Surnamed the Admirable Doctor, and the Divine Doctor, undoubtedly the foremost of the Flemish mystics, born at Ruysbroeck, near Brussels, 1293; died at Groenendael, 2 December 1381. He was blessed with a devout mother, who trained him from infancy in the ways of piety and holiness. Of his father we know nothing; John’s only family name, van Ruysbroeck, is taken from his native hamlet. At the age of eleven he forsook his mother, departing without leave or warning, to place himself under the guidance and tuition of his uncle, John Hinckaert, a saintly priest and a canon of Saint Gudule’s, Brussels, who with a fellow-canon of like mind, Francis van Coudenberg, was following a manner of life modelled on the simplicity and fervour of Apostolic days. This uncle provided for Ruysbroeck’s education with a view to the priesthood. In due course, Blessed John was presented with a prebend in Saint Gudule’s, and ordained in 1317. His mother had followed him to Brussels, entered a Béguinage there, and made a happy end shortly before his ordination. For twenty-six years Ruysbroeck continued to lead, together with his uncle Hinckaert and van Coudenberg, a life of extreme austerity and retirement. At that time the Brethren of the Free Spirit were causing considerable trouble in the Netherlands, and one of them, a woman named Bloemardinne, was particularly active in Brussels, propagating her false tenets chiefly by means of popular pamphlets. In defence of the Faith Ruysbroeck responded with pamphlets also written in the native tongue. Nothing of these treatises remains; but the effect of the controversy was so far permanent with Ruysbroeck that his later writings bear constant reference, direct and indirect, to the heresies, especially the false mysticism, of the day, and he composed always in the idiom of the country, chiefly with a view to counteracting the mischief of the heretical writings scattered broadcast among the people in their own tongue.
The desire for a more retired life, and possibly also the persecution which followed Ruysbroeck’s attack on Bloemardinne, induced the three friends to quit Brussels in 1343, for the hermitage of Groenendael, in the neighbouring forest of Soignes, which was made over to them by John III, Duke of Brabant. But here so many disciples joined the little company that it was found expedient to organize into a duly-authorized religious body. The hermitage was erected into a community of canons regular, 13 March 1349, and eventually it became the motherhouse of a congregation, which bore its name of Groenendael. Francis van Coudenberg was appointed first provost, and Blessed John Ruysbroeck prior. John Hinckaert refrained from making the canonical profession lest the discipline of the house should suffer from the exemptions required by the infirmities of his old age; he dwelt, therefore, in a cell outside the cloister, and there a few years later happily passed away. This period, from his religious profession in 1349 to his death in 1381, was the most active and fruitful of Ruysbroeck’s career. To his own community his life and words were a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. His fame as a man of God, as a sublime contemplative and a skilled director of souls, spread beyond the bounds of Flanders and Brabant to Holland, Germany, and France. All sorts and conditions of men sought his aid and counsel. His writings were eagerly caught up and rapidly multiplied, especially in the cloisters of the Netherlands and Germany; early in the fifteenth century they are to be found also in England. Among the more famous visitors to Groenendael mention is made of Tauler, but though the German preacher certainly knew and appreciated his writings, it is not established that he ever actually saw Ruysbroeck. Gerard Groote in particular venerated him as a father and loved him as a friend. And through Groote, Ruysbroeck’s influence helped to mould the spirit of the Windesheim School, which in the next generation found its most famous exponent in Thomas a Kempis. Just now strenuous efforts are being made to discover authentic Flemish manuscripts of Blessed John Ruysbroeck’s works; but up to the present the standard edition is the Latin version of Surius, all imperfect and probably incomplete as this is. Of the various treatises here preserved, the best-known and the most characteristic is that entitled . It is divided into three books, treating respectively of the active, the interior, and the contemplative life; and each book is subdivided into four parts working out the text; Ecce Sponsus venit, exite obviam ei, as follows:
- Ecce, the work of the vision, man must turn his eyes to God
- Sponsus venit, the divers comings of the Bridegroom
- exite, the soul going forth along the paths of virtue
- the embrace of the soul and the heavenly Spouse
