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THE SUPERESSENTIAL LIFE
If, therefore, thou art become the throne of God and the Heavenly Charioteer hath seated Himself within thee, and thy soul is wholly become a spiritual eye and is wholly made into light; if, too, thou art nourished with the heavenly food of that Spirit and hast drunk of the Living Water and put on the secret vesture of light—if thine inward man has experienced all these things and is established in abundant faith, lo! thou livest indeed the Eternal Life and thy soul rests even in this present time with the Lord.
St. Macarius of Egypt.
We have seen that Ruysbroeck, in common with a few other supreme mystics, declares to us as veritably known and experienced by him, a universe of three orders—Becoming, Being, God—and further, three ways of life whereby the self can correspond to these three orders, and which he calls the life of nature, the life of grace, the life of glory. ‘Glory,’ which has been degraded by the usage of popular piety into a vague superlative, and finally left in the hands of hymn-writers and religious revivalists, is one of the most ancient 165 technical terms of Christian mysticism. Of Scriptural origin, from the fourth century to the fifteenth it was used to denote a definite kind of enhanced life, a final achievement of Reality—the unmediated radiance of God—which the gift of ‘divine sonship’ made possible to the soul. In the life of grace, that soul transcends conditions in virtue of a Divine vitality poured in from the Absolute Sphere, and actualises its true being, (Wesen); in the life of glory, it becomes a denizen of that sphere, and achieves an existence that is ‘more than being’ (Overwesen). The note of the first state is contemplation, awareness; the note of the second is fruition, possession.
That power of making ‘swift and loving ascents’ to the plane of Onwise to which man attained at the end of the Interior Life, that conscious harmony with the Divine Will which then became the controlling factor of his active career, cannot be the end of the process of transcendence. The soul now hungers and thirsts for a more intense Reality, a closer contact with ‘Him who is measureless’; a deeper and deeper penetration into the burning heart of the universe. Though contemplation seems to have reached its term, love goes on, to ‘lose itself upon the heights.’ Beyond both the conditioned and unconditioned world, beyond the Trinity Itself, that love 166 discerns its ultimate objective—the very Godhead, the Divine Unity, “where all lines find their end”; where “we are satisfied and overflowing, and with Him beyond ourselves eternally fulfilled.”6868The Twelve Béguines, cap. xvi. The abiding life which is there discoverable, is not only ‘without manner’ but ‘above manner’—the ‘deified life,’ indescribable save by the oblique methods of music or poetry, wherein, in Maeterlinck’s great phrase, “the psychology of man mingles with the psychology of God.” All Ruysbroeck’s most wonderful passages are concerned with the desperate attempt to tell us of this ‘life,’ this utter fruition of Reality: which seems at one time to involve for the contemplative consciousness a self-mergence in Deity, so complete as to give colour to that charge of pantheism which is inevitably flung at all mystics who try to tell what they have known; at others, to represent rather the perfect consummation of that ‘union in separateness’ which is characteristic of all true love.
This is but one instance of that perpetual and inevitable resort to paradox which torments all who try to follow him along this ‘track without shadow of trace’; for the goal towards which he is now enticing us is one in which all the completing opposites of our fragmentary experience find their 167 bourne. Hence the rapid alternation of spatial and personal symbols which confuses our industrious intellects, is the one means whereby he can suggest its actuality to our hungry hearts.
As we observed in Ruysbroeck’s earlier teaching on contemplation three distinct forms, in which the special work that theology attributes to the three Divine Persons seemed to him to be reflected; now, in this Superessential Contemplation, or Fruition, we find the work of the Absolute Godhead Itself, energising upon a plane of intensity which so utterly transcends our power of apprehension, that it seems to the surface consciousness—as Dionysius the Areopagite had named it—a negation of all things, a Divine Dark.
