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HIS DOCTRINE OF GOD
My words are strange; but those who love will understand.
The Mirror of Eternal Salvation.
Mystical writers are of two kinds. One kind, of which St. Teresa is perhaps the supreme type, deals almost wholly with the personal and interior experiences of the soul in the states of contemplation, and the psychological rules governing those states; above all, with the emotional reactions of the self to the impact of the Divine. This kind of mystic—whom William James accused, with some reason, of turning the soul’s relation with God into a ‘duet’—makes little attempt to describe the ultimate Object of the self’s love and desire, the great movements of the spiritual world; for such description, the formulæ of existing theology are felt to be enough. Visions of Christ, experiences of the Blessed Trinity—these are sufficient names for the personal and impersonal aspects of that Reality with which the contemplative seeks to unite. But the 53 other kind of mystic—though possibly and indeed usually as orthodox in his beliefs, as ardent in his love—cannot, on the one hand, remain within the circle of these subjective and personal conceptions, and, on the other, content himself with the label which tradition has affixed to the Thing that he has known. He may not reject the label, but neither does he confuse it with the Thing. He has the wide vision, the metaphysical passion of the philosopher and the poet; and in his work he is ever pressing towards more exact description, more suggestive and evocative speech. The symbols which come most naturally to him are usually derived from the ideas of space and of wonder; not from those of human intimacy and love. In him the intellect is active as well as the heart; sometimes, more active. Plotinus is an extreme example of mysticism of this type.
The greatest mystics, however, whether in the East or in the West, are possessed of a vision and experience of God so deep and rich that it embraces at once the infinite and the intimate aspects of Reality; illuminating those religious concepts which are, as it were, an artistic reconstruction of the Transcendent, and at the same time having contact with that vast region above and beyond reason whence come the fragmentary intimations of Reality crystallised 54 in the formulæ of faith. For them, as for St. Augustine, God is both near and far; and the paradox of transcendent-immanent Reality is a self-evident if an inexpressible truth. They swing between hushed adoration and closest communion, between the divine ignorance of the intellect lifted up into God and the divine certitude of the heart in which He dwells; and give us by turns a subjective and psychological, an objective and metaphysical, reading of spiritual experience. Ruysbroeck is a mystic of this type. The span of his universe can include—indeed demand—both the concept of that Abyss of Pure Being where all distinctions are transcended, and the soul is immersed in the ‘dark light’ of the One, and the distinctively Christian and incarnational experience of loving communion with and through the Person of Christ. For him the ladder of contemplation is firmly planted in the bed-rock of human character—goes the whole way from the heart of man to the Essence of God—and every stage of it has importance for the eager and ascending soul. Hence, when he seems to rush out to the farthest limits of the cosmos, he still remains within the circle of Catholic ideas; and is at once ethical and metaphysical, intensely sacramental and intensely transcendental too.
Nor is this result obtained—as it sometimes 55 seems to be, for instance, in such a visionary as Angela of Foligno—by a mere heaping up of the various and inconsistent emotional reactions of the self. There is a fundamental orderliness in the Ruysbroeckian universe which, though it may be difficult to understand, and often impossible for him to express without resort to paradox, yet reveals itself to careful analysis. He tries hard to describe, or at least suggest, it to us, because he is a mystic of an apostolic type. Even where he is dealing with the soul’s most ineffable experiences and seems to hover over that Abyss which is ‘beyond Reason,’ stammering and breaking into wild poetry in the desperate attempt to seize the unseizable truth he is ever intent on telling us how these things may be actualised, this attitude attained by other men. The note is never, as with many subjective visionaries, “I have seen,” but always “We shall or may see.”
Now such an objective mystic as this, who is not content with retailing his private experiences and ecstasies, but accepts the great vocation of revealer of Reality, is called upon to do certain things. He must give us, not merely a static picture of Eternity, but also a dynamic ‘reading of life’; and of a life more extended than that which the moralist, or even the philosopher, offers to interpret. He must not only tell 56 us what he thinks about the universe, and in particular that ultimate Spiritual Reality which all mysticism discerns within or beyond the flux. He must also tell us what he thinks of man, that living, moving, fluid spirit-thing: his reactions to this universe and this Reality, the satisfaction which it offers to his thought, will and love, the obligations laid upon him in respect of it. We, on our part, must try to understand what he tells us of these things; for he is, as it were, an organ developed by the race for this purpose—a tentacle pushed out towards the Infinite, to make, in our name and in our interest, fresh contacts with Reality. He performs for us some of the functions of the artist extending our universe, the pioneer cutting our path, the hunter winning food for our souls.
