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[Divine Light doth focus itself upon me, piercing through that wherein I am enclosed; the power of which, united with my sight, so greatly lifts me up above myself that I see the Supreme Essence where from it is drawn. Thence comes the joy wherewith I flame; for to my vision, even as it is clear, I make the clearness of the flame respond.]
RUYSBROECK THE MAN
The tree Igdrasil, which has its head in heaven and its roots in hell (the lower parts of the earth), is the image of the true man.... In proportion to the divine heights to which it ascends must be the obscure depths in which the tree is rooted, and from which it draws the mystic sap of its spiritual life.
In the history of the spiritual adventures of man, we find at intervals certain great mystics, who appear to gather up and fuse together in the crucible of the heart the diverse tendencies of those who have preceded them, and, adding to these elements the tincture of their own rich experience, give to us an intensely personal, yet universal, vision of God and man. These are constructive spirits, whose creations in the spiritual sphere sum up and represent the best achievement of a whole epoch; as in other spheres the great artist, musician, or 2 poet—always the child of tradition as well as of inspiration—may do.
John Ruysbroeck is such a mystic as this. His career, which covers the greater part of the fourteenth century—that golden age of Christian mysticism—seems to exhibit within the circle of a single personality, and carry up to a higher term than ever before, all the best attainments of the Middle Ages in the realm of Eternal Life. Rooted firmly in history, faithful to the teachings of the great Catholic mystics of the primitive and mediæval times, Ruysbroeck does not merely transmit, but transfigures, their principles: making from the salt, sulphur, and mercury of their vision, reason, and love, a new and living jewel—or, in his own words, a ‘sparkling stone’—which reflects the actual radiance of the Uncreated Light. Absorbing from the rich soil of the Middle Ages all the intellectual nourishment which he needs, dependent too, as all real greatness is, on the human environment in which he grows—that mysterious interaction and inter-penetration of personalities without which human consciousness can never develop its full powers—he towers up from the social and intellectual circumstances that conditioned him: a living, growing, unique and creative individual, yet truly a part of the earth from which he springs.
To speak of Ruysbroeck, as some enthusiastic 3 biographers have done, as an isolated spiritual phenomenon totally unrelated to the life of his time, an ‘ignorant monk’ whose profound knowledge of reality is entirely the result of personal inspiration and independent of human history, is to misunderstand his greatness. The ‘ignorant monk’ was bound by close links to the religious life of his day. He was no spiritual individualist; but the humble, obedient child of an institution, the loyal member of a Society. He tells us again and again that his spiritual powers were nourished by the sacramental life of the Catholic Church. From the theologians of that Church came the intellectual framework in which his sublime intuitions were expressed. All that he does—though he does this to a degree perhaps unique in Christian history—is to carry out into action, completely actualise in his own experience, the high vision of the soul’s relation to Divine Reality by which that Church is possessed. The central Christian doctrine of Divine Fatherhood, and of the soul’s ‘power to become the son of God’: it is this, raised to the nth degree of intensity, experienced in all its depth and fullness, and demonstrated with the exactitude of a mathematician and the passion of a poet, which Ruysbroeck gives us. Thus tradition and authority, no less than the abundant 4 inspiration, the direct ecstatic knowledge of God to which his writings bear witness, have their part in his achievement. His theological culture was wide and deep. Not only the Scriptures and the Liturgy, but St. Augustine, Dionysius the Areopagite, Richard of St. Victor, St. Bernard, St. Bonaventura, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many others have stimulated and controlled his thought; interpreting to him his ineffable adventures, and providing him with vessels in which the fruit of those adventures could be communicated to other men.
Nor is Catholic tradition the only medium through which human life has exercised a formative influence upon Ruysbroeck’s genius. His worldly circumstances, his place within and reaction to the temporal order, the temper of those souls amongst which he grew—these too are of vital importance in relation to his mystical achievements. To study the interior adventures and formal teachings of a mystic without reference to the general trend and special accidents of his outer life, is to neglect our best chance of understanding the nature and sources of his vision of truth. The angle from which that vision is perceived, the content of the mind which comes to it, above all the concrete activities which it induces in the growing, moving, supple self: these are primary data which we should never ignore. Action is of the very essence 5 of human reality. Where the inner life is genuine and strong the outer life will reflect, however faintly, the curve on which it moves; for human consciousness is a unit, capable of reacting to and synthesising two orders, not an unresolved dualism—as it were, an angel and an animal—condemned to lifelong battle within a narrow cage.
