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THE INTERIOR LIFE: UNION AND CONTEMPLATION
Lume è lassu, che visibile face
lo Creatore a quella creatura
che solo in lui vedere ha la sua pace.
Par, xxx. 100.
And the Light floweth forth in similitude, and indraweth Itself in unity; which we perceive, beyond the reason, in that high point of our understanding which is bare and turned within.
The Twelve Béguines.
The soul which has endured with courage and humility the anguish of the Dark Night, actualising within its own experience the double rhythm of love and renunciation, now enters upon a condition of equilibrium; in which it perceives that all its previous adventures and apprehensions were but episodes of growth, phases in the long preparation of character for those new levels of life on which it is now to dwell.
Three points, says Ruysbroeck, must characterise the truly interior man. First, 137 his mind must be detached from its natural inclination to rest in images and appearances, however lovely; and must depend altogether upon that naked Absence of Images, which is God. This is the ‘ascent to the Nought’ preached by the Areopagite. Secondly, by means of his spiritual exercises, his progressive efforts to correspond with that Divine Life ever experienced by him with greater intensity, he must have freed himself from all taint of selfhood, all personal desire; so that in true inward liberty he can lift himself up unhindered towards God, in a spirit of selfless devotion. Plainly, the desolations of the Dark Night are exactly adapted to the production within the self of these two characters; which we might call purity of intelligence and purity of will. Directly resulting from their actualisation, springs the third point: the consciousness of inward union with God.4949The Sparkling Stone, cap. ii. This consciousness of union, which we must carefully distinguish from the Unity that is Ruysbroeck’s name for the last state of the transfigured soul, is the ruling character of that state of equilibrium to which we have now come; and represents the full achievement of the Interior Life.
In many of his works, under various images, Ruysbroeck tries to tell us what he 138 means by this inward union with God, this ‘mutual inhabitation,’ as he calls it in one passage of great beauty, which is the goal of the ‘Second Life.’ He reminds us again of that remote point of the spirit, that ‘apex’ of our being, where our life touches the Divine Life; where God’s image ‘lives and reigns.’ With the cleansing of the heart and mind, the heightening and concentration of the will, which the disciplines of the Active Life and Dark Night have effected, this supreme point of the spirit is brought at last within the conscious field. Then man feels and knows the presence there of an intense and creative vitality, an Eternal Essence, from which all that is worth having in his selfhood flows. This is the Life-giving Life (Levende Leven), where the created and Uncreated meet and are one: a phrase, apparently taken by Ruysbroeck from St. Bernard, which aptly expresses an idea familiar to all the great contemplatives. It is the point at which man’s separate spirit, as it were, emerges from the Divine Spirit: the point through which he must at last return to his Source. Here the Father has impressed His image, the Son is perpetually born, the Spirit wells up;5050Cp. The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. lvii. and here the Divine Unity dwells and calls him to the One. Here Eternity and Time are intertwined. Here springs the 139 fountain of ‘Living Water’—grace, transcendent vitality—upon which the mystic life of man depends.
Now the self, because it is at last conformed to the demands of the spiritual world, feels new powers from this life-giving source streaming into all departments of its being. The last barriers of self-will are broken; and the result is an inrush of fresh energy and light. Whereas in the ‘First Life’ God fed and communed with him by ‘means,’ and was revealed under images appropriate to a consciousness still immersed in the world of appearance; now man receives these gifts and messages, makes his contacts with Reality, ‘without means,’ or ‘by grace’—i.e. in a spiritual and interior manner. Those ‘lightning flashes from the face of Divine Love,’ those abrupt and vivid intuitions which he enjoyed during illumination, have given way before the steady shining of the Uncreated Light. Though light-imagery is never long absent from Ruysbroeck’s pages, it is, however, the spring of Living Water ever welling up, the rills or brooks which flow from it, and take its substance to the farthest recesses of the thirsty land, which seems to him the best image of this new inpouring of life. He uses it in all his chief works, perhaps most successfully in The Spiritual Marriage. Faithful to the 140 mediæval division of personality into Memory or Mind, Intelligence or Understanding, and Will,—influenced too by his deep conviction that all Divine activity is threefold in type,—he describes the Well-spring as breaking into three Brooks of Grace, which pour their waters into each department of the self. The duct through which these waters come, ‘living and foaming’ from the deeps of the Divine Riches, is the Eternal Christ; who ‘comes anew’ to the purified soul, and is the immediate source of its power and happiness.
