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Let whoso thirsts to see his God cleanse his mirror, purge his spirit; and when thus he has cleansed his mirror, and long and diligently gazed in it, a certain brightness of divine light begins to shine through upon him, and a certain immense ray of unwonted vision to appear before his eyes.... From the beholding of this light, which it sees within itself with amazement, the mind is mightily set on fire, and lifted up to behold that Light which is above itself.

Richard of St. Victor.

It is plain that the Active Life in Ruysbroeck’s system answers more or less to the Purgative Way, considered upon its affirmative and constructive side, as a building up of the heroic Christian character. So, too, the life which he calls Interior or Contemplative, and which initiates man into the friendship of God, corresponds in the main with the Illuminative Way of orthodox mysticism; though it includes in its later stages much that is usually held to belong to the third, or Unitive, 116 state of the soul. The first life has, as it were, unfolded to the sunlight the outer petals of the mystic rose; exhibiting in their full beauty, adjusting to their true use, the normally-apparent constituents of man’s personality. All his relations with the given world of sense, the sphere of Becoming, have been purified and adjusted. Now the expansive and educative influence of the Divine Light is able to penetrate nearer to the heart of his personality; is brought to bear upon those interior qualities which he hardly knows himself to possess, and which govern his relation with the spiritual world of Being. The flower is to open more widely; the inner ring of petals must uncurl.

As the primary interest of the Active Life was ethical purification, so the primary interest of this Second Life is intellectual purification. Intellect, however, is here to be understood in its highest sense; as including not only the analytic reason which deals with the problems of our normal universe, but that higher intelligence, that contemplative mind, which—once it is awakened to consciousness—can gather news of the transcendental world. The development and clarification of this power is only possible to those who have achieved, and continue to live at full stretch, the high, arduous and unselfish life of Christian 117 virtue. Again we must remind ourselves that Ruysbroeck’s theory of transcendence involves, not the passage from one life to another, but the adding of one life to another: the perpetual deepening, widening, heightening and enriching of human experience. As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing insists that none can be truly contemplative who is not also active, so Ruysbroeck says that no man ever rises above the ordinary obligations of Christian kindness and active good works.

“We find nowadays many silly men who would be so interior and so detached, that they will not be active or helpful in any way of which their neighbours are in need. Know, such men are neither hidden friends nor yet true servants of God, but are wholly false and disloyal; for none can follow His counsels but those who obey His laws.”3535The Sparkling Stone, cap. vii.

Nevertheless it would be generally true to say that, whilst the aim of the Active Life is right conduct, the aim of the Interior Life is right vision and thought. As, in that first life, all the perversions of man’s ordinary powers and passions were rectified, all that was superfluous and unreal done away, and his nature set right with God; now—still holding and living in its fulness this purified active life—he is to press deeper and deeper into the resources of 118 his being, finding there other powers and cravings which must be brought within the field of consciousness, and set up those relations with the Transcendent of which they are capable. This deepening and enlarging of man’s universe, together with the further and more drastic discarding of illusions and unrealities, is the business of the Second Life, considered on its impersonal side.

“If thou dost desire to unfold in thyself the Contemplative Life, thou must enter within, beyond the sense-life; and, on that apex of thy being, adorned with all the virtues of which I have spoken, looking unto God with gratitude and love and continual reverence, thou must keep thy thoughts bare, and stripped of every sensible image, thine understanding open and lifted up to the Eternal Truth, and thy spirit spread out in the sight of God as a living mirror to receive His everlasting likeness. Behold, therein appears a light of the understanding, which neither sense, reason, nature, nor the clearest logic can apprehend, but which gives us freedom and confidence towards God. It is nobler and higher than all that God has created in nature; for it is the perfection of nature, and transcends nature, and is the clear-shining intermediary between ourselves and God. Our thoughts, bare and stripped of images, are themselves 119 the living mirror in which this light shines: and the light requires of us that we should be like to and one with God, in this living mirror of our bare thoughts.”3636The Twelve Béguines, cap. ix.

In this strongly Victorine passage, the whole process of the Second Life is epitomised; but in The Spiritual Marriage, where its description occupies the seventy-three chapters of the second book, we see how long is the way which stretches from that first ‘entering in beyond the sense life’ to the point at which the soul’s mirror is able to receive in its fullness that Light wherein alone it can apprehend Reality.