This Fruition, says Ruysbroeck, “is wild and desolate as a desert, and therein is to be found no way, no road, no track, no retreat, no measure, no beginning, no end, nor any other thing that can be told in words. And this is for all of us Simple Blessedness, the Essence of God and our superessence, above reason and beyond reason. To know it we must be in it, beyond the mind and above our created being; in that Eternal Point where all our lines begin and end, that Point where they lose their name and all distinction, and become one with the Point itself, and 168 that very One which the Point is, yet nevertheless ever remain in themselves nought else but lines that come to an end.”6969The Seven Cloisters, cap. xix.
What, then, is the way by which the soul moves from that life of intense contemplation in which the ‘spreading light’ of the Spirit shows her the universe fulfilled with God, to this new transfigured state of joy and terror? It is a way for which her previous adventures might have prepared us. As each new ascent, new inflow of grace, was prepared by a time of destitution and stress—as the compensating beats of love and renunciation have governed the evolving melody of the inner life—so here a last death of selfhood, a surrender more absolute than all that has gone before, must be the means of her achievement of absolute life.
“Dying, and behold I live!” says Paul of his own attainment of supernal life in Christ. Ruysbroeck, who never strays far from the vital and heroic mysticism of the New Testament saints, can find no other language for this last crisis of the spirit—its movement from the state of Wesen to that of Overwesen—than the language of death. The ever-moving line, though its vital character of duration continues, now seems to itself to swoon into the Point; the separate entity which has felt the flood of grace pour into it to energise its active career, and the 169 ebb of homeward-tending love draw it back towards the One, now feels itself pouring into the Infinite Sea. Our personal activity, he says, has done all that it can: as the separate career of Christ our Pattern closed with His voluntary death, so the death of our selfhood on that apex of personality where we have stretched up so ardently toward the Father, shall close the separate career of the human soul and open the way to its new, God-driven career, its resurrection-life. “None is sure of Eternal Life unless he has died with all his own attributes wholly into God”7070The Sparkling Stone, cap. viii.—all else falls short of the demands of supreme generosity.
It is The Book of the Sparkling Stone which contains Ruysbroeck’s most wonderful descriptions of the consciousness peculiar to these souls who have grown up to ‘the fulness of the stature of Christ’; and since this is surely the finest and perhaps the least known of his writings, I offer no apology for transcribing a long passage from its ninth chapter: ‘How we may become the Hidden Sons of God.’
“When we soar up above ourselves, and become, in our upward striving towards God, so simple, that the naked Love in the Heights can lay hold on us, there where Love cherishes Love, above all activity and all virtue (that is to say, in our Origin, 170 wherefrom we are spiritually born)—then we cease, and we and all that is our own die into God. And in this death we become hidden Sons of God, and find in ourselves a new life, and that is Eternal Life. And of these Sons, St. Paul says: ‘Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.’ In our approach to God we must bear with us ourselves and all that we do, as a perpetual sacrifice to God; and in the Presence of God we must leave ourselves and all our works, and, dying in love, soar up above all created things into the Superessential Kingdom of God. And of this the Spirit of God speaks in the Book of Hidden Things, saying: ‘Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.’... If we would taste God, and feel in ourselves Eternal Life above all things, we must go forth into God with a faith that is far above our reason, and there dwell, simple, idle, without image, lifted up by love into the Unwalled Bareness of our intelligence. For when we go out from ourselves in love, and die to all observances in ignorance and darkness, then we are made complete, and transfigured by the Eternal Word, Image of the Father. And in this emptiness of spirit we receive the Incomprehensible Light, which enfolds and penetrates us as air is penetrated by the light of the sun; and this Light is nought else but a fathomless gazing and seeing. What we are, that we 171 gaze at; and what we gaze at, that we are. For our thought, our life, our being, are lifted up in simplicity, and united with the Truth, that is God. Therefore in this simple gazing we are one life and one spirit with God—and this I call the seeing life.”7171The Sparkling Stone, cap. ix.
