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OF THE PRAISE OF SOLITARY LIFE AND OF THE FIRST LOVERS THEREOF: AND THAT LOVE OF GOD STANDS IN HEAT, SONG, AND SWEETNESS: AND THAT REST IS NEEDFUL: AND THAT SUCH ARE SAVED FROM DECEITS, AND ARE NOT SET IN PRELACY
Saint Job in tormentry was taught by the Holy Ghost the commendation of many manner of holy hermits knit into one, saying: Quis dimisit onagrum liberum, etc. that is to say: ‘Who left the wild ass free, and loosed her bands?’ etc.
First, therefore, he commends the freeness of grace, when he says: ‘who let the wild ass loose?’ Second, the putting away of fleshly desires; when he says: ‘and his bands loosed.’ Third, solitary conversation, when he adds: ‘to her he gave a house in the wilderness.’ Fourth, the desire of endless bliss, when he says: ‘and his tabernacle in the land of saltness,’ for salt truly slakes not, but increases thirst; and so the more they have received anything of the sweetness of everlasting life, the more they desire to have, and the more to taste.
Forsooth John Baptist, after Christ the prince of hermits, tarrying in no desire, chose a solitary life; and others have also chosen it, like to a gadfly, the which, says Solomon, has no leader or commander, and goes forth by companies of gifts and virtues. Truly there are bands of nature and of sin, which our Lord has loosed in them, and has confirmed the bands of charity.
The house of the wilderness may also be said to be the rest of a sinner; for holy hermits are sundered from worldly strifes and sins; and, Christ, giving it, they receive the sweetness of a clear conscience, and singing the joys of everlasting love, they rest, refreshed by the most merry heat: and although with sharpness and frowardness they be pricked in body, nevertheless they resolutely hold within their soul praise and burning.
There is another ill wilderness of pride: when any man either prefers himself before all others, or what he has he ascribes to the might of his freewill; of whom it is said: Vae soli: ’Woe to the man alone’; if he fall he has no helper up. In the beginning truly of a hermit’s turning—I speak not of runners about that are the slander of hermits—they are made weary with many and divers temptations; but after the tempest of ill movings God insheds the brightness of holy desires, that if they use themselves manly in weeping, meditating, and praying, and seeking only the love of Christ, after a little while they shall seem to themselves to live more in delight, than in weeping, or straitness of labour. They shall have Him whom they loved; whom they sought; and whom they desired: and then shall they joy and not be heavy.
What is it truly to joy but to have the good desired; of it to think; and in it to rest? No marvel that mirth is sweet where true lovers accord, and where the merry solace is of the touching of love; truly unable to be told is the desire of burning lovers, and the sight and speech of each to the other is sweet to them, above honey and the honey-comb.
Jeremy truly commends solitary life saying: ‘Good it is to be a man when he has borne the yoke of God from his young age; he shall sit solitary and be in peace; for by the desire and contemplation of things everlasting he has raised himself above himself.’ Whence it is written in scripture: Natus non est in terra quasi Enoch; that is to say: ‘None is born on earth as Enoch,’ because forsooth he was taken from the earth. For contemplative men are higher than others both in excellence of work and heartiness of love.
Love forsooth dwells in the heart of the solitary if he seek nothing from vain lordship. Here he utterly burns and longs for light whiles he thus clearly savours things heavenly; and sings with honey-sweetness and without heaviness; as the seraphim—to whom he is like in loving mind—cries and says to his noble Lover; ‘Behold, loving, I burn; greedily desiring.’
Thus with fire untrowed and thirling flame the soul of a lover is burned. It gladdens all things and heavenlike sparkles. Nor happily desiring do I make an end but alway going to that I love death to me is sweet and sicker.
Forsooth the holy solitary, because he suffered to sit in the wilderness for his Saviour, shall receive a golden seat in heaven, and excellence amongst the orders of angels. And because for the love of his Lord he was clad with vile clothes, he shall do on a kirtle to his heels, everlasting, and wrought with the clearness of his Maker. And because, taming his flesh, he shamed not to have a pale and lean face, he shall receive a full marvellous shining of face; and shall bear a most fair mantle, inwoven with precious stones, for his despised clothes, among the mighty of Paradise withouten end. And truly because he voided vice, and burgeoning not in jollity of this life, has entirely cast out the species of sin, the burning of the love of God Almighty he has received into himself most sweet heavenly sound; and the sound of singers of songs full of charity is worthily inshed sweetly into his mind. Therefore bodily and without dread he goes out from this exile hearing in his end angels songs; and he that loved most burningly, going into the Everlasting Hall, shall full worthily be taken up to a degree most joyful, so that with the seraphim he may be in a full high seat.
