Blaise Pascal is best remembered for his genius in mathematics, but his work as a philosopher and theologian remains perhaps the most insightful of all his works. Born in France in 1623, Pascal was reared by his father and an older sister after his mother's death in 1626. Though he was often ill, he displayed a sharp intellect at an early age.
By the time he was thirty-one he was well known for his contributions in the fields of math and science. However, it was in that year that he visited his sister at a religious community in Port Royal, where he heard a sermon that brought about a profound religious experience. He remembered that day—November 23, 1654—as the key moment in his life. He wrote the following on a piece of paper, sewed it into the lining of his coat, and carried it with him for the rest of his life: "Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. Joy, joy, joy, oceans of joy!"
Whatever doubts Pascal had before that time had been dispelled. For the next six years he lived with that community (though not as a member), studying the Bible and the Church Fathers. At the age of thirty-seven he began writing a defense of the Christian faith, but his death at age thirty-nine prevented him from finishing. These random notations or "thoughts" were gathered together following Pascal's death and became the world-famous book Pensees.
Born at Noyon, France, and educated at the University of Paris, John Calvin grew up in an atmosphere of wealth and nobility. His father wanted him to study theology, but John felt a yearning to study law. However, he had keen insight as a theologian and the heart of a pastor. Although he was never ordained, he became the curate of St. Martin de Marteville in 1527. In 1534 he was converted to Protestantism, which resulted in two short imprisonments.
In 1536 he wrote his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion at the young age of twenty-six. By 1541 he had gone to Geneva, Switzerland, and had influenced that city to the point that he had gained a large following. Under Calvin's leadership, and in spite of opposition to him, Geneva became famous for its high moral standards, economic prosperity, and educational system. Many consider him to have been the father and founder of both the Presbyterian and the Reformed Protestant churches.
He was deeply influenced by the writings of Martin Luther and St. Augustine, especially Augustine's strong predestination theology. It is safe to say that no theologian holds a higher or clearer understanding of the sovereignty of God that John Calvin. He was well known for his stern temperament and serious lifestyle.
Born in the village of Thornton in the diocese of York in England, Richard Rolle was one of the great spiritual leaders of England. He came from humble beginnings and, through the help of a benefactor, was able to attend Oxford. Although he was an outstanding student, he decided to quit before finishing his master's degree because he did not want to get mixed up in the vanity of the academic world.
Rolle returned to Yorkshire and literally ran away from home in order to become a hermit. He made a hermit's habit out of his father's raincoat and left for a nearby church to spend the night in prayer as a preparation. While there he was enthralled in a deep experience of prayer so astonishing that onlookers could only marvel as he prayed through the night. When he later preached in that church, it marked the beginning of a powerful ministry.
He lived in different towns and villages throughout his life: sometimes in a monastery, sometimes in a nunnery. He also became famous for his writings, especially his work The Fire of Love. Rolle wrote with a kind of passion and energy that few writers have demonstrated. For two hundred years following his death he was highly revered as "St. Richard the Hermit," and his writings were treasured by both religious and nonreligious.