Therefore we begin our study of Ruysbroeck the mystic by the study of Ruysbroeck the man: the circumstances of his life and environment, so far as we can find them out. For the facts of this life our chief authority will be the Augustinian Canon Pomerius, who was Prior and chronicler of Ruysbroeck’s own community of Groenendael. Born in 1382, a year after Ruysbroeck’s death, and entering Groenendael early in the fifteenth century, he knew and talked with at least two of the great mystic’s disciples, John of Hoelaere and John of Scoonhoven. His life of Ruysbroeck and history of the foundation of the monastery was finished before 1420; that is to say, within the lifetime of the generation which succeeded the first founders of the house.11The Vita of Pomerius is printed in the Analecta Bollandiana, vol. iv. pp. 257 ff. It represents the careful gathering up, sifting, and arranging of all that was remembered and believed by the community—still 6 retaining several members who had known him in the flesh—of the facts of Ruysbroeck’s character and career.
Pomerius was no wild romancer, but a reasonably careful as well as a genuinely enthusiastic monastic chronicler. Moderation is hardly the outstanding virtue of such home-made lives of monastic founders. They are inevitably composed in surroundings where any criticism of their subject or scepticism as to his supernatural peculiarities is looked upon as a crime; where every incident has been fitted with a halo, and the unexplained is indistinguishable from the miraculous. Nevertheless the picture drawn by Pomerius—exaggerated though it be in certain respects—is a human picture; possessed of distinct characteristics, some natural and charming, some deeply impressive. It is completed by a second documentary source: the little sketch by Ruysbroeck’s intimate friend, Gerard Naghel, Prior of the Carthusian monastery of Hérines near Groenendael, which forms the prologue to our most complete MS. collection of his writings.
Ruysbroeck’s life, as it is shown to us by Pomerius and Gerard, falls into three main divisions, three stages of ascent: the natural active life of boyhood; the contemplative, disciplined career of his middle period; the superessential life of supreme union which 7 governed his existence at Groenendael. This course, which he trod in the temporal order, seems like the rough sketch of that other course trodden by the advancing soul within the eternal order—the Threefold Life of man which he describes to us in The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage and other of his works.
Now the details of that career are these: John Ruysbroeck was born in 1293 at the little village of Ruysbroeck or Ruusbroec, between Brussels and Hal, from which he takes his name. We know nothing of his father; but his mother is described as a good and pious woman, devoted to the upbringing of her son—a hard task, and one that was soon proved to be beyond her. The child Ruysbroeck was strong-willed, adventurous, insubordinate; already showing signs of that abounding vitality, that strange restlessness and need of expansion which children of genius so often exhibit. At eleven years of age he ran away from home, and found his way to Brussels; where his uncle, John Hinckaert, was a Canon of the Cathedral of St. Gudule. Pomerius assures us that this escapade, which would have seemed a mere naughtiness in normal little boys, was in fact a proof of coming sanctity; that it was not the attraction of the city but a precocious instinct for the religious life—the first crude stirrings of the love of God—which 8 set this child upon the road. Such a claim is natural to the hagiographer; yet there lies behind it a certain truth. The little John may or may not have dreamed of being a priest; he did already dream of a greater, more enticing life beyond the barriers of use and wont. Though he knew it not, the vision of a spiritual city called him. Already the primal need of his nature was asserting itself—the demand, felt long before it was understood, for something beyond the comfortable world of appearance—and this demand crystallised into a concrete act. In the sturdy courage which faced the unknown, the practical temper which translated dream into action, we see already the germ of those qualities which afterwards gave to the great contemplative power to climb up to the ‘supreme summits of the inner life’ and face the awful realities of God.
Such adventures are not rare in the childhood of the mystics. Always of a romantic temperament, endowed too with an abounding vitality, the craving for some dimly-guessed and wonderful experience often shows itself early in them; as the passion for music, colour or poetry is sometimes seen in embryo in artists of another type. The impact of Reality seems to be felt by such spirits in earliest childhood. Born susceptible in a special degree to the 9 messages which pour in on man from the Transcendent, they move from the first in a different universe from that of other boys and girls; subject to experiences which they do not understand, full of dreams which they are unable to explain, and often impelled to strange actions, extremely disconcerting to the ordinary guardians of youth. Thus the little Catherine of Siena, six years old, already lived in a world which was peopled with saints and angels; and ruled her small life by the visions which she had seen. Thus the baby Teresa, mysteriously attracted by sacrifice, as other children are attracted by games and toys, set out to look for ‘the Moors and martyrdom.’ So too the instinct for travel, for the remote and unknown, often shows itself early in these wayfarers of the spirit; whose destiny it is to achieve a more extended life in the interests of the race, to find and feel that Infinite Reality which alone can satisfy the heart of man. Thus in their early years Francis, Ignatius and many others were restless, turbulent, eager for adventure and change.
