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CHAPTER V
THE ACTIVE LIFE

If we would discover and know that Kingdom of God which is hidden in us, we must lead a life that is virtuous within, well-ordered without, and fulfilled with true charity. Thus imitating Christ in every way, we can, through grace, love and virtue, raise ourselves up to that apex of the soul where God lives and reigns.

The Mirror of Eternal Salvation.

The beginning of man’s Active Life, says Ruysbroeck—that uplifting of the diurnal existence into the Divine Atmosphere, which confers on it meaning and reality—is a movement of response. Grace, the synthesis of God’s love, energy and will, pours like a great river through the universe, and perpetually beats in upon the soul. When man consents to receive it, opens the sluices of the heart to that living water, surrenders to it; then he opens his heart and will to the impact of Reality, his eyes to the Divine Light, and in this energetic movement of acceptance begins for the first time to live indeed. Hence it is that, in the varied ethical systems which we find in his books, 95 and which describe the active crescent life of Christian virtue, the laborious adjustment of character to the Vision of God, Ruysbroeck always puts first the virtue, or rather the attitude, which he calls good-will: the voluntary orientation of the self in the right direction, the eager acceptance of grace. As all growth depends upon food, so all spiritual development depends upon the self’s appropriation of its own share of the transcendent life-force, its own ‘rill of grace’; and good-will breaks down the barrier which prevents that stream from pouring into the soul.

Desire, said William Law, is everything and does everything; it is the primal motive-power. Ruysbroeck, too, finds in desire turned towards the best the beginning of human transcendence, and regards willing and loving as the essence of life. Basing his psychology on the common mediæval scheme of Memory, Intelligence and Will, he speaks of this last as the king of the soul; dominating both the other powers, and able to gather them in its clutch, force them to attend to the invitations and messages of the eternal world. Thus in his system the demand upon man’s industry and courage is made from the very first. The great mystical necessity of self-surrender is shown to involve, not a limp acquiescence, but a deliberate and heroic choice; the difficult 96 approximation of our own thoughts and desires to the thoughts and desires of Divine Reality. “When we have but one thought and one will with God, we are on the first step of the ladder of love and of sanctity; for good-will is the foundation of all virtue.”2626The Seven Degrees of Love, cap. i.

In The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, Ruysbroeck has used the words said to the wise and foolish virgins of the parable—“Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him”—as an epitome of the self’s relations with and reactions to Reality. First, all created spirits are called to behold God, who is perpetually ‘coming’ to the world of conditions, in a ceaseless procession of love; and in this seeing our happiness consists. But in order really to see a thing, we need not only light and clear sight, but the will to look at it; every act of perception demands a self-giving on the seer’s part. So here we need not only the light of grace and the open eyes of the soul, but also the will turned towards the Infinite: our attention to life, the regnant fact of our consciousness, must be focussed upon eternal things. Now, when we see God, we cannot but love Him; and love is motion, activity. Hence, this first demand on the awakened spirit, ‘Behold!’ is swiftly followed by the second demand, ‘Go ye out!’ for the essence of love is generous, outflowing, expansive, 97 an “upward and outward tendency towards the Kingdom of God, which is God Himself.” This outgoing, this concrete act of response, will at once change and condition our correspondences with and attitude towards God, ourselves and our neighbours; expressing itself within the world of action in a new ardour for perfection—the natural result of the ‘loving vision of the Bridegroom,’ the self’s first glimpse of Perfect Goodness and Truth. We observe the continued insistence on effort, act, as the very heart of all true self-giving to transcendent interests.

Whilst in the volitional life drastic readjustments, stern character-building, and eager work are the expression of goodwill, in the emotional life it is felt as a profound impulse to self-surrender: a loving yielding up of the whole personality to the inflow and purging activities of the Absolute Life. “This good-will is nought else but the infused Love of God, which causes him to apply himself to Divine things and all virtues; ... when it turns towards God, it crowns the spirit with Eternal Love, and when it returns to outward things it rules as a mistress over his external good deeds.”2727The Mirror of Eternal Salvation, cap. xvi.

