Fire and Tears: The Physical Manifestations
of Conversion

di Esther Cohen

«I was more astonished than I can put into words when, for the first time, I felt my heart glow hot and burn. I experienced the burning not in my imagination but in reality, as if it were being done by a physical fire. I was really amazed by the way the burning heat boiled up in my soul and (because I had never before experienced this abundance), by the unprecedented comfort it brought. In fact, I frequently felt my chest to see if this burning might have some external cause»1.

These are the words of the English mystic Richard Rolle of Hampole, describing in the prologue to the Incendium amoris the experience of religious conversion. Rolle is not unique in describing religious conversion as a physical experience. In fact, certain types of conversion were almost invariably described in those terms. A great deal of work has been done in the past few years by Bynum and others concerning the somatic aspects of religious experience2, and I would like here to add a footnote concerning one specific experience: that of conversion. As we shall see, two manifestations are most commonly associated with the experience: a sensation of fire and burning, and an outpouring of weeping and tears. While other somatic manifestations exist too, they are more individual and special, less stereotypical.

I must stress this point. Descriptions of personal conversions are often bound to specific topoi, and fire and tears are certainly such. I am not saying that the experience was faked by those describing it: merely, that the experience of conversion was conditioned by previous descriptions. Where fire and tears are absent, we might well be dealing with an individual event. While such an event is of supreme importance to the convert in question, it is less influential than the stereotypical experience.

But first we must determine what we mean by conversion. The term is nowadays used for the transition from one religion to another, but to use this meaning in the context of late medieval spirituality is totally wrong. It means, quite literally, a turnabout, either to good or to evil.

Again, in the words of Richard Rolle, stressing the original Latin meaning of conversio:

For what is conversion, complete turning to God, except turning away from the world, turning away from sin, turning away from the devil, and turning away from the flesh? What is turning away from God except turning from Unchageable Good toward mutable good, turning toward delight in the beauty of a creature, toward the works of the devil, toward the pleasures of the flesh and of the world?3

Rolle did not invent this dichotomy. Thomas Aquinas uses it when defining mortal sin as aversio ab incommutabili bono et conversio ad bonum commutabile4. Although the context is entirely different from Rolle's, the usage of aversio in the positive sense and conversio in the negative, coupled with the contradiction of good and evil (or temporary and perennial good) serves as a basis for a theory of conversion as a turnabout, an inversion, rather than a transition.

The Christian idea of conversion is the turning of the soul away from the transitory things of this world toward the eternal things of God. Starting with the pair of aversio-conversio, «it is built upon imagistic patterns of repeated dyadic units (death and life, sickness and health, darkness and light, blindness and sight)»5.

Conversion, in the late medieval context, starting with Bernard of Clairvaux, is an internal change. In the early middle ages it meant adopting monastic life, but from the twelfth century onwards it did not necessarily mean what Benedict of Nursia had called conversio morum. While never absolutely defined, it was a change of life, a commitment to a life of belief and Christian practice. What form this practice took was largely open to individual interpretation.

What does characterize this type of conversion is its sudden and miraculous nature. Students of religious conversion, starting with William James, have long distinguished two types of conversion: the sudden and the gradual. The second type is common among Protestants (and John Bunyan is the most common example). It is a conversion reached through a long internal journey of learning and conviction, in which the individual will has a great role to play. The sudden conversion, by contrast, is based upon a total surrender of the will and the working of a miracle. It is a stereotype as old as Christianity, beginning with St. Paul and later Augustine (though the Confessions make it clear that Augustine's sudden conversion was based upon a long process of growth beforehand).

James's most suggestive contribution to the psychology of conversion may be his appropriation of the terms lysis and crisis from medical terminology to refer to the two kinds of conversion, the gradual and the abrupt... The medical                             

matrix from which James draws his terminology is important, for conversion is here implicitly defined as spiritual healing... James's medical model is a particularly appropriate one, since the metaphors of sickness and healing have been used as descriptions of conversion for centuries6.

The medical metaphor is especially apt for the crisis conversion, since healing is rarely a self-performed process. There is almost invariably a healer, either a person or in our case sometimes a super-human force, who performs the curing upon the sick object. The will of the sick has nothing to do with it: it is entirely in the hands of the healer, and all the object can do is pray to be healed, either physically or spiritually, surrendering the individual will. It is no wonder that in miracula collections, physical and spiritual healings are placed together. They are also both - contrary to natural processes of healing - sudden and dramatic rather than gradual, and accompanied by highly visible, physical manifestations.

In miracula, conversions are often public, for otherwise the dramatic element is lost. Hardened criminals about to be hung suddenly beg for a priest, repent, and die in a state of grace; unregenerate sinners publicly confess their sins7. Just to give one notable example, St. Giovanni d'Avellini, a 14th-c. noble sinner, converted upon hearing a Franciscan's sermon. «He knelt in the city square, inter frequentiores concursus, covered with tears, proclaiming at the top of his voice: Oh citizens, him whom you saw as a sinner, follow as a penitent»8.

Floods of tears are undoubtedly the most common manifestation of conversion. Notably, though, they belong not to converts of Richard Rolle's type. It is not the sudden vision of a mystic seeing his way, but the repentance of the sinner. Augustine had no need of profuse weeping in front of an audience when he converted. For one thing, he was not converted by a holy man, but by a sign directly from God. Furthermore, his conversion was, as I said before, the result of a long internal pilgrimage. Most sinners who converted, though, were the «patients» of a holy man or woman - Heinrich Suso or Catherine of Siena, for example. Notably, it is not necessarily either the example or the exhortation of the saint which produces the miraculous conversion: it is his or her intercession with God. Saint Catherine indeed converted several people whom she had never seen or had met only once, and the conversion was due not to the impact of her personality, but to the miracle she wrought by praying for their conversion. In other cases, it was direct contact with a saint that produced the conversion, but in all cases the convert himself or herself had very little to do with it. Like a patient healed by a physician, he was the proof of the miracle, not the performer.

For the proof to be unmistakable, it had to be extremely dramatic.

All texts speak not of weeping, but of dramatic flumina lacrymarum, to cite but one expression. It is a violent, unrestrained, vocal weeping.

Perhaps the most notable conversion achieved by Saint Catherine was that of Lazzarino da Pisa, a Franciscan scholar who began by speaking condescendingly of the «good woman». After one meeting with her and a short (apparently unimportant conversation) he returned to his lodgings, and several hours later began weeping copiously for hours, unable to stop. He wept on and on for hours, until he acknowledged Catherine's sanctity. His «conversion», by the way, was simply from a devotion to intellectual pursuits and theology to a life of piety, solitude, and contemplation. The interesting thing about the conversion is its totally involuntary character and its manifestation by endless «floods of tears»9.

The motif of weeping as a prelude to conversion goes back a long way. It recurs in many saints' lives. But not only late medieval saints such as Margaret of Cortona began their religious careers in tears. A thousand years earlier, the whore Pelagia showed her conversion in the same way10. And it was then already that the theological rationale of this phenomenon was established. St Ambrose stated the relationship between penitence, baptism, and tears both in his «De poenitentia» and in his exegetical works on the Psalms and on Luke. He compared the purifying waters of baptism to the healing tears of penance. Penitence, according to other church fathers, was indeed the reparation of a soiled baptism, and it purified - through tears - the fallen Christian11.

Are conversion and penitence one and the same? For many of the fourth- and fifth-century fathers, they were indeed, for their treatment of penitence was placed within the context of apostate Christians wishing to return to the fold. But the use of tears as a public manifestation of a change of heart was not born within the Christian context at all. As far back as Homeric heroes, public weeping was a recognized, legitimate reaction. Furthermore, there are clear indications that during the late Empire the reliance upon nonverbal communication and the use of body gestures - weeping included - became more and more common in public life12. The fourth- and fifth-century Christians who translated the conversion of the heart into the body language of tears were doing no more than following behavioral norms common in their time also among Roman pagans.

