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Title: A Mediaeval Mystic - A Short Account of the Life and Writings of Blessed John - Ruysbroeck, Canon Regular of Groenendael A.D. 1293-1381
Author: Scully, Vincent
Language: English
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*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Mediaeval Mystic - A Short Account of the Life and Writings of Blessed John - Ruysbroeck, Canon Regular of Groenendael A.D. 1293-1381" ***

                           A MEDIÆVAL MYSTIC

                      A SHORT ACCOUNT OF THE LIFE
                      AND WRITINGS OF BLESSED JOHN
                      RUYSBROECK, CANON REGULAR OF
                       GROENENDAEL A.D. 1293-1381

                       DOM VINCENT SCULLY, C.R.L.

                        (_Permissu Superiorum_)

                              THOMAS BAKER

                               PRINTED BY
                     HAZELL, WATSON AND VINEY, LD.,
                         LONDON AND AYLESBURY.

                THE RIGHT REV. AUGUSTIN H. WHITE, C.R.L.
                         LORD ABBOT OF WALTHAM


  INTRODUCTION                                                         ix
     I. EARLY YEARS AND EDUCATION                                       1
    II. AS A SECULAR PRIEST IN BRUSSELS                                 6
   III. FALSE MYSTICS                                                  10
    IV. THE HERMITAGE OF GROENENDAEL                                   17
     V. THE CANONS REGULAR OF GROENENDAEL                              25
    VI. PRIOR OF GROENENDAEL                                           33
   VII. RUYSBROECK'S TREE                                              43
  VIII. A DIRECTOR OF SOULS                                            47
    IX. RUYSBROECK AND GERARD GROOTE                                   50
     X. RUYSBROECK AND WINDESHEIM                                      58
    XI. THE WRITINGS OF RUYSBROECK                                     67
   XII. THE TEACHING OF RUYSBROECK                                     93
  XIII. SOME APPRECIATIONS                                            105
   XIV. LAST DAYS                                                     118
    XV. THE CULTUS OF BLESSED JOHN RUYSBROECK                         124


The object of the following unpretentious little volume is to give a
simple and readable account in English of the life and writings of a
remarkable Flemish Mystic of the fourteenth century, a contemporary of
our own Walter Hilton. Though his memory and honour have never faded in
his own native Belgium, and though France and Germany have vied with each
other in spreading his teaching and singing his praises, the very name of
Blessed John Ruysbroeck is practically unknown this side of the water. We
are acquainted with only one small work in English dealing directly with
the Saint or his work at all, viz. _Reflections from the Mirror of
Mystic_,[1] giving the briefest sketch of his life and some short
extracts from his writings as translated from the French rendering of
Ernest Hello.

The original authorities for the history of Ruysbroeck are practically
reduced to one, the biography by Henry Pomerius, a Canon Regular of
Groenendael, entitled _De Origine monasterii Viridisvallis una cum vitis
B. Joannis Rusbrochii primi prioris hujus monasterii et aliquot
coaetaneorum ejus_, re-edited by the Bollandists, Brussels, 1885. It is
certain that a disciple of John Ruysbroeck, John of Scoenhoven, also of
Groenendael, who undertook the defence of Blessed John's writings against
Gerson, composed a short biography, but this was embodied in the work of
Pomerius, and thereby as a separate volume fell out of use and memory.
Pomerius had Scoenhoven's MS. to work upon, and some of Ruysbroeck's
contemporaries were still living at Groenendael when he composed his
biography there. The brief references by the Venerable Thomas à Kempis in
his _Vita Gerardi Magni_ are likewise of great interest and intrinsic

For the purposes of this brief biography, which lays no claim whatever to
original research, the compiler has made very great use of the labours of
Dr. Auger, _De Doctrina et Meritis Joannis van Ruysbroeck_, Louvain, and
Willem de Vreese, _Jean de Ruysbroeck_, an extract from the _Biographie
Nationale_, published by l'Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et
des beaux-arts de Belgique, Brussels, 1909. This indebtedness is
especially true of the summarised analysis of the various works of

Later it may be possible to give a complete and faithful English
rendering of all Ruysbroeck's Works from the critical edition which is at
present preparing in Louvain; where there is an active revival of
interest in this great and holy Mystic of the Netherlands.

For the judgment of competent witnesses as to the permanent value and
extraordinary sublimity of B. John's writings the reader is referred to
the body of this work under the heading, _Some Appreciations_.

The usual protest is made according to the Decrees of Urban VIII.
concerning alleged miracles, etc., recorded in these pages.

St. Ives, Cornwall,

                 _Feast of Our Lady's Nativity_, 1910.

                           A Mediæval Mystic


                       Early Years and Education

Blessed John Ruysbroeck, surnamed the Admirable and the Divine Doctor, by
common consent the greatest Mystic the Low Countries have ever produced,
was born, A.D. 1293, at Ruysbroeck, a village some miles south of
Brussels, lying between that city and Hal. According to the fashion of
those days, especially with Religious, he was named after his birthplace,
John van Ruysbroeck, or John Ruysbroeck. The Venerable à Kempis, the
Latinised form of van Kempen, is a case in point; Thomas was so named
after his native town, Kempen, though his patronymic was Haemerken. Of
Ruysbroeck, however, we know of no other surname; neither do his
biographers so much as mention his father. But like many another great
servant of God, John was blessed with a good mother, a devout woman who
trained her child from the cradle to walk in the paths of Christian piety
and perfection. She is charged with only one fault, that she loved her
son too tenderly!

Perhaps we are to understand by this that the poor woman opposed the
boy's early aspirations after a more retired life than could be found
even in the peaceful shelter of his own pious home. This would also
explain John's first recorded act. At the age of eleven years he ran away
from home! How many a lad before and since has torn himself away from a
loving mother's too fond embrace to quell the ardour of a restless spirit
in the quest of adventure! John also was eager and dissatisfied; but the
larger sphere for which he sighed was to be sought along the unaccustomed
ways which lead to the sublime heights and the rarified atmosphere of
mystic contemplation.

The pious truant made his way to Brussels, there to call upon an uncle of
his, one John Hinckaert, a major Canon of St. Gudule's. The son and heir
of a wealthy magistrate of the city, and possessed, moreover, of a rich
benefice, for many years John Hinckaert had been somewhat worldly in his
ways; but one day Divine grace found him out as he was listening to a
sermon, and drew him sweetly and strongly to a life of extreme simplicity
and mortification. His example was soon followed by a fellow Canon, by
name Francis van Coudenberg, a Master of Arts, possessed of considerable
means, and a man of great repute with the people. These two agreed, for
their mutual edification and support, to live together in common. Their
material requirements were reduced to the barest necessaries; and the
surplus of their revenue was distributed among the poor. In this devout
household the lad John met with a kindly welcome; and there he found at
once a home after his own heart in an atmosphere saturated with
"other-worldliness" and prayer. His good uncle also took charge of his
education. For four years Ruysbroeck followed the ordinary course of
Humanities in the public schools of Brussels, and then, with a view to
the priesthood, he devoted himself to the more congenial study of the
sacred sciences.

Meanwhile the bereaved mother had discovered the place of John's retreat
and had quitted her village of Ruysbroeck to reside with him at Brussels.
As, however, she was not permitted to dwell in the Presbytery, she made
her abode in a _Béguinage_ hard by. Thus she had at least the consolation
of seeing her son from time to time. She must have been much comforted
also for the deprivation of his company by the constant evidence of his
growing sanctity. And, further, we are assured that she set herself to
make profit of her sacrifice by emulating in her own person the holy life
of her son John, and his saintly masters, Hinckaert and van Coudenberg.


                    As a Secular Priest in Brussels

In due course Canon Hinckaert procured for his nephew one of the lesser
prebends of St. Gudule's, and John was ordained priest in the year 1317,
at the age of twenty-four. His good mother did not survive to witness
this happy event in the flesh, nevertheless even beyond the grave she had
good cause to rejoice therein. After her departure from this world she
had often appeared to her son, lamenting her pains, beseeching his
prayers, and sighing for the day when he would be able to offer for her
the holy Sacrifice. And John was unceasing in his supplications. But
immediately after the celebration of his first Mass, as he related to his
Religious Brethren later, God granted him a vision full of consolation:
when the sacred oblation was accomplished, his mother came to visit and
thank him for her deliverance from Purgatory. The touching incident is
well worth recording, if only to show that it was through no lack of
natural affection that the child John had so unceremoniously forsaken
home and mother. Moreover, of these two holy souls it was singularly true
that _having loved each other in life, in death they were not parted_,
for they were privileged often to converse together, and finally it was
from his mother that Ruysbroeck learned the date of his own approaching

For twenty-six years in all Blessed John lived as a secular priest in
Brussels. Content with his modest chaplaincy in the Church of St. Gudule,
and with his holy companions Hinckaert and van Coudenberg continuing
happily in apostolic simplicity and poverty the Common Life on which he
had entered a mere child, Ruysbroeck passed his days in peaceful
retirement and almost uninterrupted prayer and contemplation.

A characteristic episode of this period reveals to us the man as in a
flash, his mean garb, his emaciated figure, his absorbed demeanour, his
utter abandonment in God. He was passing through a square of Brussels one
day, silent and recollected, as was his wont, when two laymen remarked

"My God," exclaimed one, "would I were as holy as that priest!"

"Nay, for my part," returned the other, "I would not be in his shoes for
all the wealth of the world. I should never know a day's pleasure on

"Then you know nothing of the delights which God bestows, or of the
delicious savour of the Holy Ghost," thought Ruysbroeck to himself, for
he happened to overhear the words, and he proceeded tranquilly on his


                             False Mystics

But with all his love of peace and retirement, when it was a question of
guarding the integrity of the Faith and of warding off peril from
immortal souls, Ruysbroeck hesitated not to stand in the breach; even
though others of much higher position in the Church and of much higher
repute for theological learning than the obscure chaplain of St. Gudule's
should raise not a finger nor so much as utter a warning word.

The student of history is well aware of the many and startling contrasts
and contradictions presented by the Middle Ages. It was an epoch of
magnificent virtues and of gross vices, of splendid heroism and of
unspeakable cruelty, of superb generosity and of disgusting meanness,
and, which is more to our point at present, of intense devotion and of
the most revolting vagaries in doctrine and morals. While also on the one
hand there was much genuine zeal, much earnest endeavour to reform crying
abuses in Church and State; on the other hand hypocrites and fanatics
abounded, who aimed at the destruction of the principle of authority on
the plea of amending those in power, or who, the while they inveighed
against the futility of a merely exterior religion and insisted on the
supreme need of purity of heart, themselves fell into the excess of
neglecting all external form, and at times all outward decency and
observance of morality.

In varying degrees these latter errors are to be encountered under one
shape or another in every age; but at the period of which we treat they
were especially intense and extreme. The _Beghards_ and the _Béguines_
(when and where these broke loose from ecclesiastical control), the
_Flagellants_, the _Brethren of the Free Spirit_ were chief of a group of
extravagant sects which afflicted the Church in Italy, France, Germany,
and the Netherlands; while England at the same time was disturbed by the
fanaticism of the Lollards. In general their peculiar tenets were a
strange admixture of pantheism, false mysticism, apparent austerity, and
very real immorality. The following is one of their characteristic
propositions, condemned by Clement V. in the Council of Vienna, A.D.
1311-1312: "That those who are in the aforesaid grade of perfection and
in the spirit of liberty (contemplatives) are not subject to human
authority and are not obliged to obey any precepts of the Church, because
(as they say) _where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty_."

