As Jan Van Ruysbroeck’s writings are so much based on personal experience it is interesting to give a brief account of his life.
He was born in 1293 in a village (Ruysbroeck) near Brussels (capital of modern Belgium) and lived in its vicinity most of his life. It seems he ran away as a child and was taken in by his uncle – a canon who was a very spiritual man who lived with another devout priest. The two brought him up conscientiously in the atmosphere of a small religious community and Jan received a good scholastic education.
Not surprisingly he became a priest in his mid 20’s and serves as a chaplain at the Cathedral in Brussels for the next 26 years.
When he was about 50, he began to tire of this busy life and left with his two mentors (now old men) to form a contemplative community in a secluded forest outside Brussels.
There he spent nearly 40 years before dying at the ripe old age of 88.
On the face of it his life appeared unremarkable. This is hardly surprising as he had a particular dislike for "singular" conduct. However his deep spirituality was well recognised. Also, refreshingly he was very practical with a keen understanding of human nature. On this account he was readily sought as a counsellor in his later years. On a more public level he was very active in fighting the religious controversies of his time esp. Quietism.
Though he inherited the mediaeval scholastic framework and was content to use traditional Christian symbols, yet there is a remarkably dynamic - and indeed modern feel to his thought. Though he does not actually use the term "complementarity of opposites" yet his approach is based throughout on this very principle and helps him preserve - perhaps uniquely among Christian mystics - an essential balance in the treatment of fundamental spiritual issues.
For Ruysbroeck Reality is both Being and Becoming – passive and changeless in its essential essence - yet dynamic and diverse in its active expression. On a mystical level his teaching here resembles closely that of Plotinus (and later given its greatest philosophical expression by Hegel).
My contention on this Forum is that the transcendent aspect of growth is continually over-emphasied (as in Ken Wilber’s writings) at the expense of the immanent. In other words the essential dynamic balance as between these two fundamental aspects of spirituality is not maintained.
However I would have little reason to criticise Ruysbroeck on this score.
Ruysbroeck uses the traditional doctrine of the Trinity (three persons in one God) to great effect.
God the Father (the Godhead) represents the transcendent pole of spirituality Who is the Darkness, the Abyss who abides in the emptiness and nakedness of pure spiritual experience above all created things.
However the experience of the Godhead (pure transcendence) gives rise to the Eternal Birth (God the Son). Here in the darkness, an incomprehensible light shines revealing God as the source of all created things. This is the complementary immanent aspect of the Spirit. So the union of Father and Son (transcendence and immanence) results in an outpouring of the spirit into the created World (Holy Spirit). This phenomenal creation on a temporal level is necessary to continually mediate the loving exchange (on an eternal level) of Father and Son. So there is an inevitable dynamic tension in experience. Through rising above created symbols we come to knowledge of the Godhead (i.e. the transcendent aspect). However this aspect as pure spirit is then revealed as the Source (God the Son). And it is this communion in the spirit that creates the world anew leading us out to engagement once more with temporal reality. So there is a continual going forth to God as Goal (transcendence) and returning to God (immanence). And all of this is mediated through the created world, which is the finite expression in temporal space-time of the loving exchange of Father and Son in eternity.
Now of course one could rightly quibble about the appropriateness of these two male symbols (Father and Son) to adequately represent complementarity. Really we should preserve a balance as between male and female symbols. (However this would require questioning the very basis of Christian doctrine!). So though Ruysbroeck accepts these "unsuitable" symbols (without question) he employs them in an original manner. Interestingly Julian of Norwich (in her intuitive desire to preserve the appropriate male-female balance) referred to God the Son as "Mother". And of course psychologically this makes great sense.
On a more practical level Ruysbroeck’s metaphysical approach to reality underlines his doctrine of the balanced life. In other words he advocates both the active and contemplative life (for in dynamic terms both are necessary for each other).
Indeed he insists on the maintenance of this balance (even at the most introverted stages of development).
"God comes to us without ceasing both with means and without means and demands of us both action and fruition, in such a way that one never impedes but always strengthens the other. And therefore the most inward man lives his life in these two ways; namely in work and in rest. And in each he is whole and undivided; for he is wholly in God because he rests in fruition; and he is wholly in himself because he loves in activity; and he is perpetually called by God to renew both the rest and the work."