The first of the brooks which flow from Him is called ‘Pure Simplicity.’ It is a ‘simple light,’ says Ruysbroeck in another place; the white radiance of Eternity which, streaming into the mind, penetrates consciousness from top to bottom, and unifies the powers of the self about the new and higher centre now established. This simple light, in which we see things as they are—and therefore see that only one thing truly is—delivers us from that slavery to the multiplicity of things, which splits the attention and makes concentration upon Reality impossible to the soul. The achievement of such mental simplicity, escaping the prismatic illusion of the world, is the first condition of contemplation. “Thanks to this simple light which fills him, the man finds himself to be unified, established, 141 penetrated and affirmed in the unity of his mind or thought. And thereby he is uplifted and established in a new condition; and he turns inward upon himself, and stays his mind upon the Nudity, above all the pressure of sensual images, above all multiplicity.”5151The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xxxvi.
The second stream which pours out from that Transcendent Life is a ‘Spiritual Clarity,’ which illuminates the intelligence and shows it all good. This clarity is a new and heightened form of intuition: a lucid understanding, whereby the self achieves clear vision of its own life, and is able to contemplate the sublime richness of the Divine Nature; gazing upon the mystery of the Trinity, and finding everywhere the Presence of God. Those who possess this light do not need ecstasies and revelations—sudden uprushes towards the supernal world—for their life and being is established in that world, above the life of sense. They have come to that state which Eckhart calls ‘finding all creatures in God and God in all creatures.’ They see things at last in their native purity. The heart of that vision, says Ruysbroeck, is their perception of “the unmeasured loyalty of God to His creation”—one of his deepest and most beautiful utterances—“and therefrom springs a deep inward joy of the spirit, and 142 a high trust in God; and this inward joy embraces and penetrates all the powers of the soul, and the most secret part of the spirit.”5252The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xxxviii.
The third Brook of Grace irrigates the conative powers of the self; strengthens the will in all perfection, and energises us anew. “Like fire, this brook enkindles the will, and swallows up and absorbs all things in the unity of the spirit ... and now Christ speaks inwardly in the spirit by means of this burning brook, saying, ‘Go forth, in exercises proper to this gift and this coming.’ By the first brook, which is a Simple Light, the Mind is freed from the invasions of the senses, and grounded and affirmed in spiritual unity. And by the second brook, which is a Spreading Light, the Reason and Understanding are illuminated, that they may know and distinguish all manner of virtues and exercises, and the mysteries of Scripture. And by the third brook, which is an Infused Heat, the heights of the Will are enkindled with quiet love and adorned with great riches. And thus does man become spiritually illuminate; for the grace of God dwells like a fountain-head in the unity of his spirit, and the brooks cause a flowing forth of all virtues from the powers of the soul. And the fountain-head of grace demands a back-flowing 143 into that same ground from whence the flood has come.”5353The Spiritual Marriage, lib. ii. cap. xxxix.
So the Interior Life, now firmly established, is found to conform to those great laws which have guided the growing spirit from the first. Again, the dual property of love, possession and action, satisfaction and fecundity, is to be manifested upon new levels. The pendulum motion of life, swinging between the experience of union with God to which ‘the Divine Unity ever calls us,’ and its expression in active charity to which the multiplicity of His creatures and their needs ever entreat us, still goes on. The more richly and strongly the life-giving Life wells up within the self, the greater are the demands made upon that self’s industry and love. In the establishment of this balance, in this continual healthy act of alternation, this double movement into God and out to men, is the proof that the soul has really centred itself upon the spiritual world—is, as Ruysbroeck puts it, confirmed in love. “Thus do work and union perpetually renew themselves; and this renewal in work and in union, this is a spiritual life.”5454The Sparkling Stone, cap. ii.