We have here, then, a disposition of heart and mind which both receives and responds 98 to the messages of Reality; making it possible for the self to begin to grow in the right direction, to enter into possession of its twofold heritage. That completely human life of activity and contemplation which moves freely up and down the ladder of love between the temporal and eternal worlds, and reproduces in little the ideal of Divine Humanity declared in Christ, is the ideal towards which it is set; and already, even in this lowest phase, the double movement of the awakened consciousness begins to show itself. Our love and will, firmly fastened in the Eternal World, are to swing like a pendulum between the seen and the unseen spheres; in great ascending arcs of balanced adoration and service, which shall bring all the noblest elements of human character into play. Therefore the pivoting of life upon Divine Reality, which is the result of good-will—the setting up of a right relation with the universe—is inevitably the first condition of virtue, the ‘root of sanctity,’ the beginning of spiritual growth, the act which makes man free; translating him, in Ruysbroeck’s image, from the state of the slave to that of the conscious and willing servant of Eternal Truth. “From the hour in which, with God’s help, he transcends his self-hood ... he feels true love, which overcomes doubt and fear and makes man 99 trust and hope; and so he becomes a true servant, and means and loves God in all that he does.”2828The Sparkling Stone, cap. vi.

So man, emerging from the shell of selfhood, makes—of his own free choice, by his own effort—his first timid upward beat to God; and, following swiftly upon it, the compensating outward beat of charity towards his fellow-men. We observe how tight a hold has this most transcendental of the mystics on the wholeness of all healthy human life: the mutual support and interpenetration of the active and contemplative powers. ‘Other-worldliness’ is decisively contradicted from the first. It is the appearance of this eager active charity—this imitation in little of the energetic Love of God—which assures us that the first stage of the self’s growth is rightly accomplished; completing its first outward push in that new direction to which its good-will is turned. “For charity ever presses towards the heights, towards the Kingdom of God, the which is God Himself.”

In the practical counsels given to the young novice to whom The Mirror of Salvation is addressed, we may see Ruysbroeck’s ideal of that active life of self-discipline and service which the soul has now set in hand; and which he describes in greater 100 detail in The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage and The Kingdom of God’s Lovers. Total self-donation, he tells her, is her first need—‘choosing God, for love’s sake’ without hesitations or reserves; and this dedication to the interests of Reality must be untainted by any spiritual selfishness, any hint of that insidious desire for personal beatitude which ‘fades the flower of true love.’ This done, self-conquest and self-control become the novice’s primary duties: the gradual subduing and rearrangement of character about its new centre, the elimination of all tendencies inimical to the demands of Eternal Life; the firm establishment upon its throne of that true free-will which desires only God’s will. This self-conquest, the essence of the ‘Way of Purgation,’ as described and experienced by so many ascetics and mystics, includes not only the eradication of sins, but the training of the attention, the adaptation of consciousness to its new environment; the killing-out of inclinations which, harmless in themselves, compete with the one transcendent interest of life.

Like all great mystics, Ruysbroeck had a strong ‘sense of sin.’ This is merely a theological way of stating the fact that his intense realisation of Perfection involved a vivid consciousness of the imperfections, disharmonies, perversities, implicit in the 101 human creature; the need of resolving them if the soul was to grow up to the stature of Divine Humanity. Yet there is in his writings a singular absence of that profound preoccupation with sin found in so many mediæval ascetics. His attitude towards character was affirmative and robust; emphasising the possibilities rather than the disabilities of man. Sin, for him, was egotism; showing itself in the manifold forms of pride, laziness, self-indulgence, coldness of heart, or spiritual self-seeking, but always implying a central wrongness of attitude, resulting in a wrong employment of power. Self-denials and bodily mortifications he regarded partly as exercises in self-control—spiritual athletics—useful because educative of the will; partly as expressions of love. At best they are but the means of sanctity, and never to be confused with its end; for the man who deliberately passed the greater part of his life in the bustle of the town was no advocate of a cloistered virtue or a narrow perfectionism.

Morbid piety is often the product of physical as well as spiritual stuffiness; and Ruysbroeck wrote his great books out of doors, with light and air all round him, and the rhythmic life of trees to remind him how much stronger was the quiet law of growth than any atavism, accident, or 102 perversion by which it could be checked. Thus, throughout his works, the accent always falls upon power rather than weakness: upon the spiritual energy pouring in like sunshine; the incessant growth which love sets going; the perpetual rebirths to ever higher levels, as the young sapling stretches upward every spring. What he asks of the novice is contrition without anxiety, self-discipline without fuss; the steady, all-round development of her personality, stretching and growing towards God. She is to be the mistress of her soul, never permitting it to be drawn hither and thither by the distractions and duties of external life. Keeping always in the atmosphere of Reality, she shall bring therefrom truth and frankness to all her words and deeds; and perform her duties with that right and healthy detachment which springs, not from a contempt of the Many, but from the secure and loving possession of the One.