This first adventure brought the boy Ruysbroeck to a home so perfectly fitted to his needs, that it might seem as though some secret instinct, some overshadowing love, had indeed guided his steps. His uncle, John Hinckaert, at this time about forty years of 10 age, had lately been converted—it is said by a powerful sermon—from the comfortable and easy-going life of a prosperous ecclesiastic to the austere quest of spiritual perfection. He had distributed his wealth, given up all self-indulgence, and now, with another and younger Canon of the Cathedral named Francis van Coudenberg, lived in simplest, poorest style a dedicated life of self-denial, charity and prayer. He received his runaway nephew willingly. Perhaps he saw in this strange and eager child, suddenly flung upon his charity, an opportunity for repairing some at least amongst the omissions of his past—that terrible wreck of wasted years which torments the memory of those who are converted in middle life. His love and remorse might spend themselves on this boy. He might make of him perhaps all that he now longed to be, but could never wholly achieve: a perfect servant of the Eternal Goodness, young, vigorous, ardent, completely responsive to the touch of God.
Ruysbroeck, then, found a home soaked in love, governed by faith, renunciation, humility; a forcing-house of the spiritual life. In the persons of these two grown men, who had given up all outward things for the sake of spiritual realities, he was brought face to face—and this in his most impressionable years—with the hard facts, 11 the concrete sacrifices, the heroic life of deliberate mortification, which underlay the lovely haunting vision, the revelation of the Divine beauty and love that had possessed him. No lesson is of higher value to the natural mystic than this. The lovers of Ruysbroeck should not forget how much they owe to the men who received, loved, influenced, educated the brilliant wayward and impressionable child. His attainment is theirs. His mysticism is rooted in their asceticism; a flower directly dependent for its perfection on that favouring soil. Though his achievement, like that of all men of genius, is individual, and transcends the circumstances and personalities which surround it; still, from those circumstances and personalities it takes its colour. It represents far more than a personal and solitary experience. Behind it lies the little house in Brussels, the supernatural atmosphere which filled it, and the fostering care of the two men whose life of external and deliberate poverty only made more plain the richness of the spirits who could choose, and remain constant to, this career of detachment and love.
The personal influence of Hinckaert and Coudenberg, the moral disciplines and perpetual self-denials of the life which he shared with them, formed the heart of Ruysbroeck’s education; helping to build up that manly 12 and sturdy character which gave its special temper to his mystical outlook. Like so many children destined to greatness, he was hard to educate in the ordinary sense; uninterested in general knowledge, impatient of scholastic drudgery. Nothing which did not minister to his innate passion for ultimates had any attraction for him. He was taught grammar with difficulty; but on the other hand his astonishing aptitude for religious ideas, even of the most subtle kind, his passionate clear vision of spiritual things, was already so highly developed as to attract general attention; and his writings are sufficient witness to the width and depth of his theological reading. With such tastes and powers as these, and brought up in such a household, governed by religious enthusiasms and under the very shadow of the Cathedral walls, it was natural that he should wish to become a priest; and in 1317 he was ordained and given, through the influence of his uncle, a prebend in St. Gudule.
Now a great mystic is the product not merely of an untamed genius for the Transcendent, but of a moral discipline, an interior education, of the most strenuous kind. All the varied powers and tendencies of a nature which is necessarily strong and passionate, must be harnessed, made subservient to this one central interest. The 13 instinctive egotism of the natural man—never more insidious than when set upon spiritual things—must be eradicated. So, behind these few outward events of Ruysbroeck’s adolescence, we must discern another growth; a perpetual interior travail, a perpetual slow character-building always going forward in him, as his whole personality is moulded into that conformity to the vision seen which prepares the way of union, and marks off the mystical saint from the mere adept of transcendental things. We know from his writings how large a part such moral purifications, such interior adjustments, played in his concept of the spiritual life; and the intimacy with which he describes each phase in the battle of love, each step of the spiritual ladder, the long process of preparation in which the soul adorns herself for the ‘spiritual marriage,’ guarantees to us that he has himself trodden the path which he maps out. That path goes the whole way from the first impulse of ‘goodwill,’ of glad acquiescence in the universal purpose, through the taming of the proud will to humility and suppleness, and of the insurgent heart to gentleness, kindness, and peace, to that last state of perfect charity in which the whole spirit of man is one will and one love with God.
