Ruysbroeck, Jan van, Bl.
RUYSBROECK, JAN VAN, BL.
Flemish mystic and mystical writer; b. Ruysbroeck, near Brussels, Belgium, 1293; d. Groenendael, Dec. 2,1381. Of his father we know nothing. His mother was a devout woman who trained the child in ways of holiness. At 11 he left home and went to Brussels to live under the guidance of his uncle, John Hinckaert, a saintly priest and canon of St. Gudules. Closely associated with his uncle was a fellow canon, Francis van Coudenberg, also a man of great piety. Ruysbroeck's (also spelled Ruisbroeck, Rusbroek) studies were directed toward the priesthood, and in 1317 he was ordained. He continued to live, with the two canons, a life of retirement and austerity and probably also of study. Some later biographers have represented him as a simple, unlettered man, miraculously inspired in his writings, but this cannot have been true. His writings show a mastery of sacred science, and he must have enjoyed some reputation for learning as well as sanctity, for he was called upon to conduct a preaching mission against a notorious woman, Bloemardinne, the leader of a heretical sect in the city. She appears to have enjoyed a considerable influence and to have written works that contained false doctrine. From the little testimony that has survived, she and her followers seem to have been connected with the "Brethren of the Free Spirit." She preached a Manichaean dualism according to which it is possible for men in this life to achieve a state of grace in which they can no longer sin; they are "free in spirit" both from the body, which may be left free to do as it pleases, and from laws, which bind only the imperfect.
A desire for greater retirement and a more contemplative life led Ruysbroeck and the two canons to withdraw to a hermitage at Groenendael in the neighboring forest of Soignes. A number of disciples joined them there, and after a time it was decided that they should establish themselves formally as a religious institute. In March 1349 they became a community of canons regular. They adopted the rule of the Canons of Saint-Victor, without, however, surrendering their independent status. Francis van Coudenberg became the community's first provost, and Ruysbroeck was made prior. John Hinckaert did not make formal profession for fear the discipline of the community would suffer harm because of the many dispensations it would be necessary to grant him because of his infirmities and age. He continued to live at Groenendael, however, though he moved into a cell outside the cloister.
Writings. Ruysbroeck's literary career may have begun with pamphlets written in the vernacular and directed against the false doctrines of Bloemardinne. If so, none of these has been preserved. The earliest work of
which we are certain is The Spiritual Espousals, which was his masterpiece. Among the more notable of his other writings are The Kingdom of Lovers and The Tabernacle, both of which are long and majestic treatises, written for those learned in spiritual science and already advanced in contemplation. His friends, the Carthusians at Herne, could not understand the Kingdom, and asked for parts of it to be explained. Ruysbroeck was perturbed to learn that they had seen a copy of it at all. It had been pirated for them by a scribe who had been forbidden by his master to circulate the book. Nevertheless, he sent the Herne Charterhouse the gloss for which they asked; and this, The Little Book of Enlightenment, is one of the best of his shorter treatises, and a categorical denial of the errors, notably quietist, that have since been groundlessly attributed to him. Another short work that may be especially commended for the clarity and devotional quality of its teaching on contemplation is that variously known as The Book of the Sparkling Stone or The Treatise of Perfection of the Sons of God. A work of quite different stamp, written with charm and simplicity and directed toward a more popular audience, is Ruysbroeck's The Book of the Twelve Beguines.
Doctrine. The age in which Ruysbroeck lived had seen much bitter conflict, especially in the Low Countries, between those of entrenched orthodoxy and those who were under suspicion, not always justly, of teaching heresy. Excess and error were often induced in the minds of simple men by an uncritical absorption with the ideas of deificatio, of how men become like God. Nevertheless, there were many faithful Catholics who felt themselves compelled, despite all ecclesiastical censure, to affirm that God asks of exalted souls nothing less than that they should become so like to Him as to be indistinguishable from Him.
It was given to Ruysbroeck to be able to see a way to the resolution of such conflicts. Their resolution, and the preaching of a true deificatio, is the essence of all his works. The Spiritual Espousals in particular reflects and was formed by his perception of the relations between truth and error, between the perversions taught by such heretics as "the Brethren" about deified man and what he himself had seen of man's true nature and how it reflects the being of God. It is the constant regard for the true nature of man that informs the Espousals, and, indeed, all his work. Absurd as it is to say that man can become God, still man's life "is nothing else than the image of God … in the noblest part of our souls, we are made as a living, eternal mirror of God" (Mirror of Eternal Blessedness ); and in his inquiries into the life and nature of man, he was able to synthesize and develop the leads given to him, by St. Augustine and perhaps others, about man as a "created trinity." In the whole universe, and especially in man, he sees the similitude and image of the Trinity, so that "all his teaching is ultimately teaching about God."
In few works of mystical theology does one find surpassed the ordered lucidity with which the Espousals expounds its complex and profound ideas. Ruysbroeck tells of the anguish and contention in the soul striving against nature to cross the threshold of time into the eternity from which God calls to it, but coming to accept and welcome this agony as a precious gift from the Lord, as an indispensable stage in the soul's homeward journey. The total impression is of untroubled calm, spiritual and intellectual. Ruysbroeck's learning, his natural curiosity, and his literary gifts are all ordered and controlled, and the whole book breathes harmony and great peace.
