"This is the greatest wisdom -- to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"It is not God's will that we should abound in spiritual delights, but that in all things we should submit to his holy will."

Blessed Henry Suso

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"Spiritual persons ought to be equally ready to experience sweetness and consolation in the things of God, or to suffer and keep their ground in drynesses of spirit and devotion, and for as long as God pleases, without their making any complaint about it."

St Philip Neri

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Blessed John of Rusybroeck   (1293-1381)




by Blessed John of Rusybroeck




Jan van Ruysbroeck�three of whose most important works are here for the first time presented to English readers�is the greatest of the Flemish mystics, and must take high rank in any list of Christian contemplatives and saints. He was born in 1273, at the little village of Ruysbroeck or Ruysbroeck between Brussels and Hal, from which he takes his name; and spent his whole life within his native province of Brabant. At eleven years old, he is said to have run away from home and found his way to Brussels; where he was received by his uncle Jan Hinckaert, a canon of the Cathedral of St Gudule. Hinckaert, who was a man of great piety, lived with another devout priest named Francis van Coudenberg in the most austere fashion; entirely devoted to prayer and good works. The two ecclesiastics brought the boy up, and gave him a religious education, which evidently included considerable training in theology and philosophy: subjects for which he is said to have shown, even in boyhood, an astonishing aptitude. In 1317 he took orders, and obtained through his uncle's influence a prebend's stall in St Gudule; a position which he occupied for twenty-six years.

During youth and early middle-age, then, Ruysbroeck lived in Brussels, fulfilling the ordinary duties of a cathedral chaplain: and here some of his earlier works may have been written. Here no doubt he developed that shrewd insight into human character to which his books bear witness; and here gained his experience of those "false mystics" and self-sufficient quietists so vividly described and sternly condemned in the second book of The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, in The Book of Truth, and other places. In the early fourteenth century a number of heretical sects, of which the Brethren of the Free Spirit were typical, flourished in the Low Countries. Basing their doctrine on a pantheistic and non-Christian conception of the Godhead, they proclaimed the "divinity of man," and preached a quietism of the most soul-destroying kind, together with an emancipation from the fetters of law and custom which often resulted in actual immorality.[1] As Ruysbroeck grew in knowledge of the true contemplative life, the dangers attending on its perversion became ever more clear to him: and he entered upon that vigorous campaign against the heretical quietists which was the chief outward event of his Brussels period.

As to his spiritual development during these years, we can have no certain knowledge: since none of his works are exactly dated, and the order in which they should be arranged is a matter of inference. But it is inherently probable that he was experiencing the early stages of that mysterious growth of the soul which he describes so exactly in the first two books of The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage: the hard self-discipline, the enlightenment, raptures, and derelictions, of the "active" and "interior" life.

At this period, he had made little impression on his contemporaries. The Augustinian canon Pomerius, who had known in their old age some of Ruysbroeck's friends and followers, and who wrote his Life[2] in the year 1420, describes him as a simple, quiet, rather shabby-looking person, who "went about the streets of Brussels with his mind lifted up into God." Yet it is certain that great force of character, much shrewd common sense, and remarkable intellectual qualities lay behind this meek appearance.

We know how greatly he disliked "singular conduct" in those who had given themselves to the spiritual life. They should be, he thought, like "other good men";[3] and this ideal found expression in his own life. A devout and orthodox Catholic, well read in scholastic theology and philosophy, on the mental and social side at least, he was a thorough man of his time; apparently accepting without criticism its institutions and ideas. Many passages in his works indicate this: for instance, his constant and unquestioning use of the categories of mediaeval psychology, or his quiet assumption[4] that "putting to the torture" is part of the business of a righteous judge.