Though his biographers have left us little material for a reconstruction of his inner 14 development, we may surely infer something of the course which it followed from the vividly realistic descriptions in The Kingdom of Lovers and The Spiritual Marriage. Personal experience underlies the wonderful account of the ascent of the Spiritual Sun in the heavens of consciousness; the rapture, wildness and joy, the ‘fever of love’ which fulfils the man who feels its light and heat. Experience, too, dictates these profound passages which deal with the terrible spiritual reaction when the Sun declines in the heavens, and man feels cold, dead, and abandoned of God. Through these phases, at least, Ruysbroeck had surely passed before his great books came to be written.
One or two small indications there are which show us his progress on the mystic way, the development in him of those secondary psychic characters peculiar to the mystical type. It seems that by the time of his ordination that tendency to vision which often appears in the earliest youth of natural mystics, was already established in him. Deeply impressed by the sacramental side of Catholicism, and finding in it throughout his life a true means of contact with the Unseen, the priesthood was conceived by him as bringing with it a veritable access of grace; fresh power poured in on him from the Transcendent, an increase of strength wherewith to help the souls of 15 other men. This belief took, in his meditations, a concrete and positive form. Again and again he saw in dramatic vision the soul specially dear to him, specially dependent on him—that of his mother, who had lately died in the Brussels Béguinage—demanding how long she must wait till her son’s ordination made his prayers effectual for her release from Purgatory. At the moment in which he finished saying his first Mass, this vision returned to him; and he saw his mother’s spirit, delivered from Purgatory by the power of the sacrifice which he had offered, entering into Heaven—an experience originating in, and giving sharp dramatic expression to, that sense of new and sacred powers now conferred on him, which may well at such a moment have flooded the consciousness of the young priest. This story was repeated to Pomerius by those who had heard it from Ruysbroeck himself; for “he often told it to the brothers.”
For twenty-six years—that is to say, until he was fifty years of age—Ruysbroeck lived in Brussels the industrious and inconspicuous life of a secular priest. It was not the solitude of the forest, but the normal, active existence of a cathedral chaplain in a busy capital city which controlled his development during that long period, stretching from the very beginnings of manhood to 16 the end of middle age; and it was in fact during these years, and in the midst of incessant distractions, that he passed through the great oscillations of consciousness which mark the mystic way. It is probable that when at last he left Brussels for the forest, these oscillations were over, equilibrium was achieved; he had climbed ‘to the summits of the mount of contemplation.’ It was on those summits that he loved to dwell, absorbed in loving communion with Divine Reality; but his career fulfilled that ideal of a synthesis of work and contemplation, an acceptance and remaking of the whole of life, which he perpetually puts before us as the essential characteristic of a true spirituality. No mystic has ever been more free from the vice of other-worldliness, or has practised more thoroughly and more unselfishly the primary duty of active charity towards men which is laid upon the God-possessed.
The simple and devoted life of the little family of three went on year by year undisturbed; though one at least was passing through those profound interior changes and adventures which he has described to us as governing the evolution of the soul, from the state of the ‘faithful servant’ to the transfigured existence of the ‘God-seeing man.’ Ruysbroeck grew up to be a simple, dreamy, very silent and totally unimpressive person, 17 who, ‘going about the streets of Brussels with his mind lifted up into God,’ seemed a nobody to those who did not know him. Yet not only a spiritual life of unequalled richness, intimacy and splendour, but a penetrating intellect, a fearless heart, deep knowledge of human nature, remarkable powers of expression, lay behind that meek and unattractive exterior. As Paul’s twelve years of quiet and subordinate work in Antioch prepared the way of his missionary career; so during this long period of service, the silent growth of character, the steady development of his mystical powers, had gone forward in Ruysbroeck. When circumstances called them into play he was found to be possessed of an unsuspected passion, strength and courage, a power of dealing with outward circumstances, which was directly dependent on his inner life of contemplation and prayer.
The event into which the tendencies of this stage of his development crystallised, is one which seems perhaps inconsistent with the common idea of the mystical temperament, with its supposed concentration on the Eternal, its indifference to temporal affairs. As his childhood was marked by an exhibition of adventurous love, so his manhood was marked by an exhibition of militant love; of that strength and sternness, that passion for the true, which—no less 18 than humility, gentleness, peace—is an integral part of that paradoxical thing, the Christian character.
