By Evelyn Underhill
Publisher: Kessinger Publishing, 2010.
ISBN 978-1161384222 Also available free online at Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/texts/.
The author, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), called John Ruysbroeck “one of the very greatest mystics whom the world has yet known.” Underhill wrote many books on Christian mysticism, but is best known for her 1911 classic Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness. In this ground-breaking work, she studied writings from various world religions seeking to discern the essential nature of mysticism. She referred frequently to John Ruysbroeck throughout this volume, and in 1915 followed up that interest by publishing Ruysbroeck.
In studying the life and teachings of John Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), Underhill refers often to patterns she found in her broader study of mysticism. She points out, for example, that, like all the greatest mystics, his mystical writings are clearly based on direct, personal experience, but that at the same time his images, metaphors and concepts emerge from his own cultural tradition, Christianity. In fact, a long line of Christian theologians bequeathed Ruysbroeck “the intellectual framework in which his sublime intuitions were expressed.”
To speak of John Ruysbroeck, as some enthusiastic biographers have done, as an isolated spiritual phenomenon totally unrelated to the life of his time, an ‘ignorant monk’ whose profound knowledge of reality is entirely the result of personal inspiration and independent of human history, is to misunderstand his greatness.
His gift was to carry precept into action and to “completely actualize in his own experience the high vision of the soul’s relation to the Divine Reality.”
In the history of the spiritual adventures of man, we find at intervals certain great mystics who appear to gather up and fuse together in the crucible of the heart the diverse tendencies of those who have preceded them, and, adding to them the tincture of their own rich experience, give to us an intensely personal, yet universal, vision of God and man.
John Ruysbroeck, sometimes spelled Jan van Ruusbroec, was born in 1293 in the village of Ruysbroeck in Belgium, from which he takes his name. In the first chapter, Underhill gives a sketch of his life. At age eleven, he ran away from home, making his way to Brussels and into the care of his uncle John Hinckaert, a Canon (priest) of the Cathedral of St. Gudule. At the time, Hinckaert was just embarking on a quest for spiritual perfection along with another Canon of the Cathedral, Francis van Coudenberg. The two of them had given their possessions to the poor and set up a simple household where they dedicated their lives to spiritual practice. In this household, Ruysbroeck “found a home soaked in love, governed by faith, renunciation, humility.”
As a youth, he had an “astonishing aptitude for religious ideas, even of the most subtle kind, [and] his passionate clear vision of spiritual things was already so highly developed as to attract general attention.” In 1317 he was ordained a priest and given a position as a cathedral chaplain, a duty he conscientiously fulfilled for the next twenty-six years. Throughout his writings, Ruysbroeck stresses the importance of balancing the intense inner life of devotion with a life of service to humanity – what he calls a life of “action.” As Underhill sums up his teachings on “action”:
Action is of the very essence of human reality. Where the inner life is genuine and strong, the outer life will reflect, however faintly, the curve on which it moves; for human consciousness is a unit, capable of reacting to and synthesizing two orders, not an unresolved dualism – as it were, an angel and an animal – condemned to lifelong battle within a narrow cage.
During this period, from the age of 26 to 52, Ruysbroeck lived with his uncle and Coudenberg, intensively engaged in contemplative practice while also living the busy but inconspicuous life of a priest. It was “during these years, and in the midst of incessant distractions, that he passed through the great oscillations of consciousness which mark the mystic way.” Underhill postulates that by the end of this period his soul had evolved from, in his words, “the state of the ‘faithful servant’ to the transfigured existence of the ‘God-seeing man’.”
Then in 1343, together with Hinckaert and Coudenberg, he moved to an old hermitage called Groenendael (meaning green valley) in the forest of Soignes near Brussels. Ruysbroeck’s growing reputation for sanctity and as a seer and spiritual director would attract seekers from throughout Europe. Within five years the quiet forest retreat had been transformed into a thriving Augustinian monastery. Still, Groenendael afforded Ruysbroeck long hours sitting under his favourite tree, in “profound absorption in God.”
Like so many of the greatest mystics, Ruysbroeck, drawing nearer to Divine Reality, drew nearer to nature too; conforming to his own ideal of the contemplative, who, having been raised to the simple vision of God Transcendent, returns to find His image reflected by all life. Many passages in his writings show the closeness and sympathy of his observation of natural things: the vivid description of … the spring, summer and autumn of the fruitful soul, the insistence on the constant phenomena of growth, lessons drawn from the habits of ants and bees.
Despite his growing fame and advancing age, visitors were impressed by the peace and joy of his countenance and “his humble good-humoured speech.” Eventually, on December 2, 1381, at the age of 88, he died in his beloved Groenendael, “keeping to the last his clear spiritual vision, his vigour and eagerness of soul.”
In Chapter Two, Underhill gives a brief synopsis and analysis of Ruysbroeck’s writings. He wrote, not in Church Latin, but in the Flemish vernacular of his day, making his works accessible to all. Underhill describes his compositions:
Founded on experience, they deal with and incite to experience; and were addressed to all who felt within themselves the stirrings of a special grace, the call of a superhuman love, irrespective of education or position – to hermits, priests, nuns, and ardent souls still in the world who were trying to live the one real life – not merely to learned professors trying to elucidate the doctrines of that life.
The remaining chapters of this book draw out the main points of his teachings. For example, Chapter Three deals with Ruysbroeck’s doctrines on the nature of God and the Godhead, the “Abyss of Pure Being,” which he describes with a series of oblique images – “Simplicity and One-foldedness; inaccessible height and fathomless depth; incomprehensible breadth and eternal length; a dim silence, and a wild desert.”
The final chapter concerns what Underhill calls “the Superessential Life,” in which the soul attains “Glory” or union with God. Ruysbroeck describes this state:
When we soar up above ourselves, and become, in our inward striving towards God, so simple, that the naked Love in the Heights can lay hold on us, there where Love cherishes Love, above all activity and all virtue (that is to say, in our Origin, wherefrom we are spiritually born) – then we cease, and we and all that is our own die into God. And in this death we become hidden Sons of God, and find in ourselves a new life, and that is Eternal Life.
Underhill concludes with a bibliography which, though once current, is now incomplete. Since 1915 a number of English translations of Ruysbroeck’s works have appeared. Several of these can be found for free online (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruysbroeck for links).
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.