But on the spiritual side his period influenced him little. There, his concern was with truths which lie, as he says, "outside Time" in the Eternal Now; and when he is trying to interpret these to us the Middle Ages and their limitations fall away. Then we catch fragments which Plato or Plotinus on one hand, Hegel on the other, might recognise as the reports of one who had known and experienced the Reality for which they sought. "My words," said Ruysbroeck, "are strange, but those who love will understand": and this indeed is true, for he possessed in an extraordinary degree the power�which so many great mystics have lacked�of giving verbal and artistic expression to his soaring intuitions of Eternity.

In 1343, when he was fifty years old, the growing sense of contrast between those intuitions and the religious formalism and unreality of the cathedral life, the distracting bustle of the town, reached a point at which it seems to have become unendurable to him. Together with Hinckaert and Coudenberg�both now old men�he left Brussels for ever; all three intending to settle in some lonely country place, where they could devote themselves to the life of prayer and contemplation. They were given the old hermitage of Groenendael, or the Green Valley, in the forest of Soignes outside Brussels. There they were presently joined by disciples, and formed a small community, which was eventually placed under the rule of the Augustinian canons. Coudenberg became the provost and Ruysbroeck the prior; and under their government the priory of Groenendael soon became known as the home of a special holiness.

We shall probably be right if we identify his thirty-eight years, sojourn in the forest with the "God-seeing" stage of Ruysbroeck's mystical life.[5] Here without doubt all his greatest works were written. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage must have been composed soon after his retreat from Brussels, for we know that in 1350 he sent a copy of it to the group of Rhenish mystics who called themselves the Friends of God. The Sparkling Stone and The Book of Truth�both written at the request of friends, to explain difficult points in his earlier books�belong to a later date.

We need not feel surprised that the full flowering of his genius should coincide with his abandonment of the world. In one form or another such abandonment has been found imperative by all the great explorers of Eternity; whose inward quest of the One nearly always entails some withdrawal from the multiplicity of things. But beyond this, there was in Ruysbroeck's mysticism�at once so intimate in its feeling so vast in its reach�a deeply poetic strain. The silence and growing beauty of the forest ministered to this: and many passages in his books show how easily he discovered intimations of divinity through the loving contemplation of natural things.

A beautiful tradition tells us that he would go out alone into the woods when he felt that the inspiration of God was upon him; and there, sitting under his favourite tree, would write as the Holy Ghost dictated. The brethren used to declare that once, having been absent many hours from the priory, he was at last found in this place, rapt in ecstacy and surrounded by a brilliant aura of divine light�a legend which closely resembles many similar stories in the lives of the saints.

Such ecstatic absorption in God, however, formed only one side of Ruysbroeck's religious life. True to his own doctrine of the "balanced career" of action and contemplation as the ideal of the Christian soul[6] his rapturous ascents towards Divine Reality were compensated by the eager and loving interest with which he turned towards the world of men. In the daily life of the priory he sought perpetually for opportunities of service, especially those of the most menial kind. As time passed, and his great mystical gifts became known, many disciples came to him: amongst them Gerard Groot, afterwards the founder of the Brothers of the Common Life and hence spiritual ancestor of Thomas a Kempis.

To all these he gave patient help and robust advice; initiating them, so far as it was possible, into the secrets of the true spiritual life, and ruthlessly exposing the pious pretensions of those who sought only a reputation for sanctity. It is clear even from his writings that he possessed to a remarkable degree the "gift of the discernment of spirits"�in other words, that his shrewd judgment of humanity seldom failed him. All know the story of the two priests, who came from Paris to ask his opinion of their spiritual state: merely to receive the truthful but disconcerting reply, "You are as holy as you wish to be!"

The thirty-eight years which Ruysbroeck passed at Groenendael were, from the point of view of the earthly biographer, almost devoid of incident. True, he formed many friendships with the most spiritual men of his time, and seems occasionally to have left his priory in order to visit them. We possess a charming account of one such visit; that to Gerard Naghel, the Prior of Herines, at whose suggestion The Book of Truth was written. "His peaceful and joyful countenance, his humble good-humoured speech," says Gerard, made him loved by all with whom he came into contact: a sentence which brings to mind Ruysbroeck's own picture of those happy men who walk in the way of love.

