Four Common Themes
in the Writings of
and Jan van Ruisbroec
INTRODUCTION: Professor Margaret R. Miles of the Harvard University Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote a review of Marguerite Porete’s “The Mirror of Simple Souls” that was published in Christian Century, Feb 3, 1993, and is available on the Internet (click here to go there).
In a non-scholarly way I am taking some excerpts from this review to compare and contrast what Professor Miles says about Marguerite’s book and what she cites from the book itself, with some passages also similarly and selectively lifted from Professor Evelyn Underhill’s introduction to Jan van Ruisbroec’s (or Ruysbroec’s or Ruysbroeck's) works and from the last few chapters of “The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage,” both of which are available on the internet, with Ruysbroec in modern English, courtesy of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library at Calvin College.
In addition to this excerpting and comparing, I will also create a companion page with some (more) photos from the ‘sacred grove’ at Groenendaal where Ruisbroec seems to have found much of his inspiration. I did a set of photo pages on Ruisbroec and places important to his life already, but did Groenedaal again this trip. This essay was my excuse for going to Groenendaal again, and wanting to go to Groenendaal again was the reason for starting the esay. It is an iterative thing, you see? I also took a few more pictures near where Marguerite Porete was burned alive. These photo pages will be linked at the bottom of this page.
Ruisbroec’s epic work “The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage,” likely begun while still in Brussels, but completed after leaving civilization and moving to Groenendaal, may have been the first product reflecting his revelatory experiences in these kind and gentle woods where he occupied and became prior of a pre-existing monastery that achieved some fame and expanded considerably during his own time, because of his writings and teachings.
METHOD (NOT SCHOLARLY): I will explain my selectiveness in my citations. Ruysbroec was very careful to respect some orthodox positions such as that the creature can never be the equal of the Creator, thus avoiding the heresy of claiming to be fully One with the Creator, although he or she can and ought to experience their essential unity with the Love of that Creator. Marguerite, by contrast, is not that careful to make this essential distinction, essential to keeping one in the orthodox orbit, that is.
She, Marguerite, sort of makes such distinctions and sort of respects orthodox notions, but is neither crystal clear nor insistent on it as Ruisbroec was. Since I believe this distinction is an example of reason (theology is based on reason as Marguerite says) influencing what is by definition beyond reason (which Marguerite would completely agree with and Ruisbroec would also agree with at first, but then hesitate and qualify once he senses where you might be able to take this idea of unity with God [see my endnote]). So I left out the warnings to this effect on this topic in Ruisbroec’s words.
In other words, I am excerpting him in such a way as to make this pious and officially “Blessed”man’s carefully chosen words seem more heretical than they in fact are. I apologize to anyone that is offended by this, and suggest they read Ruisbroec’s own words for themselves, use the link given above, and drink in his wisdom as he intended it to be drunken in.
So, I arranged four themes here, and intend to fill them with some (perhaps slightly out-of-context) statements from Miles/Porete compared with those from Underhill/Ruisbroec:
1. Wisdom beyond Reason
It is a coincidence, if you have the faith that such a thing exists, that this morning I sat in a certain chair in Paris’ Sacre Couer, one off to the left side of the chapel dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, listening to a choir of nuns singing their morning devotionals in the main chapel behind me. This the same chair I sat in about 11 years ago when a certain person came to find me there and proceeded to enter my life and rearrange it drastically by teaching me the difference between my self and my intellect. When I had learned that lesson well, she again exited my life, for all intents, and left me as I am today, fully capable of understanding from my own experience what both Marguerite and Jan meant when they said that to understand the finer things that they had to say, one had to rise above reason, to learn with an inner faculty that was above the intellect.
So now I am ready to launch into that exact topic, first drawing from Miles and Porete, then drawing on Underhill and Ruisbroec:
The book's theology is systematic; it is both comprehensive and graded or mapped. Though not founded on discursive reason, it employs the tools of reason to demonstrate the route to God. Repeatedly, however, Porete cautions against attempting to understand her theology with the head alone, without a corresponding change of life.
Miles citing Porete:
I beg you, those who read these
words, try to understand them inwardly,
in the innermost depths of
your understanding, with all the
subtle powers at your command,
or else you run the risk of failing to
understand them at all.
“Reason” or “the head alone” cannot lead to an understanding of her message. Miles makes this very clear in this discussion based on Porete:
The problem with reason is twofold: it is too laborious--too deliberate and complex--to provide a fluent vehicle for the Spirit, and its self-conscious operation actually stands in the way of the "inner impulse to love." People "become so wrapped up in conscious reasoning that they cannot hear the spirit when it prompts them." In short, those whose religion is based on reason try to "do everything by [their] own efforts."
Porete accused the church of following the "law" of reason rather than that of love. She contrasted the "lesser Church," ruled by reason and populated by reason's "insect-brained followers," with the "greater Church," populated by perfect souls ruled by love. The interrelatedness of Porete's two critiques is evident in her description of the shortsightedness of the lesser church, reliant on book learning and the hard work of practicing the virtues.
When we come to examine the character of these mystical perceptions, we find that Ruysbroeck was one of the few mystics who have known how to make full use of a strong and disciplined intellect, without ever permitting it to encroach on the proper domain of spiritual intuition. An orderly and reasoned view of the universe is the ground plan upon which the results of those intuitions are set out: yet we are never allowed to forget the merely provisional character of the best intellectual concepts where we are dealing with ultimate truth. Ultimate truth, he says, is not accessible to the human reason: “the What-ness of God”we can never know. Yet this need not discourage us from exploring, and describing as well as we can, those rich regions of approximate truth and life-giving experience which await us beyond the ramparts of the sensual world. . . .
But the correspondences of the superessential life are with a plane of being which lies beyond thought, and has, so far as our intellectual perceptions go, no condition. It is a wayless state, “above reason, not without reason”; dark with excess of light. This state is the Being of God; but for us it is “beyond being.”
I was pleased to see that Underhill compared his revelation of the Divine to Dante’s (who is also thought of as orthodox by Underhill, but as I playfully explore elsewhere on this site, he may not have been all that orthodox in his heart but knew how to craft a word-shield of orthodoxy):
As Dante, without deviating from the narrow path of scholastic philosophy, brings us at last into the presence of “that Eternal Light which loves and smiles,” so Ruysbroeck leads us back by way of the most orthodox Trinitarian doctrine to the very heart of Reality: the eternal and abysmal Fountain of life-giving life.
And it is as that “abysmal Fountain of life-giving life” that I believe Rumi also, in essence, described God. A Fountain drawing from the Ocean of Love to create us as we are now, and the scheme is to have us once again return to that ocean, only to be re-created into something greater, again and again. See below for an expansion on this theme.
2. Virtue beyond Goodness
Where the Free Spirits (heretics contemporary with Ruisbroec and Porete) essentially stepped over the line of orthodoxy into heresy was in claiming that once God is revealed in us, we no longer have need for a church, its ritual, or its moral code. No doubt some taught such things, but our friends Marguerite and Jan were not among them. Both asserted that when one became infused with Godliness within, one became virtuous without having to catalogue ones good deeds and putting effort into abstaining from evil deeds, one’s nature had changed..
Miles discussing Porete:
This discussion follows the paragraph cited above about there being a greater and a lesser church:
Porete's claims are dramatic. They are stated, moreover, in language that seems designed to shock and provoke. They must, however, be "carefully" understood. For example, although the perfect soul bids "good-bye to the virtues," because of her attunement with God's will, she nevertheless "has more virtues than anybody else." Porete's language must also be understood as a reaction to and compensation for her lack of social and institutional power. The same words, as she pointed out, can have different meanings; triumphal language means different things depending on whether it is uttered by the spokesmen of powerful institutions or by the politically and socially powerless. Moreover, Porete's language of mystical experience was particularly threatening to church leaders, who recognized the Free Spirit movement's subversive potential.
Underhill discussing nearly, but not quite, the same issue in Ruysbroec’s The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage epic:
Man, we know, has a natural, active life; the only one that he usually recognises. This he may “adorn with the virtues”and make well-pleasing to God (Book I.). But beyond this he has a spiritual or “interior” life, which is susceptible of grace, the Divine energy and love; and by this can be remodelled in accordance with its true pattern or archetype, the Spirit of Christ (Book II.). Beyond this, again, he has a superessential or “God-seeing life,” in virtue of the spark of Divine life implanted in him. By the union of his powers of reason will and feeling with this spark "a welding of the several elements of his being into unity" he may enter into his highest life; the dual and God-like existence of fruition in God and work for God, alternate action and rest (Book III.). The correspondences of the active life are with that moral order which we recognise as binding on all men of good will. Those of the interior life are with the experiences which we usually recognise as religious and spiritual. But the correspondences of the superessential life are with a plane of being which lies beyond thought, and has, so far as our intellectual perceptions go, no condition. It is a wayless state, “above reason, not without reason”; dark with excess of light. This state is the Being of God; but for us it is “beyond being.”
If in the above rather dense paragraph one focuses only on the third and highest way, on the last sentences in other words, then the virtues of the natural life no longer are discussed. They cease to be an issue. In this way, there is a correspondence with Marguerite’s words, although she makes her point much more provocatively.
Ruysbroec says something similar, that those in the third way of being have all the virtues poured into them from above, in essence. He refers to “free spirits” at one point when discussing this third and highest way. This is some of the wording being commented on by Underhill, above (sorry about the density and length, it is the opening statement in Chapter XI):
They have the Love of God before them in their inward seeing, as a common good pouring forth through heaven and earth; and they feel the Holy Trinity inclined towards them, and within them, with fullness of grace. And therefore they are adorned without and within with all the virtues, with holy practices and with good works. And thus they are united with God through Divine grace and their own holy lives. And because they have abandoned themselves to God in doing, in leaving undone, and in suffering, they have steadfast peace and inward joy, consolation and savour, of which the world cannot partake; neither any dissembler, nor the man who seeks and means himself more than the glory of God. Moreover, those same inward and enlightened men have before them in their inward seeing whenever they will, the Love of God as something drawing or urging them into the Unity; for they see and feel that the Father with the Son through the Holy Ghost, embrace Each Other and all the chosen, and draw themselves back with eternal love into the unity of Their Nature. Thus the Unity is ever drawing to itself and inviting to itself everything that has been born of It, either by nature or by grace. And therefore, too, such enlightened men are, with a free spirit, lifted up above reason into a bare and imageless vision, wherein lives the eternal indrawing summons of the Divine Unity; and, with an imageless and bare understanding, they pass through all works, and all exercises, and all things, until they reach the summit of their spirits. There, their bare understanding is drenched through by the Eternal Brightness, even as the air is drenched through by the sunshine. And the bare, uplifted will is transformed and drenched through by abysmal love, even as iron is by fire. And the bare, uplifted memory feels itself enwrapped and established in an abysmal Absence of Image. And thereby the created image is united above reason in a threefold way with its Eternal Image, which is the origin of its being and its life; and this origin is preserved and possessed, essentially and eternally, through a simple seeing in an imageless void: and so a man is lifted up above reason in a threefold manner into the Unity, and in a onefold manner into the Trinity.
3. Annihilation in Simplicity
It is very difficult to make up categories that do not overlap, so in the foregoing there was already something about “an abysmal Absence of Image,” “an imageless and bare understanding” etc. And it what comes next there is more about the virtues and how the soul rises above such a notion when in a state of unity with God. That is also part of the story of the annihilation of the self in simplicity. But let’s look at what our informants Miles and Porete and Underhill and Ruisbroec have to say on the subject.
Miles and Porete:
The "perfect soul" experiences herself as "less than nothing" and simultaneously sees "not herself in God, but God in herself." The freedom of the perfect soul depends entirely on a state of nonwilling or "deadness to the world" in which God's will replaces human will and "you bathe in the flood waters of God's love." In this state "she needs no masses or sermons or fastings or prayers," and all desires, "even holy desires," are suspended: "Everything she has is from God, and she is what God is, and was, and what she was before God made her, in union with him."
The book [meaning Marguerite’s “Mirror of Simple Souls”] evokes a profound religious experience that perennially eludes the church's best efforts to reproduce it through teaching, worship or piety. She describes union with God as more like relaxing than intensified labor, more like floating than determined effort. She taught that the experience of God's love, does not supersede but simultaneously incorporates and transcends virtues and practices. If the soul, at the "highest stage of her perfection," is "beyond noticing the rules of the church," "beyond the works of virtue," and immune to feelings, it is because "she has assimilated [each of these] to the point where they are part of her and obey her intrinsically."
Underhill writes the following about Ruisbroec’s understanding of the soul's assimilation into God and vice verse, much the same idea I believe, note the pseudo-sexual imagery so common among Medieval mystics when they are attempting to describe the ineffable experience of oneness with God:
In the third and highest stage . . ., we pass beyond the enhancement and enlightenment of the separate powers of our nature to the “essential being” of the self: that unity of the spirit of which Ruysbroeck is always speaking, and wherefrom the powers proceed, as the Divine Persons proceed from the Unity of God. Whether our mental and emotional powers as such participate in the spiritual life, is for him a secondary consideration. They may do so, if they be wholly surrendered to God. But our true union with Him takes place in the abysmal deeps of our being “our ground” and ever abides there: for here our life, as it were, buds out from the Divine life, and here God dwells eternally “according to His essence.” If we learn to enter within, passing beyond the powers to the unity of the spirit, we become conscious of this. There we experience His mysterious touch and stirrings; feel and respond to the thrust and invitation of His love, as He drives each created spirit forth to work His will, and draws it home again towards His heart. There, outside Time, the Eternal Birth takes place . . . .
As a result of this practice in introversion, this simplification of consciousness, the self now first becomes capable of the second form of contemplation, described in “The Twelve Beguines” as
“A knowing which is in no wise;
For ever abiding above the reason”
and enters upon that profound yet simple communion with God which Ruysbroeck calls the most inward of all exercises. For this his favourite image is that of feeding: the soul tastes God . . . , eats, devours, assimilates Him, and in her turn is eaten and consumed, language which probably reflects his great personal devotion to the Eucharist. With this mystical savouring and feeding upon Reality, the self reaches the term of the interior life, and the full stature of that “secret friend of God” described with such marvellous subtlety in the 8th chapter of The Sparkling Stone.
[Note Underhill’s making reference to two other works by Ruisbroec, one of which, The Sparkling Stone, is also available on the same site on the internet where The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage can be found, and where the well-known The Book of Supreme Truth is also found.]
4. Drowning in Love’s Ocean
I love this imagery because it crosses so many boundaries and occurs in every mystical tradition.
Miles and Porete (another reminder that it is impossible to classify this topic into four discrete subjects since it again overlaps with several of the others, which is just how it is):
Instead of a spirituality that elects either the path of intellect or the path of feeling, Porete advocates a spirituality that incorporates all human functions and attributes. The resulting religious identity is not simply the sum of its human parts. Nor is it predicated upon the idiosyncrasies of a person's historical and social location. Rather, it is rooted in "what she was before God made her, in union with him." God alone guarantees the existence and identity of the Christian and "she swims in the sea of God's love."
Here is the phrase Miles uses from Porete:
The simple soul swims in the sea of joy--that is in the sea of delights flowing and streaming down from the godhead. She feels no joy, for she herself is joy, and swims and floats in joy without feeling any joy, for she inhabits joy and joy inhabits her.
Underhill and Ruisbroec:
The ultimate truth is the Godhead: the Divine Unity of religion, the Absolute of philosophy. It is Simple, not with the simplicity of negation but with the simplicity of complete affirmation: gathering up into its unity all the rich complexities of power, wisdom, and love. In its essence it is “dark,” “naked,” “wayless”; inaccessible to all the processes of thought. Yet it is alive through and through; the eternal “lifegiving ground” from which all comes. The ideas of “Fatherhood”, and “Sonhood” represent its quickening fruitfulness; the Holy Ghost is the name of the Divine energy and love which pours forth into the created world, and thence, like a strong ebb-tide, draws all things back into their Origin. Though the soul plunged in God, “sunk in His unity,” seems to itself to experience a profound rest and stillness, yet it is really surrendered to the movement of this mighty power: for “God is an ocean that ebbs and flows.”
In this next passage, from chapter XII, the imagery of immersion is used, which fits the ocean idea. This passage also reiterates much of what went before. I cut it off just before he now takes an orthodox turn and assures us that the creature can never be truly one with its Creator. To me, personally, that is an intellectual insertion into what is definitely a sublime statement and example of an intuitive knowing (sorry, Jan):
And after this there follows the union without distinction. For you must apprehend the Love of God not only as an outpouring with all good, and as drawing back again into the Unity; but it is also, above all distinction, an essential fruition in the bare Essence of the Godhead. And in consequence of this enlightened men have found within themselves an essential contemplation which is above reason and without reason, and a fruitive tendency which pierces through every condition and all being, and through which they immerse themselves in a wayless abyss of fathomless beatitude, where the Trinity of the Divine Persons possess Their Nature in the essential Unity. Behold, this beatitude is so onefold and so wayless that in it every essential gazing, tendency, and creaturely distinction cease and pass away. For by this fruition, all uplifted spirits are melted and noughted in the Essence of God, Which is the superessence of all essence. There they fall from themselves into a solitude and an ignorance which are fathomless; there all light is turned to darkness; there the three Persons give place to the Essential Unity, and abide without distinction in fruition of essential blessedness.
To me this is astonishingly like Marguerite’s description of the experience of unity with the Divine. After Marguerite’s ecclesiastical murder, her Mirror of Simple Souls became a much copied and translated anonymous book. It was for centuries assigned either to ‘an anonymous French mystic’ or, surprisingly, to the Blessed Jan van Ruisbroec. I used to wonder why some would say this was Jan’s work. Now, having done this reading, I see why.
He and she really were dealing with the same topic using similar imagery. He went out of his way to prove he was orthodox, she went out of her way to be provocative. He was officially called “Blessed” and she was declared a heretic, and burnt. Was it the book itself that did it? No, according to several who have written about her life, including Miles, she was convicted of being a relapsed heretic because she allegedly agreed not to distribute her book after the bishop burned it in front of her, and then she distributed it anyway, becoming an itinerant teacher within her beguine sisterhood. If you want to learn more about beguines, please read my discussion of their movement on this web site. There are good sources on this topic, and on Medieval women’s religious writings in general (more than 125 small biographical sketches!) given on Dorothy Diss’ excellent web site “Other Women’s Voices.”
And that is all I have to say on the first weekend of this trip in March of 2006, an almost perfect weekend in terms of having had a good few days of work and exploring in Brussels and now finding what I wanted in the city of Paris: sunshine, a visit to the Sacre Couer with music, my favorite vegetarian restaurant, my favorite museum (Cluny) and finding out that there is an “Ave Maria” concert Monay. [It was simply wonderful, one grand piano player and one soprano, both excellent in artistry and delightfully animated.] Too bad I am here to work, but some free time upon arrival is grand, and so are evening concerts!
And on top of all that, I spent my weekend meditating on the similarities of the visions of these two marvelous examples of the epitome of the best in Western Christian Medieval, yet timeless and universal, spirituality!
The only thing I would love to add to this is the super-eternal [hey, if Jan can make up super-essential I can make up super-eternal, can’t I?] –anyway– the super-eternal optimism of Rumi, the Sufi (Muslim) mystic who lived at the same time as Saint Francis of Assisi, who asks “when have you ever becomes less by dying?” and suggests that there is still much progress to be made as we enter into the Ocean of Love, which is God, as both Marguerite and Jan teach, and lies in our innermost selves, now, and engulfs us later as we leave this world.
Marguerite and Jan do not go beyond this event of being absorbed into the ocean of blessedness, but Rumi takes us a step farther and suggests that at some far future time we will again be separated as a drop from this ocean, to become something greater still, and then rejoin the ocean, again and again. [Not in the usual way of thinking of reincarnation, coming back repeatedly as a human being until you get it right, but as an angel, perhaps, and then as something greater still!]
To read the marvelous poem I am referring to in several translations, go to near the end of this page on this site.
May you swim in the sea of joy, in this life, and for all the rest of eternity and beyond. –abe– [my second middle name is Jan, hence my feeling some right to being on a first name basis with this good soul, who really is blessed and blesses us still, despite my end-note below]
Regarding the imagery of a spiritual marriage to denote the unity of God and man, it is interesting that this imagery comes from the New Testament notion that the church is the bride of Christ.
Elsewhere in the Judaeo-Christian tradition the sexual union of man and woman in marriage has them become “one flesh,” a perfect union.
The mystics, inspired by the rather suggestive Song of Songs/Song of Solomon/Canticle of Canticles as a type of the union of God and Human, applied these imageries to the individual’s experience of union with God. The experience of this perfect union, making use of sexual language and imagery because nothing else even comes close in human experience.
Union with God is said to be ineffable, hence indescribable in human language. Ruisbroec partakes of this same imagery from a rather male-ish perspective perhaps, when he writes:
There we experience His mysterious touch and stirrings; feel and respond to the thrust and invitation of His love, as He drives each created spirit forth to work His will, and draws it home again towards His heart. There, outside Time, the Eternal Birth takes place . . . .
To me, Ruisbroec, for the sake of orthodoxy, breaks this imagery by first using it, and then claiming that the creature can never become truly One with the Creator. But when Jan uses the imagery of God’s creative endeavor as a birthing, particularly of us humans, he is not talking about us being creatures but as us sharing the God-nature from the fact of our having been birthed by God. [This is ALL symbolic language, of course.] Hence that nature being found naturally within us.
So to me he is being somewhat inconsistent with his own amazing revelation, for the sake of orthodoxy. Unless, of course he sees the God/human union as a man/woman union in the way people typically did in his time, where in marriage the two become one, and the one is the man.
This point of view, typical of all patriarchal societies since the dawn of time, would see no problem with having the Biblical “the two shall be one flesh” seem appropriate to describe a union of essential unequals. I was unfair in expecting something different from Jan, a good man, a blessed man who turned around and blessed others. His attitude toward women was exemplary. Three of his works, according to one web site, together form "a graduated instruction on the ascetic and mystical life," and were apparently written for "Dame Margaret Van Meerbeke, a nun in the Convent of Poor Clares at Brussels." The three books are: The Book of the Sparkling Stone, The Book of Supreme Truth, and The Twelve Beguines. The first two of these three works are widely read now and, as said several times above, available on the internet in English translation.
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