smoothing out of the rough spots would be appreciated. “Though criticized” in paragraph two strikes me as one word too many – I’d strike “though.” “He practiced” (at the end of that sentence) also seems unnecessary. In paragraph three, “highly influential on” seems to use the wrong preposition – “for” seems like the right preposition; and in the same sentence, “such as,” followed by one person’s name (Anselm’s) strikes me as inflation; and even the mention of Anselm (without any indication of what that influence was) seems like a tease. I’d like to know HOW (in what regard) he influenced Anselm.
    The last paragraph seems to dance around Kempe’s story as if wanting to soften it for popular consumption. Specifically, “…emotional disturbance, subsequent to which she went on pilgrimage to Canterbury” [and other places] “…encouraged … by Julian of Norwich” strikes me as inadequate. It sounds as if traveling was therapy, and Julian might have been her travel agent or therapist. I realize that’s not what’s meant, and I’m stretching things to make a point, but you should tell it in a better way. Also, “Long periods of consciousness” is not the most remarkable achievement, either. Lots of us have long periods of consciousness. Some stay awake all day. (Not me, of course.)
    Many of these are “nit-picky” observations, but a competent re-editing couldn’t hurt with this one.

  3. I understand that dealing with three interesting and complex figures on one day, and in a couple of hundred words each is challenging, but Walter Hilton couldn’t have influenced Anselm of Canterbury’s spirituality. Hilton died in 1396, almost 300 years after Anselm’s death.

  4. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel?I believe New Testament grace/loving-kindness (led them/may lead me) to trust God’s work with our hearts. We “see” God1 though our poetry of the loving sight is “highly subjective” (Rolle) and exists in luminous darkness (Hilton) or the cloud of unknowning1. Our faith poetry acknowledges the mentally unfathomable clash between the glories of creation and our faint sense. In addition to Godly gifts of sun and rain, our poetry-in-motion loves our enemies and thus refuses some deceptive preference for a chemistry-level, balanced, fair equation to work out how to treat the unrighteous.The triune God’s gracefully communes with us, so our strengthen moving-poetry acts compassionately when meeting sin (Kempe).
    Rolle, Hilton and Kempe stated desire trust for God’s work in their hearts. Their communities could hold them accountable–could be Jesus voice–could encourage renewed trust when new experiences of faint perception crept in.
    In yesterday’s Eucharistic celebration, we used the work of the biographer, of those writing the collect and of those selecting these 2 lessons. For me, these mystic’s lives witness to the good news of redemption and sanctification which led them…and leads us.
    How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?The commemorated mystics went from “lurking” in conversations about clouds of unknowing to offering ideas. Maybe in my first contribution to this Blog I didn’t realize there would be more than 12 who’d discuss the BLOG’s 2 questions. But from my days at SMU’s Canterbury 30+ years ago felt nourished by lesser-feast Eucharistic celebrations. Our chaplain was willing, in the year after Luwum’s death, to confess he sensed God pushing Luwum’s faithful martyrdom as an inspiration for Christians. Like Rolle, I’m sure the Chaplain could have been accused of promoting a high subjective form of religion.
    At this moment, inspiration to throw words around about a cloud of unknowing seems to be more about the Christian I’ve met than these lifelong mystics. Yet he (and the press of the 70’s) wanted me to know and commemorate a different man (Luwum). We’ve got God’s sun, rain and glorious creation. I’m throwing some words out about Rolle, Hilton and Kempe, since it’s okay find a faint echo in these “little Christ” mystics.
    Thanks to Cynthia for the additional details about Kempe. Anyone know a Project-Gutenberg cite I could “surf to” the next time I’m working on Kempe?
    In my nit-picky responses to John:
    1) I’m the exact opposite on the dates thing, since I like to cut and paste the names and “vocations” for newsletter stuff and hope some Googled image will carry a sense of the time frame.
    2) Do we have anyone we commemorate who is not a Christian? The biography for the Dorchester Chaplains [Feb. 3] reminded me that the one who is Jewish is Lieutenant Goode. Perhaps some specific Armenians (Genocide Remembrance-Apr. 24) or since that collect refers to “those who endure deprivation” the group(S) remembered would include many Christians and none Christians. But perhaps it’s also an entirely different type of commemoration.
    3) My question about Anselm was “If Anselm lived in the 1100’s and Hilton in the 1300’s, how could Hilton influence Anselm?”
    4) Maybe the “tell it a better way” applies because I read the Kempe paragraph different than John. I connected the emotional disturbances to the later reference about compassion for humanity’s sinfulness. I had thought she was disturbed because resisted compassion and favored righteous indignation. Obviously, I never read anything more than this biography. Probably I’m guilty of projection and convoluted thinking. I’ll bet John is probably right here.
    1See the collect for this commemoration.

  5. Rolle bio: He was born when? Add: ‘He died in 1349.’
    Hilton bio: He was born when? Add: ‘He died in 1396.’
    Kempe bio: She was born when? Add: ‘She died in1440.’

  6. The current Norton Anthology of Early British Literature [I’m 2yrs retired, so details of title may be slightly off] has generous selections from Kempe’s account of her life, for anyone interested. As I said earlier, she is a far more singular and odd person then the bio above suggests. It’s a disservice to whitebread her. We are not Victorians, after all.

  7. Approximate years of birth would be helpful for each of these early mystics.

    In line 5 of the second paragraph, the reference to Hampole needs some amplification for the benefit of anyone unfamiliar with obscure English villages. It is near Doncaster, but that won’t help folk who don’t know where Doncaster is. I suggest adding “,a village in south Yorkshire” after “Hampole”.

    The word “latter” in line 10 of the third paragraph is redundant. The meaning is obvious with out it.

    The last sentence in the fourth paragraph has a word order in the final clause which, with the absence of punctuation, is hard to follow. I suggest: “…experiences which developed to form in her a deep compassion for the sins of humanity”.

    To avoid confusion between the author and her book, delete the word “and” in line 1 of the fourth paragraph.

  8. Some of these comments are longer than the article! Honestly, I take the articles as a reminder of these people, and an invitation to study them further.

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