"Those who follow the way of love
Are the richest of all men living:
They are bold, frank, and fearless,
They have neither travail nor care,
For the Holy Ghost bears all their burdens.
They seek no outward seeming,
They desire nought that is esteemed of men,
They affect not singular conduct,
They would be like other good men."[7]

Further, he saw during these years the rapid growth of the community�now swiftly becoming one of the chief centres of spiritual life in the Low Countries�and the wide dissemination of his own works. He even lived to see certain passages in those works criticised, as supporting a pantheistic and heretical view of the union of the soul with God. The Book of Truth was written to refute this accusation. But the true events of these years took place for him in that supernal world of high contemplation which it was his special province to disclose to his fellow-men. There his real life was fixed. There his loving ardour was for ever young. Thither he drew those treasures of mystical knowledge which he is said to have poured forth to his brethren in long ecstatic discourses when the Spirit impelled him to speak: for he never taught or spoke unless he felt himself inspired thereto by God. When old age came upon him, though his ghostly vision never lost its keenness his earthly eyes grew dim: and his later works were dictated, when the Spirit moved him, to one of the younger brothers of the house. At eighty-eight years of age his strength failed: and after a short illness, which never clouded the radiance of his spirit, he died upon December 2nd, 1381.


Ruysbroeck wrote all his works in the dialect of his native province of Brabant: which stands in much the same relation to modern Flemish as Chaucer's English stands to our own speech. Eleven of these works have come down to us in various MS. collections; and all of them, with one or two others of doubtful authenticity, are included in the great standard Latin translation made in the sixteenth century by the Carthusian monk Laurentius Surius.[8]

The authentic writings are these:

1. The Spiritual Tabernacle: a long symbolic treatise on the tabernacle of the Israelites, considered as a type of the spiritual life.

2. The Twelve Points of True Faith: a short mystical interpretation of the Creed.

3. The Book of the Four Temptations: an oblique attack on false mystics.

These are probably early works.

4. The Kingdom of God's Lovers.

5. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage.

Two elaborate and orderly treatises on the threefold life and development of the soul, which probably belong to the first years at Groenendael.

6. The Mirror of Eternal Salvation: written before 1359.

7. The Seven Cloisters: written before 1363.

8. The Seven Degrees of Love: written before 1372.

This group of works, forming a graduated instruction on the ascetic and mystical life, seems to have been written for Dame Margaret Van Meerbeke, a nun in the Convent of Poor Clares at Brussels.

9. The Book of the Sparkling Stone.

10. The Book of Supreme Truth.

11. The Twelve Beguines.

These three books, the substance of which is now accessible to English readers,[9] contain the finest fruit of Ruysbroeck's genius. The Twelve Beguines is partly written in the rough rhymed verse which he uses in many parts of The Kingdom of God's Lovers and other places; as if at times his ecstatic apprehensions presented themselves to the surface mind in a rhythmic form and "prayer into song was turned." There is a short example of this in The Book of Truth. Such verse, however, though its uncouth strangeness gives to it an impressive quality, is a far less successful medium for the expression of his subtle mystical perceptions than the vigorous prose style of his best passages; for instance, the wonderful ninth chapter of The Sparkling Stone.[10]

When we come to examine the character of these mystical perceptions, we find that Ruysbroeck was one of the few mystics who have known how to make full use of a strong and disciplined intellect, without ever permitting it to encroach on the proper domain of spiritual intuition. An orderly and reasoned view of the universe is the ground plan upon which the results of those intuitions are set out: yet we are never allowed to forget the merely provisional character of the best intellectual concepts where we are dealing with ultimate truth. Ultimate truth, he says, is not accessible to the human reason: "the What-ness of God" we can never know.[11]

Yet this need not discourage us from exploring, and describing as well as we can, those rich regions of approximate truth and life-giving experience which await us beyond the ramparts of the sensual world. The intellectual ideas and symbols which he uses most often are taken to a large extent from the Bible and the Liturgy, and the works of his great predecessors and contemporaries; and conform to the main lines of the Christian mystical tradition. St Paul and St Augustine, in particular, have influenced his thought.

