Fourteenth century Europe witnessed the decline of the Middle Ages and the first glimmering of the Renaissance. Whilst the retrenchment of the papacy, the growing secular power of princes and the emerging strength of some cities lent a regal lustre to a few centres of wealth and learning, the period was not promising for the common man. Largely bound to feudal lands or hereditary crafts and with little hope for education outside the church, the average individual endured an impoverished and precarious life. The popes, exiled in Avignon from 1309 until 1377, set in motion the complex causes that resulted in the excesses of the Renaissance papacy and the Reformation. Peasants revolted in Flanders and France only to be harshly suppressed. Amidst economic instability, the Hundred Years' War raged (1347-145 3) even while the Black Death took its own grim toll. Church organization faltered while corruption burgeoned and religious extremists flourished. Nonetheless, political chaos, social decay and spiritual degradation provided an arena for a resurgence of authentic mystical insight instantiated in a constellation of luminaries: Meister Eckhart, Richard Rolle, John Tauler, Henry Suso, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, Catherine of Siena, Walter Hilton, the Friends of God, Julian of Norwich and the Brethren of the Common Life. Jan van Ruysbroeck was born at the beginning of this turbulent period and died at the advent of the Italian Renaissance, his life spanning most of the century.
Though Jan van Ruysbroeck was appreciated in his own time and though he influenced many disciples, little is known of his life. This is only partially due to his reticence to reminisce, for those who knew him well agreed that his life as reckoned by historians was uneventful. He unhesitatingly participated in the affairs of the world for many years, but he did so in ways that did not call attention to himself. For Ruysbroeck, real life is lived on inner planes; the rest is a matter of unobtrusive duty. Ruysbroeck was born in 1293 in the village whose name he took, between the towns of Brussels and Hal. He lived out his whole life within the province of Brabant. He was raised by his devoted mother, who found his strong will and adventurous spirit more than she could guide, yet her own serene piety and unqualified love left a permanent impression on her son. At the age of eleven Ruysbroeck went – some say ran away – to Brussels, where he met his uncle Jan Hinckaert, canon of the cathedral of St. Gudule. Apparently Hinckaert recognized in Ruysbroeck the same depths of spiritual promise that stirred in his own bosom, for he took the boy under his wing at once, and, with his close companion Francis van Coudenberg, a younger canon, the three formed a lifelong association.
Hinckaert paid for Ruysbroeck to attend the schools of Brussels, where he studied the trivium and quadrivium – grammar, dialectic, rhetoric and music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. Ruysbroeck spoke the thiois, a Germanic dialect that evolved into modern Flemish, and so he had to learn Latin. Though he did well in all his studies and established a firm foundation in mediaeval learning, his interest and talent lay in theology. He absorbed, perhaps indirectly, Plato, Plotinus, Dionysius the Areopagite and Augustine. Some historians believe that he went to Cologne and learnt the teachings of Meister Eckhart and the methodology of Albertus Magnus. He came to see scholastic logomachy as vain and other studies as distracting. His heart ruled his head in that he came to desire nothing but Divine Wisdom, and in time his philosophical and theological studies gave way to intense meditation. Already, Ruysbroeck's reputation for study and natural piety had spread as far as his native village, and his mother came to be with him in Brussels. Since she could not live in the house of Canon Hinckaert, she became a béguine, a sister in a lay mendicant order. Ruysbroeck frequently visited her in the béguinage, and after she died a few years later, she visited him in vivid dreams on several occasions to give him sound advice and spiritual encouragement.
By the time he was twenty-four in 1317, Ruysbroeck was ordained priest and placed under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Hinckaert. Around this time, Hinckaert and Coudenberg resolved to undertake a disciplined spiritual life. They disposed of their modest wealth amongst the poor and retired to a simple house with only the minimal necessities of life. Ruysbroeck was deeply affected by their example and soon joined them. For twenty-six years Ruysbroeck served as a priest of St. Gudule, performing the sacraments and ministering to the people. Except for one incident, he laboured industriously and in silence, and those who benefited found him to be warm and compassionate, though a solitary in every respect. Nevertheless, he carefully observed human nature. He was appalled by the degradation of the church and clergy on the one hand, and by tendencies to extreme views amongst people oppressed by the instabilities of the time. He wrote against bishops and prelates who travelled in luxury. With such a one, "business progresses, money flows into his purse and souls are not touched". Priests begged in the cathedral for funds, even though the church supported them. Seeing this, and seeing the clergy flaunt every vow, the laity was understandably cynical and vulnerable to pseudo-spiritual pretence. Christians lacked taste, "taste for the service of the Lord".