The disciplines to which she must subject herself in the effort towards attainment of this poise, will, like a wise gymnastic, produce in her a suppleness of soul; making the constant and inevitable transition from interior communion to outward work, which charity and good sense demand, easy and natural, and causing the spirit to be plastic in the hand of God. Such suppleness—the lightness and lissomeness which comes from 103 spiritual muscles exercised and controlled—was one of the favourite qualities of that wise trainer of character, St. François de Sales; and the many small and irritating mortifications with which he was accustomed to torment his disciples had no other aim than to produce it.

In the stage of development to which the Active Life belongs, the soul enjoys communion with Reality, not with that directness proper to the true contemplative, but obliquely, by ‘means,’ symbols and images; especially by the sacramental dispensation of the Church, a subject to which Ruysbroeck devotes great attention. As always in his system, growth from within is intimately connected with the reception of food and power from without. The movement of the self into God, the movement of God into the self, though separable in thought, are one in fact: will and grace are two aspects of one truth. Only this paradox can express the relation between that Divine Love which is ‘both avid and generous,’ and the self that is destined both to devour and be devoured by Reality.

In the beautiful chapters on the Eucharist which form the special feature of The Mirror of Eternal Salvation, Ruysbroeck develops this idea. “If He gives us all that He has and all that He is, in return He takes from us all that we have and all that 104 we are, and demands of us more than we are capable of giving.... Even in devouring us, He desires to feed us. If He absorbs us utterly into Himself, He gives Himself in return. He causes to be born in us the hunger and thirst of the spirit, which shall make us savour Him in an eternal fruition; and to this spiritual hunger, as well as to the love of our heart, He gives His own Body as food.... Thus does He give us His life full of wisdom, truth and knowledge, in order that we may imitate Him in all virtues; and then He lives in us and we in Him. Then do we grow, and raise ourselves up above the reason into a Divine Love which causes us to take and consume that Food in a spiritual manner, and stretch out in pure love towards the Divinity. There takes place that encounter of the spirit, that is to say of measureless love, which consumes and transforms our spirit with all its works; drawing us with itself towards the Unity, where we taste beatitude and rest. Herein therefore is our eternal life: ever to devour and be devoured, to ascend and descend with love.”2929The Mirror of Eternal Salvation, cap. vii.

The soul, then, turned in the direction of the Infinite, ‘having God for aim,’ and with her door opened to the inflowing Divine Life, begins to grow. Her growth is up and out; from that temporal world to which 105 her nature is adapted, and where she seems full of power and efficiency, to that eternal world to which the ‘spark’ within her belongs, but where she is as yet no more than a weak and helpless child. Hence the first state of mind and heart produced in her, if the ‘new birth’ has indeed taken place, will be that humility which results from all real self-knowledge; since “whoso might verily see and feel himself as he is, he should verily be meek.” This clear acknowledgment of facts, this finding of one’s own place, Ruysbroeck calls ‘the solid foundation of the Kingdom of the Soul.’ In thus discerning love and humility as the governing characteristics of the soul’s reaction to Reality, he is of course keeping close to the great tradition of Christian mysticism; especially to the teaching of Richard of St. Victor, which we find constantly repeated in the ascetic literature of the Middle Ages.

From these two virtues, then, of humble self-knowledge and God-centred love, are gradually developed all those graces of character which ‘adorn the soul for the spiritual marriage,’ mark her ascent of the first degrees of the ‘ladder of love,’ and make possible the perfecting of her correspondences with the ‘Kingdom.’ This development follows an orderly course, as subject to law as the unfolding of the leaves and flowers upon the growing plant; and 106 though Ruysbroeck in his various works uses different diagrams wherewith to explain it, the psychological changes which these diagrams demonstrate are substantially the same. In each case we watch the opening of man’s many-petalled heart under the rays of the Divine Light, till it blossoms at last into the rose of Perfect Charity.