Now the self which has achieved this degree of transcendence has achieved, too, considerable experience in that art of contemplation 144 or introversion which is the mode of its communion with God. Throughout, training and development have gone hand in hand; and the fact that Ruysbroeck seldom troubles to distinguish between them, but accepts them as two aspects of one thing—the gradual deification of the soul—constitutes one of the great obstacles to an understanding of his works. Often he describes the whole spiritual life as consisting in introversion, an entering of consciousness into the supersensuous regions beyond thought; in defiance of his own principle of active charity, movement, work, as the essential reaction to the universe which distinguishes a ‘deified’ man. The truth is that the two processes run side by side; and now one, now the other, is in the foreground of his thought. Therefore all that I shall now say of the contemplative art must be understood as describing acts and apprehensions taking place throughout the whole course of the Interior Life.
What, then, is introversion? It is one of the two great modes under which the spiritual consciousness works. Plainly, any living sense of God’s presence must discern that Circle whose centre is everywhere, as both exterior and interior to the self. In Ruysbroeck’s own works we find a violent effort to express this ineffable 145 fact of omnipresence, of a truly Transcendent yet truly Immanent Reality; an effort often involving a collision of imagery. God, he says, may be discovered at the soul’s apex, where He ‘eternally lives and reigns’; and the soul itself dwells in God, ebbing and flowing, wandering and returning, within that Fathomless Ground. Yet none the less He comes to that soul from without; pouring in upon it like sunshine, inundating it with torrents of grace, seizing the separate entity and devouring whilst He feeds it; flashing out upon it in a tempest of love from the Empyrean Heaven, the Abyss of Being, where He dwells. “Present, yet absent; near, yet far!” exclaims St. Augustine. “Thou art the sky, and Thou art the nest as well!” says the great mystic poet of our own day.
Whilst nearly all the mystics have possessed clear consciousness of this twofold revelation of the Divine Nature, and some have experienced by turns the ‘outward and upward’ rush and the inward retreat, temperamentally they usually lean towards one or other form of communion with God,—ecstasy or introversion. For one class, contact with Him seems primarily to involve an outgoing flight towards Transcendent Reality; an attitude of mind strongly marked in all contemplatives who are near to the Neoplatonic tradition—Plotinus, 146 St. Basil, St. Macarius—and also in Richard Rolle and a few other mediæval types. These would agree with Dionysius the Areopagite that “we must contemplate things divine by our whole selves standing out of our whole selves.” For the other class, the first necessity is a retreat of consciousness from the periphery, where it touches the world of appearance, to the centre, the Unity of Spirit or ‘Ground of the Soul,’ where human personality buds forth from the Essential World. True, this inturning of attention is but a preliminary to the self’s entrance upon that same Transcendent Region which the ecstatic claims that he touches in his upward flights. The introversive mystic, too, is destined to ‘sail the wild billows of the Sea Divine’; but here, in the deeps of his nature, he finds the door through which he must pass. Only by thus discovering the unity of his own nature can he give himself to that ‘tide of light’ which draws all things back to the One.
Such is Ruysbroeck’s view of contemplation. This being so, introversion is for him an essential part of man’s spiritual development. As the Son knows the Father, so it is the destiny of all spirits created in that Pattern to know Him; and the mirror which is able to reflect that Divine Light, the Simple Eye which alone 147 can bear to gaze on it, lies in the deeps of human personality. The will, usually harnessed to the surface-consciousness, devoted to the interests of temporal life; the love, so freely spent on unreal and imperfect objects of desire; the thought which busies itself on the ceaseless analysis and arrangement of passing things—all these are to be swept inwards to that gathering-point of personality, that Unity of the Spirit, of which he so often speaks; and there fused into a single state of enormously enhanced consciousness, which, withdrawn from all attention to the changeful world of ‘similitudes,’ is exposed to the direct action of the Eternal World of spiritual realities. The pull of Divine Love—the light that ever flows back into the One—is to withdraw the contemplative’s consciousness from multiplicity to unity. His progress in contemplation will be a progress towards that complete mono-ideism in which the Vision of God—and here vision is to be understood in its deepest sense as a totality of apprehension, a ‘ghostly sight’—dominates the field of consciousness to the exclusion, for the time of contemplation, of all else.