Considered upon its organic side, as a growth and movement of the soul, this Way, as conceived, and probably experienced, by Ruysbroeck, can be divided into three great phases. We might call these Action, Reaction and Equilibrium. Broadly speaking, they answer to the Illumination, Dark Night and Simple Union of orthodox mystical science. Yet since in his vivid description of these linked states he constantly departs from the formulæ of his predecessors, and as constantly illustrates their statements by intimate and homely touches only possible to one who has endured the adventures of which he tells, we are justified in claiming the description as the fruit of experience rather than of tradition; 120 and as evidence of the course taken by his own development.

It is surely upon his own memory that he is relying, when he tells us that the beginning of this new life possesses something of the abrupt character of a second conversion. It happens, he says, when we least expect it; when the self, after the long tension and struggle of moral purgation, has become drowsy and tired. Then, suddenly, “a spiritual cry echoes through the soul,” announcing a new encounter with Reality, and demanding a new response; or, to put it in another way, consciousness on its ascending spiral has pushed through to another level of existence, where it can hear voices and discern visions to which it was deaf and blind before. This sudden clarity of mind, this new vivid apprehension of Divine Love, is the first indication of man’s entrance on the Illuminative Way. It is introversive rather than out-going in type. Changing the character of our attention to life, we discern within us something which we have always possessed and always ignored: a secret Divine energy, which is now to emerge from the subconscious deeps into the area of consciousness. There it stimulates the will, evicts all lesser images and interests from the heart, and concentrates all the faculties into a single and intense state, 121 pressing towards the Unity of God, the synthetic experience of love; for perpetual movement towards that unity—not achievement of it—is the mark of this Second Life, in which the separation of God and the soul remains intact. In Victorine language, it is the period of spiritual betrothal, not of spiritual marriage; of a vision which, though wide, rich and wonderful, is mirrored rather than direct.

The new God-inspired movement, then, begins within, like a spring bubbling from the deeps; and thrusts up and out to the consciousness which it is destined to clarify and enhance. “The stream of Divine grace swiftly stirs and moves a man inwardly, and from within outwards; and this swift stirring is the first thing that makes us see. Of this swift stirring is born from the side of man the second point: that is, a gathering together of all the inward and outward powers in spiritual unity and in the bonds of love. The third is that liberty which enables man to retreat into himself, without images or obstacles, whensoever he wills and thinks of his God.”3737The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. iv.

So we may say that an enhancement of the conative powers, a greater control over the attention, are the chief marks of the Illuminative Way as perceived by the growing self. But the liberty here spoken of has 122 a moral as well as a mental aspect. It is a freeing of the whole man from the fetters of illusion, and involves that perfect detachment of heart, that self-naughting, which makes him equally willing to have joy or pain, gain or loss, esteem or contempt, peace or fear, as the Divine Will may ordain. Thus is perfected that suppleness of soul which he began to acquire in the Active Life: a gradual process, which needs for its accomplishment the negative rhythm of renunciation, testing the manliness and courage of the self, as well as the positive movement of love. Hence the Contemplative Life, as Ruysbroeck knows and describes it, has, and must have, its state of pain as well as its state of joy. With him, however, as with nearly all the mystics, the state of joy comes first: the glad and eager reaction to those new levels of spiritual reality disclosed to consciousness when the struggles and readjustments of the Active Life have done their work. This is the phase in the self’s progress which mystical writers properly mean by Illumination: a condition of great happiness, and of an intuition of Reality so vivid and joyous, that the soul often supposes that she has here reached the goal of her quest. It is in the spiritual year, says Ruysbroeck, that which the month of May is in the seasons of the earth: a wholesome and necessary time 123 of sunshine, swift growth and abundant flowers, when the soul, under the influence of ‘the soft rain of inward consolations and the heavenly dew of the Divine sweetness’ blossoms in new and lovely graces.

Illumination is an unstable period. The sun is rising swiftly in the heaven of man’s consciousness; and as it increases in power, so it calls forth on the soul’s part greater ardours, more intense emotional reactions. Once more the flux of God is demanding its reflux. The soul, like the growing boy suddenly made aware of the beauty, romance and wonder—the intense and irresistible appeal—of a world that had seemed ordinary before, flows out towards this new universe with all the enthusiasm and eagerness of its young fresh powers. Those powers are so new to it, that it cannot yet control or understand them. Vigorous and ungovernable, they invade by turns the heart, the will, the mind, as do the fevers and joys of physical adolescence; inciting to acts and satisfactions for which the whole self is hardly ready yet. “Then is thrown wide,” says Ruysbroeck, “the heaven which was shut, and from the face of Divine Love there blazes down a sudden light, as it were a lightning flash.” In the meeting of this inward and outward spiritual force—the Divine Light without, the growing Divine Spark within—there is great 124 joy. Ecstasy, and that state of musical rapture, exceeding the possibilities of speech, which Ruysbroeck like Richard Rolle calls ‘ghostly song,’ are the natural self-expressions of the soul in this moment of its career.3838Cf. The Twelve Béguines, cap. x.