Thus in The Seven Degrees of Love, since he is there addressing a cloistered nun, he accommodates his system to that threefold monastic vow of voluntary poverty or perfect renunciation, chastity or singleness of heart, and obedience or true humility in action, by which she is bound. When the reality which these vows express is actualised in the soul, and dominates all her reactions to the world, she wears the ‘crown of virtue’; and lives that ‘noble life’ ruled by the purified and enhanced will, purged of all selfish desires and distractions, which—seeking in all things the interests of the spiritual world—is ‘full of love and charity, and industrious in good works.’

In The Spiritual Marriage a more elaborate analysis is possible; based upon that division of man’s moral perversities into the ‘seven mortal sins’ or seven fundamental forms of selfishness, which governed, and governs yet, the Catholic view of human character. After a preliminary passage in which the triple attitude of love as towards 107 God, humility as towards self, justice as towards other men, is extolled as the only secure basis of the spiritual life, Ruysbroeck proceeds to exhibit the seven real and positive qualities which oppose the seven great abuses of human freedom. As Pride is first and worst of mortal sins and follies, so its antithesis Humility is again put forward as the first condition of communion with God. This produces in the emotional life an attitude of loving adoration; in the volitional life, obedience. By obedience, Ruysbroeck means that self-submission, that wise suppleness of spirit, which is swayed and guided not by its own tastes and interests but by the Will of God; as expressed in the commands and prohibitions of moral and spiritual law, the interior push of conscience. This attitude, at first deliberately assumed, gradually controls all the self’s reactions, and ends by subduing it entirely to the Divine purpose. “Of this obedience there grows the abdication of one’s own will and one’s own opinion; ... by this abdication of the will in all that one does, or does not do, or endures, the substance and occasion of pride are wholly driven out, and the highest humility is perfected.”3030The Spiritual Marriage, lib. i. cap. xiv.

This movement of renunciation brings—next phase in the unselfing of the self—a compensating 108 outward swing of love; expressed under the beautiful forms of patience, ‘the tranquil tolerance of all that can happen,’ and hence the antithesis of Anger; gentleness, which “with peace and calm bears vexatious words and deeds”; kindness, which deals with the quarrelsome and irritable by means of “a friendly countenance, affectionate persuasion and compassionate acts”; and sympathy, “that inward movement of the heart which compassionates the bodily and spiritual griefs of all men,” and kills the evil spirit of Envy and hate. This fourfold increase in disinterested love is summed up in the condition which Ruysbroeck calls supernatural generosity; that largeness of heart which flows out towards the generosity of God, which is swayed by pity and love, which embraces all men in its sweep. By this energetic love which seeks not its own, “all virtues are increased, and all the powers of the spirit are adorned”; and Avarice, the fourth great mortal sin, is opposed.

Generosity is no mere mood; it is a motive-force, demanding expression in action. From the emotions, it invades the will, and produces diligence and zeal: an ‘inward and impatient eagerness’ for every kind of work, and for the hard practice of every kind of virtue, which makes impossible that slackness and dulness of 109 soul which is characteristic of the sin of Sloth. It is dynamic love; and the spirit which is fired by its ardours, has reached a degree of self-conquest in which the two remaining evil tendencies—that to every kind of immoderate enjoyment, spiritual, intellectual or physical, which is the essence of Gluttony, and that to the impure desire of created things which is Lust—can be met and vanquished. The purged and strengthened will, crowned by unselfish love, is now established on its throne; man has become captain of his soul, and rules all the elements of his character and that character’s expression in life—not as an absolute monarch, but in the name of Divine Love.3131The Spiritual Marriage, lib. i. capp. xii.-xxiv. He has done all he can do of himself towards the conforming of his life to Supreme Perfection; has opposed, one after another, each of those exhibitions of the self’s tendency to curl inwards, to fence itself in and demand, absorb, enjoy as a separate entity, which lie at the root of sin. The constructive side of the Purgative Way has consisted in the replacement of this egoistic, indrawing energy by these outflowing energies of self-surrender, kindness, diligence and the rest; summed up in that perfection of humility and love, which “in all its works, and always, stretches out towards God.”