Psychologically, Ruysbroeck’s method differs little from that described by St. Teresa. It begins in recollection, the first drawing inwards of attention from the 148 world of sense; passes to meditation, the centring of attention on some intellectual formula or mystery of faith; and thence, by way of graduated states, variously divided and described in his different works, to contemplation proper, the apprehension of God ‘beyond and above reason.’ All attempts, however, to map out this process, or reduce it to a system, must necessarily have an arbitrary and symbolic character. True, we are bound to adopt some system, if we describe it at all; but the dangers and limitations of all formulas, all concrete imagery, where we are dealing with the fluid, living, changeful world of spirit, should never be absent from our minds. The bewildering and often inconsistent series of images and numbers, arrangements and rearrangements of ‘degrees,’ ‘states,’ ‘stirrings,’ and ‘gifts,’ in which Ruysbroeck’s sublime teachings on contemplation are buried, makes the choice of some one formula imperative for us; though none will reduce his doctrines to a logical series, for he is perpetually passing over from the dialectic to the lyrical mood, and forgets to be orderly as soon as he begins to be subjective. I choose, then, to base my classification on that great chapter (xix.) in The Seven Cloisters, where he distinguishes three stages of contemplation; finding in them the responses of consciousness to the 149 special action of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. These three stages in the soul’s apprehension of God, are: the Emotional, the Intellectual, the Intuitive. I think that most of the subtly distinguished interior experiences of the mystic, the ‘comings’ of the Divine Presence, the ‘stirrings’ and contacts which he describes in his various books, can be ranged under one or other of them.
1. First comes that loving contemplation of the ‘uplifted heart’ which is the work of the Holy Spirit, the consuming fire of Divine Love. This ardent love, invading the self, and satisfying it in that intimate experience of personal communion so often described in the writings of the mystics, represents the self’s first call to contemplation and first natural response; made with “so great a joy and delight of soul and body, in his uplifted heart, that the man knoweth not what hath befallen him, nor how he may endure it.” For Ruysbroeck this purely emotional reaction to Reality, this burning flame of devotion—which seemed to Richard Rolle the essence of the contemplative life—is but its initial phase. It corresponds with—and indeed generally accompanies—those fever-heats, those ‘tempests’ of impatient love endured by the soul at the height of the Illuminative Way. Love, it is true, shall be from first to last 150 the inspiring force of the contemplative’s ascents: his education is from one point of view simply an education in love. But this love is a passion of many degrees; and the ‘urgency felt in the heart,’ the restlessness and hunger of this spiritual feeling-state, is only its lowest form. The love which burns like white fire on the apex of the soul, longs for sacrifice, inspires heroic action, and goes forward without fear, ‘holy, strong and free,’ to brave the terrors of the Divine Dark, is of another temper than this joyful sentiment.
2. A loving stretching out into God, and an intellectual gazing upon Him, says Ruysbroeck, in a passage which I have already quoted, are the ‘two heavenly pipes’ in which the wind of the Spirit sings. So the next phase in the contemplative’s development is that enhancement of the intellect, the power of perceiving, as against desiring and loving Reality, which is the work of the Logos, the Divine Wisdom. As the cleansed and detached heart had been lifted up to feel the Transcendent; now the understanding, stripped of sense-images, purged of intellectual arrogance, clarified by grace, is lifted up to apprehend it. This degree has two phases. First, that enlargement of the understanding to an increased comprehension of truth, the finding of deeper and diviner meanings in things already 151 known, which Richard of St. Victor called mentis dilatatio. Next, that further uplift of the mind to a state in which it is able to contemplate things above itself whilst retaining clear self-consciousness, which he called mentis sublevatio. Ruysbroeck, however, inverts the order given by Richard; for him the uplift comes first, the dilation of consciousness follows from it. This is a characteristic instance of the way in which he uses the Victorine psychology; constantly appropriating its terms but never hesitating to modify, enrich or misuse them as his experience or opinions may dictate.
The first phase of Intellectual Contemplation, then, is a lifting of the mind to a swift and convincing vision of Reality: one of those sudden, incommunicable glimpses of Truth so often experienced early in the contemplative’s career. The veil parts, and he sees a “light and vision, which give to the contemplating spirit a conscious certitude that she sees God, so far as man may see Him in mortal life.”5555The Twelve Béguines, cap. xi. That strange mystical light of which all contemplatives speak, and which Ruysbroeck describes in a passage of great subtlety as ‘the intermediary between the seeing thought and God,’ now floods his consciousness. In it “the Spirit of the Father speaks in the uplifted thought which is bare and stripped of 152 images, saying, ‘Behold Me as I behold thee.’ Then the pure and single eyes are strengthened by the inpouring of that clear Light of the Father, and they behold His face, in a simple vision, beyond reason, and without reason.”5656Loc. cit.