The clue to the universe of such a mystic will always be the vision or idea which he has of the Nature of God; and there we must begin, if we would find our way through the tangle of his thought. From this Centre all else branches out, and to this all else must conform, if it is to have for him realness and life; for truth, as Aquinas teaches, is simply the reality of things as they are in God. We begin, then, our exploration of Ruysbroeck’s doctrine by trying to discover the character of his vision of the Divine Nature, and man’s relation with it.57
That vision is so wide, deep and searching, that only by resort to the language of opposites, by perpetual alternations of spatial and personal, metaphysical and passionate speech, is he able to communicate it to us. His fortunate and profound acquaintance with the science of theology—his contact through it with the formulæ of Christian Platonism—has given him the framework on which he stretches out his wonderful and living picture of the Infinite. This picture is personal to himself, the fruit of a direct and vivid inspiration; not so the terms by which it is communicated. These for the most part are the common property of Christian theology; though here used with a consummate skill, often with an apparent originality. Especially from St. Augustine, Dionysius the Areopagite, Richard of St. Victor, St. Bernard and the more orthodox utterances of his own immediate predecessor, Meister Eckhart—sometimes too from his contemporaries, Suso and Tauler—has he taken the intellectual concepts, the highly-charged poetic metaphors, in which his perceptions are enshrined. So close does he keep to these masters, so frequent are his borrowings, that almost every page of his writings might be glossed from their works. It is one of the most astonishing features of the celebrated and astonishing essay of M. Maeterlinck that, bent on vindicating 58 the inspiration of his ‘simple and ignorant monk,’ he entirely fails to observe the traditional character of the formulæ which express it. No student of the mystics will deny the abundant inspiration by which Ruysbroeck was possessed; but this inspiration is spiritual, not intellectual. The truth was told to him in the tongue of angels, and he did his best to translate it into the tongue of the Church; perpetually reminding us, as he did so, how great was the difference between vision and description, how clumsy and inadequate those concepts and images wherewith the artist-seer tried to tell his love.
This distinction, which the reader of Ruysbroeck should never forget, is of primary importance in connection with his treatment of the Nature of God; where the disparity between the thing known and the thing said is inevitably at a maximum. The high nature of the Godhead, he says, in a string of suggestive and paradoxical images, to which St. Paul, Dionysius and Eckhart have all contributed, is, in itself, “Simplicity and One-foldness; inaccessible height and fathomless deep; incomprehensible breadth and eternal length; a dim silence, and a wild desert”—oblique, suggestive, musical language which enchants rather than informs the soul; opens the door to experience, but does not convey any accurate 59 knowledge of the Imageless Truth, “Now we may experience many wonders in that fathomless Godhead; but although, because of the coarseness of the human intellect, when we would describe such things outwardly, we must use images, in truth that which is inwardly perceived and beheld is nought else but a Fathomless and Unconditioned Good.”66The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xxxvii.
Yet this primal Reality, this ultimately indivisible One, has for human consciousness a two-fold character; and though for the intuition of the mystic its fruition is a synthetic experience, it must in thought be analysed if it is ever to be grasped. God, as known by man, exhibits in its perfection the dual property of Love; on the one hand active, generative, creative; on the other hand a still and ineffable possession or Fruition—one of the master-words of Ruysbroeck’s thought. He is, then, the Absolute One, in whom the antithesis of Eternity and Time, of Being and Becoming, is resolved; both static and dynamic, transcendent and immanent, impersonal and personal, undifferentiated and differentiated; Eternal Rest and Eternal Work, the Unmoved Mover, yet Movement itself. “Although in our way of seeing we give God many names, His nature is One.”
He transcends the storm of succession, yet 60 is the inspiring spirit of the flux. According to His fruitful nature, “He works without ceasing, for He is Pure Act”—a reminiscence of Aristotle which seems strange upon the lips of the ‘ignorant monk.’ He is the omnipotent and ever-active Creator of all things; ‘an immeasurable Flame of Love’ perpetually breathing forth His energetic Life in new births of being and new floods of grace, and drawing in again all creatures to Himself. Yet this statement defines, not His being, but one manifestation of His being. When the soul pierces beyond this ‘fruitful’ nature to His simple essence—and ‘simple’ is here and throughout to be understood in its primal meaning of ‘synthetic’—He is that absolute and abiding Reality which seems to man Eternal Rest, the ‘Deep Quiet of the Godhead,’ the ‘Abyss,’ the ‘Dim Silence’; and which we can taste indeed but never know. There, ‘all lovers lose themselves’ in the consummation of that experience at which our fragmentary intuitions hint.