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The first three gifts of the Holy Spirit are possessed by the soul which has reached this point, says Ruysbroeck in The Kingdom of God’s Lovers: that loving Fear, which includes true humility with all its ancillary characteristics; that general attitude of charity which makes man gentle, patient and docile, ready to serve and pity every one, and is called Godliness, because there first emerges in it his potential likeness to God; and finally that Knowledge or discernment of right and prudent conduct which checks the disastrous tendency to moral fussiness, helps man to conform his life to supreme Perfection, and gives the calmness and balance which are essential to a sane and manly spirituality. Thus the new life-force has invaded and affected will, feeling and intellect; raised the whole man to fresh levels of existence, and made possible fresh correspondences with Reality. “Hereby are the three lower powers of the soul adorned with Divine virtues. The Irascible [i.e. volitional and dynamic] is adorned with loving and filial fear, humility, obedience and renunciation. The Desirous is adorned with kindness, pity, compassion and generosity. Finally, the Reasonable with knowledge and discernment, and that prudence which regulates all things.”3232The Kingdom of God’s Lovers, cap. xviii. The ideal of character held out and described under 111 varying metaphors in Ruysbroeck’s different works, is thus seen to be a perfectly consistent one.

Now when the growing self has actualised this ideal, and lives the Active Life of the faithful servant of Reality, it begins to feel an ardent desire for some more direct encounter with That which it loves. Since it has now acquired the ‘ornaments of the virtues’—cleansed its mirror, ordered its disordered loves—this encounter may and does in a certain sense take place; for every Godward movement of the human is met by a compensating movement of the Divine. Man now begins to find God in all things: in nature, in the soul, in works of charity. But in the turmoil and bustle of the Active Life such an encounter is at best indirect; a sidelong glimpse of the ‘first and only Fair.’ That vision can only be apprehended in its wholeness by a concentration of all the powers of the self. If we would look the Absolute in the eyes, we must look at nothing else; the complete opening of the eye of Eternity entails the closing of the eye of Time. Man, then, must abstract himself from multiplicity, if only for a moment, if he would catch sight of the unspeakable Simplicity of the Real. Longing to ‘know the nature of the Beloved,’ he must act as Zacchæus did when he wished to see Christ:

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“He must run before the crowd, that is to say the multiplicity of created things; for these make us so little and low that we cannot perceive God. And he must climb up on the Tree of Faith, which grows from above downwards, for its root is in the Godhead. This tree has twelve branches, which are the twelve articles of the Creed. The lower branches speak of the Humanity of God; ... the upper branches, however, speak of the Godhead: of the Trinity of Persons and the Unity of the Divine Nature. Man must cling to the Unity which is at the top of the tree, for it is here that Jesus will pass by with all His gifts. And now Jesus comes, and He sees man, and shows him in the light of faith that He is, according to His Divinity, unmeasured and incomprehensible, inaccessible and fathomless, and that He overpasses all created light and all finite comprehension. This is the highest knowledge of God which man can acquire in the Active Life: thus to recognise by the light of faith that God is inconceivable and unknowable. In this light God says to the desire of man: “Come down quickly, for I would dwell in your house to-day.” And this quick descent, to which God invites him, is nought else but a descent, by love and desire, into the Abyss of the Godhead, to which no intellect can attain by its created light. But here, where intellect must rest without, 113 love and desire may enter in. When the soul thus leans upon God by intention and love, above all that she understands, then she rests and dwells in God, and God in her. When the soul mounts up by desire, above the multiplicity of things, above the activities of the senses and above the light of external nature, then she encounters Christ by the light of faith, and is illuminated; and she recognises that God is unknowable and inconceivable. Finally, stretching by desire towards this incomprehensible God, she meets Christ and is fulfilled with His gifts. And loving and resting above all gifts, above herself and above all things, she dwells in God and God in her. According to this manner Christ may be encountered upon the summit of the Active Life.”3333The Spiritual Marriage, lib. i. cap. xxvi.

This, then, is the completion of the first stage in the mystic way; this showing to the purified consciousness of the helplessness of the analytic intellect, the dynamic power of self-surrendered love. “Where intellect must rest without, love and desire may enter in.” The human creature, turning towards Reality, has pressed up to the very edge of the ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ in which the goal of transcendence is hid. If it is to go further it must bring to the adventure not knowledge but divine ignorance, not riches 114 but poverty; above all, an eager and industrious love.

“A fiery flame of devotion leaping and ascending into the very goodness of God Himself,

A loving longing of the soul to be with God in His Eternity,

A turning from all things of self into the freedom of the Will of God;

With all the forces of the soul gathered into the unity of the spirit.”3434The Twelve Béguines, cap. vii.


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