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In all that I have understood, felt, or written, I submit myself to the judgment of the saints and of Holy Church, for I would live and die Christ’s servant in Christian Faith.
The Book of Supreme Truth.
Before discussing Ruysbroeck’s view of the spiritual world, his doctrine of the soul’s development, perhaps it will be well to consider the traditional names, general character, and contents of his admittedly authentic works. Only a few of these works can be dated with precision; for recent criticism has shown that the so-called chronological list given by Pomerius44Vita, cap. xv. cannot be accepted. As to several of them, we cannot tell whether they were composed at Brussels or at Groenendael, at the beginning, middle or end of his mystical life. All were written in the Flemish vernacular of his own day—or, strictly speaking, in the dialect of Brabant—for they were practical books composed for a practical object, not 37 academic treatises on mystical theology. Founded on experience, they deal with and incite to experience; and were addressed to all who felt within themselves the stirrings of a special grace, the call of a superhuman love, irrespective of education or position—to hermits, priests, nuns, and ardent souls still in the world who were trying to live the one real life—not merely to learned professors trying to elucidate the doctrines of that life. Ruysbroeck therefore belongs to that considerable group of mystical writers whose gift to the history of literature is only less important than their gift to the history of the spiritual world; since they have helped to break down the barrier between the written and the spoken word.
At the moment in which poetry first forsakes the ‘literary’ language and uses the people’s speech, we nearly always find a mystic thus trying to tell his message to the race. His enthusiasm it is which is equal to the task of subduing a new medium to the purposes of art. Thus at the very beginning of Italian poetry we find St. Francis of Assisi singing in the popular tongue his great Canticle of the Sun, and soon after him come the sublime lyrics of Jacopone da Todì. Thus German literature owes much to Mechthild of Magdeburg, and English to Richard Rolle—both forsaking Latin for the common speech of their day. 38 Thus in India the poet Kabir, obedient to the same impulse, sings in Hindi rather than in Sanscrit his beautiful songs of Divine Love.
In Ruysbroeck, as in these others, a strong poetic inspiration mingled with and sometimes controlled the purely mystical side of his genius. Often his love and enthusiasm break out and express themselves, sometimes in rough, irregular verse, sometimes in rhymed and rhythmic prose: a kind of wild spontaneous chant, which may be related to the ‘ghostly song’ that ‘boiled up’ within the heart of Richard Rolle. It is well-known that automatic composition—and we have seen that the evidence of those who knew him suggests the presence of an automatic element in Ruysbroeck’s creative methods—tends to assume a rhythmic character; being indeed closely related to that strange chanted speech in which religious excitement frequently expresses itself. Released from the control of the surface-intellect, the deeper mind which is involved in these mysterious processes tends to present its intuitions and concepts in measured waves of words; which sometimes, as in Rolle’s ‘ghostly song’ and perhaps too in Ruysbroeck’s ‘Song of Joy,’ are actually given a musical form. In such rhythm the mystic seems to catch something of the cadences of that far-off music 39 of which he is writing, and to receive and transmit a message which exceeds the possibilities of speech. Ruysbroeck was no expert poet. Often his verse is bad; halting in cadence, violent and uncouth in imagery, like the stammering utterance of one possessed. But its presence and quality, its mingled simplicity and violence, assure us of the strong excitement that fulfilled him, and tend to corroborate the account of his mental processes which we have deduced from the statements in Pomerius’ Life.
Eleven admittedly authentic books and tracts survive in numerous MS. collections,55De Vreese has identified 160 Flemish and 46 Latin MSS. of Ruysbroeck. and from these come all that we know of his vision and teaching. The Twelve Virtues, and the two Canticles often attributed to him, are probably spurious; and the tracts against the Brethren of the Free Spirit, which are known to have been written during his Brussels period, have all disappeared. I give here a short account of the authentic works, their names and general contents; putting first in order those of unknown date, some of which may possibly have been composed before the foundation of Groenendael. In each case the first title is a translation of that used in the best Flemish texts; the second, 40 that employed in the great Latin version of Surius. Ruysbroeck himself never gave any titles to his writings.