As I forsooth, seeking in scripture, might find and know, the high love of Christ soothly stands in three things: in heat; in song; in sweetness. And I am expert in mind that these three can not long remain without great rest. For if I would contemplate standing, walking, or lying, methought I lacked full mickle thereof in myself and me-seemed desolate; wherefore, constrained by need, that I might have and abide in high devotion, I chose to sit. The cause of this I know well; for if a man stands or walks for some time, his body waxes weary and so the soul is let, and in a manner irks for the charge, and he is not in high quiet and, it follows, not in perfectness; for, after the philosopher, the soul is made wise sitting or resting. He therefore that as yet is more delighted in God standing than sitting, may know that he is full far from the height of contemplation.
Whence truly in these three that are tokens of most perfect love, the highest perfection of Christian religion without all doubt is found; and I have now, Jesu granting, received these three after the littleness of my capacity. Nevertheless I dare not make myself even to the saints that have shone in them, for they peradventure have received them more perfectly. Yet shall I be busy in virtue that I may more burningly love, more sweetly sing, and more plenteously feel the sweetness of love. Ye err, brethren, if ye trow that none now are so holy as the prophets or apostles have been.
Soothly, heat I call it when the mind is truly kindled in love everlasting; and the heart in the same manner, not hopingly but verily, is felt to burn. For the heart turned into fire gives the feeling of burning love.
Song I call it when in a soul the sweetness of everlasting praise is received with plenteous burning, and thought is turned into song; and the mind is changed into full sweet sound.
These two are not gotten in idleness, but in high devotion; to the which the third is near, that is to say sweetness untrowed. For heat and song truly cause a marvellous sweetness in the soul; and also they may be caused by full great sweetness. Truly there is not any deceit in this plenteousness, but rather it is the most perfect ending of all deeds. Yet some ignorant of contemplative life are deceived by the fiend of the midday into a false and feigned sweetness, for they trow themselves full high when they are low.
But the soul in which the foresaid three things run together, bides altogether unable to be thirled with the arrows of our enemy, whiles she is continually thinking of the lover; for with mind unsmitten she raises herself to heaven and stirs herself to love.
And marvel not if melody be sent to the soul thus ordinate in love, and though she continually receives comfortable songs from the Beloved; for she lives not as if under vanity, but as it were clad with the heavenly, yea so that she may burn withouten end in unwrought heat and never fall. When she also loves unceasingly and burningly, and as it was before said, feels this most happy heat in her soul, and knows herself subtly burnt with the fire of endless love, plainly feeling her most beloved in desired sweetness, meditation is turned into songs of joy, and nature is renewed and umbelapped in heavenly mirth. Wherefore her Maker whom she has desired with all her heart, has granted her to pass without dread and heaviness from the corruptible body, that without heaviness of death she may forsake the world; the which being the friend of light and enemy of darkness has loved nothing but life.
This manner of man forsooth that is taken to so high love, ought to be chosen neither to office nor outward prelacy; nor to be called to any secular errand. Truly they are like the stone that is called topaz, the which is seldom found, and therefore it is held most precious and full dear, in which are two colours: one is most pure even as gold, and the other clear as heaven when it is bright. And it overcomes all the clearness of all stones; and nothing is fairer to behold. But if any would polish it, it is made dim, and truly if it be left to itself its clearness is withholden.
So holy contemplatives, of whom we spake before, are most rare and therefore most dear. They are like to gold for surpassing heat of charity, and to heaven for clearness of heavenly conversation; the which pass the lives of all saints, and therefore are clearer and brighter among the precious stones, that is to say the chosen, because loving and having this lonely life they are clearer than all other men that are, or else have been. But truly who will polish such, that is to say honour them with dignities, are busy to lessen their heat, and in a manner to make their fairness and their clearness dim; for truly if they get the honour of principality, they shall forsooth be made fouler and of less meed. Therefore they shall be left to take heed to their studies, that their clearness may increase.
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