("With means" refers to discriminating conscious activity; "without means" refers to direct spiritual intuition; both fruition and rest would refer here to the pure activity of contemplation).
This breathing out and breathing in (activity and contemplation) is expressed even more simply in the following:
Also – though it may not even be noticed by many - he provides a simple explanation to the age old crux of Christ’s nature (as both human and divine).
Quite simply the spiritual person discovers this complementarity as essential attributes of his/her own nature. (In the eternal birth we are all Sons of God!) The divine aspect is realised (directly) through contemplation; the human aspect is realised through work and activity.
However I would still see a certain problem with Ruysbroeck’s approach.
He portrays – insofar as it is possible – a dynamic balanced model of spiritual development.
The emphasis is on continual gradual evolution. In his own case he lived a mainly active life (till 50) about another 40 years in a progressively more contemplative fashion. Thus one might suspect that though – as a general principle – he emphasises balance that in practice – in his own case – this meant that the contemplative aspect became increasingly more important.
Now when looks at the lives of the great spiritual transformers a different pattern is evident.
Here the culmination of the contemplative life is but a prelude to committed and progressive immersion in the market place of the world. So with the greatest Saints (Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyala, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila and indeed in our own day Mother Teresa of Calcutta) we see a far more dynamic involvement with the world at the final stage of development.
Indeed this leads to an interesting problem in the very description the "highest" stages of development. In this context I am referring to both St. John of the Cross and Ruysbroeck. In St. John's case - though he sees the final stage of "Spiritual Marriage" as incomparably greater than "Spiritual Espousal" - he still does not succeed in properly distinguishing the two. This is due largely to his attempt to address these stages in purely contemplative terms. Likewise in the case of Ruysbroeck though he sees his "highest stage of "Superessential or God-Seeing Life" as distinct from his earlier "highest interior stage" yet again his descriptions of both are remarkably similar. This is due to a strong contemplative bias.
Indeed he seemed to be aware of this himself to some degree. In the Spiritual Adornment he gives a beautiful nondual interpretation of union with God at the "highest" stage. However later in "the Sparkling Stone" he modifies his position somewhat and maintains both a dual and a nondual stance (which I think is ultimately more correct and indeed more consistent with his overall approach).
Before moving on I will deal with just one more important notion.
In Ruysbroeck's view every person is God in their essential nature. So each person is born with a divine imprint which is nothing less than God's own Being.
And"According to his or her creatureliness the human person undergoes the imprint of God's eternal image without ceasing; just like an untarnished mirror which always reflects the image and which without ceasing renews our knowledge of our appearance with new clarity. This essential unity of our spirit with God does not exist in itself. It rests in God, and flows from God, and hangs in God, and returns to God as its eternal source."
This in fact represent the most profound expression of the Jungian notion of an archetype. In a primary sense our archetypal nature is God. So essentially the archetype of the (Jungian) Self is God.
Now of course though this is true as an (eternal) essential reality, its realisation must take place in the phenomenal world of space-time. The unfolding of the eternal archetype takes place gradually during the "higher" spiritual stages of development. During the subtle realm it is seen as a projection of the self and remains embodied in phenomenal terms. In the causal realm this projection is transcended so that the archetype becomes inseparable from (transcendent) spirit. With nondual reality it also becomes realised as (immanent) spirit. Then during - what I term "Radial Reality" the World is wonderfully reborn as the creative expression of this loving embrace in spirit.
Ruysbroeck's notion of the divine imprint on the soul can be used to clarify the Christian mystery of the Incarnation. When this is approached (without authentic spiritual insight) it is applied strictly to the birth of Jesus Christ (Who is exclusively understood as the Son of God). However from a true mystical perspective, each person is the Son of God (by reason of their eternal birth). So the Christian story of love and redemption by which God the Father sends his only Son into the World in order to save it from sin and separation - by definition - is the story of every person Who is born. However this can only be understood through experiential realisation (i.e. by realising the Divinity which is one's eternal birthright).
This also throws light on the myth of the Virgin Birth. This has really nothing to do with Mary being physically a virgin. Rather it draws attention to the fact that we all have two kinds of birth. There is the birth of natural parents (which results from sexual intercourse). However in a deeper primary sense there is the eternal spiritual birth (by which each person has been destined to come into the world for all eternity). So the very point of the Virgin birth is to draw attention - in the case of Jesus Christ - to this fundamental Divine origin (as born of God). However As Ruysbroeck clearly states this is something that is shared by every human being as an eternal birth right.