It might be thought that in this ‘simple vision’ of Supreme Reality, the spirit of the contemplative reached its goal. It has, indeed, reached a point at which many a mystic stops short. I think, however, that a reference to St. Augustine, whose influence is so strongly marked in Ruysbroeck’s works, will show what he means by this phase of contemplation; and the characters which distinguish it from that infused or unitive communion with God which alone he calls Contemplatio. In the seventh book of his Confessions, Augustine describes just such an experience as this. By a study of the books of the Platonists he had learned the art of introversion, and achieved by its aid a fleeting ‘Intellectual Contemplation’ of God; in his own words, a “hurried vision of That which Is.” “Being by these books,” he says, “admonished to return into myself, I entered into the secret closet of my soul, guided by Thee ... and beheld the Light that never changes, above the eye of my soul, above the intelligence.”5757St. Augustine, Confessions, lib. vii. cap. x. It was 153 by “the withdrawal of thought from experience, its abstraction from the contradictory throng of sensuous images,” that he attained to this transitory apprehension; which he describes elsewhere as “the vision of the Land of Peace, but not the road thereto.” But intellect alone could not bear the direct impact of the terrible light of Reality; his “weak sight was dazzled by its splendour,” he “could not sustain his gaze,” and turned back to that humble discovery of the Divine Substance by means of Its images and attributes, which is proper to the intellectual power.5858St. Augustine, Confessions, lib. vii. capp. xvii. and xx.
Now surely this is the psychological situation described by Ruysbroeck. The very images used by Augustine are found again in him. The mind of the contemplative, purified, disciplined, deliberately abstracted from images, is inundated by the divine sunshine, “the Light which is not God, but that whereby we see Him”; and in this radiance achieves a hurried but convincing vision of Supreme Reality. But “even though the eagle, king of birds, can with his powerful sight gaze steadfastly upon the brightness of the sun; yet do the weaker eyes of the bat fail and falter in the same.”5959The Twelve Béguines, cap. xii. The intellectual vision is dazzled and distressed, like a man who can bear the diffused 154 radiance of sunshine but is blinded if he dares to follow back its beams to the terrible beauty of their source. “Not for this are my wings fitted,” says Dante, drooping to earth after his supreme ecstatic flight. Because it cannot sustain its gaze, then, the intelligence falls back upon the second phase of intellectual contemplation: Speculatio, the deep still brooding in which the soul, ‘made wise by the Spirit of Truth,’ contemplates God and Creation as He and it are reflected in the clear mirror of her intellectual powers, under ‘images and similitudes’—the Mysteries of Faith, the Attributes of the Divine Nature, the forms and manners of created things. As the Father contemplates all things in the Son, ‘Mirror of Deity,’ so now does the introverted soul contemplate Him in this ‘living mirror of her intelligence’ on which His sunshine falls. Because her swift vision of That which Is has taught her to distinguish between the ineffable Reality and the Appearance which shadows it forth, she can again discover Him under those images which once veiled, but now reveal His presence. The intellect which has apprehended God Transcendent, if only for a moment, has received therefrom the power of discerning God Immanent. “He shows Himself to the soul in the living mirror of her intelligence; not as He is in His nature, but in images and similitudes, 155 and in the degree in which the illuminated reason can grasp and understand Him. And the wise reason, enlightened of God, sees clearly and without error in images of the understanding all that she has heard of God, of faith, of truth, according to her longing. But that image which is God Himself, although it is held before her, she cannot comprehend; for the eyes of her understanding must fail before that Incomparable Light.”6060Loc. cit.