The notion popularised by M. Maeterlinck, that Ruysbroeck was an "ignorant monk" who became in his ecstacies a profound philosopher, is contradicted by the reminiscences of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, the many quotations from Dionysius the Areopagite, St Augustine, Richard of St Victor, St Bernard, and other mystical authors, which we find in his works. Indeed, only those familiar with these great seers and thinkers are in a position to recognise the sources and unravel the meaning of his more difficult passages. He was in fact almost as well equipped on the intellectual as on the contemplative side: and hence was enabled to interpret to others, in language with which all educated Christians in his day were more or less familiar, something at least of the adventures of his spirit in the fathomless Ocean of God.

Those intellectual concepts, however, of which he availed himself, are constantly used by him in an original way: and always as a means of expressing the results of direct personal inspiration and experience. Particularly characteristic is the living quality with which he invests theological formulae that for us have become fixed and sterile. As Dante, without deviating from the narrow path of scholastic philosophy, brings us at last into the presence of "that Eternal Light which loves and smiles,"[12] so Ruysbroeck leads us back by way of the most orthodox Trinitarian doctrine to the very heart of Reality: the eternal and abysmal Fountain of life-giving life.

In the three books which are now translated we shall find all his most characteristic ideas, though here it is only possible to touch upon a few of them.[13] For Ruysbroeck, as for St Augustine, Reality is both Being and Becoming: one-fold and changeless in essence, active and diverse in expression�a dualism aptly represented by the theological dogma of the Trinity in Unity. So too man, the image of God, is a unity who manifests himself in diversity; "made trinity, like to the unmade Blessed Trinity," as our own mystic Julian of Norwich has it.[14]

The ultimate truth is the Godhead: the Divine Unity of religion, the Absolute of philosophy. It is Simple, not with the simplicity of negation but with the simplicity of complete affirmation: gathering up into its unity all the rich complexities of power, wisdom, and love. In its essence it is "dark," "naked," "wayless"; inaccessible to all the processes of thought. Yet it is alive through and through; the eternal "lifegiving ground" from which all comes. The ideas of "Fatherhood", and "Sonhood" represent its quickening fruitfulness;[15] the Holy Ghost is the name of the Divine energy and love which pours forth into the created world, and thence, like a strong ebb-tide, draws all things back into their Origin.[16] Though the soul plunged in God, "sunk in His unity," seems to itself to experience a profound rest and stillness, yet it is really surrendered to the movement of this mighty power: for "God is an ocean that ebbs and flows."

The ideas, then, of movement, effort, and growth are central for Ruysbroeck's thought. Again and again we are impressed by his almost modern sense of life and action as the substance of the real: his freedom from merely static conceptions. Therefore we find that the theme of all his more important books is the growth and development of the soul: the forms in which God's energy plays upon it, the forms which should be taken by its response. The goal of this development is the unified state of "pure simplicity" in which it is able to "lose itself in the Fathomless Love" and enter into the complete and beatific enjoyment, possession, or use of God�for all these meanings are included in the word ghebruken, usually translated "fruition," which is his favourite term for the consummation of the mystical life.[17]

In The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage this growth is divided into the three stages of the Active, Interior, and Superessential Life: called in The Sparkling Stone by the old names of the state of Servant, Friend, and Son. Man, we know, has a natural, active life; the only one that he usually recognises. This he may "adorn with the virtues" and make well-pleasing to God (Book I.).

But beyond this he has a spiritual or "interior" life, which is susceptible of grace, the Divine energy and love; and by this can be remodelled in accordance with its true pattern or archetype, the Spirit of Christ (Book II.).