The fourteenth century, like all great spiritual periods, was a century fruitful in mystical heresies as well as in mystical saints. In particular, the extravagant pantheism preached by the Brethren of the Free Spirit had become widely diffused in Flanders, and was responsible for much bad morality as well as bad theology; those on whom the ‘Spirit’ had descended believing themselves to be already divine, and emancipated from obedience to all human codes of conduct. Soon after Ruysbroeck came as a boy to Brussels, a woman named Bloemardinne placed herself at the head of this sect, and gradually gained extraordinary influence. She claimed supernatural and prophetic powers, was said to be accompanied by two Seraphim whenever she went to the altar to receive Holy Communion, and preached a degraded eroticism under the title of ‘Seraphic love,’ together with a quietism of the most exaggerated and soul-destroying type. All the dangers and follies of a false mysticism, dissociated from the controlling influence of tradition and the essential virtue of humility, were exhibited in her. Against this powerful woman, then at the height of her fame, Ruysbroeck declared war; and prosecuted 19 his campaign with a violence and courage which must have been startling to those who had regarded him only as a shy, pious, rather negligible young man. The pamphlets which he wrote against her are lost; but the passionate denunciations of pantheism and quietism scattered through his later works no doubt have their origin in this controversy, and represent the angle from which his attacks were made.
Pantheists, he says in The Book of Truth, are “a fruit of hell, the more dangerous because they counterfeit the true fruit of the Spirit of God.” Far from possessing that deep humility which is the soul’s inevitable reaction to the revelation of the Infinite, they are full of pride and self-satisfaction. They claim that their imaginary identity with the Essence of God emancipates them from all need of effort, all practice of virtue, and leaves them free to indulge those inclinations of the flesh which the ‘Spirit’ suggests. They “believe themselves sunk in inward peace; but as a matter of fact they are deep-drowned in error.”22The Book of Supreme Truth, cap. iv.
Against all this the stern, virile, ardent spirituality of Ruysbroeck opposed itself with its whole power. Especially did he hate and condemn the laziness and egotism of the quietistic doctrine of contemplation: the ideal of spiritual immobility which it 20 set up. That ‘love cannot be lazy’ is a cardinal truth for all real mystics. Again and again it appears in their works. Even that profound repose in which they have fruition of God, is but the accompaniment or preliminary of work of the most strenuous kind, and keeps at full stretch the soul which truly tastes it; and this supernatural state is as far above that self-induced quietude of ‘natural repose’—“consisting in nothing but an idleness and interior vacancy, to which they are inclined by nature and habit”—in which the quietists love to immerse themselves, as God is above His creatures.
Here is the distinction, always needed and constantly ignored, between that veritable fruition of Eternal Life which results from the interaction of will and grace, and demands of the soul the highest intensity and most active love, and that colourable imitation of it which is produced by a psychic trick, and is independent alike of the human effort and the divine gift. Ruysbroeck in fighting the ‘Free Spirit’ was fighting the battle of true mysticism against its most dangerous and persistent enemy,—mysticality.
His attack upon Bloemardinne is the one outstanding incident in the long Brussels period which has been preserved to us. The next great outward movement in his steadily 21 evolving life did not happen until the year 1343, when he was fifty years of age. It was then that the three companions decided to leave Brussels, and live together in some remote country place. They had long felt a growing distaste for the noisy and distracting life of the city; a growing dissatisfaction with the spiritual apathy and low level of religious observance at the Cathedral of St. Gudule; the need of surroundings in which they might devote themselves with total concentration to the contemplative life. Hinckaert and Coudenberg were now old men; Ruysbroeck was advanced in middle age. The rhythm of existence, which had driven him as a child from country to town, and harnessed him during long years to the service of his fellow-men, now drew him back again to the quiet spaces where he might be alone with God. He was approaching those heights of experience from which his greatest mystical works proceed; and it was in obedience to a true instinct that he went away to the silent places of the forest—as Anthony to the solitude of the desert, Francis to the ‘holy mountain’ of La Verna—that, undistracted by the many whom he had served so faithfully, he might open his whole consciousness to the inflow of the One, and receive in its perfection the message which it was his duty to transmit to the world, He went, says 22 Pomerius, “not that he might hide his light; but that he might tend it better and make it shine more brightly.”