1. The Spiritual Tabernacle (called by Surius In Tabernaculum Mosis).—The longest, most fantastic, and, in spite of some fine passages, the least interesting of Ruysbroeck’s works. Probably founded upon the De Arca Mystica of Hugh of St. Victor, this is an elaborate allegory, thoroughly mediæval in type, in which the Tabernacle of the Israelites becomes a figure of the spiritual life; the details of its construction, furniture and ritual being given a symbolic significance, in accordance with the methods of interpretation popular at the time. In this book, and perhaps in the astronomical treatise appended to The Twelve Béguines (No. 11), I believe that we have the only surviving works of Ruysbroeck’s first period; when he had not yet ‘transcended images,’ but was at that point in his mystical development in which the young contemplative loves to discern symbolic meanings in all visible things.
2. The Twelve Points of True Faith (De Fide et Judicio).—This little tract is in form a gloss upon the Nicene Creed; in fact, a characteristically Ruysbroeckian confession of faith. Without ever over-passing the boundaries of Catholic doctrine, Ruysbroeck is here able to turn all 41 its imagery to the purposes of his own vision of truth.
3. The Book of the Four Temptations (De Quatuor Tentationibus).—The Four Temptations are four manifestations of the higher egotism specially dangerous to souls entering on the contemplative life: first, the love of ease and comfort, as much in things spiritual as in things material; secondly, the tendency to pose as the possessor of special illumination, with other and like forms of spiritual pretence; thirdly, intellectual pride, which seeks to understand unfathomable mysteries and attain to the vision of God by the reason alone; fourthly,—most dangerous of all—that false ‘liberty of spirit’ which was the mark of the heretical mystic sects. This book too may well have been written before the retreat to Groenendael.
4. The Book of the Kingdom of God’s Lovers (Regnum Deum Amantium).—This and the following work, The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, contain Ruysbroeck’s fullest and most orderly descriptions of the mystical life-process. The ‘Kingdom’ which God’s lovers may inherit is the actual life of God, infused into the soul and deifying it. This essential life reveals itself under five modes: in the sense world, in the soul’s nature, in the witness of Scripture, in the life of grace or ‘glory,’ 42 and in the Superessential Kingdom of the Divine Unity. By the threefold way of the Active, Contemplative, and Superessential Life, here described as the steady and orderly appropriation of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of man may enter into its inheritance and attain at last to the perfect fruition of God. To the Active Life belong the gifts of Holy Fear, Godliness, and Knowledge; to the Contemplative those of Strength and Counsel; to the Superessential those of Intelligence and Wisdom. The Kingdom of God’s Lovers was traditionally regarded as Ruysbroeck’s earliest work. It was more probably written during the early years at Groenendael. Much of it, like The Twelve Béguines, is in poetical form. This was the book which, falling into the hands of Gerard Naghel, made him seek Ruysbroeck’s acquaintance, in order that he might ask for an explanation of several profound and difficult passages.
5. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage (De Ornatu Spiritalium Nuptiarum).—This is the best known and most methodical of Ruysbroeck’s works. In form a threefold commentary upon the text, “Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him,” it is divided into three books, tracing out in great detail, and with marvellous psychological insight, those three stages of Active, Contemplative and Superessential 43 Life, which appear again and again in his writings. Paying due attention to the aberrations of the quietists, he exhibits—with an intimacy which surely reflects his own personal experience of the Way—the conditions under which selves in each stage of development may see, encounter, and at last unite with, the Divine Bridegroom of the soul. A German translation of several of its chapters, preserved in MS. at Munich, states that Ruysbroeck sent this book to the Friends of God in 1350. In this case it belongs to the years immediately preceding or succeeding his retreat.
We now come to the works which were certainly composed at Groenendael, though probably some of those already enumerated also belong to the last thirty years of Ruysbroeck’s life. First come the three treatises apparently written for Margaret van Meerbeke, a choir nun of the Convent of Poor Clares at Brussels; who seems to have been to him what St. Clare was to St. Francis, Elizabeth Stägel to Suso, Margaret Kirkby to Richard Rolle—first a spiritual daughter, then a valued and sympathetic friend.