Tears, therefore, as a manifestation of remorse, change of heart, and change of life have had a long existence within the history of European gestures. The theological context might have reinforced a behavioral norm already in existence, but in fact it did little other than that. The theological explanation tying baptismal water with tears of conversion was merely an addendum to an already existent phenomenon. Fire as a symptom of conversion is rarer. And yet Richard Rolle was not the only mystic to describe his experience in terms of fire.This description, however, cannot be found outside the realm of mystical experiences. Involuntary, «lay» converts are not described as burning. Furthermore, a closer examination shows that for Rolle himself the experience of fire was not the initial conversion, but the end of a long road. As he himself described it, «from the beginning of my alteration of life and spirit, up to the opening of the door of heaven... there flowed past three years, except for three or four months. Almost one year passed with the door remaining opened, until the time in which the heat of eternal love was felt in reality in my heart». Richard Rolle says he knew this fire came from God because, despite the burning, it was agreeable. Next, «from that inestimably delightul heat blazing in my senses to the infusion and perception of the celestial or spiritual sound which belongs to the canticle of eternal praise... there flowed past nine months and several weeks.» In total, he reckoned, that «from the beginning of the change of soul up to the final degree of love of Christ... I lived through four years and around three months»13.

The fire of love, then, was not for Richard Rolle an initial experience of conversion, but one of the stages on his road to mystical union with God. All the same, the fact that he placed the description in the prologue of his Incendium amoris, and the popularity of this text among English mystics, had its impact. When Margery Kempe came to describe her experience, she used his words almost verbatim. In her, both fire and tears accompanied her experience from the very first conversion, throughout her religious life14.

A sensation of fire and burning as a sign of conversion is extremely problematic. It is associated both with diseases (such as St. Anthony's fire) and with sin and punishment, in the context of hell and purgatory. Unlike the water which identifies tears with baptism, fire is more often viewed as damnation rather than redemption. It is possible that in this case we are dealing with an individual experience which was copied, wittingly or unwittingly, by other mystics, but the equation of fire with love - specifically love of God - is not limited to the English mystics who had read Richard Rolle. Several women mystics, both Italian and northern, use the simile of the burning love of Christ15. The fire, however, as in Rolle's case, is part of the final mystical union, not of the conversion itself. Possibly, the association of fire was Pentecostal rather than purgatorial - a sanctifying force, setting the subject apart from the world and endowing him or her with the power to speak «in tongues». If so, then the combination of tears and fire stands for purification and sanctification.

There is another context, however, in which both fire and tears make very much sense: the context of healing and late medieval medical practice. A great deal of medical practice was based upon two principles - purgation and purification. Thus, many illnesses were treated with emetics, diuretics, diarrhetics, or flebotomy. All of these were meant to rid the body of harmful humours which concentrated in the wrong places. Lancing infections was an equally drastic method of dealing with them, and based upon the same principle. At the same time, cauterization was often practiced as a means of healing and cleaning wounds. If one views conversion as the cure of the soul, performed by an outside agency, the use of metaphors from the realm of medicine makes absolute sense.

Fire and tears do not cover the entire spectrum of somatic conversion experiences. Some mystics took a totally individual road. Thus, Margaret of Oingt claimed to have been struck by paralysis and speechlessness, so overwhelmed was she by the experience of conversion16. Other saints never needed to convert, for they had always been «turned towards God». But one must view the experience within the context of late medieval religiosity. The sermons of Bernardino of Siena, of Jean Gerson, and of Geiler von Kaisersberg (to mention only three popular preachers from different countries) abound with calls to conversion. Since they are preaching to Christian audiences, their meaning is quite clear. They are calling upon people to turn their lives towards God, to change them radically. The road to conversion is an unknown one for most of those lay people, and unlike Richard Rolle they cannot follow it alone. To create patterns - physical, visible patterns that follow familiar metaphors - of conversion manifestations, was one way to post road-signs, to chart a spiritual journey.