In more than one book we find references to this ecstatic period: a period so strongly marked in his own case, that it became for him—though he was under no illusions as to its permanent value—one of the landmarks in man’s journey to his home. Looking back on it in later life, he sees in it two great phases, of which the earlier and lower at any rate is dangerous and easily misunderstood; and is concerned to warn those who come after him of its transitory and imperfect character. The first phase is that of ‘spiritual inebriation,’ in which the fever, excitement and unrest of this period of growth and change—affecting as they do every aspect of personality—show themselves in the psycho-physical phenomena which are well-known accompaniments of religious emotion in selves of a certain temperament. This spiritual delirium, which appears to have been a common phase in the mystical revivals of the fourteenth century, is viewed by Ruysbroeck with considerable distrust; and rightly attributed by him to an excitement 125 of the senses rather than of the soul. At best it is but ‘children’s food,’ given to those who cannot yet digest ‘the strong food of temptation and the loss of God.’ Its manifestations, as he describes them, overpass the limits not merely of common sense but also of sanity; and are clearly related to the frenzies of revivalists and the wild outbreaks of songs, dance and ecstatic speech observed in nearly all non-Christian religions of an enthusiastic type. In this state of rapture, “a man seems like a drunkard, no longer master of himself.” He sings, shouts, laughs and cries both at once, runs and leaps in the air, claps his hands, and indulges in absurdly exaggerated gestures ‘with many other disagreeable exhibitions.’3939The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xix.; The Book of Truth, cap. ix. These he may not be able to help; but is advised to control them as soon as he can, passing from the merely sensuous emotion which results when the light of Eternal Love invades the ‘inferior powers’ of the soul, to the spiritual emotion, amenable to reason, which is the reaction of the ‘higher powers’ of the self to that same overwhelming influx of grace.

That inpouring grace grows swiftly in power, as the strength of the sun grows with the passing of the year. The Presence of God now stands over the soul’s supreme 126 summits, in the zenith: the transcendent fact of the illuminated consciousness. His power and love shine perpetually upon the heart, ‘giving more than we can take, demanding more than we can pay’; and inducing in the soul upon which this mighty energy is playing, a strange unrest, part anguish and part joy. This is the second phase of the ecstatic period, and gives rise to that which Ruysbroeck, and after him Tauler, have called the ‘storm of love’: a wild longing for union which stretches to the utmost the self’s powers of response, and expresses itself in violent efforts, impassioned ascents towards the Spirit that cries without ceasing to our spirit: “Pay your debt! Love the Love that has loved you from Eternity.”4040The Seven Degrees of Love, cap. xiv.

Now the vigorous soul begins to find within itself the gift of Spiritual Strength; that enthusiastic energy which is one of the characters of all true love. This is the third of the ‘Seven Gifts of the Spirit,’ and the first to be actualised in the Illuminated Life.4141The Kingdom of God’s Lovers, cap. xx. From this strong and ardent passion for the Transcendent, adoration and prayer stream forth; and these again react upon the self, forming the fuel of the fire of love. The interior invitation of God, His attractive power, His delicate yet inexorable 127 caress, is to the loving heart the most pure delight that it has ever known. It responds by passionate movements of adoration and gratitude, opening its petals wide to the beams of the Eternal Sun.

This is the joy; and close behind it comes the anguish, ‘sweetest and heaviest of all pains.’ It is the sense of unsatisfied desire—the pain of love—which comes from the enduring consciousness of a gulf fixed between the self and That with which it desires to unite. “Of this inward demand and compulsion, which makes the creature to rise up and prepare itself to the utmost of its power, without yet being able to reach or attain the Unity—of this, there springs a spiritual pain. When the heart’s core, the very source of life, is wounded by love, and man cannot attain that thing which he desires above else; when he must stay ever where he desires no more to be, of these feelings comes this pain.... When man cannot achieve God, and yet neither can nor will do without Him; in such men there arises a furious agitation and impatience, both within and without. And whilst man is in this tumult, no creature in heaven or earth can help him or give him rest.”4242The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xxiii.