6. The Mirror of Eternal Salvation or Book of the Blessed Sacrament (Speculum Æternæ Salutis).—This, the first of the three, was written in 1359. It is addressed to one who is evidently a beginner in the spiritual life, as she is yet a novice in 44 her religious community; but whom Ruysbroeck looks upon as specially ‘called, elect and loved.’ In simplest language, often of extreme beauty, he puts before her the magnitude of the vocation she has accepted, the dangers she will encounter, and the great source from which she must draw her strength: the sacramental dispensation of the Church. In a series of magnificent chapters, he celebrates the mystical doctrine of the Eucharist, the feeding of the ever-growing soul on the substance of God; following this by a digression, full of shrewd observation, on the different types of believers who come to communion. We see them through his eyes: the religious sentimentalists, ‘who are generally women and only very seldom men’; the sturdy normal Christian, who does his best to struggle against sin; the humble and devout lover of God; the churchy hypocrite, who behaves with great reverence at Mass and then goes home and scolds the servants; the heretical mystic full of spiritual pride; the easy-going worldling, who sins and repents with equal facility. The book ends with a superb description of the goal towards which the young contemplative is set: the ‘life-giving life’ of perfect union with God in which that ‘higher life’ latent in every soul at last attains to maturity.
7. The Seven Cloisters (De Septem 45 Custodiis).—This was written before 1363, and preserves its address to ‘The Holy Nun, Dame Margaret van Meerbeke, Cantor of the Monastery of St. Clare at Brussels.’ The novice of the ‘Mirror’ is now a professed religious; and her director instructs her upon the attitude of mind which she should bring to the routine duties of a nun’s day, the opportunity they offer for the enriching and perfecting of love and humility. He describes the education of the human spirit up to that high point of consciousness where it knows itself established ‘between Eternity and Time’: one of the fundamental thoughts of Flemish and German mysticism. This education admits her successively into the seven cloisters which kept St. Clare, Foundress of the Order, unspotted from the world. The first is the physical enclosure of the convent walls; the next the moral and volitional limitation of self-control. The third is ‘the open door of the love of Christ,’ which crowns man’s affective powers, and leads to the fourth—total dedication of the will. The fifth and sixth represent the two great forms of the Contemplative Life as conceived by Ruysbroeck: the ecstatic and the deiform. The seventh admits to Abyss of Being itself: that ‘dim silence’ at the heart of which, as in the Seventh Habitation of St. Teresa’s ‘Interior Castle,’ he will find himself alone with God. There 46 the mystic union is consummated, and the Divine activity takes the place of the separate activity of man, in “a simple beatitude which transcends all sanctity and the practice of virtue, an Eternal Fruition which satisfies all hunger and thirst, all love and all craving, for God.” Finally, he returns to the Active Life; and ends with a practical chapter on clothes, and a charming instruction, full of deep poetry, on the evening meditation which should close the day.
8. The Seven Degrees of the Ladder of Love (De Septem Gradibus Amoris).—This book, which was written before 1372, is believed by the Benedictines of Wisques, the latest and most learned of Ruysbroeck’s editors, to complete the trilogy of works addressed to Dame Margaret van Meerbeke. It traces the soul’s ascent to the height of Divine love by way of the characteristic virtues of asceticism, under the well-known mediæval image of the ‘ladder of perfection’ or ‘stairway of love’—a metaphor, originating in Jacob’s Dream, which had already served St. Benedict, Richard of St. Victor, St. Bonaventura and many others as a useful diagram of the mystic way. Originality of form, however, is the last thing we should look for in Ruysbroeck’s works. He pours his strange wine into any vessel that comes to hand. As often his most sublime or amazing utterances originate 47 in commentaries upon some familiar text, or the deepest truths are hidden under the most grotesque similitudes; so this well-worn metaphor gives him the opportunity for some of his finest descriptions of the soul’s movement to that transmutation in which all ardent spirits ‘become as live coals in the fire of Infinite Love.’ This book, in which the influence of St. Bernard is strongly marked, contains some beautiful passages on the mystic life considered as a ‘heavenly song’ of faithfulness and love, which “Christ our Cantor and our Choragus has sung from the beginning of things,” and which every Christian soul must learn.