Such a passage as this lies beyond our poor attempts at analysis. Those only will understand it who yield themselves to it; entering into its current, as we enter into the music that we love. It tells us all it can of this life which is ‘more than being,’ as felt in the supreme experience of love. Life and Death, Dark and Light, Idleness, Bareness—these are but images of the feeling-states that accompany it. But here, more than elsewhere in Ruysbroeck’s writings, we must remember the peril which goes with all subjective treatment of mystical truth. Each state which the unitive mystic experiences is so intense, that it monopolises for the time being his field of consciousness. Writing under the ‘pressure of the Spirit’ he writes of it—as indeed it seems to him at the moment—as ultimate and complete. Only by a comparison of different and superficially inconsistent descriptions of this enhanced life—which must harmonise and fulfil all the needs of our complex personality, providing inexhaustible objectives 172 for love, intelligence and will—can we form any true idea concerning it.
When we do this, we discover that the side of it which seems a static beatitude, still Fruition, perfect Rest, is always balanced by the other side; which seems a perpetual and progressive attainment, a seeking and finding, a hungering and feeding, a giving and taking. These coexist; as the ever-renewed ‘coming of the Bridegroom,’ the welling-up of the Spirit, the stormy, eager, unsatisfied love of the soul do as a matter of experience coexist within that perfect and personal union wherein Love and Fruition, as Ruysbroeck puts it, ‘live between action and rest.’ The alternate consciousness of the line and the Point, the moving river and the Sea, the relative and the Absolute, persists so long as consciousness persists at all; it is no Christianised Nirvana into which he seeks to induct us, but that mysterious synthesis of Being and Becoming, ‘eternal stillness and eternal work’—a movement into God which is already a complete achievement of Him—which certain other great mystics have discerned beyond the ‘flaming ramparts’ of the common life.
The unbreakable unity with God, which constitutes the mark of the Third Life, exists in the ‘essential ground of the soul’; where the river flows into the Sea, the line 173 into the Point; where the pendulum of self has its attachment to Reality. There, the hidden child of the Absolute is ‘one with God in restful fruition’; there, his deep intuition of Divine things—that ‘Savouring Wisdom’ which is the last supreme gift of the Spirit7272The Kingdom of God’s Lovers; cap. xxxiii.—is able to taste and apprehend the sweetness of Infinite Reality. But at the other end, where he still participates in the time-process, where his love and will are a moving river, consciousness hungers for that total Attainment still; and attention will swing between these two extremes, now actualised within the living soul, which has put on the dual character of ‘Divine Humanity’ and is living Eternal Life, not in some far-off celestial region, but here, where Christ lived it, in the entangled world of Time. Thus active self-mergence, incessant re-birth into God, perpetual eager feeding on Him, is implicit in all spiritual life. Even for the souls of the ‘deified,’ quietism is never right. “For love cannot be lazy, but would search through and through, and taste through and through, the fathomless kingdom that lives in her ground; and this hunger shall never be stilled.”7373The Sparkling Stone, cap. ix.; cp. also The Twelve Béguines, cap. xvi.
The soul, whenever it attends to itself—withdraws itself, so to speak, from the 174 Divine Synthesis, dwells in itself, and beholds instead of being—feels again the ‘eternal unrest of love’; the whip of the Heavenly Charioteer, driving all spirits in towards the heart of God, where they are ‘one fire with Him.’ “This stirring, that mediates between ourselves and God, we can never pass beyond; and what that stirring is in its essence, and what love is in itself, we can never know.”7474The Twelve Béguines, cap. xvi. But when it dwells beyond itself, and in the supreme moments of ecstasy merges its consciousness in the Universal Consciousness, it transcends succession and centres itself in the Divine Selfhood—the ‘still, glorious, and absolute One-ness.’ Then it feels, not hunger but satisfaction, not desire but fruition; and knows itself beyond reason ‘one with the abysmal depth and breadth,’ in “a simple fathomless savouring of all good and of Eternal Life. And in this savouring we are swallowed up, above reason and beyond reason, in the deep Quiet of the Godhead which is never moved.”7575The Sparkling Stone, cap. ix.; cp. also The Book of Truth, cap. xii.
Such experiences however, such perfect fruition, in which the self dies into the overwhelming revelation of the Transcendent, and its rhythm is merged in the Divine Rhythm, cannot be continuous for 175 those still living in the flesh. There is in Ruysbroeck no foolish insistence on any impossible career of ceaseless ecstasy; but a robust acceptance of the facts and limitations of life. Man cannot, he says, “perpetually contemplate with attention the superessential Being of God in the Light of God. But whosoever has attained to the gift of Intelligence [i.e. the sixth of the Seven Gifts of the Spirit] attains this power, which becomes habitual to him; and whensoever he will, he can wholly absorb himself in this manner of contemplation, in so far as it is possible in this life.”7676The Kingdom of God’s Lovers, cap. xxxi.
The superessential man, in fact, is, as Francis Thompson said of the soul, a
“... swinging-wicket set
The Unseen and Seen.”
He is to move easily and at will between these two orders, both actual, both God-inhabited, the complementary expressions of One Love; participating both in the active, industrious, creative outflow in differentiation, and the still indrawing attraction which issues in the supreme experience of Unity. For these two movements the Active and Interior Lives have educated him. The truly characteristic experience of the Third Life is the fruition of that Unity 176 or Simplicity in which they are harmonised, beyond the balanced consciousness of the indrawing and outdrawing tides.7777The Book of Truth, cap. xii.
Ruysbroeck discerns three moments in this achievement. First, a negative movement, the introversive sinking-down of our created life into God’s absolute life, which is the consummation of self-naughting and surrender and the essence of dark contemplation. Next, the positive ecstatic stretching forth above reason into our ‘highest life,’ where we undergo complete transmutation in God and feel ourselves wholly enfolded in Him. Thirdly, from these ‘completing opposites’ of surrender and love springs the perfect fruition of Unity, so far as we may know it here; when “we feel ourselves to be one with God, and find ourselves transformed of God, and immersed in the fathomless Abyss of our Eternal Blessedness, where we can find no further separation between ourselves and God. So long as we are lifted up and stretched forth into this height of feeling, all our powers remain idle, in an essential fruition; for where our powers are utterly naughted, there we lose our activity. And so long as we remain idle, without observation, with outstretched spirit and open eyes, so long can we see and have fruition. But in that same moment in which we would 177 test and comprehend What that may be which we feel, we fall back upon reason; and there we find distinction and otherness between God and ourselves, and find God as an Incomprehensible One exterior to us.”7878The Sparkling Stone, cap. x.
It is clear from this passage that such ‘utterness’ of fruition is a fleeting experience; though it is one to which the unitive mystic can return again and again, since it exists as a permanent state in his essential ground, ever discoverable by him when attention is focussed upon it. Further, it appears that the ‘absence of difference’ between God and the soul, which the mystic in these moments of ecstasy feels and enjoys, is a psychological experience, not an absolute truth. It is the only way in which his surface-mind is able to realise on the one side the overwhelming apprehension of God’s Love, that ‘Yes’ in which all other syllables are merged; on the other the completeness of his being’s self-abandonment to the Divine embrace—“that Superessential Love with which we are one, and which we possess more deeply and widely than any other thing.”7979Op. cit. cap. ix. It was for this experience that Thomas à Kempis prayed in one of his most Ruysbroeckian passages: “When shall I at full gather myself in Thee, that for Thy love I feel not myself, 178 but Thee only, above all feeling and all manner, in a manner not known to all?”8080The Imitation of Christ, lib. iii. cap. xxiii. It is to this same paradoxical victory-in-surrender—this apparent losing which is the only real finding—that Francis Thompson invites the soul:
“To feel thyself and be
His dear nonentity—
Beyond human thought
In the thunder-spout of Him,
Until thy being dim,
Now here it is, in these stammered tidings of an adventure ‘far outside and beyond our spirit,’ in ‘the darkness at which reason gazes with wide eyes,’8181The Twelve Béguines, cap. xiv., and The Sparkling Stone, cap. ix. that we must look for the solution of that problem which all high mystic states involve for analytic thought: how can the human soul become one with God ‘without intermediary, beyond all separation,’8282The Twelve Béguines, cap. xvi. yet remain eternally distinct from Him? How can the ‘deification,’ the ‘union with God without differentiation’ on which the great mystics insist, be accepted, and pantheism be denied?
First, we notice that in all descriptions 179 of Unity given us by the mystics, there is a strong subjective element. Their first concern is always with the experience of the heart and will, not with the deductions made by the intelligence. It is at our own peril that we attach ontological meaning to their convinced and vivid psychological statements. Ruysbroeck in particular makes this quite clear to us; says again and again that he has ‘felt unity without difference and distinction,’ yet that he knows that ‘otherness’ has always remained, and “that this is true we can only know by feeling it, and in no other way.”8383The Sparkling Stone, cap. ix.; cp. The Book of Truth, cap. xi.
In certain great moments, he says, the purified and illuminated soul which has died into God does achieve an Essential Stillness; which seems to human thought a static condition, for it is that Eternal Now of the Godhead which embraces in its span the whole process of Time. Here we find nothing but God: the naked and ultimate Fact or Superessential Being ‘whence all Being has come forth,’ stripped of academic trimmings and experienced in its white-hot intensity. Here, far beyond the range of thought, unity and otherness, like hunger and fulfilment, activity and rest, can co-exist in love. The ultimate union is a love-union, says Ruysbroeck. 180 “The Love of God is a consuming Fire, which draws us out of ourselves and swallows us up in unity with God, where we are satisfied and overflowing, and with Him, beyond ourselves, eternally fulfilled.”8484The Twelve Béguines, cap. xvi.
This hungry and desirous love, at once a personal passion and a cosmic force, drenches, transfigures and unites with the soul, as sunlight does the air, as fire does the iron flung into the furnace; so that the molten metal ‘changed into another glory’ is both iron and fire ‘ever distinct yet ever united’—an antique image of the Divine Union which he takes direct from a celebrated passage in St. Bernard’s works. “As much as is iron, so much is fire; and as much as is fire, so much is iron; yet the iron doth not become fire, nor the fire iron, but each retains its substance and nature. So likewise the spirit of man doth not become God, but is deified, and knows itself breadth, length, height and depth: and as far as God is God, so far the loving spirit is made one with Him in love.”8585Ibid. cap. xiv.; cp. St. Bernard, De Diligendo Deo, cap. x. The same image is found in St. Macarius and many other writers. The iron, the air, represent our created essence; the fire, the sunlight, God’s Essence, which is added to our own—our superessence. The two are held in a union 181 which, when we try to see it under the symbolism of space, appears a mingling, a self-mergence; but, when we feel it under the symbolism of personality, is a marriage in which the lover and beloved are ‘distinct yet united.’ “Then are we one being, one love, and one beatitude with God ... a joy so great and special that we cannot even think of any other joy. For then one is one’s self a Fruition of Love, and can and should want nothing beyond one’s own.”8686The Sparkling Stone, cap. xii.