In The Kingdom of God’s Lovers Ruysbroeck pours forth a marvellous list of the attributes under which the illuminated intelligence now contemplates and worships That Which she can never comprehend; that “Simple One in whom all multitude and all that multiplies, finds its beginning and its end.” From this simple Being of the Godhead the illuminated reason abstracts those images and attributes with which it can deal, as the lower reason abstracts from the temporal flux the materials of our normal universe. Such a loving consideration of God under His attributes is the essence of meditation: and meditation is in fact the way in which the intellectual faculties can best contemplate Reality. But “because all things, when they are considered in their inwardness, have their beginning and their ending in the Infinite 156 Being as in an Abyss,” here again the contemplative is soon led above himself and beyond himself, to a point at which intellect and ‘consideration’—i.e. formal thought—fail him; because “here we touch the Simple Nature of God.” When intellectual contemplation has brought the self to this point, it has done its work; for it has “excited in the soul an eager desire to lift itself up by contemplation into the simplicity of the Light, that thereby its avid desire of infinite fruition may be satisfied and fulfilled”;6161The Kingdom of God’s Lovers, cap. xxxiv. i.e. it has performed the true office of meditation, induced a shifting of consciousness to higher levels.
We observe that the emphasis, which in the First Degree of Contemplation fell wholly on feeling, in the Second Degree falls wholly upon knowledge. We are not, however, to suppose from this that emotion has been left behind. As the virtues and energies of the Active Life continue in the Contemplative Life, so the ‘burning love’ which distinguished the first stage of communion with the Transcendent, is throughout the source of that energy which presses the self on to deeper and closer correspondences with Reality. Its presence is presupposed in all that is said concerning the development of the spiritual consciousness. Nevertheless Ruysbroeck, though he cannot be 157 accused of intellectualism, is led by his admiration for Victorine ideas to lay great stress upon the mental side of contemplation, as against those emotional reactions to the Transcendent which are emphasised—almost to excess—by so many of the saints. His aim was the lifting of the whole man to Eternal levels: and the clarifying of the intelligence, the enhancement of the understanding, seemed to him a proper part of the deification of human nature, the bringing forth in the soul’s ground of that Son who is the Wisdom of God as well as the Pattern of Man. Though he moves amongst deep mysteries, and in regions beyond the span of ordinary minds, there is always apparent in him an effort towards lucidity of expression, sharp definition, plain speech. Sometimes he is wild and ecstatic, pouring forth his vision in a strange poetry which is at once uncouth and sublime; but he is never woolly or confused. His prose passages owe much of their seeming difficulty to the passion for exactitude which distinguishes and classifies the subtlest movements of the spiritual atmosphere, the delicately graded responses of the soul.
3. Now the Third Degree of Contemplation lifts the whole consciousness to a plane of perception which transcends the categories of the intellect: where it deals no longer with the label but with the Thing. 158 It has passed beyond image and also beyond thought; to that knowledge by contact which is the essence of intuition, and is brought about by the higher powers of love. Such contemplation is regarded by Ruysbroeck as the work of the Father, “Who strips from the mind all forms and images and lifts up the Naked Apprehension [i.e. intuition] into its Origin, that is Himself.”6262The Seven Cloisters, cap. xix. It is effected by concentration of all the powers of the self into a single state ‘uplifted above all action, in a bare understanding and love,’ upon that apex of the soul where no reason can ever attain, and where the ‘simple eye’ is ever open towards God. There the loving soul apprehends Him, not under conditions, ‘in some wise,’ but as a whole, without the discrete analysis of His properties which was the special character of intellectual contemplation; a synthetic experience which is ‘in no wise.’ This is for Ruysbroeck the contemplative act par excellence. It is ‘an intimacy which is ignorance,’ a ‘simple seeing,’ he says again and again; “and the name thereof is Contemplatio; that is, the seeing of God in simplicity.”6363The Twelve Béguines, cap. xii.
“Here the reason no less than all separate acts must give way, for our powers become simple in Love; they are silent 159 and bowed down in the Presence of the Father. And this revelation of the Father lifts the soul above the reason into the Imageless Nudity. There the soul is simple, pure, spotless, empty of all things; and it is in this state of perfect emptiness that the Father manifests His Divine radiance. To this radiance neither reason nor sense, observation nor distinction, can attain. All this must stay below; for the measureless radiance blinds the eyes of the reason, they cannot bear the Incomprehensible Light. But above the reason, in the most secret part of the understanding, the simple eye is ever open. It contemplates and gazes at the Light with a pure sight that is lit by the Light itself: eye to eye, mirror to mirror, image to image. This threefold act makes us like God, and unites us to Him; for the sight of the simple eye is a living mirror, which God has made for His image, and whereon He has impressed it.”6464The Mirror of Eternal Salvation, cap. xvii.