9. The Book of the Sparkling Stone (De Calculo, sive de Perfectione Filiorum Dei).—This priceless work is said to have been written by Ruysbroeck at the request of a hermit, who wished for further light on the high matters of which it treats. It contains the finest flower of his thought, and shows perhaps more clearly than any other of his writings the mark of direct inspiration. Here again the scaffolding on which he builds is almost as old as Christian mysticism itself: that three-fold division of men into the ‘faithful servants, secret friends, and hidden sons’ of God, which descended through the centuries from Clement of Alexandria. But the tower which he raises with its help ascends to heights unreached by 48 any other writer: to the point at which man is given the supreme gift of the Sparkling Stone, or Nature of Christ, the goal of human transcendence. I regard the ninth and tenth chapters of The Sparkling Stone—‘How we may become Hidden Sons of God and live the Contemplative Life,’ and ‘How we, though one with God, must eternally remain other than Him’—as the high-water mark of mystical literature. Nowhere else do we find such a marvellous combination of wide and soaring vision with the most delicate and intimate psychological analysis. The old mystic, sitting under his friendly tree, seems here to be gazing at and reporting to us the final secrets of that eternal world, where “the Incomprehensible Light enfolds and penetrates us, as the air is penetrated by the light of the sun.” There he tastes and apprehends, in ‘an unfathomable seeing and beholding,’ the inbreathing and the outbreathing of the Love of God—that double movement which controls the universe; yet knows, along with this great cosmic vision, that intimate and searching communion in which “the Beloved and the Lover are immersed wholly in love, and each is all to the other in possession and in rest.”
10. The Book of Supreme Truth (called in some collections The Book of Retractations, and by Surius, Samuel.)—This is the tract 49 written by Ruysbroeck, at the request of Gerard Naghel, to explain certain obscure passages in The Book of the Kingdom of God’s Lovers. In it he is specially concerned to make clear the vital distinction between his doctrine of the soul’s union with God—a union in which the primal distinction between Creator and created is never overpassed—and the pantheistic doctrine of complete absorption in Him, with cessation of all effort and striving, preached by the heretical sects whose initiates claim to ‘be God.’ By the time that this book was written, careless readers had already charged Ruysbroeck with these pantheist tendencies which he abhorred and condemned; and here he sets out his defence. He discusses also the three degrees of union with God which correspond to the ‘three lives’ of the growing soul: union by means of sacraments and good deeds; union achieved in contemplative prayer ‘without means,’ where the soul learns its double vocation of action and fruition; and the highest union of all, where the spirit which has swung pendulum-like between the temporal and eternal worlds, achieves its equilibrium and dwells wholly in God, ‘drunk with love, and sunk in the Dark Light.’
11. The Twelve Béguines (De Vera Contemplatione).—This is a long, composite book of eighty-four chapters, which apparently 50 consists of at least three distinct treatises of different dates. The first, The Twelve Béguines, which ends with chapter xvi., contains the longest consecutive example of Ruysbroeck’s poetic method; its first eight chapters being written in irregular rhymed verse. It is believed to be one of his last compositions. Its doctrine differs little from that already set forth in his earlier works; though nowhere, perhaps, is the development of the spiritual consciousness described with greater subtlety. The soul’s communion with and feeding on the Divine Nature in the Eucharist and in contemplative prayer; its acquirement of the art of introversion; the Way of Contemplation with its four modes, paralleled by the Way of Love with its four modes; these lead up to the perfect union of the spirit with God “in one love and one fruition with Him, fulfilled in everlasting bliss.” The seventeenth chapter begins a new treatise, with a description of the Active Life on Ruysbroeck’s usual lines; and at the thirtieth there is again a complete change of subject, introducing a mystical and symbolic interpretation of the science of astronomy. This section, so unlike his later writings, somewhat resembles The Spiritual Tabernacle, and may perhaps be a work of the same period. A collection of Meditations upon the Passion of Christ, arranged according 51 to the Seven Hours of the Roman Breviary (capp. lxxiii. to end), completes the book; and also the tale of Ruysbroeck’s authentic works. A critical list of the reprints and translations in which these may best be studied will be found in the Bibliographical Note.
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