The church was vitiated by its own corruption in part because it had made the Divine remote through insistence on an unqualified distinction between creator and creation. Reaction amongst the people frequently found expression in an extreme affirmation of immanence, including glossolalia, emotionalism, defiant amorality and pantheism. Whilst serving as a cathedral priest, Ruysbroeck spoke out only once. A diffusive group known as the Brethren of the Free Spirit preached that those upon whom the Spirit had descended were already divine and therefore not subject to human codes of conduct. A woman called Bloemardinne seized leadership of this movement and made extravagant claims. Besides claiming supernatural and prophetic powers, she said she was accompanied by two seraphim. She held that "seraphic love" replaced all vows and rituals, and translated this doctrine into a cavalier eroticism. Ruysbroeck was horrified and attacked her ideas through a series of pamphlets. This one-dimensional egotistic pantheism, he argued, confuses crude images of the Divine with authentic mystic experiences, and thus rejects as unneeded discipline, practice and vows, and encourages indulgence of every inclination. Whilst both Bloemardinne's tracts and Ruysbroeck's refutations are lost, history recorded mixed reactions. Derisive songs were written against Ruysbroeck, and he was mocked in the streets. In time the dispute died away, leaving Ruysbroeck to his daily round.
In 1343 the three spiritual companions resolved to withdraw from the tumult of the world and dwell in some remote fastness. John III, Duke of Brabant, had long respected them for their simple life and willingly granted them possession of an old shooting-lodge which had been used as a hermitage. Groenendael or Le Vau-vert ('green valley') was located in the heart of the forest of Soignes, which received its name (originally Sonien) from an ancient centre of sun-worship there. Here the three brothers lived for five years undisturbed. The sincerity of their intent, their quiet virtue and their radiant cheerfulness in humble circumstances gradually attracted many serious followers. Whilst some came for spiritual advice, others came to stay and seek guidance. This unanticipated development made their informal life untenable at a time when the church was worried about spontaneous associations with heretical tendencies and the Inquisition was expanding its activities. After careful deliberation, the group adopted the rule of the Augustinian Canons. Ruysbroeck refused to be provost, an office which fell to Coudenberg. Ruysbroeck accepted the position of prior, but Hinckaert, fearful that advanced age might prevent him from fulfilling the rule, separated himself from his friends and retired to a cell in the forest, where he dwelt until his death.
The need to teach new brothers of the Priory of Groenendael, the expansive silence of the forest and Ruysbroeck's quickened inner life joined together to compel him to speak and write. He wished to convey the quintessence of the "superessential life" as a practice and way of life open to all human beings. He rejected Latin as his medium of discourse and chose instead his own dialect, despite its paucity of spiritual and philosophical terms. During the next three decades he composed at least eleven pristine treatises of spiritual instruction. The Spiritual Tabernacle interpreted the Israelite tabernacle set up by Moses in the desert as an archetype of the spiritual life. The Twelve Points of True Faith gave a mystical interpretation of the Apostles' Creed. His most systematic and elaborate works are The Kingdom of God's Lovers and The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, which deal with the unfolding of the soul. He composed detailed instructions on asceticism and mysticism as an authentic way of life because he knew from personal experience that one inclined to soar risks veering off into one or another down draught or being trapped on one plane of awareness. Always dissatisfied with his written expressions, he sought ever more lucid explanations, until the fruition of his maturity manifested in The Book of the Sparkling Stone, The Book of Supreme Truth and The Twelve Béguines.
The initial and pervasive principle of the mystical life – which for Ruysbroeck is real life, life in spirit – is love intensely experienced within and expressed as friendly helpfulness without. In The Twelve Béguines he wrote:
All requisite practices come out of deepest love; they do not generate it. Without a love that shines on all human beings, practices and disciplines become eccentricities at best and distorted forms of egotism at worst. Thus, a spiritual human being, a true Christian, is first of all a good and zealous man, and secondly an inward and ghostly" man. He becomes an uplifted and God-seeing man and then "an outflowing man to all in common". When one is these four things, one can be said to be perfect. This four-square foundation set upon the adamant of love constitutes the basis and substance of the spiritual life as set out in The Book of the Sparkling Stone.
Given these requirements for realization of the Divine, Ruysbroeck taught how they are acquired. A human being becomes good through three means: a conscience cleansed through self-examination and discerning application; obedience to God, to the rules of the church and to one's own convictions, all of which have equal claims on obedience; and performance of action with the Divine in mind, there being no other reason for or end to action. A clean conscience builds impersonal discrimination and gives proper exercise to the will, and the threefold obedience blocks pride and self-regard on the one side and excuse-making and self-righteousness on the other. Acting for the Divine diminishes the powers of attraction found in the world. There are also three requirements to become inward. First of all, one must divest the heart of images, which means that one cannot be attached to anything – objects, individuals, feelings or ideas. Secondly, one must gain "spiritual freedom" in one's desires, forsaking all lesser loves for an intense longing for the Divine, which is the only object worthy of unconditional love. Thirdly, one must want union with God, which demands the dissolution of even sacred images, "for God is a Spirit of Whom no one can make to himself a true image". This is the beginning of life in spirit, not the world.
The man must sink down to that imageless Nudity which is God; this is the first condition, and the foundation, of a ghostly life.