Beyond this, again, he has a superessential or "God-seeing life," in virtue of the spark of Divine life implanted in him. By the union of his powers of reason will and feeling with this spark�a welding of the several elements of his being into unity�he may enter into his highest life; the dual and God-like existence of fruition in God and work for God, alternate action and rest (Book III.).

The correspondences of the active life are with that moral order which we recognise as binding on all men of good will. Those of the interior life are with the experiences which we usually recognise as religious and spiritual. But the correspondences of the superessential life are with a plane of being which lies beyond thought, and has, so far as our intellectual perceptions go, no condition. It is a wayless state, "above reason, not without reason";[18] dark with excess of light. This state is the Being of God; but for us it is "beyond being."

The First Book, then, is almost wholly concerned with the development of the Christian character: the only solid and enduring foundation of the mystical life. It treats of the virtues which adorn our human nature and make it ready for the coming of the Spirit of Christ; and of the primary importance of intention, the stretching out of the loving will toward God, "having Him in mind" in all things. "Mean only God," said the old English mystics. So for Ruysbroeck meyninghe en minnen�will and love�sum up the obligations of the soul at this stage of its growth, and prepare it for the greater experiences of the interior life. Though he never uses the traditional formula of the Mystic Way, we may regard this active life as more or less equivalent to the Way of Purgation. The same stage is treated in the 1st and 6th chapters of The Sparkling Stone and the 3rd chapter of The Book of Truth.

The Second Book goes on from moral training to spiritual training, and includes all that ascetic writers mean by the "Illuminative Way." It deals with those "ghostly exercises," the deliberate responses of the soul to the invitation of God, which form the first degrees of our interior life, and with the dawning of the true mystical consciousness. It falls into three chief divisions, treating of three ways in which the Spirit of God comes into our inner man (caps. 5, 6, and 7).

In the first division (caps. 8-32) Ruysbroeck treats of the action of grace on the "lower powers," or sense life. In the allegory of the Seasons, he describes the normal development of the illuminated life in its emotional aspect: its joys and ardours, reactions and despairs. The Holy Ghost "hunting the spirit of man" (cap. 3) has seized and transfigured those "desirous, affective and irascible" powers of the soul which, according to the doctrine of medieval psychology, make up natural life of normal men.[19]


1. Cf. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, bk. ii. caps. 66-67, and The Book of Truth, cap. 4.
2. H. Pomerius, De Origine Monasterii Viridisvallis una cum Vitis Joannis Rusbrochii (Analecta Bollandiana, vol. iv., Brussels, 1885).
3. The Twelve Beguines, cap. 2. Vide infra, p. xvii.
4. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, bk. i. cap. 24.
5. Cf. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, bk. iii., and The Sparkling Stone, caps. 3 and 9.
6. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, bk. ii. caps. 62 and 63. Cf. The Sparkling Stone, cap. 14.
7. The Twelve Beguines, cap. 2.
8. L. Surius, D. Joannis Rusbrockii Opera Omnia, Cologne, 1552.
9. The first and finest part of The Twelve Beguines, translated from the Flemish by John Francis, was published by J. M. Watkins in 1913.
10. This he evidently came to realise himself. Cf. the end of the 8th chapter of The Twelve Beguines, "Now I must cease from my rhyming, that I may show clearly the way of contemplation."
11. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, bk. i. cap. 21. Compare The Sparkling Stone, cap. 9.
12. Par. xxxiii. 124.
13. The student will find a fuller analysis in my monograph Ruysbroeck (Quest Series, 1915).
14. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, bk. ii. cap. 2.
15. The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, bk. iii. cap. 3; and The Book of Truth, cap. 10.
16. The Sparkling Stone, caps. 3 and 10.
17. Cf. The Twelve Beguines, cap. 16
18. The Twelve Beguines, cap. 8
19. Cf. The Book of Truth, cap. 9.