By the influence of Coudenberg, John III., Duke of Brabant, gave to the three friends the old hermitage of Groenendael, or the Green Valley, in the forest of Soignes, near Brussels. They entered into possession on the Wednesday of Easter week, 1343; and for five years lived there, as they had lived in the little house in Brussels, with no other rule save their own passion for perfection. But perpetual invasions from the outer world, not only of penitents and would-be disciples—for their reputation for sanctity grew quickly—but of huntsmen in the forest and pleasure parties from the town, who demanded and expected hospitality, soon forced them to adopt some definite attitude towards the question of enclosure. It is said that Ruysbroeck begged for an entire seclusion; but Coudenberg insisted that this was contrary to the law of charity, and that some at least of those who sought them must be received. In addition to these practical difficulties, the Prior of the Abbey of St. Victor at Paris had addressed to them strong remonstrances, on account of the absence of rule in their life and the fact that they had not even adopted a religious habit; a proceeding which in his opinion savoured rather 23 of the ill-regulated doings of the heretical sects, than of the decorum proper to good Catholics. As a result of these various considerations, the simple and informal existence of the little family was re-modelled in conformity with the rule of the Augustinian Canons, and the Priory of Groenendael was formally created. Coudenberg became its provost, and Ruysbroeck, who had refused the higher office, was made prior; but Hinckaert, now a very old man in feeble health, refused to burden the young community with a member who might be a drag upon it and could not keep the full rigour of the rule. In a spirit of renunciation which surely touches the heroic, he severed himself from his lifelong friend and his adopted son, and went away to a little cell in the forest, where he lived alone until his death.
The story of the foundation and growth of the Priory of Groenendael, the saintly personalities which it nourished, is not for this place; except in so far as it affects our main interest, the story of Ruysbroeck’s soul. Under the influences of the forest, of the silent and regular life, those supreme contemplative powers which belong to the ‘Superessential Life’ of Unity now developed in him with great rapidity. It is possible, as we shall see, that some at least of his mystical writings may date from his Brussels 24 period; and we know that at the close of this period his reputation as an ‘illuminated man’ was already made. Nevertheless it seems safe to say that the bulk of his works, as we now possess them, represent him as he was during the last thirty years of his life, rather than during his earlier and more active career; and that the intense certitude, the wide deep vision of the Infinite which distinguishes them, are the fruits of those long hours of profound absorption in God for which his new life found place. In the silence of the woods he was able to discern each subtle accent of that Voice which “is heard without utterance, and without the sound of words speaks all truth.”
Like so many of the greatest mystics, Ruysbroeck, drawing nearer to Divine Reality, drew nearer to nature too; conforming to his own ideal of the contemplative, who, having been raised to the simple vision of God Transcendent, returns to find His image reflected by all life. Many passages in his writings show the closeness and sympathy of his observation of natural things: the vivid description in The Spiritual Marriage of the spring, summer and autumn of the fruitful soul, the constant insistence on the phenomena of growth, the lessons drawn from the habits of ants and bees, the comparison of the surrendered soul to the sunflower, ‘one of nature’s most wonderful 25 works’; the three types of Christians, compared with birds who can fly but prefer hopping about the earth, birds who swim far on the waters of grace, and birds who love only to soar high in the heavens. For the free, exultant life of birds he felt indeed a special sympathy and love; and ‘many-feathered’ is the best name that he can find for the soul of the contemplative ascending to the glad vision of God.
It is probably a true tradition which represents him as having written his greatest and most inspired pages sitting under a favourite tree in the depths of the woods. When the ‘Spirit’ came on him, as it often did with a startling suddenness, he would go away into the forest carrying his tablet and stylus. There, given over to an ecstasy of composition—which seems often to have approached the limits of automatic writing, as in St. Teresa, Boehme, Blake and other mystics—he would write that which was given to him, without addition or omission; breaking off even in the middle of a sentence when the ‘Spirit’ abruptly departed, and resuming at the same point, though sometimes after an interval which lasted several weeks, when it returned. In his last years, when eyesight failed him, he would allow a younger brother to go with him into the woods, and there to take down from dictation the fruits of those meditations 26 in which he ‘saw without sight’; as the illiterate Catherine of Siena dictated in ecstasy the text of her Divine Dialogue.
Two witnesses have preserved Ruysbroeck’s solemn affirmation, given first to his disciple Gerard Groot ‘in great gentleness and humility,’ and repeated again upon his death-bed in the presence of the whole community, that every word of his writings was thus composed under the immediate domination of an inspiring power; that ‘secondary personality of a superior type,’ in touch with levels of reality beyond the span of the surface consciousness, which governs the activities of the great mystics in their last phases of development. These books are not the fruit of conscious thought, but ‘God-sent truths,’ poured out from a heart immersed in that Divine Abyss of which he tries to tell.