The sensible heat of love is felt with a greater violence now than at any other period 128 of life; the rays of the Spiritual Sun strike the soul with terrific force, ripening the fruits of the virtues, yet bringing danger to the health, both mental and physical, of those who are not properly prepared, and who faint under the exhaustion of this ‘intense fury of Divine Love,’ this onslaught which ‘eats up the heart.’ These are ‘the dog-days of the spiritual year.’ As all nature languishes under their stifling heat, so too long an exposure to their violence may mean ruin to the physical health of the growing self. Yet those who behave with prudence need not take permanent harm; a kind of wise steadfastness will support them throughout this turbulent period. “Following through all storms the path of love, they will advance towards that place whither love leadeth them.”4343Op. cit., lib. ii. cap. xxvii.

To this period of vivid illumination and emotional unrest belongs the development of those ‘secondary automatisms’ familiar to all students of mysticism: the desperate efforts of the mind to work up into some intelligible shape—some pictured vision or some spoken word—the overwhelming intuitions of the Transcendent by which it is possessed; the abrupt suspension of the surface-consciousness in rapture and ecstasy, when that overwhelming intuition develops into the complete mono-ideism of the ecstatic, 129 and cuts off all contacts with the world of sense. Of these phenomena Ruysbroeck speaks with intimacy, and also with much common sense. He distinguishes visions into those pictures or material images which are ‘seen in the imagination,’ and those so-called ‘intellectual visions,’—of which the works of Angela of Foligno and St. Teresa provide so rich a series of examples,—which are really direct and imageless messages from the Transcendent; received in those supersensuous regions where man has contact with the Incomprehensible Good and “seeing and hearing are one thing.” To this conventional classification he adds a passage which must surely be descriptive of his own experiences in this kind:

“Sometimes God gives to such men swift spiritual glimpses, like to the flash of lightning in the sky. It comes like a sudden flash of strange light, streaming forth from the Simple Nudity. By this is the spirit uplifted for an instant above itself; and at once the light passes, and the man again comes to himself. This is God’s own work, and it is something most august; for often those who experience it afterwards become illuminated men. And those who live in the violence and fervour of love have now and then another manner, whereby a certain light shines in them; and this God works 130 by means. In this light, the heart and the desirous powers are uplifted toward the Light; and in this encounter the joy and satisfaction are such that the heart cannot contain itself, but breaks out in loud cries of joy. And this is called jubilus or jubilation; and it is a joy that cannot be expressed in words.”4444The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xxiv.

Here the parallel with Richard Rolle’s ‘ghostly song, with great voice outbreaking’ will strike every reader of that most musical of the mystics; and it is probable that in both cases the prominence given to this rather uncommon form of spiritual rapture points back to personal experience. “Methinketh,” says Rolle, “that contemplation is this heavenly song of the Love of God, which is called jubilus, taken of the sweetness of a soul by praising of God. This song is the end of perfect prayer, and of the highest devotion that may be here. This gladness of soul is had of God, and it breaketh out in a ghostly voice well-sounding.”4545Richard Rolle; The Mending of Life, cap. xii. (Harford’s edition, p. 82).

This exultant and lyrical mood then, this adoring rapture, which only the rhythm of music can express, is the emotional reaction which indicates the high summer of the soul. It will be seen that each phase 131 of its seasonal progress has been marked by a fresh inflow of grace and gifts, a fresh demand upon its power of response. The tension never slackens; the need for industry is never done away. The gift of Strength, by which the self presses forward, has now been reinforced by the gift of Counsel, i.e. by the growth and deepening of that intuition which is its medium of contact with the spiritual world. The Counsel of the Spirit, says Ruysbroeck, is like a stirring or inspiration, deep within the soul. This stirring, this fresh uprush of energy, is really a ‘new birth’ of the Son, the Divine Wisdom; lighting up the intelligence so that it perceives its destiny, and perceives too that the communion it now enjoys is but an image of the Divine Union which awaits it.4646The Kingdom of God’s Lovers, cap. xxv. God is counselling the soul with an inward secret insistence to rush out towards Him, stimulating her hunger for Reality; or, to put it otherwise, the Divine Spark is growing swiftly, and pressing hard against the walls of its home. Therefore the culmination of this gift, and the culmination too of the illuminated consciousness, brings to the soul a certitude that she must still press on and out; that nothing less than God Himself can suffice her, or match the mysterious Thing which dwells in her deeps.


