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Life and Works

John Ruusbroec : Life and Works

To his own community his life and words were a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. His fame as a man of God, as a sublime contemplative and a skilled director of souls, spread beyond the bounds of Flanders and Brabant to Holland, Germany, and France. All sorts and conditions of men sought his aid and counsel. His writings were eagerly caught up and rapidly multiplied, especially in the cloisters of the Netherlands and Germany; early in the fifteenth century they are to be found also in England. Among the more famous visitors to Groenendael mention is made of Tauler, but though the German preacher certainly knew and appreciated his writings, it is not established that he ever actually saw Ruysbroeck. Gerard Groote in particular venerated him as a father and loved him as a friend. And through Groote, Ruysbroeck's influence helped to mould the spirit of the Windesheim School, which in the next generation found its most famous exponent in Thomas a Kempis. Just now strenuous efforts are being made to discover authentic Flemish MSS. Of Blessed John Ruysbroeck's works; but up to the present the standard edition is the Latin version of Surius, all imperfect and probably incomplete as this is. Of the various treatises here preserved, the best-known and the most characteristic is that entitled "The Spiritual Espousals". It is divided into three books, treating respectively of the active, the interior, and the contemplative life; and each book is subdivided into four parts working out the text; Ecce Sponsus venit, exite obviam ei, as follows: (1) Ecce, the work of the vision, man must turn his eyes to God; (2) Sponsus venit, the divers comings of the Bridegroom; (3) exite, the soul going forth along the paths of virtue; and finally (4) the embrace of the soul and the heavenly Spouse.

Literally, Ruysbroeck wrote as the spirit moved him. He loved to wander and meditate in the solitude of the forest adjoining the cloister; he was accustomed to carry a tablet with him, and on this to jot down his thoughts as he felt inspired so to do. Late in life he was able to declare that he had never committed aught to writing save by the motion of the Holy Ghost. In no one of his treatises do we find anything like a complete or detailed account of his system; perhaps, it would be correct to say that he himself was not conscious of elaborating any system. In his dogmatic writings he is emphatically a faithful son of the Catholic Church, explaining, illustrating, and enforcing her traditional teachings with remarkable force and lucidity; this fact alone is quite sufficient to dispose of the contention, still cherished in certain quarters, that Ruysbroeck was a forerunner of the Reformation, etc. In his ascetic works, his favourite virtues are detachment, humility, and charity; he loves to dwell on such themes as flight from the world, meditation upon the Life, especially the Passion of Christ, abandonment to the Divine Will, and an intense personal love of God. But naturally it is in his mystical writings that the peculiar genius of Ruysbroeck shines forth. Yet here again it is the manner rather than the matter that is new, and it is especially in the freshness, originality, boldness, variety, detail, and truth of his imagery and comparisons that the individuality of Ruysbroeck stands out. Students of mysticism from the pages of the Areopagite onwards will scarcely discover anything for which they cannot recall a parallel elsewhere. But there are many who maintain that Blessed John stands alone, unrivalled, in his grasp of what we may term the metaphysics of mysticism, in the delicateness and sureness of his touch when describing the phenomena and progress of the mystic union, and in the combined beauty, simplicity, and loftiness of his language and style.

In common with most of the German mystics Ruysbroeck starts from God and comes down to man, and thence rises again to God, showing how the two are so closely united as to become one. But here he is careful to protest: "There where I assert that we are one in God, I must be understood in this sense that we are one in love, not in essence and nature." Despite this declaration, however, and other similar saving clauses scattered over his pages, some of Ruysbroeck's expressions are certainly rather unusual and startling. The sublimity of his subject-matter was such that it could scarcely be otherwise. His devoted friend, Gerard Groote, a trained theologian, confessed to a feeling of uneasiness over certain of his phrases and passages, and begged him to change or modify them for the sake at least of the weak. Later on, Jean Gerson and then Bossuet both professed to find traces of unconscious pantheism in his works. But as an offset to these we may mention the enthusiastic commendations of his contemporaries, Groote, Tauler, a Kempis, Scoenhoven, and in subsequent times of the Franciscan van Herp, the Carthusians Denys and Surius, the Carmelite Thomas of Jesus, the Benedictine Louis de Blois, and the Jesuit Lessius. In our own days Ernest Hello and especially Maeterlinck have done much to make his writings known and even popular. And at present, particularly since his beatification, there is a strong revival of interest in all that concerns Ruysbroeck in his native Belgium.

A word of warning is needed against the assumption of some writers who would exalt the genius of Ruysbroeck by dwelling on what they term his illiteracy and ignorance. As a matter of fact the works of Blessed John manifest a mastery of the sacred sciences, and a considerable acquaintaince even with the natural science of his day. His adaptation of the slender resources of his native tongue to the exact expression of his own unusual experiences and ideas is admirable beyond praise; and though his verse is not of the best, his prose writings are vigorous and chaste, and evidence not only the intellect of a metaphysician, but the soul also of a true and tender poet.

Blessed John's relics were carefully preserved and his memory honoured as that of a saint. When Groenendael Priory was suppressed by Joseph II in 1783, his relics were transferred to St. Gudule's, Brussels, where, however, they were lost during the French Revolution. A long and oft-interrupted series of attempts to secure official acknowledgement of his heroic virtues from Rome was crowned at length by a Decree, 1 Dec., 1908, confirming to him under the title of "Blessed" his cultus ab immemorabili tempore. And the Office of the Beatus has been granted to the clergy of Mechlin and to the Canons Regular of the Lateran. No authentic portrait of Ruysbroeck is known to exist; but the traditional picture represents him in the canonical habit, seated in the forest with his writing tablet on his knee, as he was in fact found one day by the brethren—rapt in ecstasy and enveloped in flames, which encircle without consuming the tree under which he is resting.


Source : VINCENT SCULLY, Transcribed by Herman F. Holbrook in