Literally, Ruysbroeck wrote as the spirit moved him. He loved to wander and meditate in the solitude of the forest adjoining the cloister; he was accustomed to carry a tablet with him, and on this to jot down his thoughts as he felt inspired so to do. Late in life he was able to declare that he had never committed aught to writing save by the motion of the Holy Ghost. In no one of his treatises do we find anything like a complete or detailed account of his system; perhaps, it would be correct to say that he himself was not conscious of elaborating any system. In his dogmatic writings he is emphatically a faithful son of the Catholic Church, explaining, illustrating, and enforcing her traditional teachings with remarkable force and lucidity; this fact alone is quite sufficient to dispose of the contention, still cherished in certain quarters, that Ruysbroeck was a forerunner of the Reformation, etc. In his ascetic works, his favourite virtues are detachment, humility, and charity; he loves to dwell on such themes as flight from the world, meditation upon the Life, especially the Passion of Christ, abandonment to the Divine Will, and an intense personal love of God. But naturally it is in his mystical writings that the peculiar genius of Ruysbroeck shines forth. Yet here again it is the manner rather than the matter that is new, and it is especially in the freshness, originality, boldness, variety, detail, and truth of his imagery and comparisons that the individuality of Ruysbroeck stands out. Students of mysticism from the pages of the Areopagite onwards will scarcely discover anything for which they cannot recall a parallel elsewhere. But there are many who maintain that Blessed John stands alone, unrivalled, in his grasp of what we may term the metaphysics of mysticism, in the delicateness and sureness of his touch when describing the phenomena and progress of the mystic union, and in the combined beauty, simplicity, and loftiness of his language and style.
In common with most of the German mystics Ruysbroeck starts from God and comes down to man, and thence rises again to God, showing how the two are so closely united as to become one. But here he is careful to protest:
“There where I assert that we are one in God, I must be understood in this sense that we are one in love, not in essence and nature.”
Despite this declaration, however, and other similar saving clauses scattered over his pages, some of Ruysbroeck’s expressions are certainly rather unusual and startling. The sublimity of his subject-matter was such that it could scarcely be otherwise. His devoted friend, Gerard Groote, a trained theologian, confessed to a feeling of uneasiness over certain of his phrases and passages, and begged him to change or modify them for the sake at least of the weak. Later on, Jean Gerson and then Bossuet both professed to find traces of unconscious pantheism in his works. But as an offset to these we may mention the enthusiastic commendations of his contemporaries, Groote, Tauler, a Kempis, Scoenhoven, and in subsequent times of the Franciscan van Herp, the Carthusians Denys and Surius, the Carmelite Thomas of Jesus, the Benedictine Louis de Blois, and the Jesuit Lessius. In our own days Ernest Hello and especially Maeterlinck have done much to make his writings known and even popular. And at present, particularly since his beatification, there is a strong revival of interest in all that concerns Ruysbroeck in his native Belgium.
A word of warning is needed against the assumption of some writers who would exalt the genius of Ruysbroeck by dwelling on what they term his illiteracy and ignorance. As a matter of fact the works of Blessed John manifest a mastery of the sacred sciences, and a considerable acquaintaince even with the natural science of his day. His adaptation of the slender resources of his native tongue to the exact expression of his own unusual experiences and ideas is admirable beyond praise; and though his verse is not of the best, his prose writings are vigorous and chaste, and evidence not only the intellect of a metaphysician, but the soul also of a true and tender poet.
Blessed John’s relics were carefully preserved and his memory honoured as that of a saint. When Groenendael Priory was suppressed by Joseph II in 1783, his relics were transferred to Saint Gudule’s, Brussels, where, however, they were lost during the French Revolution. A long and oft-interrupted series of attempts to secure official acknowledgement of his heroic virtues from Rome was crowned at length by a Decree, 1 December 1908, confirming to him under the title of “Blessed” his cultus ab immemorabili tempore. And the Office of the Beatus has been granted to the clergy of Mechlin and to the Canons Regular of the Lateran. No authentic portrait of Ruysbroeck is known to exist; but the traditional picture represents him in the canonical habit, seated in the forest with his writing tablet on his knee, as he was in fact found one day by the brethren – rapt in ecstasy and enveloped in flames, which encircle without consuming the tree under which he is resting.