Intuitive or infused contemplation is the form of communion with the Transcendent proper to those who have grown up to the state of Union; and feel and know the presence of God within the soul, as a love, a life, an ‘indrawing attraction,’ calling and enticing all things to the still unachieved consummation of the Divine Unity. He who has reached this pitch of introversion, 160 and is able, in his spiritual exercises, to withdraw himself thus to the most secret part of his spirit, feels—within the Eternal Light which fills his mirror and is ‘united with it,’—this perpetual demand of the Divine Unity, entreating and urging him towards a total self-loss. In the fact that he knows this demand and impulsion as other than himself, we find the mark which separates this, the highest contemplation proper to the Life of Union, from that ‘fruitive contemplation’ of the spirit which has died into God which belongs to the Life of Unity.6565The Sparkling Stone, cap. iii. When the work of transmutation is finished and he has received the ‘Sparkling Stone of Divine Humanity,’ this subject-object distinction—though really an eternal one, as Ruysbroeck continually reminds us—will no longer be possible to his consciousness. Then he will live at those levels to which he now makes impassioned ascents in his hours of unitive prayer: will be immersed in the Beatific Vision on which he now looks, and ‘lose himself in the Imageless Nudity.’
This is the clue to the puzzling distinction made by Ruysbroeck between the contemplation which is ‘without conditions,’ and that which is ‘beyond and above conditions’ and belongs to the Superessential Life alone. In Intuitive Contemplation the 161 seeing self apprehends the Unconditioned World, Onwise, and makes ‘loving ascents thereto.’ It ‘finds within itself the unwalled’; yet is still anchored to the conditioned sphere. In Superessential Contemplation, it dies into that ‘world which is in no wise.’ In the great chapter of The Sparkling Stone6666Cap. viii.: ‘Of the Difference between the Secret Friends and the Hidden Sons of God.’ where he struggles to make this distinction clear, Ruysbroeck says that the Friends of God (i.e. the Interior Men) “cannot with themselves and all their works penetrate to that Imageless Nudity.” Although they feel united with God, yet they feel in that union an otherness and difference between themselves and God; and therefore “the ascent into the Nought is unknown to them.” They feel themselves carried up towards God in the tide of His all-subduing Fire of Love; but they retain their selfhood, and may not be consumed and burned to nothing in the Unity of Love. They do not yet desire to die into God, that they may receive a deiform life from Him; but they are in the way which leads to this fulfilment of their destiny, and are “following back the light to its Origin.”
This following-back is one continuous process, in which we, for convenience of description, have made artificial breaks. 162 It is the thrust of consciousness deeper and deeper into the heart of Reality. As in the stream of physical duration, so in this ceaseless movement of the spirit, there is a persistence of the past in the present, a carrying through and merging of one state in the next. Thus the contemplation which is ‘wayless,’ the self’s intuitive communion with the Infinite Life and Light, growing in depth and richness, bridges the gap which separates the Interior and the Superessential Life.
We find in Ruysbroeck’s works indications of a transitional state, in which the soul “is guided and lost, wanders and returns, ebbs and flows,” within the ‘limitless Nudity,’ to which it has not yet wholly surrendered itself. “And its seeing is in no wise, being without manner, and it is neither thus nor thus, neither here nor there; for that which is in no wise hath enveloped all, and the vision is made high and wide. It knows not itself where That is which it sees; and it cannot come thereto, for its seeing is in no wise, and passes on, beyond, for ever, and without return. That which it apprehends it cannot realise in full, nor wholly attain, for its apprehension is wayless, and without manner, and therefore it is apprehended of God in a higher way than it can apprehend Him. Behold! such a following of the Way that 163 is Wayless, is intermediary between contemplation in images and similitudes of the intellect, and unveiled contemplation beyond all images in the Light of God.”6767The Twelve Béguines, cap. xii.
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