It so happened that contemporary with our Saint in Brussels was a
prominent leader of the heretics of the _Free Spirit_, a woman whose name
is given as Bloemardinne, a good type, to judge by the description of
Ruysbroeck's biographer, of the whole genus of such teachers in those
days and in our own.[2] So great was this creature's reputation for
sanctity that it was commonly reported that two Seraphim accompanied her
to the altar when she approached to receive Holy Communion. She always
delivered her teachings, whether by word or in writing, seated on a
throne of silver. At her demise this chair was presented to the reigning
Duchess of Brabant. After Bloemardinne's death also cripples came to
touch her body in the persuasion that they would be miraculously healed
thereby. Her teaching was of the kind indicated above, concerned chiefly
with the so-called liberty of the spirit; the passion of lust she had the
impudence to call seraphic love. She issued numerous pamphlets remarkable
for their subtlety; and by one means and another she managed to win and
retain a very considerable number of disciples.

Moved by zeal and compassion on witnessing the ruin and loss of souls
thus effected, John Ruysbroeck set himself to confute this heretic's
various publications point by point as they appeared. In consequence, he
incurred not a little hostility and persecution. Possibly it was this
opposition which finally decided Ruysbroeck and his holy companions to
quit Brussels for the more peaceful retirement of the neighbouring forest
of Soignes. But meanwhile he never for a moment desisted from his efforts
in defence of the Faith, and in the propagation of the doctrines of sane
mysticism. Of the treatises published professedly against Bloemardinne
there is nothing extant. But in all his works Ruysbroeck keeps an eye on
the errors of the day. He returns to them again and again, analysing
their sources, describing their characteristics, indicating the mischief
they work, and offering a reasoned and solid confutation. At the same
time, with wondrous sureness and perspicacity, from the rich stores of
his own intimate experience, he points out the safe and sure paths which
lead the soul to loving union with God.

Some thirty years after Ruysbroeck's death, in 1410, the Archbishop of
Cambrai called his disciples, the Canons Regular of Groenendael, to come
and aid him in preaching against the successors of the notorious
Bloemardinne--a fact eloquent both of the obstinacy of this particular
heresy and of Blessed John's reputation as its most vigorous opponent.


                      The Hermitage of Groenendael

It appears that it was on the suggestion of Francis van Coudenberg that
the three holy priests resolved to abandon Brussels to seek elsewhere for
themselves a refuge of greater security and retirement. It was through
the influence also of van Coudenberg with John III., Duke of Brabant,
that they obtained the cession of an ideal property for their purpose,
the hermitage, namely, of Groenendael, with its lands and lake.

The spot had already been sanctified by the prayers and penances of holy
recluses for nigh forty years. The first to retire thither had been one
John Busch, of the ducal house of Brabant, who, weary of the strife,
frivolities, and perils of court life, obtained from his kinsman, John
II., leave to retire into the forest of Soignes, to build himself a hut
and enclose a space of land there to be cultivated with his own hands for
his support. The deed of gift was dated the Friday after the Assumption
of Mary, 1304, and it stipulated that on the death or departure of the
grantee, another hermit should take his place, and so on for ever. In
effect, the noble John Busch was succeeded by one Arnold of Diest, who,
on entering, made a vow never to sally forth save on festivals for the
purpose of hearing Mass and receiving Holy Communion in the Parish Church
of St. Clement at Hoolaert. God rewarded this generous sacrifice by a
singular favour: Arnold was passionately devoted to the memory of the
Holy Apostles and Martyrs of Rome, and he was transported in spirit so
frequently thither that the shrines and sanctuaries of the Eternal City
became as familiar to him as to a native. When in a green old age he came
to die, Arnold surprised the bystanders with the request that he should
be laid to rest in the hermitage grounds. They objected that the
enclosure was not consecrated: he responded that one day it would be the
site of a monastery, the home of saintly Religious, and the Mother-house
of a holy congregation. However, he was buried in the Parish Church of
Hoolaert before the altar of St. Nicholas. His successor, Lambert, the
last of the Groenendael hermits, was so poor in spirit as not to be
attached even to his cell. He cheerfully yielded place to John Hinckaert,
van Coudenberg, and Ruysbroeck, and retired to a cell which they had
procured for him at Hoetendael, the modern Uccle. Groenendael was handed
over to the three companions by the Duke of Brabant on Easter Wednesday,
1343, on the condition that they should forthwith erect a house to
accommodate a community of at least five, two of whom should be priests
_viventes religiose_.

The taking of possession is recorded in the Groenendael Chronicle thus:
"In 1344 the aforesaid, with the bishop's consent, began to build a
chapel in Groenendael. And the Vicars of Lord Guy, then Bishop of
Cambrai, inspected the building on March 13, 1344, and decreed that it
should be consecrated, together with a cemetery adjacent, two altars, and
other necessary appurtenances. On the same day of the same year the said
Vicars conferred on Dom Francis the cure of the brethren, the household,
and the servants, appointing him their Father and Parish Priest. Then the
same year, on March 17, the Venerable Lord Brother Matthias, Bishop of
the Church of Trebizond (Coadjutor of Cambrai), by faculty and licence of
the said Vicars of the Lord Bishop Guy, consecrated the aforesaid first
church in the honour of St. James, and erected it into a Parochial Church
for the same Dom Francis, his brethren and household."

For five years Dom Francis van Coudenberg and his companions continued to
live thus in community, bound by no other rule than their own profound
spirit of prayer and intense desire of perfection. Nor were they long
left to enjoy alone the solitude of their retreat. Many sought admission
into their company; still larger numbers flocked from Brussels and
elsewhere to seek spiritual aid and consolation. If he had consulted his
own inclination and bent, Ruysbroeck would have denied himself to all;
but van Coudenberg represented that they should not in charity refuse
assistance to souls in need. And Blessed John yielded the more easily,
remarks one of his biographers, because for his part he was assured of
being able to repose in God amid the most distracting calls and absorbing

One of their earliest associates, John van Leeuwen, attained a high
reputation for sanctity. A poor and ignorant layman of Afflighem, he had
offered his services as their domestic _gratis_. Before long he was known
far and wide as the "Good Cook of Groenendael." The multitude of visitors
upon whom he was called to attend left him but little leisure, yet he
found time not only to be absorbed in prayer and contemplation, but even
to compose treatises of an exalted spirituality. Like his master
Ruysbroeck, whom he venerated profoundly, he was deeply recollected amid
the most exacting duties, and frequently he was favoured with heavenly
visions. It was while in a state of ecstasy that the sublime gifts and
heroic holiness of Blessed John were revealed to him; ever after no terms
seemed to him too exalted in which to describe the worth of the servant
of God. The general esteem in which van Leeuwen himself was held is
sufficiently attested by the inscription on his tomb: "Reliquiae Fratris
Joannis de Leeuwis vulgo Boni Coci viri a Deo illuminati et scriptis
mysticis clari obiit anno MCCCLXXVII. V. Februarii." _The Remains of
Brother John van Leeuwen, commonly called the Good Cook, a man
enlightened by God and renowned for his mystic writings. He died February
5, 1377._

Much more distracting to the recluses than the frequent visits of pilgrim
penitents or the arrival of fresh neophytes was the constant coming and
going of huntsmen from the household of the Duke of Brabant. The forest
of Soignes, in which Groenendael is situate, was a favourite resort for
the chase, and the position of the hermitage itself, within a few miles
of the capital, made it a very convenient place of rest and refreshment
for the hunters and their hounds. But the noise and bustle attendant on
such company were scarcely conducive to the spirit of prayer, and the
demands thus made on the hospitality of the young Community were a heavy
drain on its resources. Nevertheless the solitaries were naturally
fearful of giving offence to the followers of their Patron the Duke.
Moreover, since they were not established as a regular Religious
Community, they could not claim the privileges of the cloister.


                   The Canons Regular of Groenendael

The inconveniences just noted, together with the continual increase in
their numbers, gave point and force to a strong remonstrance addressed to
Francis van Coudenberg and his Brethren by Pierre de Saulx, Prior of the
Canons Regular of St. Victor, Paris, concerning the _irregularity_ of
their unaccustomed manner of life. Herein the good Prior was in effect
only voicing the opinion of many zealous and prudent leaders among both
clergy and laity. The times were so rife in sects and societies of false
mystics, and so much mischief was wrought under the guise of piety, that
any form of community life outside the cloister and the three regular
vows was regarded with strong suspicion and dislike. A few years later
Gerard Groote, a disciple of Ruysbroeck, and Florence Radewyn, the first
spiritual Director of the Venerable Thomas à Kempis, founded a lay
association of _Devout Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life_, and this
society also was subjected to a fierce opposition arising from the same
sentiment of distrust for all religious movement outside the beaten
track. Happily, the Brothers were able to weather the storm by producing
irrefragable proofs of their orthodoxy, and of their entire submission to
the ecclesiastical authorities. But also, by the advice and according to
the desires of Gerard Groote himself, they placed themselves under the
protection and guidance of a Religious Order springing from their own
body, namely the Canons Regular of Windesheim, of which congregation the
Venerable à Kempis was one of the earliest members as well as the
brightest ornament.

Prior Pierre de Saulx urged on van Coudenberg and his associates to
regularise their status, silence suspicion, and escape the many
inconveniences to which at present they were exposed by embracing the
Rule and adopting the habit of some already established Religious Order.
With edifying humility the Community of Groenendael accepted the reproof
and its accompanying counsel; and applied at once to Peter Andrew, Bishop
of Cambrai, for the necessary authorisation to adopt the Institute of the
Canons Regular under the Rule of St. Augustin of Hippo. This permission
the Ordinary granted most readily. With his own hands he clothed Francis
van Coudenberg, John Ruysbroeck and their companions in the canonical
habit, March 10, 1349, and the following day he appointed Dom Francis
Provost,[3] and John Ruysbroeck he made Prior of the new Canonry. To van
Coudenberg the other members of the Community, with one exception,
professed canonical obedience, according to St. Augustin's Rule. The
Bishop bestowed upon them many privileges and exemptions; while the Duke
took them under his special protection and endowed them with sufficient
revenues for the upkeep of a large establishment.

The one exception noted above was Ruysbroeck's uncle and van Coudenberg's
old friend and master, John Hinckaert. At this date John Ruysbroeck was
fifty-six years of age, and Francis van Coudenberg was several years his
senior. They must certainly have been men of great zeal and courage to
undertake the full rigour and discipline of the Canonical Life, as they
understood it, at so advanced an age. Hinckaert, again, was much older
than either. And for fear lest out of consideration for his failing
powers the others should be induced to temper in any degree the austerity
of their observance, the good old man resolved to forgo for himself the
happiness of joining them in the profession of the vows. We can picture
what a source of regret this separation must have been to all three.
However, Hinckaert remained as near his friends as possible until the
end. A little cell was built just outside the cloister, and there after a
few years he peacefully passed away, their predecessor to eternal glory
as he had been their forerunner in the way of perfection.