That a saint must needs be a visionary, is a conviction deeply implanted in the mind of the mediæval hagiographer; who always ascribes to these incidents an importance which the saints themselves are the first to deny. Pomerius thus attributes to Ruysbroeck not only those profound and direct experiences of Divine Reality to which his works bear witness; but also numerous visions of a conventional and anthropomorphic type, in which he spoke with Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, ecstasies 27 which fell upon him when saying Mass—and the passionate devotion to the Eucharist which his writings express makes these at least probable—a certain faculty of clairvoyance, and a prophetic knowledge of his own death. Further, it is said that once, being missed from the priory, he was found after long search by one of the brothers he loved best, sitting under his favourite tree, rapt in ecstasy and surrounded by an aura of radiant light; as the discerning eyes of those who loved them have seen St. Francis, St. Teresa, and other contemplatives transfigured and made shining by the intensity of their spiritual life. I need not point out that the fact that these things are common form in the lives of the mystics, does not necessarily discredit them; though in any case their interest is less of a mystical than of a psychological kind.
Not less significant, and to us perhaps more winning, is that side of Ruysbroeck’s personality which was turned towards the world of men. In his own person he fulfilled that twofold duty of the deified soul which he has described to us: the in-breathing of the Love of God, the out-breathing of that same radiant charity towards the race. “To give and receive, both at once, is the essence of union,” he says; and his whole career is an illustration of these words. He took his life from the Transcendent; 28 he was a focus of distribution, which gave out that joyous life again to other souls. His retreat at Groenendael, his ecstasies of composition, never kept him from those who wanted his help and advice. In his highest ascents towards Divine Love, the rich complexities of human love went with him. Other men always meant much to Ruysbroeck. He had a genius for friendship, and gave himself without stint to his friends; and those who knew him said that none ever went to him for consolation without returning with gladness in their hearts. There are many tales in the Vita of his power over and intuitive understanding of other minds; of conversions effected, motives unveiled and clouds dispelled. His great friend, Gerard Naghel, the Carthusian prior—at whose desire he wrote one of the most beautiful of his shorter works, The Book of Supreme Truth—has left a vivid little account of the impression which his personality created: “his peaceful and joyful countenance, his humble good-humoured speech.” Ruysbroeck spent three days in Gerard’s monastery, in order to explain some difficult passages in his writings, “and these days were too short, for no one could speak to him or see him without being the better for it.”
By this we may put the description of Pomerius, founded upon the reminiscences 29 of Ruysbroeck’s surviving friends. “The grace of God shone in his face; and also in his modest speech, his kindly deeds, his humble manners, and in the way that every action of his life exhibited uprightness and radiant purity. He lived soberly, neglected his dress, and was patient in all things and with all people.”
Plainly the great contemplative who had seemed in Brussels a ‘negligible man,’ kept to the end a great simplicity of aspect; closely approximating to his own ideal of the ‘really humble man, without any pose or pretence,’ as described in The Spiritual Marriage. That profound self-immersion in God which was the source of his power, manifested itself in daily life under the least impressive forms; ever seeking embodiment in little concrete acts of love and service, “ministering, in the world without, to all who need, in love and mercy.”33The Twelve Béguines, cap. vii. We see him in his Franciscan love of living things, his deep sense of kinship with all the little children of God, ‘going to the help of the animals in all their needs’; thrown into a torment of distress by the brothers who suggested to him that during a hard winter the little birds of the forest might die, and at once making generous and successful arrangements for their entertainment. We see him ‘giving Mary and Martha rendez-vous in his heart’; 30 working in the garden of the community, trying hard to be useful, wheeling barrow-loads of manure, and emerging from profound meditation on the Infinite to pull up young vegetables under the impression that they were weeds. He made, in fact, valiant efforts to achieve that perfect synthesis of action and contemplation ‘ever abiding in the simplicity of the Spirit, and perpetually flowing forth in abundant acts of love towards heaven and earth,’ which he regarded as the proper goal of human growth—efforts constantly thwarted by his own growing concentration on the Transcendent, the ease and frequency with which his consciousness now withdrew from the world of the senses to immerse itself in Spiritual Reality. In theory there was for him no cleavage between the two: Being and Becoming, the Temporal and the Eternal, were but two moods within the mind of God, and in the superessential life of perfect union these completing opposites should merge in one.