The active and fertile aspect of the Divine Nature is manifested in differentiation: for Ruysbroeck the Catholic, in the Trinity of Persons, as defined by Christian theology. The static and absolute aspect is the ‘calm and glorious Unity of the Godhead’ which he finds beyond and within the Trinity, “the fathomless Abyss that is the Being of God,”—an 61 idea, familiar to Indian mysticism and implicit in Christian Neoplatonism, which governed all Meister Eckhart’s speculations upon the Divine Nature. There is, says Ruysbroeck in one of his most Eckhartian passages, “a distinction and differentiation, according to our reason, between God and the Godhead, between action and rest. The fruitful nature of the Persons, of whom is the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity, ever worketh in a living differentiation. But the Simple Being of God, according to the nature thereof, is an Eternal Rest of God and of all created things.”77The Twelve Béguines, cap. xiv.
In differentiating the three great aspects of the Divine Life, as known by the love and thought of man, Ruysbroeck keeps close to formal theology; though investing its academic language with new and deep significance, and constantly reminding us that such language, even at its best, can never get beyond the region of image and similitude or provide more than an imperfect reflection of the One who is ‘neither This nor That.’ On his lips, credal definitions are perpetually passing over from the arid region of theological argument to the fruitful one of spiritual experience. There they become songs, as ‘new’ as the song heard by the Apocalyptist; real channels of light, which show the mind things that it never 62 guessed before. For the ‘re-born’ man they have a fresh and immortal meaning; because that ‘river of grace,’ of which he perpetually speaks as pouring into the heart opened towards the Infinite, transfigures and irradiates them. Thus the illuminated mind knows in the Father, not a confusingly anthropomorphic metaphor, but the uniquely vital Source and unconditioned Origin of all things “in whom our life and being is begun.” He is the “Strength and Power, Creator, Mover, Keeper, Beginning and End, Cause and Existence of all creatures.”88The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xxxvii. Further, the intuition of the mystic discerns in the Son the Eternal Word and fathomless Wisdom and Truth perpetually generated of the Father, shining forth in the world of conditions: the Pattern or Archetype of creation and of life, the image of God which the universe reflects back before the face of the Absolute, the Eternal Rule incarnate in Christ. And this same ‘light wherein we see God’ also shows to the enlightened mind the veritable character of the Holy Spirit; the Incomprehensible Love and Generosity of the Divine Nature, which emanates in an eternal procession from the mutual contemplation of Father and Son, “for these two Persons are always hungry for love.” The Holy Spirit is the source of the Divine vitality immanent in the universe. 63 It is an outflowing torrent of Good which streams through all heavenly spirits; it is a Flame of Fire that consumes all in the One; it is also the Spark of transcendence latent in man’s soul. The Spirit is the personal, Grace the impersonal, side of that energetic Love which enfolds and penetrates all life; and “all this may be perceived and beheld, inseparable and without division, in the Simple Nature of the Godhead.”99Op. cit., ibid.
The relations which form the character of these Three Persons exist in an eternal distinction for that world of conditions wherein the human soul is immersed, and where things happen ‘in some wise.’ There, from the embrace of the Father and Son and the outflowing of the Spirit in ‘waves of endless love,’ all created things are born; and God, by His grace and His death, recreates them, and adorns them with love and goodness, and draws them back to their source. This is the circling course of the Divine life-process ‘from goodness, through goodness, to goodness,’ described by Dionysius the Areopagite. But beyond and above this plane of Divine differentiation is the superessential world, transcending all conditions, inaccessible to thought—“the measureless solitude of the Godhead, where God possesses Himself in joy.” This is the 64 ultimate world of the mystic, discerned by intuition and love “in a simple seeing, beyond reason and without consideration.” There, within the ‘Eternal Now,’ without either before or after, released from the storm of succession, things happen indeed, ‘yet in no wise,’ There, “we can speak no more of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, nor of any creature; but only of one Being, which is the very substance of the Divine Persons. There were we all one before our creation; for this is our superessence.... There the Godhead is, in simple essence, without activity; Eternal Rest, Unconditioned Dark, the Nameless Being, the Superessence of all created things, and the simple and infinite Bliss of God and of all Saints.”1010The Seven Degrees of Love, cap. xiv.
Ruysbroeck here brings us to the position of Dante in the last canto of the Paradiso, when, transcending those partial apprehensions of Reality which are figured by the River of Becoming and the Rose of Beatitude, he penetrated to the swift vision of “that Eternal Light which only in Itself abideth”—discerned best by man under the image of the three circles, yet in its ‘profound and clear substance’ indivisibly One.
“The simple light of this Being is limitless in its immensity, and transcending 65 form, includes and embraces the unity of the Divine Persons and the soul with all its faculties; and this to such a point that it envelopes and irradiates both the natural tendency of our ground [i.e. its dynamic movement to God—the River] and the fruitive adherence of God and all those who are united with Him in this Light [i.e. Eternal Being—the Rose]. And this is the union of God and the souls that love Him.”1111The Kingdom of God’s Lovers, cap. xxix.
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