The book is composed of three successive expositions of the text "See, the Bridegroom comes; go out to meet Him." He tells us in Book 1 how Christ the Bridegroom must be seen and met "according to common usage … in the active life … by all who wish to be saved." Book 2 describes that meeting as it may come about in "the interior, exalted, yearning life achieved by virtues and grace." In Book 3 we read of the extraordinary way along which some are called to travel toward Our Lord, "the supernatural life of the contemplation of God." It may be thought that there is nothing exceptional in such a plan, since writings abound that teach of an ascent to God out of activity, through purgation, into the vision of Him. But this is not at all what Ruysbroeck is telling us. Instead, he insists that quietism is wrong and dualism is false because these three lives must be led simultaneously: man must reflect in his nature that triune Godhead in whose image he was made. He must give to God and receive from Him, speak and be silent, act and suffer, if he is to find God as he ought. And the finding of Him will be nothing else than a flowing back again into that divine nature in which he has eternally existed.
The language and the metaphors that he employs to convey such thought are seldom original. The idea of a "flowing" between God and the soul, for instance, he had probably encountered in the Low German writings of his precursor, mechtild of magdeburg. But Ruysbroeck's thought is something new in the West. New spiritual insights enabled him to achieve a synthesis between Augustine's teaching on man's reflection of the divine nature, and what he had learned from Neoplatonism, notably from Dionysius, about regiratio, the eternal cycle through which the soul moves, out from God and back into Him. Just as the stars never falter in their silent march across the heavens, just as the sea never ceases to ebb and to flow, so is the soul called back again out of time into that unnameable abyss in which it will find God, where it left Him, and will take its delight in Him, and sink down into Him, and be one with Him.
But this deified soul will not be and will not do as heretics falsely teach. They think that such deification comes of their own effort and is an attribute of their own nature. Ruysbroeck teaches that this deification is of grace and, therefore, a supernatural gift. They say that they have become one with God in nature; he declares that this can never be. Though in the abyss the soul will lose all perception of difference, of difference between the Persons, of difference between Them and it, still that difference remains. The gift will be withdrawn, the soul will return to the body, and the cycle will have been completed and must be begun again. There is no false quietism in this; the soul does not rest in its cycle, for God's love "is so ravenous that it swallows and consumes in its own being everything which comes near it," and to approach and be so consumed is the soul's true work. Still less is there any hint of a complete passivity. God acts and the soul must act.
Souls whom God has called to this work must always live this threefold life of action and contemplation and union with Him; the means and the manner He has furnished for them in His Church. "God comes ceaselessly to dwell in us by means and without means; and He demands of us both that we take delight in Him and that we perform works, and that the one remain unhindered by the other, and indeed be ever strengthened by the other" (Espousals ). "The contemplative must go out, living, in virtues, and go in, dying in God. In these two is set a perfect life, and these two are as closely united as are matter and form, soul and body" (The Little Book of Enlightenment ).
The chief means to resolve this apparent impossibility was, for Ruysbroeck, the sacramental life of grace. In an age in which it was possible for holy men to teach a life of contemplative prayer from which the Sacraments were wholly excluded, he insisted that without them man cannot live a life formed in God, and above all he was distinguished by his unending love for the Mass.
Feast: Dec. 2.
Bibliography: Standard Text. Werken, Naar het standaard-handschrift van Groenendaal uitg. door het Ruusbroec-Genootschap te Antwerpen, 4 v. (rev. ed. Tielt 1944–48). Ons geestelijk erf (Antwerp 1927–), a quarterly journal that contains many learned articles on Ruysbroeck. a. ampe, Kernproblem uit der leer van Ruusbroec, 3 v. in 1 (Studien en tekstuitgaven van Ons geestelijk erf 11–13; Antwerp 1950–56) an exhaustive commentary. The Spiritual Espousals, tr. e. colledge (New York 1953). e. colledge and j. bazire, eds., The Chastising of God's Children (Oxford 1957), contains versions from Latin translations made in England c. a.d. 1400 of The Treatise of Perfection of the Sons of God and parts of the Espousals. b. fraling, Der Mensch von dem Geheimnis Gottes. Untersuchungen zur christlichen Lehre des Jan van Ruusbroec (Würzburg 1967); Mystik und Geschichte (Regensburg 1974). p. mommaers, The Land Within, tr. d. n. smith (Chicago 1975); with j. van bragt, Mysticism, Buddhist and Christian: Encounters with Jan van Ruusbroec (New York 1995). m. maeterlinck, On Emerson and Other Essays, tr. m. j. moses (New York 1912, repr. Great Neck, N.Y. 1978); with n. de paepe, eds., Jan van Ruusbroec: The Sources, Content, and Sequels of His Mysticism (Leuven, Belgium 1984). l. k. duprÉ, The Common Life: The Origins of Trinitarian Mysticism and Its Development by Jan Ruusbroec (New York 1984). p. verdeyen, Ruusbroec l'admirable (Paris 1990); Ruusbroec and His Mysticism, tr. a. lefevere (Collegeville, Minn. 1994); Jan van Ruusbroec (2d ed. Leuven 1996). e. p. bos and g. warnar, eds., Een claer verlicht man (Hilversum 1993). k. e. bras, Mint de minne (Kampen 1993). c. h. rocquet, Ruysbroeck, l'admirable (Paris 1998). r. van nieuwenhove, "Ruusbroec: Apophatic Theologian or Phenomenologist of the Mystical Experience," Journal of Religion, 80, no. 1 (Jan. 2000) 83–105. j. a. wiseman, "The Birth of the Son in the Soul in the Mystical Theology of Jan van Ruusbroec," Studia Mystica, 14, no. 2–3 (1991) 30–44.