1. M. Deanesly (ed.), The Incendium Amoris of Richard Rolle, Manchester, 1915, prologue; English version, The Fire of Love and the Mending of Life, trans. and ed. M.S. del Mastro, Garden City, N.Y., 1981, p. 93.

2. R. Kieckhefer, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu, Chicago, 1984; C.W. Bynum, The Female Body and Religious Practice in the Later Middle Ages, in M. Feher et al., Fragments for the History of the Human Body N.Y., 1989, 1:160-219; J. A. McNamara, The Need to Give: Suffering and Female Sanctity in the Middle Ages, in R. Blumenfeld-Kosinski and T. Szell (eds.), Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe, Ithaca, N.Y., 1991, pp. 199-221; E. Robertson, The Corporeality of Female Sanctity in The Life of Saint Margaret, ivi, pp. 268-287; E. Ross, "She Wept and Cried Right Loud for Sorrow and for Pain": Suffering, the Spiritual Journey, and Women's Experience in Late Medieval Mysticism, in U. Wiethaus (ed.), Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics, Syracuse, N.Y., 1993, pp. 45-59.

3. «Quid enim est conversio ad Deum nisi auersio a mundo et a peccato, a diabolo, et a carne? Quid eciam est auersio a deo nisi conversio ad bonum commutabile, ad delectabilem speciem creature, ad opera diaboli, ad voluptates carnis et mundi?», R. Rolle, Emendatio vitae, (ed. N. Watson), Toronto, 1995, p. 34. English version in del Mastro, p. 46.

4. Sancti Thomae de Aquino, Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo, Opera Omnia, vol. 23, Paris, 1982, q. 5, a. 2, p. 134; cited in D.C. Mowbray, A Community of Sufferers: Pain, Children, and Original Sin, (Paper presented before the Centre for Medieval Studies Second Annual Post-graduate Conference, University of Bristol, February 1996), p. 11, n. 33. I am grateful to Mr. Mowbray for allowing me to use his paper.

5. A. Hunsaker Hawkins, Archetypes of Conversion: The Autobiographies of Augustine, Bunyan, and Merton, Lewisburg, 1985, pp. 19-20.

6. Ivi, pp. 20-21.

7. R. de Capoue, Vie de sainte Catherine de Sienne, trans. E. Cartier, Paris, 1853, ch. 7.

8. «Saepius genuflexus in platea civitatis, inter frequentiores concursus, lacrymis obrutus, alta voce proclamaverit: Quem vidistis peccatorem, Cives, sequivis poenitentem». Acta Sanctorum, June II:483.

9. Deposition of Bartolomeo Dominici in the Processo Castellano, Fontes Vitae S. Catharinae Senensis Historici, ed. M.H. Laurent, Siena, 194), IX:331 ff.

10. Margaret of Cortona in Acta Sanctorum, February III:302 ff; Pelagia, ivi, October IV:263.

11. A. Fitzgerald, Conversion through Penance in the Italian Church of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries: New Approaches to the Experience of Conversion from Sin, Lewiston, 1988, pp. 499-500.

12. G. Blaicher, Das Weinen in Mittelenglischer Zeit. Studien zur Gebärde des Weinens in historischen Quellen und literarischen Texten, Universität des Saarlandes, Inaugural-Dissertation, 1966; R.F. Newbold, Nonverbal Communication in Tacitus and Ammianus, in «Ancient Society» 21 (1990), pp. 189-99.

13. Incendium amoris, ch. 15, English edition, pp. 147-149.

14. Sanford Brown Meech and Hope Emily Allen (eds.), The Book of Margery Kempe, Early English Text Society 212, London, 1940, repr. 1961; transl. by W. Butler-Bowdon, London, 1936. See also S. J. McEntire (ed.), Margery Kempe: A Book of Essays, New York, 1992 and the literature cited therein.

15. C. Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women, Berkeley, 1987, passim.

16. R. Blumenfeld-Kosinski (ed. and trans.), The Writings of Marguerite d'Oingt: Medieval Prioress and Mystic, New-buryport, Mass., 1990, p. 72; see also E. A. Petroff, Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism, Oxford, 1994, pp. 215-217.