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§ 33. John of Ruysbroeck.
Independent of the Friends of God, and yet closely allied with them in spirit, was Jan von Ruysbroeck, 1293–1381. In 1350, he sent to the Friends in Strassburg his Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage—Chierheit der gheesteleker Brulocht. He forms a connecting link between them and the Brothers of the Common Life. The founder of the latter brotherhood, de Groote, and also Tauler, visited him. He was probably acquainted with Eckart’s writings, which were current in the Lowlands.496496 The extent to which Eckart influenced the mystics of the Lowlands is a matter of dispute. The clergy strove to keep his works from circulation. Langenberg, p. 181, quotes Gerherd Zerbold von Zütphen’s, d. 1398, tract, De libris Teutonicalibus which takes the position that, while wholesome books might be read in the vulgar tongue, Eckart’s works and sermons were exceedingly pernicious, and not to be read by the laity. Langenberg, pp. 184-204, gives descriptions and excerpts from four MSS. of Eckart’s writings in Low German, copied in the convent of Nazareth, near Bredevoorde, and now preserved in the royal library of Berlin, but they do not give Eckart as the author.
The Flemish mystic was born in a village of the same name near Brussels, and became vicar of St. Gudula in that city. At sixty he abandoned the secular priesthood and put on the monastic habit, identifying himself with the recently established Augustinian convent Groenendal,—Green Valley,—located near Waterloo. Here he was made prior. Ruysbroeck spent most of his time in contemplation, though he was not indifferent to practical duties. On his walks through the woods of Soignes, he believed he saw visions and he was otherwise the subject of revelations. He was not a man of the schools. Soon after his death, a fellow-Augustinian wrote his biography, which abounds in the miraculous element. The very trees under which he sat were illuminated with an aureole. At his passing away, the bells of the convent rang without hands touching them, and perfume proceeded from his dead body.
The title, doctor ecstaticus, which at an early period was associated with Ruysbroeck, well names his characteristic trait. He did not speculate upon the remote theological themes of God’s being as did Eckart, nor was he a popular preacher of every-day Christian living, like Tauler. He was a master of the contemplative habit, and mused upon the soul’s experiences in its states of partial or complete union with God. His writings, composed in his mother-tongue, were translated into Latin by his pupils, Groote and William Jordaens. The chief products of his pen are the Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, the Mirror of Blessedness and Samuel, which is a defence of the habit of contemplation, and the Glistening Stone, an allegorical meditation on the white stone of Rev. 2:17, which is interpreted to mean Christ.
Ruysbroeck laid stress upon ascetic exercises, but more upon love. In its highest stages of spiritual life, the soul comes to God "without an intermediary." The name and work of Christ are dwelt upon on every page. He is our canon, our breviary, our every-day book, and belongs to Laity and clergy alike. He was concerned to have it understood that he has no sympathy with pantheism, and opposed the heretical views of the Brethren of the Free Spirit and the Beghards. He speaks of four sorts of heretics, the marks of one of them being that they despise the ordinances and sacraments of the Catholic Church, the Scriptures and the sufferings of Christ, and set themselves above God himself. He, however, did not escape the charge of heresy. Gerson, who received a copy of the Spiritual Marriage from a Carthusian monk of Bruges, found the third book teaching pantheism, and wrote a tract in which he complained that the author, whom he pronounced an unlearned man, followed his feelings in setting forth the secrets of the religious life. Gerson was, however, persuaded that he had made a mistake by the defence written by John of Schoenhofen, one of the brethren of Groenendal. However, in his reply written 1408, he again emphasized that Ruysbroeck was a man without learning, and complained that he had not made his meaning sufficiently clear.497497 Engelhardt, pp. 265-297, gives a full statement of the controversy. For Gerson’s letters to Bartholomew and Schoenhofen and Schoenhofen’s letter, see Du Pin, Works of Gerson, pp. 29-82. Maeterlinck, p. 4, refers to the difficulty certain passages in Ruysbroeck’s writings offer to the interpreter.