The Canon Regular, Prior Pierre de Saulx, had reason to be well content
with the issue of his intervention in the affairs of Groenendael.
Seventeen years later we find him addressing to the Community another
characteristic rebuke. This time he complained of the formula of their
profession, which ran as follows: "I, N.       , offer and deliver myself
with these gifts to the service of this Church of St. James, Apostle. And
I promise God in the presence of clergy and people that I will abide here
henceforth to the end of my days without proprietorship, according to the
rule of the Canons and Blessed Augustin, to the best of my knowledge and
power. I also promise stability to this place as long as in any way I can
obtain what is needful for my soul and body, nor shall I for any motion
of fickleness or under any pretext of a more strict Order change this
habit or quit this cloister. I also promise obedience to all the prelates
of the aforesaid Church whom the better part of the Community shall
canonically elect, in order that I may receive a hundredfold and life

As a matter of fact, this form of profession was quite adequate.
Implicitly it contained the vow of chastity, since chastity is an
integral part of the Canonical Rule. However, the Prior of St. Victor
resided in Paris, the metropolis of scholasticism, and he strenuously
argued and maintained that, whereas chastity is one of the three
essential vows of Religion, and the formula made no mention thereof, the
said formula was incomplete, erroneous, contrary to the decretals and
canonical sanctions. And again he urges the Provost and the Brethren to
conform themselves in this, as in all else, to some fully authorised
branch of the institute of the Canons Regular.

Once more the good men humbly acquiesced; and it seems that they modelled
their religious family upon the famous Congregation of St. Victor, of
which their zealous counsellor was then the chief Superior.


                          Prior of Groenendael

Meanwhile the Community of Groenendael grew and flourished. The holy
Prior continued to make progress in the practice of heroic virtue, his
gifts of contemplation became ever more sublime, and still his reputation
for sanctity increased. His contemporary biographers, after the fashion
of their day, catalogue the Christian virtues, and one by one show how
they excelled in him. Let it suffice here to remark that those virtues
which he the most earnestly commends and the most highly exalts in his
writings, he the most constantly exercised in his own person. Chief of
these was humility, which he terms everywhere the foundation of
perfection; then obedience to men and resignation to the will of God, a
most tender devotion towards Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the
Altar, and, in fine, an ardent love of God and the neighbour. A few
instances may be given in illustration.

On one occasion Blessed John was seriously ill; consumed by fever and
tortured by an intense thirst, he begged the Brother Infirmarian for a
drink of water. The Provost, who happened to be present, forbade the
draught, fearing it might do him harm. He was literally dying of thirst,
and his lips were cracking, they were so parched, yet Ruysbroeck humbly
acquiesced. But later, reflecting how great would be the grief and
remorse of his friend and superior if he actually died of his agony, he
quietly remarked: "Father Provost, if I have not a drink of water now I
shall certainly not recover from this malady." Thereupon, in great alarm,
Dom Francis immediately bade him drink. And from that moment the holy man
began to regain his strength.

Another and a continual proof of his humility was the willingness with
which he took part in the heavy manual labour of the Community. His
dignity, his advanced age, his inexperience in such work, the many other
calls upon his time and strength--all this and the like the brethren
urged as motives wherefore he should be exempt; but he refused to listen.
Truth to tell, the material advantage from his toil was but little: his
frame was enfeebled by years and austerities, and in his ignorance he was
liable, for instance, to root up seedlings in the garden instead of
weeds! But the spiritual gain to the Brethren was incalculable; there was
not only the example of his humility, but of his unfailing recollection
too. In the midst of his labour he never lost his sense of the nearness
of God's presence. Indeed he was wont to say that it was easier for him
to raise his soul to God than to lift his hand to his forehead.

His humility also and his zeal for the regular observance prevented him
ever seeking dispensation from the customary exercises of the community
life, or exemption from any of the monastic austerities, vigils, or

His love for the neighbour was shown by the readiness and affability with
which he received and welcomed innumerable claimants on his sympathy,
help, and counsel. No soul ever left his presence dissatisfied; every one
went back from a visit to Groenendael greatly edified and inwardly
refreshed. On one occasion the Brethren were distressed for the moment by
an apparent exception. Two Parisian clerics had visited the holy old man
and had demanded some word or motto for their guidance and encouragement.

Ruysbroeck merely observed: "You are as holy as you wish to be."
Suspecting him of sarcasm, the strangers retired deeply mortified, and
they complained to the Canons that they were much disappointed in the
Prior, who evidently was not so saintly a man as rumour had led them to
believe. Learning the cause of their chagrin, some of the Brethren led
the clerics back to Blessed John and begged him to explain his meaning.
"But is it not simple?" he cried. "Is it not quite true? You are as holy
as you wish. Your good-will is the measure of your sanctity. Look into
yourselves and see what good-will you have, and you will behold also the
standard of your holiness." And then the visitors retired appeased and

Naturally his own Brethren were the first and chief to benefit by the
holy Prior's charity and zeal. He denied himself to none; he made himself
all to all. Sometimes he gave a spiritual conference after Compline, and
then perhaps he would be so carried away as he enlarged upon the goodness
of God and the bliss of heaven, for instance, that neither he nor his
listeners would note the passage of time. The midnight Office bell would
surprise them still hanging upon his words. But such was the fervour
infused by his burning eloquence that not one felt the loss of the three
or four hours' accustomed sleep.

Ruysbroeck always spoke without any immediate preparation; but it was
characteristic of the man that when requested by the Canons or by
strangers for a Conference, he would sometimes confess in all simplicity
that inspiration was lacking, that he had nothing to say. It was the same
with his written treatises: at the close of his life he was able to
declare that he had never committed anything to writing save under the
immediate motion of the Holy Spirit.

As so often happens with the Saints, Blessed John's love for the
neighbour overflowed in tenderness for his brothers and sisters of the
lower creation also. Knowing this trait, the Canons would remark to him
on the approach of winter: "See, Father Prior, it is snowing already.
What will the poor little birds do now?" And with expressions of
heartfelt compassion this sublime mystic, who was habitually lost in
dizziest heights of contemplation, would give instructions that the
feathered choristers outside the cloister should not be abandoned to
perish of hunger.

Very frequently in his works Blessed Ruysbroeck takes occasion to treat
of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and ever he speaks of this sacred
mystery in terms of the most vivid faith and intense devotion, discussing
it as a supreme proof of God's love for men, on a par with the gifts of
Creation, the Incarnation, and Redemption. His biographers tell us of his
personal love for the Blessed Eucharist, and especially of his ecstatic
devotion in offering the great Sacrifice. To the close of his long life,
even when his failing sight could no longer distinguish the figure of the
Crucified stamped upon the Host, nothing but grave sickness could hold
him back from daily celebration. Sometimes he swooned from the excess of
the sweetness with which his soul was inundated during the canon of the

On one such occasion not only did he faint, but he seemed on the point of
expiring, so that the terrified server reported the matter to the
Provost. Attributing the faintness to advancing age and weakness, the
Superior was about to forbid the holy old man to celebrate any more, when
Blessed John humbly besought him to forbear, assuring him that the swoon
was due not to the failing of years but to the overpowering of divine
grace, _non propter senium sed divinae gratiae collatum xenium_. "Even
to-day," he added, "Jesus Christ appeared to me, and filling my soul with
a deliciousness all divine, He said to my heart, _Thou art Mine and I am

Such heavenly favours seem to have been by no means rare with our Saint.
He was frequently ravished with a vision of Our Divine Lord in His sacred
Humanity. Christ appeared to him, accompanied by His Blessed Mother and a
numerous retinue of Saints, and conversed familiarly with him. On one
such occasion, penetrating his whole being with a sense of wondrous
sweetness, He greeted him with ineffable condescension thus: "Thou art My
dear son, in whom I am well pleased." Then Jesus Christ embraced him and
presented him to Our Lady and the attendant Saints with the words:
"Behold My chosen servant!"


                           Ruysbroeck's Tree

Whenever Blessed John felt the Spirit of God full upon him, even the
solitude of the cloister was not sufficiently retired for the intimacy of
the divine union. He would wander away into the depths of the forest
surrounding the monastery, there to abandon himself to the action of the
Holy Ghost undisturbed. On these occasions also he was wont to take with
him a stylus and a wax tablet, in order to jot down such thoughts and
lights as he was moved to preserve in writing. Of these notes a fair copy
was made on his return to the Priory. Towards the end of his days, when
his sight was failing and otherwise the effort of making these notes was
too much for him, one of the Canons always accompanied him into the
forest to write down at his dictation whatever he was moved to
communicate. Sometimes days or whole weeks would pass, and for want of
inspiration not a line nor a word would be added to the treatise in hand.
But when again the Spirit breathed, he continued from the very sentence
or phrase where he had paused, just as if there had been no interval

One day the Saint had retired as usual into the forest, and the Brethren,
knowing his occupation, respected his privacy. But when hours passed and
there was no sign of his return, they became alarmed and set out to scour
the woods in search of him. One of the Canons was especially intimate
with the Prior and loved him most tenderly. Perhaps his anxiety urged him
ahead of the rest. In a glade of the forest his eye lighted upon a
wondrous scene. He perceived a tree as it were in flames. On nearer
approach he discovered that it was in fact encircled with fire. And under
the tree, in the midst of the mysterious conflagration, John Ruysbroeck
was seated, manifestly rapt in ecstasy.

The memory of this miracle was never lost in the Community. For
generations the tree was known and venerated as _Ruysbroeck's Tree_. At
the close of the fifteenth century the Prior, James van Dynter, planted a
lime-tree in the same place, which received the respect shown hitherto to
the original, which presumably had died down. When in 1577 the Canons
were obliged to abandon Groenendael on account of the vexations of the
religious wars, it is said that this tree withered away until only its
bark was left; but when the Community returned in 1607, it revived and
flourished again.

This episode also has fixed the traditional representation of Blessed
John Ruysbroeck. He is usually pictured seated under a tree, a stylus in
his hand and a wax tablet resting on his knee, while Saint and tree alike
are encircled in brilliant rays of celestial light.


                          A Director of Souls

It is no wonder that as the fame of these and similar marvels spread
abroad, multitudes of the faithful, young and old, clergy and laity,
flocked to see and hear the holy Prior of Groenendael. They came to him
from Flanders, Brabant, Holland, Germany, and France. Ruysbroeck received
all with unvarying simple courtesy, and his unpremeditated words were
ever found to meet exactly the needs of each. Many placed themselves
unreservedly in his hands, and frequently sought his direction by
correspondence, or came long distances to consult him in person.

One of these penitents was the Baroness van Marke, of Rhode-St.-Agatha,
which lies midway between Groenendael and Louvain. This lady conceived
such a veneration for the holy Prior that when she went to visit him, she
walked the journey, pilgrimwise, barefoot. Finally, his exhortations to
flee and despise the passing vanities of the world prevailed so much with
her that she entered a Convent of Poor Clares in Cologne, and her son
Ingelbert joined the Community of Groenendael.

We are told of another disciple, who once fell into a grievous sickness
and at the same time into a still more grievous affliction of spirit. She
sent for Blessed John, begging him to visit her. She told him of her
distress; behold, she was abandoned by God, on the one hand no health or
strength was left her to perform her accustomed works of mercy, and on
the other hand physical suffering took away all taste for prayer! What
was she to do? "You can do nothing more pleasing to God, my dear child,"
responded the Saint, "than simply and utterly to submit to His holy will.
Strive to forsake your own desires and to give Him thanks for all
things." Such unction accompanied these simple and characteristic words
that the good lady felt deeply consoled, and she repined no more.

Among the more famous to frequent Groenendael, there to sit and learn at
the feet of Ruysbroeck, is mentioned the well-known German mystic Tauler.
But authorities are divided at present as to whether or no these visits
to Groenendael can be fitted in with other ascertained facts of Tauler's
life. However, it is certain that Tauler was well acquainted with the
writings of our Saint; to a great extent he followed his method, and at
times, in the free-and-easy style of those days, he did not hesitate to
transfer bodily from Ruysbroeck's volumes into his own.


                      Ruysbroeck and Gerard Groote

A greater than Tauler, and one whose influence was eventually far more
widespread, undoubtedly owed much to the recluse of Groenendael and
freely acknowledged Blessed John his master. This was the famous Gerard
Groote, the founder, as already noted, of the _Devout Brothers and
Sisters of the Common Life_, and through them of the Windesheim
Congregation of Canons Regular. The occasion and circumstances of
Groote's first visit to Groenendael are narrated by the Venerable Thomas
à Kempis in his _Vita Gerardi Magni_. The passage is so graphic and
characteristic that it is well worth transcribing.[4]

"The pious and humble Master Gerard, hearing of the great and widespread
fame of John Ruysbroeck, a monk and Prior of the Monastery of Grünthal,
near Brussels, went to the parts about Brabant, although the journey was
long, in order to see in bodily presence this holy and most devout
Father; for he longed to see face to face, and with his own eyes, one
whom he had known hitherto only by common report and by his books; and to
hear with his own ears that voice utter its words from a living human
mouth--a voice as gracious as if it were the very mouthpiece of the Holy
Ghost. He took with him therefore that revered man, Master John Cele, the
director of the School of Zwolle, a devout and faithful lover of Jesus
Christ; for their mind and heart were one in the Lord, and the fellowship
of each was pleasant to the other, and this resolve was kindled within
them that their journey, which was undertaken for the sake of spiritual
edification, should redound in the case of each to the Glory of God.

"There went also with them a faithful and devout layman, named Gerard the
shoemaker, as their guide upon the narrow way, and their inseparable
companion in this happy undertaking.

"When they came to the place called Grünthal, they saw no lofty or
elaborate buildings therein, but rather all the signs of simplicity of
life and poverty, such as marked the first footsteps of our Heavenly
King, when He, the Lord of Heaven, came upon this earth as a Virgin's
Son, and in exceeding poverty. As they entered the gate of the monastery,
that holy Father, the devout Prior, met them, being a man of great age,
of kindly serenity, and one to be revered for his honourable character.
He it was whom they had come to see, and saluting them with the greatest
benignity as they advanced, and being taught by a revelation from God, he
called upon Gerard by his very name and knew him, though he had never
seen him before. After this salutation he took them with him into the
inner parts of the cloister, as his most honoured guests, and with a
cheerful countenance and a heart yet more joyful showed them all due
courtesy and kindness, as if he were entertaining Jesus Christ Himself.

"Gerard abode there for a few days conferring with this man of God about
the Holy Scriptures; and from him he heard many heavenly secrets which,
as he confessed, were past his understanding, so that in amazement he
said with the Queen of Sheba, 'O excellent Father, thy wisdom and thy
knowledge exceedeth the fame which I heard in mine own land; for by thy
virtues thou hast surpassed thy fame.' After this he returned with his
companions to his own city, greatly edified; and being as it were a
purified creature, he pondered over what he had heard in his mind and
often dwelt thereon in his heart; also he committed some of Ruysbroeck's
sayings to writing, that they might not be forgotten.

"This sojourn on his visit to the Prior was not a time of idleness, nor
was the discourse of so holy a father barren; but the instruction of his
living voice gave nurture to a fuller love and an increase of fresh zeal,
as he testifies in a letter which he sent to these same brethren in the
Grünthal, saying: 'I earnestly desire to be commended to your director
and Prior, the footstool of whose feet I would fain be both in this life
and in the life to come; for my heart is welded to him beyond all other
men by love and reverence. I do still burn and sigh for your presence, to
be renewed and inspired by your spirit and to be a partaker thereof.'"

Other details of this interesting visit are supplied by the biographers
of Ruysbroeck. Speaking in the fullness of the intimacy that had sprung
up between them, Gerard Groote ventured to express surprise that, in
dealing with the sublime matters which usually formed the subject of his
discourse, the holy Prior should employ words and phrases which laid him
open to the charge of those very errors, especially pantheism, against
which his writings were commonly directed. It was then that Ruysbroeck
declared that he had never set down aught in his books save by the
inspiration of the Holy Ghost and in the presence of the Ever Blessed
Trinity. This solemn assurance the holy man repeated to his brother
Canons on his deathbed.

On another point also, like the trained and exact theologian he was,
Gerard Groote wished to correct his friend. He insisted that the
boundless confidence which Ruysbroeck expressed in the mercy of God
seemed to savour somewhat of presumption, and he proceeded to quote the
most terrifying passages from Scripture anent the penalties of the
wicked. Blessed John quietly replied: "Master Gerard, I assure you that
you have quite failed to inspire me with fear. I am ready to bear with
unruffled soul whatever the Lord shall destine for me in life or in
death. I can conceive of nothing better, nothing safer, nothing more
sweet. All my desires are restricted to this, that our Lord may ever find
me prepared to accomplish His holy will."

This first visit was the beginning of most cordial relations between
Ruysbroeck and Gerard Groote. The latter returned several times to
Groenendael and resided there for months together. He also corresponded
frequently with the holy Prior and the Canons and translated some of our
Saint's works into Latin. He read over his MSS. before publication, and
begged him at times to change or modify expressions which might give a
handle to the hostile or scandal to the weak. The writings of Ruysbroeck
were likewise among those which were the most frequently transcribed and
multiplied by the copyists of the _Devout Brothers of the Common Life_. A
few years later one of the most diligent and skilled of these scribes was
the future author of the _Imitation of Christ_.


                       Ruysbroeck and Windesheim

In fact, widespread as was the influence of Blessed John Ruysbroeck on
his contemporaries and incalculable as was the fruit of his writings in
the many cloisters, through which they were rapidly diffused, the means
by which Divine Providence chose chiefly to preserve and propagate his
power was precisely this friendship with Gerard Groote. Gerard
continually strove to imbue his own disciples with the spirit which he
had imbibed from the Prior of Groenendael. For himself and for his
followers he took as a rule of life the motto of Ruysbroeck, _to make it
a chief study to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ_. "Let the
fountain-head of thy study and thy mirror of life be first the Gospel of
Christ, for there is the life of Christ." The Scriptures should be read
rather than the Fathers, and the New Testament more than the Old, _for
there is the life of Christ_. And herein again what is profitable for a
devout and spiritual life is to be sought rather than the subtleties of
theology and the schools.

When a friend of Gerard's, Reinalt Minnenvosch, projected the founding of
a monastery, Groote advised him to establish a Priory of Canons Regular
on the model of Groenendael. The Canonry of St. Saviour's at Emstein was
the result. At Groote's request, a professed priest came from Groenendael
to initiate the new Religious into the Canonical Life; and later it was
at Emstein that the first members of Gerard's own Congregation of
Windesheim made their noviciate preparatory to Profession.

This was after Gerard Groote's death, but it was in accord with his
express desire. Wishful to establish a Religious Institute in connection
with his _Devout Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life_, who, whether
lay or cleric, were dwelling together without the binding force of the
vows, Gerard fixed upon the Order of Canons Regular for this purpose,
principally, so Thomas à Kempis assures us, because of his profound
veneration for the Prior and Brethren of Groenendael. "He was moved to
institute this Order of Regulars chiefly by his singular reverence and
love for the venerable Dom John Ruysbroeck, the first Prior of
Groenendael, and of the other most exemplary Brethren living there
religiously in the Regular Order."

For further information concerning the _Devout Brothers_ and the
Windesheim Canons the reader is referred to the various works which have
been published of late years on the Venerable à Kempis.[5] Both Brothers
and Canons were living examples of the mystic teachings of Ruysbroeck put
to the test of daily practice. Flight from the pleasures and vanities of
the world, unbounded humility, constant meditation on the life and
especially the Passion of Jesus Christ, the most complete and absolute
abandonment to the Divine Will, an intense devotion full of the personal
love of God--these were the salient points of Blessed John's example and
doctrine, perpetuated and propagated by the works, words, and writings of
the Windesheim Canons Regular and their secular associates, the _Brothers
of the Common Life_. It is scarcely needful to remark also that these are
the chief features of the teaching of the _Imitation of Christ_, that
golden little treatise, which, embodying the whole spirit of the School
of Windesheim and Groenendael, has carried and still carries light,
healing, and consolation to thousands upon thousands who have never so
much as heard of either Windesheim or John Ruysbroeck.[6]

It may be mentioned here that in 1409 the Priory of Groenendael was
instituted the Mother-house of a congregation of that name. But a few
years later this congregation, with its dependent Priories, was
affiliated to the more numerous Windesheim Canons. Thus the twin
institutes were merged into one, and the Windesheim Congregation became
the direct heir of the virtues and teaching of Blessed John Ruysbroeck.
But finally Windesheim was aggregated to the Lateran Congregation of
Canons Regular; and thus it is that to-day the Canons Regular of the
Lateran are privileged, with the clergy of Mechlin, to keep with proper
Office and Mass the Feast of Blessed John Ruysbroeck.

Connected thus intimately with Gerard Groote and Tauler, it is not
surprising that Ruysbroeck shares with these, as with à Kempis, Suso, and
others, the doubtful honour of being proclaimed in certain quarters as a
precursor of the sixteenth-century "Reformation." In support of this
position it is easy enough to gather together expressions of the most
poignant sorrow and of the most bitter invective for the lax morality of
clergy and laity, mendicant friars, and highly placed prelates. But the
same argument would convict several Popes of being heralds of Luther! Not
to labour the point at unnecessary length in a non-controversial work of
this kind, let it suffice to mention the touchstone which never fails to
distinguish the genuine reformer from the mere sectarian: while boldly
attacking the vices of those in office, Blessed John Ruysbroeck never
assails the office itself. He always speaks in the most submissive and
reverent terms of the authority of the Church and of the dignity of the
priesthood. His writings without exception treat in the orthodox sense on
the subject of grace, the sacraments, etc. We have already remarked his
ardent devotion towards the Blessed Eucharist. To this may be added a
most tender love for the Virgin Mother of God. Note, finally, his
frequent and fervent exhortations to the perfect observance of the three
vows of religion, and one can imagine how comfortable he would feel in
the company, say, of Luther and his renegade nun!


                       The Writings of Ruysbroeck

Blessed John's writings cannot be called voluminous, and yet for a purely
contemplative author they are comparatively considerable. The list of his
works authenticated up to the present--for earnest students are at work,
and other MSS. may yet be discovered--comprises the following, giving an
English equivalent for the Old Flemish or Latin titles: (1) The Kingdom
of the Lovers of God; (2) The Splendour of the Spiritual Espousals; (3)
The Brilliant; (4) Of Four Subtle Temptations; (5) Of the Christian
Faith; (6) Of the Spiritual Tabernacle; (7) Of the Seven Cloisters; (8)
The Mirror of Eternal Life, or, a Treatise on the Blessed Sacrament; (9)
The Seven Degrees of Spiritual Love; (10) Of the Supreme Truth; (11) The
Twelve Béguines. And these others are less certainly proved to be his:
(12) Of the Twelve Virtues; (13) Seven Letters; (14) A Summary of the
Spiritual Life; (15) Two Canticles; (16) A Short Prayer.

Pending a complete and faithful English rendering of all these works, the
following descriptive analysis of the principal of them may not prove

                    The Kingdom of the Lovers of God

This treatise is a detailed interpretation and a mystic application of
the text adapted from Wisdom x. 10: _Justum deduxit Dominus per vias
rectus et ostendit illi regnum Dei_ in the Breviary Office of a
Confessor. Upon these words Ruysbroeck bases a division of his work into
five books. The first book treats of God, _Dominus_, His power and
sovereignty. In the second Blessed John explains how Christ conducted,
_deduxit_, man into the liberty of the children of God, chiefly by
redemption and by the institution of the seven Sacraments. In the third
he treats of the just man, _justum_, and works out eight items which
render a man just, both in the active and in the contemplative life. The
fourth book expounds the right ways, _vias rectas_, which lead to the
Kingdom of God: _the exterior way_, namely, the material universe of
three heavens and four elements, the contemplation of which should excite
man to the praise of the Creator; _the way of natural light_, the
acquisition of the seven virtues; finally, _the supernatural and divine
way_, the infusion of the supernatural virtues and the gifts of the Holy
Ghost. In the last book we have a disquisition on the kingdom of God,
_ostendit illi regnum Dei_, of which we are told there are five aspects
or divisions: the sensible kingdom, exterior to God, in which the author
finds scope for a description of the last judgment and the qualities of
risen bodies, the kingdom of nature, the kingdom of the Scriptures, the
kingdom of grace and of glory, and finally the Divine Kingdom itself,
which is God. This treatise is full of reflections and considerations of
the most elevated order, and there is much therein that is by no means
easy to grasp or understand.

                The Splendour of the Spiritual Espousals

For his text Ruysbroeck takes Matt. xxv. 6, _Ecce, sponsus venit, exite
obviam ei_. He makes a division into three books, treating respectively
of the active, the interior, and the contemplative life. Each book is
further subdivided into four parts, corresponding to the four divisions
of the text in each stage of perfection as follows. Ruysbroeck expounds
and illustrates (1) the rôle of the vision, _ecce_; man must turn his
eyes to God; (2) the divers comings of the Bridegroom, _sponsus venit_,
the manner, namely, in which God approaches the soul; (3) the going forth
of the soul on the path of the virtues, _exite_; (4) and finally, the
embrace of the soul and the heavenly spouse. In no one work does Blessed
Ruysbroeck give a complete account of his mystic teaching; but if his
system were to be examined and explained by any one book, it would
certainly be this of the _Spiritual Espousals_. It has always been
considered as his chief work, and in this light also Ruysbroeck himself
seems to have regarded it. He sent a copy of it himself to his friends in
Germany, and expressed the desire that it might be multiplied and made
known even to the foot of the mountains. In the four last chapters of the
second book the author confutes some current errors of the day,
apparently the teachings of Bloemardinne and almost certainly of Eckart.

                             The Brilliant

Gerard Naghel tells us the story of the origin of this treatise. One day
Ruysbroeck had been conversing with a certain hermit on matters
spiritual, when on parting the latter begged the holy Prior to commit the
matter of his discourse to writing for the edification of himself and
others. To satisfy his desire, says Naghel, Ruysbroeck composed this
work, which contains instruction sufficient to lead a man to perfection.
The treatise seems a supplement, and in some sense a corrective of the
_Spiritual Espousals_. After a brief description of the means by which
the just man acquires the interior life and rises thence to the
contemplative, the holy man shows how the precious stone, or white
counter, _calculus candidus_, of Rev. ii. 17, is no other than Christ
Himself, Who gives Himself without reserve to contemplative souls. God
calls all men to intimate union with Himself. But not all men respond to
His appeal. Sinners utterly despise the invitation; while the just
respond, though these again in varying degrees. Some keep the
commandments chiefly from fear of the penalties attached to
transgression; they are as _mercenaries_. Others sincerely endeavour to
conquer nature and unruly desires, they have true faith in God, and God
is the only motive of their actions; these are the _faithful servants_.
However, these still suffer many impediments from the exterior life which
they lead, and a more intimate union is attained by the _intimate
friends_, who observe the counsels as well as the precepts. Finally, the
highest degree of union and contemplation is attained by the _hidden
sons_, who are utterly divested of all self-love and self-seeking, and
whose life is hidden with Christ in God.

                       Of Four Subtle Temptations

In this tract Ruysbroeck inveighs against the chief errors and abuses of
his own times. The first, says Ruysbroeck, is love of ease and comfort,
indolence, the source of sensuality, and luxury, an abuse very prevalent
in monasteries and among the clergy. The second is hypocrisy, which,
under the cloak of a seeming austerity, claiming even visions and
ecstasies, conceals a corrupt interior and depraved morals. The third is
the desire to understand everything, to attain to the contemplation of
the divine nature by the sheer force of the intellect, without the
assistance of God's grace. The fourth and the most formidable is the
so-called _liberty of spirit_, the error and heresy of those who, casting
aside all interior effort, pretend to acquire contemplation by ludicrous
mortifications, by extravagant bodily posturing, and by a senseless
quietism. The third error is that of Eckart, and the fourth was proper to
the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit. Ruysbroeck concludes his
tract with a discussion of the ways and means of avoiding these snares,
viz. by holiness of life, the practice of all the virtues, obedience to
superiors and the authority of the Church, and imitation of Jesus Christ.

                         Of the Christian Faith

A dogmatic commentary on the Athanasian Creed. Starting with the
principle that the true Christian Faith is indispensable for the union of
the soul with God, Ruysbroeck proceeds to explain the chief tenets of our
belief, and to show their bearing on the interior life. His explanations
are brief, his speculations sublime. The more forcibly to exhort to the
practice of virtue, he dwells at considerable length on the last
judgment, on the rewards of the just, and on the penalties decreed to
each particular class of sinner. His picture here of the happiness of
heaven and the sufferings of hell is most apt and striking.

                      Of the Spiritual Tabernacle

The most lengthy this of all Ruysbroeck's works. It consists of a mystic
interpretation, a long-drawn-out allegory, in which the Tabernacle of the
Old Testament is considered as a type of the course of love. The outer
and the inner courts, the altar of sacrifice, the hangings, the pillars
and their sockets, the rings, the names of the workmen, the seven-branch
candlestick, the brazen laver, the priestly ornaments, the ephod and the
twelve stones, the holy oils and the incense, the table of the loaves of
proposition, the different sacrifices with the distinction between the
clean and the unclean animals, the holy of holies, the ark and its
appurtenances,--all are applied with a wealth of detail, which, however,
never lacks dignity, and with a wondrous skill to Ruysbroeck's usual
three divisions of the exterior moral life, the interior, and the purely
contemplative. The Tabernacle was a subject which naturally lent itself
to allegory and to mystic interpretation, and Hugh of St. Victor had
already preceded our author, as doubtless also he inspired him with his
_De Arca mystica_. Though sometimes the thread is lost in the
multiplicity of details, this treatise is most attractive and contains
some of the best pages of Blessed Ruysbroeck.

                         Of the Seven Cloisters

This was composed for a penitent of our Saint, Margaret von Meerbeke, a
Poor Clare of Brussels, and it gives a rule of life for Religious. The
holy Prior traces out an order of the day, insisting especially on the
need of cultivating the interior life; he mentions the virtues which his
penitent should exercise, and inveighs against the abuses which have
crept into convents, pointing out the danger of communication with the
outer world. In all things Margaret should imitate the example of her
foundress, St. Clare, who gained her glorious place in Heaven by shutting
herself up within the seven cloisters. After dwelling on these, viz., by
expounding seven means of retreating from the world and living close to
God, the author turns again to practical details and condemns the
softness and luxury of certain Religious in their dress. Each day, he
says, should close with a peep into three books: the book of our own
conscience, which shows the imperfections which must be purified; the
book of the Life and Passion of our Lord, which we should imitate; and
finally the book of eternal life, to which we ought to tend with all our

                       The Mirror of Eternal Life

This also was addressed to a nun, probably the same Poor Clare. It
explains again the three degrees of the mystic life, but with special
reference now to the cloister and the Blessed Eucharist. Some are in the
purgative way: if they persevere in virtue and progress in perfection,
they shall partake of the table, Ps. xxiii. 5, which is no other than the
banquet of the Holy Eucharist. Ruysbroeck dwells on the virtues necessary
for the worthy reception of the Sacrament, and narrates the manner of its
institution by our Divine Lord at the Last Supper, showing what were the
matter and form used by Christ. He discourses on the evidence of God's
love to be found in this mystery of the altar; and then refutes
objections as to the manner of the Divine Presence, expressly teaching
Transubstantiation. Those who approach the altar rails are divided by him
into seven classes, and here the author shows a wondrous and intimate
knowledge of the working of the human heart. The treatise closes with a
description of the contemplative life.

                  The Seven Degrees of Spiritual Love

In a simile familiar to spiritual writers of all ages, Ruysbroeck
compares life to a ladder, or stairway of seven steps, leading up to
perfection and union with God. These stages are respectively: (1)
Conformity with the holy will of God; (2) Voluntary poverty; (3) Purity
of soul and chastity of body; (4) Humility, with her four daughters,
obedience, gentleness, patience, and the forsaking of self-will; (5) The
desire of the divine glory, involving three spiritual exercises, namely,
acts of love and adoration, acts of supplication, and acts of
thanksgiving; (6) The contemplative and perfect life, by which man
finally attains the last stage of, (7) sublime ignorance. (Compare Walter
Hilton's "darksome lightness" in his _Scale of Perfection_.)

                          Of the Supreme Truth

This treatise was issued by way of explanation of some difficult passages
in his first work, concerning especially the gift of counsel, and indeed
as a kind of defence and apology of his whole mystic teaching. He
protests that he has never admitted that the creature can be raised to a
state of identity with God, and once more he explains his conception of
the union of the soul with her Divine Spouse. There is a union common to
all the just, brought about by the grace of God, with the forsaking of
vice, the practice of virtue, and submission to the authority of the
Church. Then there is a more intimate union, like unto that of fire and
iron, which, when united, seem but one matter, though in fact they remain
two distinct substances. Those who attain this love God and live in His
presence, but as yet arrive not at a complete knowledge of His essence.
After this again there is even a yet closer union, whereby the Eternal
Father and man become one, not indeed with oneness of substantial unity,
but in a oneness of love and bliss. It is evident that language here
fails the holy author to express the sublimity of his concept and his
experience; in his endeavour to show the intimacy of this last method of
union he is driven to use expressions which, taken as they stand, have
that pantheistic ring which it is his first object here to disclaim.

                          The Twelve Béguines

After the _Tabernacle_, this is the most lengthy of our Saint's works,
and it is of great importance as throwing considerable light on
Ruysbroeck's ideas and system. We are introduced to twelve Béguines
discoursing together on the love of Jesus Christ, whence an easy transit
to the real subject-matter of the tract, the contemplative life. To
attain the state of contemplation, four conditions are required: a ray of
divine light, producing illumination, whence, on the part of the soul, a
looking at God, or speculation, passing into contemplation, and this
stage again merging into a state of sublime, ecstatic love. There are
four distinct acts or states of love, corresponding respectively to each
of these stages. Ruysbroeck also shows here the action of the Holy Ghost
in forming the soul to a more intimate knowledge of God.

The second part of the book then opens with a fresh order of ideas.
Ruysbroeck divides mankind into good Christians and wicked men. Holiness
consists of the union of the active and the contemplative life. There
are, however, some who practise neither one nor the other and yet give
themselves out as the most holy of all. Among these Ruysbroeck proceeds
to distinguish four kinds of errors or heresies: (1) Errors against the
Holy Ghost and His Grace; (2) Errors against God the Father and His
power; (3) Errors against God the Son and His Sacred Humanity; and
finally errors against God and all that makes up Christendom, namely, the
Scriptures, the Church, and the Sacraments. On the other hand, the good
Christian is one who loves God with all his heart and mind and soul and

Blessed John then goes on to discourse of the Divine Nature in Unity and
Trinity. He also discusses man in his material and in his spiritual
nature. The spiritual part of man alone he says, can elevate him to the
mystic life (of which once more the three ways are expounded), and alone
also can show him the reasons wherefore God created the universe. The
three ways of the mystic life are symbolised by the three heavens. The
stars and the planets exercise an influence on terrestrial creatures,
that is to say, upon our bodies, for God alone can touch the soul,
leading it to good and restraining it from evil. Thence also Ruysbroeck
describes the various temperaments of men by reference to the planets and
their conjunction with the signs of the zodiac.

A chapter on our Divine Lord, held up as the Model Religious, serves as a
transition to the third part, which is a treatise, largely symbolical, on
the Passion of Christ, divided and subdivided according to the sequence
of the Canonical Hours.

This is perhaps the most discursive of Ruysbroeck's works, and in that
sense the most difficult to follow, because of the number and length of
the digressions. For instance, when he comes to speak of the planet
Venus, he mentions the sign of the Balance, and this suggests a whole
treatise of thirty-nine chapters on the _Balance of Divine Love_. The
love of God for us, and all the blessings, spiritual and temporal, which
flow from it, are cast into one pan of the balance, and we must weigh
down the other pan with our virtues; and there follows a long
disquisition on the virtues we should practise, prominent among which, as
usual, he ranks humility. Here, further, he finds occasion to work out
his distinction between the spirit and the reasonable soul; and the whole
digression closes with a sad and striking comparison between the fervour
of primitive Christianity and the laxity of his own days.

Bossuet very severely criticised this work, holding it up as an example
of forced allegories, and so forth, and speaking of Ruysbroeck as
involved in the vain speculations of astrologers. This opinion, though
not surprising, is not just, for the author is careful to insist that the
planets have not influence on the will of man as such. But it is natural
that Bossuet should regard such works with suspicion and dislike, for he
had considerable trouble with false mystics, the quietists of his own
day; and even Ruysbroeck's own friends and contemporaries found much in
the volume that was strange, even to startling, and Gerard Groote advised
him not to publish it in its entirety.

                         Of the Twelve Virtues

The reader will not be surprised to learn that Blessed John contrives
here to speak of considerably more virtues than just twelve. The
principal and first is said to be humility, and this again twofold--one
humility inspired by the contemplation of the power of God, the other by
the consideration of His goodness. The daughter of humility is obedience,
and obedience naturally involves denial of self-will, poverty of spirit,
and patience in adversities. He then proceeds to treat very beautifully
and at length of interior detachment, remarking that to secure this it is
not necessary to flee external occupations, but that the attainment of
perfection consists in a perfect abandonment to the will of God and the
forsaking of our own will. When we have arrived thus far, we shall no
longer sin. For past sins there must be continued sorrow, but external
penances are not equally for all. And those who cannot endure great
bodily austerities must apply themselves to imitate the austere life of
Christ by interior self-denial.

                       The Letters of Ruysbroeck

These are spiritual letters, of course, conferences in epistolary form.

The first is addressed to Margaret van Meerbeke, the Poor Clare of
Brussels mentioned above. Ruysbroeck writes: "When I was at your convent
last summer, you appeared sad; methought God or some special friend had
forsaken you; therefore am I writing you as follows." And he proceeds to
console his spiritual daughter, and to warn her against the dangers which
may be found even in the cloister. He declaims against the abuses which
sometimes creep into monasteries, and almost always through _self-will_,
whereas every Religious should strive to have all things _in common_, to
be submissive to superiors and affable to all. The holy author closes
with a description of the terrible punishments to be meted out to those
Religious who fail to keep their rule and lead a holy life.

The second, addressed to Matilda, the widow of John of Culemberg, is of
more importance. After treating of the Apostles' Creed, the seven gifts
of the Holy Ghost, the Decalogue, the vows of religion and the precepts
of the Church, the Incarnation and death of Christ, Ruysbroeck expounds
the Catholic doctrine on the seven Sacraments, and especially the Blessed
Eucharist. He describes the fruits which flow from a worthy Communion,
and treats again of the three ways of the contemplative life, and
describes the elements of superessential contemplation.

The third was sent to three Recluses of Cologne. Blessed John exhorts
them to persevere in their holy manner of life. He treats of the
spiritual life, comparing Christ to the precious pearl, the hidden
treasure. And finally he earnestly exhorts them to constant meditation on
the Passion of Our Lord.

The fourth was addressed to Catherine of Louvain, a devout young lady
living in the world; and the other three were likewise sent to persons in
the world. All are full of wise spiritual maxims, and all insist on the
need of humility and the abnegation of self-will.


                     The Teaching of Ruysbroeck[7]

In no one work, as already remarked, does Blessed John Ruysbroeck give a
complete outline of his doctrines; the elements rather are to be found
dispersed among the various treatises.

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. In His essence God is simple unity,
the one supremely pure and supernatural being, devoid of all mode, in
Himself still and immovable, and yet at the same time the first cause and
active principle of all things. This principle is the divine _nature_,
which does not in reality differ from the essence, and which is fruitful
in the Trinity. The Father is the essential principle, and yet He is
consubstantial with the other two Persons. The Son, the uncreated Image
of the Father, is the Eternal Wisdom. The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the
other two, and returning unto them, is the eternal Love, which unites
Father and Son. As regards Persons, God is eternally active: as regards
essence, He abides in unbroken repose. Creatures have been existing as
ideas in God from all eternity.

In man, whose body is merely a perishable instrument, there is a
spiritual, immortal principle, like unto God, though less than He. In
this principle Ruysbroeck distinguishes, with a distinction of the
reason, soul and spirit; the former is the principle of the merely human
life, uniting together the lower powers; the other is the principle of
man's supernatural life in God, gathering together his higher faculties.
The soul has four inferior powers: the _irascible_, and the
_concupiscible_, which two become bestial when not under the ruling of a
virtuous will; _reason_, by which man is distinguished from the brute,
and _freedom of choice_, an exercise of the higher faculty of the will.
The spirit has the three superior faculties, memory, understanding, and
will. In every man likewise there is a triple unity, or oneness: the
unity of the lower faculties in the soul, the unity of the higher in the
spirit, and the unity of the whole being in God, on Whom all things
essentially depend for their being.

Blessed John delivers the accepted teaching of the Church on the Fall,
the Incarnation and Redemption, on the need and on the means of divine
grace, the institution of the Sacraments, the establishment of the
Church, the gifts of the Holy Ghost, etc.

But coming now to his more purely mystical doctrine, we find that
Ruysbroeck distinguishes three degrees, or states--the active life, the
interior life, and the contemplative life. The active life consists of
the effort to conquer sin and to draw nigh to God by exterior works. Here
in Christ is the Divine Exemplar, for in His life He practised the three
fundamental virtues of humility, charity, and patience. Humility is the
foundation of the whole building, and it is exercised chiefly in
obedience, which engenders the abdication of our own will, and patience,
or submission in all things to the holy will of God. When a man has
arrived so far, he can exercise charity, shown at this stage chiefly by
compassion for Christ suffering on the Cross for all men, and bringing
with her the four cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude,
and justice, whereby also the Christian is enabled to fight and conquer
his three deadly enemies, the devil, the world, and the flesh.
Perseverance in this active life is crowned by union with God, a union
wherein God alone is regarded as the exemplar and the final end, wherein
He alone is sought and loved. Thus does a man become a _Faithful

As yet, however, there is only an imperfect knowledge of God, and to
become more closely united with God, as an _Intimate Friend_, one must
strive to attain the second stage of the mystic way, namely the _interior
life_. For this three preliminary conditions are requisite. On the part
of God, there must be a yet stronger movement of divine grace, and on the
part of man, an absolute recollection, with freedom from sensible images,
attachments, and cares, and then the gathering together of all the powers
in the unity of the Spirit. Christ, then, the Eternal Sun, enkindles in
the soul thus duly prepared a divine fire, which engenders a warm,
sensible love, a devotion full of ardent desires, with thankfulness for
the divine mercies and affliction at one's own unworthiness. Then, as the
action of the sun draws up the moisture in the form of vapour, to fall
back again in refreshing and fertilising showers of rain, so if the soul
persevere Christ sends down a fresh shower of consolations, which fill
the whole being with a chaste pleasure and an indescribable sweetness
superior to all the delights of the earth, rising even to a species of
spiritual intoxication, which may manifest itself in outward acts. As yet
there are no severe trials for the soul, but she must beware of pride and
presumption, and of leaning too much on these sensible delights instead
of on the Divine Giver. Meanwhile the Sun of Justice is reaching its
apogee in the heavens, and Christ draws up all the powers of the soul, so
that the heart is enlarged and fit to burst with love, and at the same
time it begins to suffer from the wound of love, because of the urgency
of the power drawing upward and its own impotency to follow; whence also
a spiritual languishing, a very madness and impatience, or fever of love,
capable even of wasting the bodily strength. Love is liable to be so
intense at this stage, that visions and ecstacies are granted; but at the
same time care must be taken against the delusions of the evil one.

But thence the Sun enters on the sign of the Virgin and its downward
path, that is, Christ hides Himself and deprives the soul of the warmth
of sensible love and the like. It is the autumn, the time of gathering
the really ripe and lasting fruits; but to the soul a time of seeming
abandonment, aridity, darkness, etc. She must then beg the prayers of
others, be glad to leave herself in God's hands, willing to suffer and to
sacrifice all sweetness. Likewise, she must be careful not to compromise
God's favour by seeking earthly pleasures and delights, the consolations
of human friendship, and so forth.

Then there is a second coming of the Divine Spouse, bringing with Him the
gifts of the Holy Ghost, whereby He adorns the three supreme faculties of
the spirit. Pure simplicity empties the memory of all external images and
renders it stable. Spiritual brightness gives the intelligence a sure
discernment of the virtues. And a spiritual fervour arouses the will to a
boundless love for God and men.

There is yet a third coming, which affects the supreme union of the
spirit with God. It is a species of intimate contact with God in the very
depths of the soul. The intellect cannot comprehend the manner of this
union, it can only witness its effects upon the reason and the will. The
power of loving increases with the intimacy of this union, and the
intimacy increases the power of love; and hence also a kind of loving
strife ensues, each wishing to possess the other and each wishing to give
himself to the other utterly.

This is the apogee of the interior life, the meeting, the union of the
soul with God. It may be brought about in three different ways: (1) Man,
struck by a light coming forth from God, forsakes all images; he is
plunged into the union of fruitive love; he meets God without any medium,
a spirit like unto Him; it is the state of absolute repose in God, utter
emptiness and leisure. (2) At other times man adores God and consumes
himself in continual love, which ceaselessly feeds on the presence of
God; it is the mediate stage, the state of affective love, needful for
the attainment of the preceding. (3) Finally, it is possible to unite
enjoyment with activity: man enjoys a most profound peace and produces
all the acts of love; he receives God; and His gifts in the superior
faculties, images and sensations in the lower powers; it is the most
perfect state, the state of combined activity and repose.

Even so, it is not the most sublime state. Above the interior life there
is the superessential contemplative life; above the _faithful friends_
there are the _Intimate Sons_ of God. This third stage of perfection can
never be acquired by any act of the intelligence or will; and so sublime
is it that he only who has experienced it can attempt its description,
and then in terms the most halting and imperfect. This contemplation
consists in an absolute purity and simplicity of the understanding; it is
a knowledge and possession of God, without modes, without limits, without
medium, without any consciousness of the difference of His qualities.
Nevertheless, it is not God, it is the light by which He is seen. It is
the death and destruction of self to behold only the Being eternal and
absolute. Its essence is union with God, the still contemplation of God,
abandonment to God, so that He alone acts, and not the soul. This repose
of the spirit engenders a supernatural contemplation of the Trinity
without any medium, a feeling of bliss unspeakable, a sublime ignorance;
the last consciousness of the difference between God and the
creature--being and nothingness--disappears.

This is the honeymoon of Christ with the soul, to which the preceding
stages are only a preparation. The spirit is led from brightness to
brightness; and since no medium comes between it and the divine
splendour, since the brightness by which it sees is the light itself
which it sees, in a certain sense itself becomes this brightness; it
attains a consciousness of its own superessential being, of the unity of
its essence in God.


                           Some Appreciations

Arrived thus at the summit of mystic speculation, Ruysbroeck finds
himself on the confines of pantheism. However, he constantly insists, as
we have already remarked, on the essential difference between the created
spirit and the Spirit Eternal. Man, he says, must become deiform as far
as that is possible for the creature; in the union with God it is not the
difference of personality which is destroyed, it is only the difference
of will and of thought, the desire to be anything apart in oneself which
must disappear. He declares: "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 or in nature." His own strenuous opposition to the pantheists of
his day proves his orthodoxy in this matter; yet it must be confessed
again that from the very nature of his sublime discourse, his expressions
are at times exceedingly bold and seemingly unorthodox. The truth is that
the resources of human language prove inadequate to describe even the
foretaste on earth of that "which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor
hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive."

In B. John's own lifetime Gerard Groote was alarmed, and wrote once to
the Canons of Groenendael of a Doctor in Theology, and of one Henry of
Hesse, who had declared that the _Spiritual Espousals_ contained errors.
Twenty years after Ruysbroeck's death, John Gerson, the famous Chancellor
of Paris, in a letter to one Bartholomew, a Carthusian, who had given him
a copy of this treatise, praises the first two books, but declares that
the third teaches a kind of pantheism. This charge brought forth a
lengthy and spirited defence from a Canon Regular of Groenendael, named
John Scoenhoven; and then in a second letter Gerson maintained his
objections, but acquitted the holy author of all intentional error. A
similar stand was taken later by Bossuet, who excuses Ruysbroeck but
condemns his manner of expression. It must be remembered that these two
were engaged in confuting false mystics, and naturally they would
discredit the writings of even a holy man, however orthodox, which would
appear to favour the erroneous tenets of their opponents. Once more, we
remark that not only was Ruysbroeck manifestly free from all culpable
error, but throughout in his own mind he never lost sight of the
essential distinctions, though at times his language must necessarily
sound exaggerated to unaccustomed ears.

On the other hand, to outweigh the unfavourable opinion of these two
French critics, we have a host of writers of Ruysbroeck's own and
subsequent days who not only defend the orthodoxy of his writings, but
who also speak of them in terms of the deepest admiration, and regard
their author almost as inspired.

We have already seen the esteem in which the holy Prior of Groenendael
and his writings were held by Tauler, Gerard Groote, and the Venerable
Thomas à Kempis, and the vigour with which his memory was vindicated by
John of Scoenhoven, But his advocates were by no means confined to the
limits of his own Order, period, or country.

Henry van Herp, a Franciscan, compiled a _Mirror of Perfection_, taken
almost exclusively from the _Spiritual Espousals_; and by his means the
teachings of Blessed Ruysbroeck were propagated among the followers of
St. Francis, particularly of the Third Order.

Denys the Carthusian is unstinted in his praises. He calls him the
_Divine Doctor_. "I name him the Divine Doctor," he writes, "because his
only master was the Holy Ghost. Of this the abundance of wisdom wherewith
he was gifted is a sure guarantee.... Ignorant man as I am, I confess
that nowhere have I found such sublimity and such knowledge, save in the
works of Denys the Areopagyte. But in his writings the difficulty arises
especially from the style, whereas it is not so with the Prior of
Groenendael.... As they say of Hugh of St. Victor that he is another St.
Augustin, so I will say of Ruysbroeck that he is another Denys the

Thomas of Jesus, a Carmelite, in his _De Divina Oratione_, frequently
quotes from Ruysbroeck and adopts his method.

The Carthusian Surius translated all the works of Ruysbroeck into Latin,
and this translation has been the chief source of familiarity with the
Belgian mystic for readers and writers not acquainted with his native
tongue. The following extracts from the _Introduction_ to Surius's
translation seem worth quoting for the sake of some who may imagine that
the works of Blessed John Ruysbroeck can be of profit only to those who
are far advanced in the contemplative life:

"I do not believe there is a man who can approach these magnificent and
simple pages without great and singular profit. Let none excuse himself
from reading this book on the plea of the inaccessible sublimity of
Ruysbroeck. The great man has accommodated himself to all, and the most
abandoned soul on earth may find again on reading him the path of
salvation. Arrows dart from the pages of Ruysbroeck, aimed by no hand of
man, but by the hand of God; and deeply they embed themselves in the soul
of the reader who is a sinner. Innocent reader, reader of unstained robe,
Ruysbroeck is at once most lowly and most sublime. In his description of
the _Spiritual Espousals_ he surpasses admiration, he surpasses praise;
all the commencement, all the progress, all the height, all the
transcendent perfection of the spiritual life is there."

It was from Surius that the Benedictine Blosius, or Louis de Blois,
learned to know and appreciate Ruysbroeck. His works are impregnated with
the teachings of the Mystic of Groenendael, and his well-known
_Consolatio Pusillanimum_ (_Comfort for the Fainthearted_) is replete
with extracts taken from Ruysbroeck.

Lessius, the Jesuit Theological Professor of Louvain University, used to
say that he read Blessed John Ruysbroeck daily; and he would add that if
his holy works had emanated from the Society they would not have remained
in obscurity so long.

In more recent times Ernest Hello brought our Saint to France by a
translation of extracts, prefaced by an anonymous contemporary life,
which was first published in 1869. In his own _Introduction_, Hello
writes: "Among those who, soaring beyond the realms of human light, have
sought refuge in the shadow of the great altar, the grandest, according
to Denys the Carthusian, are St. Denys the Areopagyte and John Ruysbroeck
the Admirable. St. Denys lays down the general laws of mystic theology,
John Ruysbroeck applies them. St. Denys presents the lamp, John
Ruysbroeck kindles the flame. Both are blind with excess of light, both
immovable with excess of motion. Speech with them is a visit paid to men
from motives of charity. Silence is their native land. The beauty of
their language is the condescendence of their goodness; the sacred
darkness in which they spread their eagle wings is their ocean, their
booty, their glory."

Reviewing the work of Hello, Louis Veuillot, the French Catholic
publicist, remarked:

"Ruysbroeck was illiterate. He was a humble Flemish priest of the
fifteenth century. None the less, in the order of genius the uncultured
Ruysbroeck, as a theologian, and consequently as a philosopher and a
poet, is as far above Bossuet as Dante, for instance, is above Boileau.
Face to face with the mysteries that shroud God and man, Bossuet seeks,
argues, and, so to speak, gropes; Ruysbroeck knows, describes, or rather
sings, and contemplates. This illiterate mystic of an obscure age finds
himself at home in the sublime as in his own sphere; he speaks of what is
familiar to him; the wise doctor of the world remains without. Bossuet
does not enter, he does not open, he does not see. Bossuet spins words,
Ruysbroeck pours out streams of light. It seems as if Bossuet were that
mighty wind which was heard in the Upper Chamber; the brief words of
Ruysbroeck are the tongues of fire, living and enlightening flame."

Truly has Time brought its revenge in such a comparison by a compatriot
of Bossuet with Ruysbroeck.

Finally, Maeterlinck brought out his translation of the _Spiritual
Espousals_ in 1891 with a characteristic appreciation of the Flemish
mystic. And Maeterlinck's name has given a strong impetus to the
popularity, so to speak, of Blessed Ruysbroeck in modern France. But
neither of these translations can be regarded as authoritative or exact.

The real, scholarly work towards extending and encouraging the cult of
Blessed John Ruysbroeck, whether among the learned or the devout, is
being performed, as is seemly, in the Catholic University of his native
Belgium, namely, at Louvain, where a Chair has been instituted for the
study of Old Flemish, chiefly for the sake of a correct understanding and
rendering of the writings of the Holy Mystic of Groenendael.

And here we may note that while it is customary with some to speak of
Ruysbroeck as illiterate, this term must be taken in a strictly limited
sense. Possibly, he could not have composed in fluent and elegant Latin:
he was not a classical scholar; but certainly the Latin of the Bible and
the Fathers was quite familiar to him. His writings, moreover, display an
intimate knowledge of the Scriptures, the Fathers, theology, liturgy,
apologetics. The natural science of the day was not unknown, as witness
his applications from astronomy, and, it must be confessed, from
astrology. With St. Denys the Areopagyte he shows himself very intimate,
and his pages contain whole passages borrowed or adapted from St. Anselm,
St. Ambrose, St. Gregory, and especially St. Augustin. Nearer his own
days St. Bernard and Hugh of St. Victor seem to have influenced him very

Experts in Old Flemish assure us that his style is most chaste, his
language vigorous and clear. He was in truth a poet. When carried away by
the beauty or sublimity of his subject, he indulges in a wealth of
imagery, comparison, metaphor, astounding at times in boldness and
originality. Occasionally even he lapsed into verse; but on the whole his
verse is of less beauty and strength than his prose, as he himself seems
to have been aware. On the other hand, his prose, after the manner of St.
Bernard, St. Bonaventure, the two Victors, and later Thomas à Kempis,
frequently gives evidence of deliberate rhythm and rhyme. In a word, far
from being illiterate in the strict sense of the word, Blessed John was
well acquainted with all the rules and arts of rhetoric; he knew how to
employ them; and for all the sublimity of his discourse he did not
disdain the use of these aids to interest and persuasion. Finally, it is
to be noted that we are expressly informed by contemporaries of
Ruysbroeck that he wrote by preference in the vulgar tongue, the more
readily and effectively to meet and refute the erroneous doctrines
published in the language of the people by the false mystics of his day.


                               Last Days

Of the life of our Saint there remains little to be told save the record
of the last days and the after glory. He had attained the good old age of
eighty-eight, when his mother appeared in a vision to warn him to make
ready for the approaching end. It must seem to us there was little need
for such warning to one whose whole life had been one long preparation
for the coming of the Spouse! He was taken with dysentery, accompanied by
fever, and for his greater comfort, and that his lifelong friend van
Coudenberg might be at hand to console and assist him, they put him to
bed in the Provost's chamber. But the humble Prior besought them to treat
him as any of the lowliest brethren and to bear him to the common
infirmary. This was accordingly done. There he lay for a fortnight,
gradually wasting away with the burning fever, and still more, doubtless,
with his burning desires to be dissolved and to be with Christ, for he
was constantly heard murmuring such ejaculations as that of the Psalmist,
_Sicut desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum_. He received all the last
rites, and the end came in the greatest peace, while his weeping brethren
prayed around him, on the Octave day of St. Catherine, V.M., December 2,
1381, in the eighty-eighth year of his age, the sixty-fourth of his

That same night the Dean of Diest, watching by the holy remains, seemed
to behold our Saint, clad in the priestly vestments and all radiant with
glory, ascend the altar steps as if to celebrate the sacred mysteries.
The Dean had always held Ruysbroeck in the deepest veneration and, having
some skill in medicine, he had come over to Groenendael on hearing of the
Prior's illness to see whether he could administer any relief. His
charity was rewarded by the edifying sight of his happy death, and by
this consoling vision after.

And, as the Venerable à Kempis informs us, "God also revealed to Gerard
[Groote] the death of this most beloved Father, which revelation he made
manifest in the hearing of many of the citizens by the tolling of the
bells; and more privately he made known to certain of his friends that
the soul of the Prior, after but one hour of Purgatory, had passed to the
glory of Heaven." We may note here that à Kempis himself was a child of
three years when Ruysbroeck was called to his reward. Gerard Groote
followed his friend and spiritual father to the grave three years later.

The Groenendael Canons offered the holy Sacrifice and all the wonted
suffrages for their departed Prior's repose, but they prayed with the
conviction that they needed his impetration rather than he theirs. They
were all eager to possess themselves of any little thing which had been
his. Some cut off locks of his hair, and one managed to secure a tooth!
Appropriately enough, this relic later cured a Mechlin lady of a severe
attack of toothache. However, in all simplicity the Brethren laid Blessed
John to rest in the little chapel which his own hands had helped to

Five years later his saintly associate, the Provost Francis van
Coudenberg, rejoined him beyond the grave. The Bishop of Cambrai, John
T'Serclaes, came to assist at the obsequies. During his visit he heard so
much of the heroic virtues of the late Prior that he ordered an
exhumation of Ruysbroeck's body with a view to a more honourable burial
by the side of the Provost in the new church, which had now replaced the
little chapel. They were all filled with awe and wonder to find the
entire body, save only the tip of the nose, incorrupt, and the priestly
vestments intact. Also a most sweet odour exhaled from the holy remains.
To satisfy the devotion of the people, the Bishop commanded that the body
should be exposed to their veneration for three days. On the third day,
amid a vast concourse of the faithful, Ruysbroeck was laid to rest by the
side and in the tomb of his lifelong friend van Coudenberg. Over the
sepulchre was placed the following simple inscription:

                  _Hic jacet translatus Devotus Pater
                        D. Joannes de Ruysbroeck
                       I. Prior hujus monasterii
                         Qui obiit anno Domini
                           II. Die Decembris_

"Here lies transferred the Devout Father, Dom John of Ruysbroeck, First
Prior of this cloister, who departed in the year of the Lord 1381,
December 2."


                 The Cultus of Blessed John Ruysbroeck

Numerous pilgrims now wended their way to visit Ruysbroeck's tomb.
Ex-votos were suspended there in acknowledgment of favours received. His
picture also was honoured in various churches. And each year on the
Monday following Trinity Sunday the Chapter of St. Gudule's came over to
Groenendael to assist the Canons at a Mass sung in his honour. In a word,
on all sides the holy Prior was regarded and, as far as possible, treated
as a Saint in glory.

Yielding to representations and entreaties from many quarters, James
Roonen, Archbishop of Mechlin, ordered another translation of the
remains, November 1622. This was duly performed with all the prescribed
formalities. The skeleton was found entire. The bones were carefully
taken and reverently washed and then placed in a new reliquary. The water
used in this cleansing emitted a delicious odour, and it was afterwards
instrumental in effecting many miraculous cures. The Infanta Isabella of
Spain laid the foundation stone of a chapel to be erected at her expense
near _Ruysbroeck's Tree_ as a suitable shrine for the relics. She also
provided a magnificent sarcophagus. As this chapel was outside the
monastic enclosure, ladies were now able to pay their devotions at
Ruysbroeck's tomb itself, whereas hitherto they had been able to
reverence the relics only from a distance.

So far, however, no authoritative recognition of the heroic virtues of
John Ruysbroeck had come from Rome. In 1624 the Archbishop commissioned
the learned Albert le Mire to draw up the necessary preliminary documents
to be submitted to the Sacred Congregation. These were approved, and
three commissioners were appointed to Initiate the apostolic process, so
called. Their labours were completed by 1627. Then, on account of the
wars and other troubles which afflicted the Low Countries at the time,
the Cause was suspended.

When the French overran the Netherlands in 1667, to prevent profanation
of the holy relics, they were carried to a place of greater safety in
Brussels; they were restored again in 1670. In 1783 the Priory itself
shared the fate of so many other Religious Houses, and was suppressed by
the Emperor Joseph II.; whereupon the relics were again transferred to
Brussels and laid to rest in a side-chapel of St. Gudule's.

Another attempt was then made by the Chapter of St. Gudule's to obtain
from Rome an authorised Office and Mass in honour of John Ruysbroeck. The
petition was favourably received; but once more there was a violent
interruption, this time from the upheaval of the French Revolution.

St. Gudule's was sacked by the _sans-culottes_ in 1793, and the reliquary
of Ruysbroeck was desecrated. It is said, however, that the relics were
not actually dispersed, and that they were afterwards sealed up again by
a Notary named Neuwens; but unhappily at the present day all trace of
them has disappeared.

Finally, in 1885, the late Cardinal Goosens, Archbishop of Mechlin,
approached the Sacred Congregation once more, and a tribunal was
appointed to examine into the Cause, February 8, 1900. This was brought
to a happy issue in 1908 by a Decree of the Sacred Congregation, dated
December 1st, and approved by His Holiness, Pius X., December 9,
confirming the cultus "shown from time immemorial to the Venerable
Servant of God, John Ruysbroeck, Canon Regular, called the Blessed."
Later, August 24, 1909, the Congregation granted and approved an Office
and Mass of Blessed John Ruysbroeck for the Mechlin clergy. The privilege
of this Office and Mass has also been extended to the Canons Regular of
the Lateran, who are the lineal representatives of the Canons of
Groenendael and Windesheim, and therefore in a special sense the children
of Blessed John.

For the moment there may seem to be but little in common between this
Mediæval Mystic and the bustling modern world, so little as to suggest
the thought that Blessed Ruysbroeck can have no message to deliver to our
day. On the contrary, the Solitary of the Forest of Soignes stands for a
profound truth, oblivion of which is rendering Society sick unto death
to-day. John Ruysbroeck preaches to the world its utter need of God.

For the Catholic he enforces his lesson in a special manner. Unlike false
mystics, who invariably pretend to dispense themselves and their
adherents from the chief normal means of grace, namely the Sacraments,
Ruysbroeck insists upon frequent recourse to the Sacraments, but more
especially to the Blessed Eucharist, as the speediest and most
efficacious means of bringing each soul into true union with God. Our
present Holy Father, desirous and ambitious of "restoring all things in
Christ," has pointed to the same divine remedy for the renewal of our
souls. May there not be seen in this a providential reason wherefore the
solemn beatification of this holy Religious has been delayed six
centuries, to be reserved to our own days?

The proper prayers of our Saint's Mass beautifully summarise the lessons
of his life as follows:


God, Who didst vouchsafe to adorn Blessed John, Thy Confessor, with
sublime holiness of life and with heavenly gifts, grant us, through his
merits, and after his example, to despise the fleeting things of the
world, and to desire only the joys of heaven.


May the intercession of Blessed John, who in offering the Sacrifice
merited to overflow with heavenly delights, make us worthy, we beseech
Thee, Lord, of the bread of angels.


We beseech Thee, Lord, by the intercession of Blessed John, grant to us
who are refreshed with the heavenly banquet, that, delivered from worldly
desires, we may be ever fervent in Thy love.


[1]By Earle Bailie. London: Thomas Baker. 1905.

[2]_Cf._ the Polish sect of _Mariavites_, or _Mystic Priests_, under the
   misguidance of the woman Mary Frances, whose extravagances were
   condemned by Rome, September 1904, and again April 1906.

[3]Provost is the equivalent in a College of Clergy of the Abbot in a
   Monastery; though many Congregations of Canons Regular have borrowed
   the title and style of Abbot from the monastic institute.

[4]Translation by J. P. Arthur. _The Founders of the New Devotion._ Kegan
   Paul. 1905.

[5]Especially: _Outlines of the Life of Thomas à Kempis_. By Sir Francis
   Cruise. _C.T.S._ of Ireland. _Thomas à Kempis_. By the same. London:
   Kegan Paul. _Life of the Venerable Thomas à Kempis_. By Dom Scully.
   London: Washbourne. _Thomas à Kempis and the Brothers of the Common
   Life_. By Kettlewell. London: Kegan Paul. _Thomas à Kempis, His Age
   and His Book_. By De Montmorency, London: Methuen.

[6]Father Sharpe, in his recent admirable volume, _Mysticism: Its True
   Nature and Value_, writes thus of the mystic teaching, properly so
   called, of à Kempis's world-famous masterpiece: "_The Imitation of
   Christ_ ... probably owes much of its vast popularity to its constant
   recurrence to the elementary duties of religion and morality, and its
   insistence on the necessity of their performance as the prerequisite
   of the more exalted spiritual states. The 'purgative,' 'illuminative,'
   and 'unitive' ways are seen, so to speak, together, and are dealt with
   as aspects or constituents of the Christian life as a whole, to the
   completeness of which all three are necessary and, in different ways,
   of equal importance. The purely mystical passages are comparatively
   few and short; and the abundance of practical directions the book
   contains has sometimes caused its mystical character to be entirely
   overlooked. This disproportion, however, is quite sufficiently to be
   accounted for by the character of the work, which is that of a
   directory of spiritual life in general, and not a scientific treatise
   on any particular department of it. In such a book attempts at
   describing the indescribable phenomena of mysticism would obviously
   have been out of place, whereas the practical details of the lower and
   preliminary states admit of and require minute explanation. But the
   tone of the whole book is mystical, and the most commonplace duties
   and the most humiliating strivings with temptation are in a manner
   illuminated and glorified by the brilliancy of the result to which
   they tend. Thus, in point of fact, the higher and lower elements, the
   mystical and the non-mystical, the purgative, the illuminative and the
   unitive, are blended in actual human experience" (pp. 188, 189).

[7]The whole subject of mystic theology is excellently well treated by
   Rev. A. B. Sharpe, M.A., in a volume entitled _Mysticism: Its True
   Nature and Value_, already quoted, just published by Sands & Co. There
   is frequent reference to our Saint and his writings.


                          Transcriber's Notes

--Silently corrected a few palpable typos.

--Moved footnotes from page footer to end of text

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