I will now move on to a more detailed treatment of how he deals with stages of development.
In the Sparkling Stone he distinguishes four spiritual "types".
First there are the "hirelings". These follow a mercenary approach and use "spirituality" as another means of serving their egos. For example a politician who poses as a concerned churchgoer so as to improve his profile among voters could well be a "hireling".
The "faithful servants" do try to sincerely serve God in their outward lives. However they may well lack true depth of spiritual experience and be quite worldly. This can often be the case with conscientious Christians who yet find it difficult to escape the materialistic rat race.
The "secret friends" are those who have genuinely entered on the "higher" transpersonal stages of development. However even here considerable barriers may remain to full union of God. Indeed the majority who do go genuinely "transpersonal" only do so to a limited degree.
The "hidden sons of God" are those who surrender the ego self to a such a degree that they can experience direct union with God. Very few truly attain to this level. Clearly in his own life Ruysbroeck exemplifies well this fourth type.
In "The Adornment of the Spiritual Life" t he gives most attention to the stages of development. Ruysbroeck uses a very simple classification of just three stages
viz. the active, the interior and the Superessential (God-Seeing) life.
The first stage (corresponding to that of the faithful servant) involves the attempt to live an honest and sincere spiritual life. This is a mediated form of union where one relies for inspiration on brief flashes of spiritual insight. It is still however very much dependent on conscious attempts to cultivate good habits and "adorn" oneself with virtue. What is particularly important is the exercising of will through the general intention of serving God. Thus would in its latter stages involve the purgative way (i.e. active nights of sense and spirit).
Ruysbroeck alludes to the story of Zaccheus in the Bible who climbed up a tree so as to better see Christ. Likewise someone who is to advance further they must also spiritually transcend (by escaping the distractions of life) so that God may invite him/her inward.
The second stage (corresponding to secret friends) involves what is generally referred to in Christian terms as the Illuminative Way. Though temperamentally his style is very different from that of St. John of the Cross, in many respects his treatment is similar.
He deals firstly with both the illumination (what Underhill refers to as "The Awakening of Self") and purgation of the "lower" senses ("Purgation of the Self"). However one does not sense here the same dramatic reversal (as with St. John). Rather there is a natural evolution (rather like the change of seasons).
Next there is the illumination of the "higher" powers (what Underhill refers to as "The Illumination of the Self"). Ruysbroeck speaks of this illumination in terms of the imagery of "Light" and "Fire". He distinguishes three types of radiance. Firstly there is direct or simple intuition which is seen as a sort of quickening light. Then there is a spreading radiance what is the effect of intuition on the intellectual powers. Finally there is burning flame that enkindles the will. So the soul at this time becomes drenched by the spirit. Of course there is the negative side also in the "Dark Night of the Soul". However this again is treated as a natural evolution so that the soul - increasingly immersed in this radiance - is led to shed all attachments in achieving true nakedness of spirit. The "Dark Night of the Soul" is described by Ruysbroeck as follows
In that same manner when Christ that glorious sun has risen to his zenith in the heart of man, as I have thought in the third degree (the burning flame), and afterwards begins to decline, to hide the radiance of His divine sunbeams and to forsake the man; then the heat and impatience of love grow less. Now that occultation of Christ, and the withdrawal of His light and heat are the first work and the new coming of this degree. And Christ says inwardly to this man, Go ye out in the manner which I now show you: and the man goes out and finds himself to be poor, miserable and abandoned. Here, all the storm, the impatience of his love grow cool: glowing summer turns to autumn, all its riches are transformed into a great poverty. And the man begins to complain because of his wretchedness: for where now are the ardours of love, the intimacy, the gratitude, the joyful praise and the interior consolation, the secret joy, the sensible sweetness? How have all these things failed him? And the burning violence of his love and all the gifts which he felt before. How has all this died in him? And he feels like some ignorant man who has lost all his learning and his works … and of this misery there is born the fear of being lost, and as it were a sort of half doubt: and this is the lowest point at which a man can hold his ground without falling into despair".