A life which shall find place for the activities of the lover, the servant, and the apostle, is the goal towards which the great mystics seem to move. We have seen how the homely life of the priory gave to Ruysbroeck the opportunity of service, how the silence of the forest fostered and supported his secret life of love. As the years passed, 31 the third side of his nature, the apostolic passion which had found during his long Brussels period ample scope for its activities, once more came into prominence. He was sought out by numbers of would-be disciples, not only from Belgium itself, but from Holland, Germany and France; and became a fountainhead of new life, the father of many spiritual children. The tradition which places among these disciples the great Dominican mystic Tauler is probably false; though many passages in Tauler’s later sermons suggest that he was strongly influenced by Ruysbroeck’s works, which had already attained a wide circulation. But Gerard Groot, afterwards the founder of the Brothers of the Common Life, and spiritual ancestor of Thomas à Kempis, went to Groenendael shortly after his conversion in 1374, that he might there learn the rudiments of a sane and robust spirituality. Ruysbroeck received him with a special joy, recognising in him at first sight a peculiar aptitude for the things of the Spirit. A deep friendship grew up between the old mystic and the young and vigorous convert. Gerard stayed often at the priory, and corresponded regularly with Ruysbroeck; whose influence it was which conditioned his subsequent career as a preacher, and as founder of a congregation as simple and unconventional in its first beginnings, as fruitful in its 32 later developments, as that of Groenendael itself.
The penetrating remarks upon human character scattered through his works, and the anecdotes of his dealings with disciples and penitents preserved by Pomerius, suggest that Ruysbroeck, though he might not always recognise the distinction between the weeds and vegetables of the garden, was seldom at fault in his judgment of men. An instinctive knowledge of the human heart, an unerring eye for insincerity, egotism, self-deception, is a power which nearly all the great contemplatives possess, and often employed with disconcerting effect. I need refer only to the caustic analysis of the ‘false contemplative’ contained in The Cloud of Unknowing, and the amusing sketches of spiritual self-importance in St. Teresa’s letters and life. The little tale, so often repeated, of the somewhat self-conscious priests who came from Paris to consult Ruysbroeck on the state of their souls, and received from him only the blunt observation—apparently so careless, yet really plumbing human nature to its deeps—“You are as holy as you wish to be,” shows him possessed of this same power of stripping off the husks of unreality and penetrating at once to the fundamental facts of the soul’s life: the purity and direction of its will and love.33
The life-giving life of union, once man has grown up to it, clarifies, illuminates, raises to a higher term, all aspects of the self: intelligence, no less than love and will. That self is now harmonised about its true centre, and finding ‘God in all creatures and all creatures in God’ finds them in their reality. So it is that Ruysbroeck’s long life of growth, his long education in love, bringing him to that which he calls the ‘God-seeing’ stage, brings him to a point in which he finds everywhere Reality: in those rhythmic seasonal changes of the forest life which have inspired his wonderful doctrine of the perpetual rebirth and re-budding of the soul; in the hearts of men—though often there deep buried—above all, in the mysteries of the Christian faith. Speaking with an unequalled authority and intimacy of those supersensuous regions, those mysterious contacts of love which lie beyond and above all thought, he is yet firmly rooted in the concrete; for he has reconciled in his own experience the paradox of a Transcendent yet Immanent God. There is no break in the life-process which begins with the little country boy running away from home in quest of some vaguely felt object of desire, some ‘better land,’ and which ends with the triumphant passing over of the soul of the great contemplative to the perfect fruition of Eternal Love.34
Ruysbroeck died at Groenendael on December 2, 1381. He was eighty-eight years old; feeble in body, nearly blind, yet keeping to the last his clear spiritual vision, his vigour and eagerness of soul. His death, says Pomerius, speaking on the authority of those who had seen it, was full of peaceful joy, of gaiety of heart; not the falling asleep of the tired servant, but the leap to more abundant life of the vigorous child of the Infinite, at last set free. With an immense gladness he went out from that time-world which, in his own image, is ‘the shadow of God,’ to “those high mountains of the land of promise where no shadow is, but only the Sun.” One of the greatest of Christian seers, one of the most manly and human of the mystics, it is yet as a lover, in the noblest and most vital sense of the word, that his personality lives for us. From first to last, under all its external accidents, we may trace in his life the activity—first instinctive, and only gradually understood—of that ‘unconquerable love,’ ardent, industrious, at last utterly surrendered, which he describes in the wonderful tenth chapter of The Sparkling Stone, as the unique power which effects the soul’s union with God. “For no man understandeth what love is in itself, but such are its workings: which giveth more than one can take, and asketh more than one can pay.” That 35 love it was which came out from the Infinite, as a tendency, an instinct endowed with liberty and life, and passed across the stage of history, manifested under humblest inconspicuous forms, but ever growing in passion and power; till at last, achieving the full stature of the children of God, it returned to its Source and Origin again. When we speak of the mysticism of Ruysbroeck, it is of this that we should think: of this growing spirit, this ardent, unconquerable, creative thing. A veritable part of our own order, therein it was transmuted from unreal to real existence; putting on Divine Humanity, and attaining the goal of all life in the interests of the race.
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