Now this way of love and ecstasy and summer heats has been attended throughout by grave dangers for the adolescent spirit; above all by the primary danger which besets the mystical life, of mistaking spiritual joy for spiritual reality, desiring ‘consolations’ and ‘illuminations’ for their own sake, and resting in the gift instead of the Giver. “Though he who dedicates himself to love ever experiences great joy, he must never seek this joy.” All those tendencies grouped by St. John of the Cross under the disagreeable name of ‘spiritual gluttony,’ those further temptations to self-indulgent quietism which are but an insidious form of sloth, are waiting to entrap the self on the Illuminative Way. But there is a way beyond this, another ‘Coming of the Bridegroom,’ which Ruysbroeck describes as ‘eternally safe and sure.’ This is the way of pain and deprivation; when the Presence of God seems to be withdrawn, and the fatigue and reaction consequent on the violent passions and energies of the illuminated state make themselves felt as a condition of misery, aridity and impotence,—all, in fact, that the Christian mystics mean by the ‘Spiritual Death’ or ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ and which Ruysbroeck’s contemporaries, the Friends of God, called ‘the upper school of perfect self-abandonment.’


The mirror is now to be cleansed of all false reflections, all beautiful prismatic light; the thoughts stripped bare of the consolations they have enjoyed. Summer is over, and autumn begins; when the flowers indeed die down, but the fruits which they heralded are ripe. Now is the time when man can prove the stuff of which he is made; and the religious amorist, the false mystic, is distinguished from the heroic and long-suffering servant of God. “In this season is perfected and completed all the work that the sun has accomplished during the year. In the same manner, when Christ the glorious Sun has risen to His zenith in the heart of man and then begins to descend, and to hide the radiance of His Divine light, and to abandon the man; then the impatience and ardour of love grow less. And this concealment of Christ, and this withdrawal of His light and heat, are the first working and the new coming of this degree. And now Christ says spiritually within the man: ‘Go forth, in the way which I now teach you.’ And the man goes forth, and finds himself poor, wretched and abandoned. And here the tempest, the ardour, the impatience of love grows cold; and the hot summer becomes autumn, and its riches turn to great poverty. Then man begins to lament in his distress—where now has gone that 134 ardent love, that intimacy, that gratitude, that all-sufficing adoration? And that interior consolation, that intimate joy, that sensible savour, how has he lost all this?”4747The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xxviii.

The veil that had seemed so transparent now thickens again; the certitudes that made life lovely all depart. Small wonder if the tortured spirit of the mystic fails to recognise this awful destitution as a renewed caress from the all-demanding Lover of the Soul; an education in courage, humility and selflessness; a last purification of the will. The state to which that self is being led is a renewed self-donation on new and higher levels: one more of those mystical deaths which are really mystical births; a giving-up, not merely of those natural tastes and desires which were disciplined in the Active Life, but of the higher passions and satisfactions of the spirit too. He is to be led to a state of such complete surrender to the Divine purposes that he is able to say: “Lord, not my will according to nature, but Thy will and my will according to spirit be done.” The darkness, sorrow and abandonment through which this is accomplished are far more essential to his development than the sunshine and happiness that went before. It is not necessary, says Ruysbroeck, that all should know the ecstasies of illumination; but by this dark 135 stairway every man who would attain to God must go.

When man has achieved this perfect resignation and all tendency to spiritual self-seeking is dead, the September of the soul is come. The sun has entered the sign of the Balance, when days and nights are equal; for now the surrendered self has achieved equilibrium, and endures in peace and steadfastness the alternations of the Divine Dark and Divine Light. Now the harvest and the vintage are ripe: “That is to say, all those inward and outward virtues, which man has practised with delight in the fire of love, these, now that he knows them and is able to accomplish them, he shall practise diligently and dutifully and offer them to God. And never were they so precious in His sight: never so noble and so fair. And all those consolations which God gave him before, he will gladly give up, and will empty himself for the glory of God. This is the harvest of the wheat and the many ripe fruits which make us rich in God, and give to us Eternal Life. Thus are the virtues perfected; and the absence of consolation is turned to an eternal wine.”4848The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xxix.

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