Though in no way conflicting with St. John's account, in temperamental terms this is very different. Even here the importance of active involvement in affairs is maintained (though admittedly a failing involvement).
I believe that at least that some of the terrible abandonment (evident in St. John's account) is due to incipient signs of pathological depression (due in part to lack of emphasis on external involvement).
Ruysbroeck's account - though psychologically not so profound - somehow seems healthier and more balanced.
It is important to comment on this for Ruysbroeck emphasises three aspects.
Firstly there is the (impersonal) desire to achieve total detachment in pure emptiness and nakedness of spirit. This is an aspect that is strongly emphasised in much of Eastern spirituality.
Secondly there is the (personal) desire to achieve union with one's beloved. When the natural symbols of desire are removed one suffers a continually obscure but intense inner longing. In Christian Mysticism this is usually seen as the proper starting point for detachment. Thirdly, there is what Ruysbroeck calls an inward life according to justice. What he means by this is the vital complementarity of work and rest (i.e. activity and contemplation. Even in the darkest depths of the Dark Night - though it may prove immensely difficult - it remains important to try and maintain an appropriate balance between the two.
The culmination of this second stage is described beautifully as follows
".. and here the hunger and thirst of love become so great that he perpetually surrenders himself and gives up his own works and empties himself and is noughted in love for he is hungry and thirsty for the grace of God and at each irradiation of God he is seized by God and more than ever before is newly touched by love. Living he dies and dying he lives again. And in this way the desirous hunger and thirst of love are renewed in every hour"
The third stage is what Ruysbroeck describes as Superessential (God-Seeing Reality).
Actually, this amounts to an extremely fine Christian statement of nondual reality. In particular he wonderfully describes the subtle transformation from darkness to dazzling-darkness (from the void to the plenum-void).
"In the abyss of this darkness, in which the loving spirit has
died to itself, there begin the manifestation of God and eternal
life. For in this darkness there shines and is born an
incomprehensible Light, which is the Son of God, in Whom we behold
eternal life. And in this Light one becomes seeing; and this
Divine Light is given to the simple sight of the spirit, where the
spirit receives the brightness which is God Himself, above all
gifts and every creaturely activity, in the idle emptiness in
which the spirit has lost itself through fruitive love, and where
it receives without means the brightness of God, and is changed
without interruption into that brightness which it receives."
Note that Ruysbroeck does not say that one can now see God. Rather he directly affirms that in this state one becomes the light that sees (i.e. becomes God) which is one's essential identity (through the Eternal Birth). So here one at last realises what one essentially is (i.e. God's own nature).
Ruysbroeck is not exaggerating (out of excessive spiritual ardour). What he states here and in various ways reaffirms repeatedly is fully consistent with his basic position. However he is only too aware of the problems that this authentic account might cause.
"And therefore I beg every one who cannot understand this, or feel it
in the fruitive unity of his spirit, that he be not offended at
it, and leave it for that which it is: for that which I am going
to say is true, and Christ, the Eternal Truth, has said it Himself
in His teaching in many places, if we could but show and explain
I have commented before in "God Dynamics" on the remarkable way that Ruysbroeck is able to link God and creation (while all the time demonstrating that they are inseparable from our own true identity.
"And, through the Eternal Birth, all
creatures have come forth in eternity, before they were created in
time. So God has seen and known them in Himself, according to
distinction, in living ideas, and in an otherness from Himself;
but not as something other in all ways, for all that is in God is
God. This eternal going out and this eternal life, which we have
and are in God eternally, without ourselves, is the cause of our
created being in time. And our created being abides in the Eternal
Essence and is one with it in its essential existence. "
"In this Divine image all creatures have an eternal life outside themselves as in their eternal Archetype; and after this eternal Image and in this Likeness, we have been made by the Holy Trinity. And therefore God wills that we shall go forth from ourselves in this Divine Light, and shall reunite ourselves in a supernatural way with this Image, which is our proper life, and shall possess it in Him, in action and in fruition, in eternal bliss…"
There is a sustained brilliance on these brief chapters describing the Superessential Life, which rarely if ever has been matched in Christian Mysticism. It feels as if he is inviting us to become immersed in a vast surging ocean of spirit so as to be washed up continually on the eternal shores of meaning (which is nothing else but our own essential nature in God).