If the first two elements of the spiritual individual concern the reordering of his attitude towards the world and the reconstitution of his psychic nature, the remainder concern the inner, transcendental life of which many receive intimations, a few taste and fewer still learn to live fully. Three requisites are needed to become a God-seeing man:
When one actually experiences union with the Divine, the union which includes Deity and individual is revealed as abysmal – without finite dimension, wholly dark, an emptiness in respect to images and the world. In this sense, the individual who comes to live in the Divine dies to self and world. Divine Unity is Divine Abysm, where one is naked (without qualities) and imageless (without discursive thought), the inmost centre of one's own spirit.
From this standpoint, a rule of life can be adopted with great and enduring benefit, but a life of meditation cannot be taught. An individual who has achieved this pinnacle of spiritual experience has not simply attained a desired goal or acquired an exceptional trait: he has undergone a transmutation of his nature. Though he has followed a path to the inner abysm, he is now Wayless, without motive, intention, mode or direction in any temporal or categorical sense. His conscious existence is a transcendent space called Deity, an enlightened state incomprehensible to the discursive intellect. Thus, he receives a sparkling stone with a new name inscribed on it, though none but the receiver can ever know it. This stone is the Eternal Word as it manifests to him. Each comes to the Divine in his own way and so receives a different name, but all who come have purged themselves of sin. Sin has less to do with acts than with motives, for divine gifts can be used for both virtue and error.
Within his spiritual psychology, Ruysbroeck distinguished five kinds of sinners and three companions of the Divine. Amongst sinners, the first class consists of those who are worldly and careless of good works; they suffer from multiplicity of heart. The second kind perform good deeds and love justice, yet willingly lapse into error. The third group are unbelievers, those who have little or erroneous faith (faith should be in the Divine and their own inner nature, not in dogmas alone). The fourth are shameless and without moral sensibility. The fifth are outwardly pure so that the world will think them holy, but the motive is wrong in that it seeks some ephemeral end. None of these conditions is predestined or congenital, and so all sinners can restore human dignity and a sense of the sacred within themselves. Nonetheless, there are degrees among those who turn towards the Divine. The hirelings of God follow what they take to be divine commands, but they do so out of self-love. They fear to lose the promise of heaven and they fear hell even more. Divine grace is unbounded compassion, and so the fear of hell arises only from self-love. This fear is justified in a paradoxical and inverted sense, for self-love produces hell. The faithful servant has overcome his fear because he has resigned everything to the Divine, and so has resigned his selfhood, demonstrating the first level of genuine faith. His actions result from love of God.
The inward or secret friend of God presses beyond the motive of love while encompassing it. He turns wholly away from the world and is no longer divided in heart in any way. To ignorant outsiders he seems to do nothing because he cannot act in ways accountable by images and worldly motives. In the parable of Martha and Mary, Jesus praised both for their devotion. Martha exemplified faithful service, yet Mary won greater esteem because she was a secret friend, a true contemplative. For Ruysbroeck, however, the man of meditation exists beyond analysis by worldly standards, but he does not forsake his obligations to humanity. To shun duties to mankind, which can all be subsumed under the rubric of divine love and translated into selfless service, is to delude oneself: the secret friend remains a faithful servant. Although the inward friends experience the afflatus of the Deific Presence, they still retain a subtle image of themselves and of Deity. "They cannot with themselves and their own activity penetrate to the imageless Nudity." Retaining some fragment of their selfhood, they do not pass into the Wayless.
The hidden sons of God – the supreme possibility of human achievement – transcend all images, including any image of self and the Divine. Like the drop disappearing in the consuming embrace of the sea, nothing is lost save the image of what is real. That image, though of the subtlest and most purified nature, is ultimately false and must be stripped away. The hidden son approaches Deity without attributes and therefore discovers that Deity is likewise attributeless. The image of the Divine was nothing more than a projection of self-image. Stripped naked, one plunges into the Divine Abysm, which is the infinite, fiery ocean of Eternal Life.
Thus, Jan van Ruysbroeck lived a gentle and friendly life, teaching a message of great difficulty precisely because it was simple and without qualification. Even as he grew frail, he aided all who came, including Poor Clares and Geert Groote, who founded the Brethren of the Common Life. One night his mother appeared to him in a dream and told him he would die before Advent. Thus forewarned, he insisted on being taken to the common infirmary, where he at once succumbed to a fever. Two weeks later, he called the brothers to him, commended himself to their memory and, smiling, passed painlessly out of incarnated existence at the age of eighty-eight on December 2, 1381. It is said that Groote knew at once of Ruysbroeck's death and that the bells of Deventer tolled on their own. He appeared in visions to those of his disciples who undertook to bury the body of "the sweetest monastic flower". Though suspected of heresy and pantheism, Ruysbroeck entered the sacred stream of spiritual heroes who offer help and hope to all human beings. His brightness passed into that Brightness of which he loved to write: