Ruysbroeck, Jan van (1293–1381)

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Jan van Ruysbroeck, the Flemish mystic, was born in the village of Ruysbroeck, near Brussels. He stood in close relation to German contemplatives of the period, notably Meister Eckhart. In 1343 Ruysbroeck, together with two others, established a community at Groenendael that ultimately came under Augustinian rule. He was the prior of this community.

Ruysbroeck was not a trained theologian and had an imperfect knowledge of Latin. Though he made use in his mystical writings of language drawn from Eckhart, such as the "birth of Christ in the soul" and the "eternal Now," he was sensitive to the kind of allegations of pantheism encountered by Eckhart and in fact directed against Ruysbroeck by Jean de Gerson. In his later writings in particular Ruysbroeck made it clear that he did not believe in the identification of the soul with God in the mystical state, and he criticized those contemplatives who gave up the active life and lapsed into quietism. He thus evolved a practical account of contemplation that connected it with good works.

Ruysbroeck distinguished between different phases of the good life, which should be practiced together. First, there is the active life of doing good works. This by itself will not bring blessedness, since it can mean moral self-reliance rather than dependence on God's grace. But good works are a necessary part of the purification of the soul. Second, there is the practice of the inner virtuesfaith, hope, and love. Third, there is the contemplative life, through which the soul may gain union with God. Those who attain this last condition are called "God-seeing." They are not continually immersed, as it were, in this inner blessedness, but find themselves impelled to practice love and good works as a result of it. The practice of good works, suffused by the knowledge of God gained in the state of contemplative union, is what Ruysbroeck referred to as "the common life." This, the ideal he tried to realize in his own monastic community, was interpreted as a reflection of the life of the Trinity, which was united in a common fruition analogous to that enjoyed by the mystic but was also outward-going through the creative power of God, analogous to the work of the monk in serving the society around him.

In order to illustrate the relation of union, yet difference, between the soul and God, Ruysbroeck made use of analogies drawn from human love, as the title of his major work, The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, indicates. Thus one should "rest in Him whom one enjoys. There love has fallen in love with the lover, and each is all to the other, in possession and in rest" (The Sparkling Stone, 13). The love analogy had a certain aptness in bringing out both the sense of union and the necessary theistic distinction between the soul as creature and the Creator. Ruysbroeck also made use of the Neoplatonic doctrine of eternal archetypes or forms, existing in God. Thus the ground of the soul is man's eternal archetype, and in realizing it in its purity and nakedness, the contemplative finds union with God. In this, Ruysbroeck, like other mystics of the period, exhibited the influence of Pseudo-Dionysius. He thus made use too of the notion that creatures proceed from God through the process of creation and return to him through contemplation. But since the creature needs to reflect the love displayed by God in the work of creation, so likewise the mystic must combine his return to God with the outgoing work of love.

Ruysbroeck's works were closely studied by those who belonged to the movement known as the Brethren of the Common Life, started in the latter part of the fourteenth century by Gerhard Groot, who knew Ruysbroeck. Thomas à Kempis belonged to this confraternity. Despite contemporary criticisms of his language as not always squaring with orthodox theology, Ruysbroeck was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church.

See also Augustinianism; Eckhart, Meister; Gerson, Jean de; Mysticism, History of; Pseudo-Dionysius; Thomas à Kempis.


The definitive edition is B. Ponkens and others, eds., Ruusbroec Werken, 2nd ed., 4 vols. (Cologne, 1950). English translations include a one-volume edition of The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, The Sparkling Stone, and The Book of Supreme Truth, translated by C. A. Wynschenk Dom and edited with an introduction and notes by Evelyn Underhill (London: Watkins, 1951), and The Spiritual Espousals, translated by E. Colledge (London: Faber and Faber, 1952). See also Ray C. Petry, Late Medieval Mysticism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957).

Ninian Smart (1967)