It follows from all this that when the soul, coming to the Fourth State of Fruitive Love, enters into the Equilibrium which supports and penetrates the flux, it does and must reconcile the opposites which have governed the earlier stages of its career. The communion reached is with a Wholeness; the life which flows from it must be a wholeness too. Full surrender, harmonised with full actualisation of all our desires and faculties; not some thin, abstract, vertical relation alone, but an all-round expansion, a full, deep, rich giving and taking, a complete correspondence with the infinitely rich, all-demanding and all-generous God whose “love is measureless for it is Himself.” Thus Ruysbroeck teaches that love static and love dynamic must coexist for us as for Him; that the ‘eternal hunger and thirst’ of the God-demanding 182 soul continues within its ecstatic satisfaction; because, however deeply it may love and understand, the Divine Excess will always baffle it. It is destined ‘ever to go forward within the Essence of God,’ to grow without ceasing deeper and deeper into this life, in “the eternal longing to follow after and attain Him Who is measureless.” “And we learn this truth from His sight: that all we taste, in comparison with that which remains out of our reach, is no more than a single drop of water compared with the whole sea.... We hunger for God’s Infinity, which we cannot devour, and we aspire to His Eternity, which we cannot attain.... In this storm of love, our activity is above reason and is in no wise. Love desires that which is impossible to her; and reason teaches that love is within her rights, but can neither counsel nor persuade her.”8787The Sparkling Stone, cap. x.
Hence an eternal desire and an eternal satisfaction are preserved within the circle of the deified life. The full-grown self feels, in its most intense degree, the double movement of the Divine Love and Light, the flux and reflux; and in its perfect and ever-renewed responses to the ‘indrawing and outflowing attraction’ of that Tide, the complete possession of the Superessential Life consists.183
“The indrawing attraction drags us out of ourselves, and calls us to be melted away and naughted in the Unity. And in this indrawing attraction we feel that God wills that we should be His, and for this we must abnegate ourselves and let our beatitude be accomplished in Him. But when He attracts us by flowing out towards us, He gives us over to ourselves and makes us free, and sets us in Time.”8888The Sparkling Stone, cap. x.
Thus is accomplished that paradoxical synthesis of ‘Eternal Rest and Eternal Work’ which Ruysbroeck regards as the essential character of God, and towards which the whole of his system has been educating the human soul. The deified or ‘God-formed’ soul is for him the spirit in which this twofold ideal is actualised: this is the Pattern, the Likeness of God, declared in Christ our Archetype, towards which the Indwelling Spirit presses the race. Though there are moments in which, carried away as it seems by his almost intolerable ecstasy, he pushes out towards ‘that unwalled Fruition of God,’ where all fruition begins and ends, where ‘one is all and all is one,’ and Man is himself a ‘fruition of love’;8989Op. cit. cap. xii. yet he never forgets to remind us that, as love is not love unless it looks forward towards the creation of new life, 184 so here, “when love falls in love with love, and each is all to the other in possession and in rest,” the object of this ecstasy is not a permanent self-loss in the Divine Darkness, a ‘slumbering in God,’ but a “new life of virtue, such as love and its impulses demand.”9090Op. cit. cap. xiii.; cp. also The Seven Degrees, cap. xiv. “To be a living, willing Tool of God, wherewith God works what He will and how He will,” is the goal of transcendence described in the last chapter of The Sparkling Stone. “Then is our life a whole, when contemplation and work dwell in us side by side, and we are perfectly in both of them at once”;9191The Sparkling Stone, cap. xiv. for then the separate spirit is immersed in, and part of, the perpetual creative act of the Godhead—the flowing forth and the drawing back, which have at their base the Eternal Equilibrium, the unbroken peace, wherein “God contemplates Himself and all things in an Eternal Now that has neither beginning nor end.”9292The Spiritual Marriage, lib. iii. cap. v. On that Unbroken Peace the spirit hangs; and swings like a pendulum, in wide arcs of love and service, between the Unconditioned and the Conditioned Worlds.
So the Superessential Life is the simple, the synthetic life, in which man actualises at last all the resources of his complex being. 185 The active life of response to the Temporal Order, the contemplative life of response to the Transcendent Order are united, firmly held together, by that ‘eternal fixation of the spirit’; the perpetual willed dwelling of the being of man within the Incomprehensible Abyss of the Being of God, qui est per omnia saecula benedictus.
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