MYSTICISM: John Ruysbroeck—The Little Book of Enlightenment

John Ruysbroeck—The Little Book of Enlightenment

From The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism

John Ruysbroeck is the most famous of Dutch mystics.  His long life (1293–1381) spanned one of the most troubled centuries of the Middle Ages, but he does not dwell on the contemporary problems of church and society.  Rather, Ruysbroeck concentrates on the soul’s progress toward the “common life,” that is, our sharing in the interaction of the divine persons in the Trinity.  Ruysbroeck’s mysticism was set forth during an era in which there were many debates about mysticism and mystical union.  He was aware of at least some of Eckhart’s writings, and he was careful to qualify and even to criticize, what he thought were some of Eckhart’s excesses.

Ruysbroeck was particularly concerned about the proper understanding of union with God.  The traditional Latin view of union was that of the “union of spirits” (unitas spiritus) in which God and the human person become united in perfect willing through the action, or mediation, or grace.  Some of the women mystics of the thirteenth century, as well as Meister Eckhart, advanced a view of indistinct union.  Beginning in the early fourteenth century, the Free Spirit heretics were accused of claiming that they had achieved such deep indistinction with God that they were no longer bound by the laws of morality or the commandments of the church.  Ruysbroeck was a strenuous opponent of these errors, and he used the debate to work out an original theology of three interpenetrating and coexisting levels of union with God.  The first is “union through an intermediary,” that is, through the action of grace conveyed in the sacraments.  The second is “union without an intermediary,” our being rapt into the life of the three Persons in the Trinity.  Ruysbroeck’s third form of union, “union with difference,” sounds much like Eckhart’s “union of indistinction.”  For the Dutch mystic, however, such union, though it involves becoming lost in a state of unknowing that finds no distinction in God, not even that of the Trinity, always coexists with and implies union with intermediary and union without intermediary. (Bernard McGinn)


Chapter 10

And there you must accept that the Persons yield and lose themselves whirling in essential love, that is, in enjoyable unity; nevertheless, they always remain according to their personal properties in the working of the Trinity.  You may thus understand that the divine nature is eternally active according to the mode of the Persons and eternally at rest and without mode according to the simplicity of its essence.  It is why all that God has chosen and enfolded with eternal personal love, he has possessed essentially, enjoyably in unity, with essential love.  For the divine Persons embrace mutually in eternal complacency with an infinite and active love in unity.  This activity is constantly renewed in the living life of the Trinity.  There is continuously new birth-giving in new knowledge, new complacency, and new breathing forth of the Spirit in a new embrace with a new torrent of eternal love.  All the elect, angels, and men from the last to the first, are embraced in this complacency.  It is in this complacency that Heaven and Earth are suspended, existence, life, activity, and maintenance of all creatures, save only the aversion from God through sin which comes from the creatures’ own blind perversity.  And out of the complacency of God flow grace and glory and all the gifts in Heaven and on Earth and in each individually according to his need and to his receptivity.  For the grace of God is prepared for all men and awaits the return of every sinner.  When he, by means of the touch of grace, decides to take pity on himself and trustfully call on God, he always finds pardon.  So whosoever, by means of grace with loving complacency, is brought back to the eternal complacency of God will be caught and embraced in the fathomless love which is God himself, and he is forever renewed in love and virtue.  For while we please God and God pleases us, then love is practiced and eternal life.  But God has loved us eternally and has cherished us in his complacency and we should consider that rightly, and thus our love and complacency should be renewed, for through the relations between the Persons in the divinity there is always new complacency with new out-flowing of love in a new embrace in unity.  And this is without time, that is to say, without before or after in an eternal present, for in the embrace in unity all things have been consummated.  And in the out-flowing of love all things are being achieved.  And in the living fruitful nature of all things have the potentiality to occur, for in the living fruitful nature the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son, and the Holy Spirit in them both.  For it is a living and fruitful unity which is the source and the fount of all life and all genesis.  And for this reason all creatures are there without themselves the bursting-out of the Persons with distinction, so the Son is from the Father and the Holy Spirit from them both.  There God has created and ordered all creatures in their own essence.  And he has remade man by his grace and by his death, so far as it lies in his power.  He has adorned his own with love and with virtues and brought them back with him to their beginning.  There, the Father with the Son and all the beloved are enfolded and embraced in the bond of love, that is to say, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.  It is this same unity which is fruitful according to the bursting-out of the Persons and in the return, an eternal bond of love which can nevermore be untied.  And all those who know themselves to be bound therein must remain eternally blissful.  They are all rich in virtues and enlightened in contemplation and simple where they rest enjoyably, for in their turning-in, the love of God reveals itself as flowing out with all good and drawing in into unity and as super-essential and without mode in an eternal repose.  And so they are united to God, by intermediary, without intermediary, and also without difference.

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