As shared previously, the 14th century hermit and mystic, Richard Rolle, writes of the “things” that spiritual practitioners should have in mind until they “be in perfect love.” Regarding the first of these four things, he writes:
One is the length of your life here, which is so short that it is hardly anything at all. For we live but in an instant [a poynt], which is the smallest thing that can be. And truly, our life is less than a point, [a point] if we compare it to the life that lasts forever. 1
The Middle English Dictionary reveals the varied and rich meanings and textures which the word “poynte” bears. Amongst these is certainly the sense, as is immediately evidenced in the quotation above, “[a] brief period of time, an instant, a moment.” Examples of this usage provided by the dictionary include the Wycliffe Bible’s translation of Isaiah 54:7: “Thi Lord God seide, At a poynt in litil tyme Y forsook thee, and Y schal gadere thee togidere in greete merciful doyngis.” 2 Also included is Job 21:13: Þei leden in goodis þer daiys, & in a poynt to hellis þei gon doun.” 3 The Middle English text, the Prose Life of Alexander, is cited for this sentence: “In a poynte of a daye it falles, þat þe meke es raysede vp to þe clowddeȝ, and þe prowde es putt to noȝte.’” 4
The association of the word “poynte” with the pivotal moment of death is clear in the examples offered in the Middle English Dictionary as well: “Þei ne witen not þe poynt ne þe houre ne þe day þat deþ wole come,” and “Thei ledde here dayes in lustes … and … descendyd to helle in a poynte.” 5 The Speculum of Guy of Warwick attributes these words regarding the sufferings of those in hell to Saint Augustine: “Hij sholen haue deþ wid-oute deiing / And point of deþ wid-outen ending.” 6 And The Boke of the Craft of Dying begins with these words:
For as much as þe passage of deth owt of the wrecchidnesse of the exile of this world for vnkunnyng of dyinge, not oonly to lewd men but also to religiouse men & deuoute personys semith wonderfull harde & ryȝt perlouse & also ryȝt fereful & horrible: þerfor in this present mater & tretis, þat is of the crafte of dyinge, is draw & conteyned a schorte maner of exortacion for techyne & confortynge of hem þat bene in poynte of deth. 7
Julian herself uses the word “point’ in relation to death in Chapter 64 of A Revelation, in a teaching about patience. Echoing something of Richard Rolle’s words above, the Norwich anchoress writes: “And also God wille that while the soule is in the body, it seeme to itself that it is ever at the pointe to be taken. For alle this life and this langor that we have here is but a point … 8
In his magisterial text, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Julian’s Tibetan contemporary, Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) writes:
[T]he only time to accomplish the aims of beings is now …. Even when you have gained the circumstances allowing for practice, the reason that you do not practice the teachings properly is the thought, ‘I will not die yet.’ Therefore, the thought that you will not die is the source of all deterioration, and the remedy for this is mindfulness of death, the source of all that is excellent. Consequently, you should not think that this is a practice for those who do not have some other profound teaching to cultivate in meditation. Nor should you think that although this is something worthy of meditation, you should cultivate it just a little at the beginning of the meditation session because it is not suitable for continuous practice. Rather, be certain from the depths of your heart that it is necessary in the beginning, middle, and end, and then cultivate it meditation. 9
- “Ane es: þe mesur of þi lyf here, þat sa schort es þat vnnethis es it oght. / For we lyue bot in a poynt—þat es þe leste thyng þat may be. / And, sothely, oure lyfe es les þan a poynt, if we liken it to þe lyfe þat lastes ay. // Another es: vncertente of owre endyng. For we wate neuer when we sal dye, ne whare we sal dye, ne how we sal dye, ne whider we sal ga when we er dede …” (Richard Rolle, “The Form of Living.” English Prose Works of Richard Rolle: A Selection. Edited by Carl Horstmann, page 19. Retrieved from Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/rollewks/1:1.1?rgn=div2;view=fulltext In my attempt at translation, I have benefitted from the modern English translation of Rosamund Allen in Richard Rolle: The English Writings. Translated, edited, and introduced by Rosamund S. Allen. New York: Paulist Press, 1988. While Professor Allen translates “point” as “pinprick,” I have used both “instant,” as a very short moment of time, and I have kept “point” as well, because of the importance of that latter word in Julian’s writings.
- Vulgate: “ad punctum in modico dereliqui te et in miserationibus magnis congregabo te.” Douay Rheims: “For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee.” Retrieved from: http://www.latinvulgate.com/verse.aspx?t=0&b=27&c=54 (Emphasis mine.) “The Middle English Dictionary” has been so helpful in identifying usages. See “pointe,” “Middle English Dictionary” at Middle English Compendium: pointe – Middle English Compendium (umich.edu)
- Vulgate: “ducunt in bonis dies suos et in puncto ad inferna descendunt.” Douay Rheims: “They spend their days in wealth, and in a moment they go down to hell.” Retrieved: http://www.latinvulgate.com/verse.aspx?t=0&b=20&c=21 (Emphasis mine.)
- These words are placed on the lips of the ancient Persian king, Darius, whose empire was conquered by Alexander the Great. A fuller quotation: “’And it ware knawen vn-to þe wreched man, what schulde falle till hym after-wardeȝ, he schedule hafe littill thoghte of þe tyme present, bot one þe tyme to come solde his thoȝte be. In a poynte of a daye it falles, þat þe meke es raysede vp to þe clowddeȝ, and þe prowde es putt to noȝte.’” (Prose Life of Alexander. Edited by John StephenWestlake. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., LTD, Oxford University Press, 1913 for 1911, page 49, line 39 – page 50, lines 1-5.)
- The Middle English Dictionary identifies the first quotation as coming from The Book of Vices and Virtues and the second from Speculum Christiani. See See “pointe,” “Middle English Dictionary” at Middle English Compendium: pointe – Middle English Compendium (umich.edu)
- Speculum Gy de Warewyke: An English Poem, with Introduction, Notes and Glossary; Here for the first time printed and first edited from the Mss. Edited by Georgiana Lea Morrill. London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society by Kegan Paul, Trench Trübner & Co., 1898., lines 279-280, page 14. The Speculum’s depiction of the terrors of hell as involving “death without dying,” resonates in a curious way with TM’s observation that Julian’s desire for a “bodily sickness” is a desire “to die without dying.” (See the reflection above, “To Die Without Dying.”)
- “The boke of the craft of dying,” Yorkshire Writers: Richard Rolle of Hampole and His Followers. Edited by C. Horstmann. D.S Brewer, 1985/1999, page 406.
- Julian of Norwich, The Writings of Julian of Norwich, Eds, Nicholas Watson and Jacqueline Jenkins. University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, Chapter 2, lines 20-22, page 325.
- Tsongkhapa, The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Volume One. Translated by The Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee. Edited by Guy Newland. Editor in Chief: Joshua W. C. Cutler. Boston: Snow Lion, 2000, page 147. Geshe Lhundub Sopa teaches: “Even if we have some understanding of the teachings and think, ‘I should be doing this,’ we may still not practice properly with strong effort. We push it away. Despite such a rare and wonderful opportunity we cannot find a way to practice Dharma; we waste a unique chance that is soon gone. What is the root of this fault? Simply put, it is not recollecting death. It is because you are focused on preparing to live rather than preparing to die.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, Volume 1, The Foundation Practices. Senior Editor: David Patt. Editor: Beth Newman. Boston, Wisdom Publication, page 320.)
Leave a Reply