The Spiritual Marriage, Ruysbroeck’s chief contribution to mystical literature, is a meditation upon the words of the parable, "Behold, the bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him." It sets forth three stages of Christian experience, the active, the inner and the contemplative. In the active stage the soul adopts the Christian virtues and practises them, fighting against sin, and thus it goes out "to meet the bridegroom." We must believe the articles of the Creed, but not seek to fully understand them. And the more subtle doctrines of the Scripture we should accept and explain as they are interpreted by the life of Christ and the lives of his saints. Man should study nature, the Scriptures and all created things, and draw from them profit. To understand Christ he must, like Zaccheus, run ahead of all the manifestations of the creature world, and climb up the tree of faith, which has twelve branches, the twelve articles of the Creed.
As for the inner life, it is distinguished from the active by devotion to the original Cause and to truth itself as against devotion to exercises and forms, to the celebration of the sacrament and to good works. Here the soul separates itself from outward relations and created forms, and contemplates the eternal love of God. Asceticism may still be useful, but it is not essential.
The contemplative stage few reach. Here the soul is transferred into a purity and brightness which is above all natural intelligence. It is a peculiar adornment and a heavenly crown. No one can reach it by learning and intellectual subtlety nor by disciplinary exercises. In order to attain to it, three things are essential. A man must live virtuously; he must, like a fire that never goes out, love God constantly, and he must lose himself in the darkness in which men of the contemplative habit no longer find their way by the methods known to the creature. In the abyss of this darkness a light incomprehensible is begotten, the Son of God, in whom we "see eternal life."
At last the soul comes into essential unity with God, and, in the fathomless ocean of this unity, all things are seized with bliss. It is the dark quiet in which all who love God lose themselves. Here they swim in the wild waves of the ocean of God’s being.498498 I have followed the German text given by Lambert, pp. 3-160. Selections, well translated into English, are given in Light, Life and Love.
He who would follow the Flemish mystic in these utterances must have his spirit. They seem far removed from the calm faith which leaves even the description of such ecstatic states to the future, and is content with doing the will of God in the daily avocations of this earthly life. Expressions he uses, such as "spiritual intoxication,"499499 See Lambert, pp. 62, 63, etc. are not safe, and the experiences he describes are, as he declares, not intended for the body of Christian people to reach here below. In most men they would take the forms of spiritual hysteria and the hallucinations of hazy self-consciousness. It is well that Ruysbroeck’s greatest pupil, de Groote, did not follow along this line of meditation, but devoted himself to practical questions of every-day living and works of philanthropy. The ecstatic mood is characteristic of this mystic in the secluded home in Brabant, but it is not the essential element in his religious thought. His descriptions of Christ and his work leave little to be desired. He does not dwell upon Mary, or even mention her in his chief work. He insists upon the works which proceed from genuine love to God. The chapter may be closed with two quotations:—
"Even devotion must give way to a work of love to the spiritual and to the physical man. For even should one rise in prayer higher than Peter or Paul, and hear that a poor man needed a drink of water, he would have to cease from the devotional exercise, sweet though it were, and do the deed of love. It is well pleasing to God that we leave Him in order to help His members. In this sense the Apostle was willing to be banished from Christ for his brethren’s sake."
"Always before thou retire at night, read three books, which thou oughtest always to have with thee. The first is an old, gray, ugly volume, written over with black ink. The second is white and beautifully written in red, and the third in glittering gold letters. First read the old volume. That means, consider thine own past life, which is full of sins and errors, as are the lives of all men. Retire within thyself and read the book of conscience, which will be thrown open at the last judgment of Christ. Think over how badly thou hast lived, how negligent thou hast been in thy words, deeds, wishes and thoughts. Cast down thy eyes and cry, ’God be merciful to me a sinner.’ Then God will drive away fear and anxious concern and will give thee hope and faith. Then lay the old book aside and go and fetch from memory the white book. This is the guileless life of Christ, whose soul was pure and whose guileless body was bruised with stripes and marked with rose-red, precious blood. These are the letters which show his real love to us. Look at them with deep emotion and thank him that, by his death, he has opened to thee the gate of heaven. And finally lift up thine eyes on high and read the third book, written in golden script; that is, consider the glory of the life eternal, in Comparison with which the earthly vanishes away as the light of the candle before the splendor of the sun at midday."500500 Quoted by Galle, pp. 184-224.
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