The mirror inside


by John Wijngaards


Jan van RuysbroeckFamine, the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, an age of popes and anti-popes; the protagonists and events were different but the times compare with our own. A hermit who lived six centuries ago, in the midst of it all, could be a model for Christians today-contemplative without being escapist.


On 2 December 1981 it was six centuries since Jan van Ruysbroeck died. Beatified by the Church in 1909, this mystic has a special message for work-addicts and restless doers. Which includes most of us.


The cry of today is for Christians to be committed, to be “involved.” And rightly so. No less an authority than Vatican II rejects a spirituality hostile to the world. We have to be concerned about others, about earthly realities. The Gospel demands love in action. It seeks to produce the visible fruits of equal rights, disarmament, justice for all.


Seen in this light Jan van Ruysbroeck (1294-1381) would seem an unlikely hero for our contemporaries. For, at first sight, he would appear to lack precisely the quality of “involvement” described above. Most of the 64 years of his priestly ministry were spent in a hermitage. His extensive writings lack any reference to the social and political upheavals of his time: he never speaks of the famine that ravaged his native Brabant in 1316, nor of the Black Death that swept the country from 1347 to 1350, leaving one-third of the inhabitants dead in its wake; we hear nothing of the Hundred Years’ War, of the mercenaries who plundered farms until only “the silence of death remained.” Nor did he enter into church politics: unlike Catherine of Siena, he did not chide the popes for becoming puppets of the French king at Avignon; he did not take sides when anti-pope Clement VII caused the Western Schism.


Did Ruysbroeck indulge in spiritual escapism? A closer look warns us not to

judge hastily. Jan’s feet were firmly planted on his native soil. His advice was earthy and specific. With the severity of a prophet he condemned, in graphic detail, the shortcomings of clergy and religious alike, The poor and the hungry always found shelter with him, including the birds. In his writings, too, he always stressed the need for practical love. It is only when a person has begun to practise the virtues and shows forth works of mercy, that he can ascend higher on the path to God.


In fact, for Ruysbroeck mysticism and involvement go hand in hand. They are the systolic and diastolic pressures of the spiritual heart-beat, the breathing in and the breathing out which together make life possible. “The Spirit of God blows us out so that we can love and perform good acts. Then he draws us in so that we can take rest and find enjoyment in him. This is eternal life: not unlike our breathing the air out of our lungs and breathing in fresh air. What I mean is: we move inwardly in a mystical enjoyment and move outwardly in good works, both in communion with God. Just as we open our eyes, look and then close them again, in such a smooth transition that we hardly notice what we are doing, so we die in God and live from God, always remaining united to him.”


It was the inward movement, the anchoring of oneself in God, that was Ruysbroeck’s chief concern. It is here that he can help us most-as we live out our commitments in a fast-driven, God-is dead, activity-rewarding society. Great art has been produced in shoddy attics, technological know-how often springs from seemingly silly experiments. As we hear Ruysbroeck take his-examples from the. birds and the flowers, the bees and the. ants, from the heat of a sunny day or the charm of a moonlight night, we realise his laboratory was limited: Zonienbosch, a nondescript forest outside Brussels. His insights and discoveries can nonetheless help those involved in the messy business of politics or the hustle-and-bustle of famiIy life.


Most of us will instinctively associate mysticism with sunsets. and awareness o! God with overwhelming scenes of nature. God seems most accessible to us as Creator. as the author of the volcano and the ocean-beaten beaches. God is, we assert. seen best ‘in his mighty works.” He is the mysterious architect of the universe, the First Cause. Fred Hoyle wrestles with this God in his latest book, Evolution from Space. for he understands that the biochemistry of life is too complex to have organised itself. To have assembled the enzymes we need “an intelligence somewhere in our galaxy (or elsewhere in the universe).” It is the God outside us, the totally Other-and thus the One far away from us!


Our deepest being


Ruysbroeck suggests a different approach. The easiest way to find God is to enter deeply into ourselves. Not only do silence and recollection divest the mind of distraction and so prepare us to see him more clearly. No, God himself is truly inside us. The more we discover ourselves and our deepest being, the closer we are to God. “God is more interior to us than we are ourselves. His acting in us is nearer and more central to us than our own actions. God works in us from inside outward. Creative beings work on us from the outside” .


For Ruysbroeck, to be a spiritual person means to be sensitive to what God is doing inside us. Our ultimate aim is complete and conscious union with him who alone can satisfy our thirst for fulfilment. This is what Christ prayed for at the Last Supper. ‘ Father. may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you . . . I want to share my joy with them in full . . . Father, may the love with which you love me, be in them.” Our happiness in heaven will consist in sharing the intense love within the Blessed Trinity. Here on earth we prepare for it by discovering his presence.


Ruysbroeck distinguishes three stages of mystical awareness. During the first stage, which presupposes an honest attempt to practice the virtues, we are drawn to God by brief insights, or by sensible devotion.


The finger of God stirs our hearts.” He calls this “mediated union,” the medium or means being specific graces. When we are totally committed to God he may lead us to, immediate union.” a condition in which somehow we know God has taken hold of us. Our mind, though in darkness, is full of light; our will glows with the desire to love God; our imagination is spellbound yet without distinct images. Finally God may, if he so chooses. admit us to union without distinction. a frame of mind in which we perceive ourselves as lost in God, as fundamentally one with God. Yes. I repeat. fundamentally one with God.


This fundamental union with God is worth closer examination. It is at the heart of Ruysbroeck’s thought and, perhaps, his greatest insight. Following exemplarist philosophers of foregoing ages, the mystic points out that, from all eternity. there must have existed in God a blueprint, a plan. an image of what he was going to create. This applies especially to human persons. each of whom Scripture teaches to have been modelled according to God’s own likeness. The image God fashioned of each one of us is our most direct link with God.


The essential unity of our personality with God is not of our own making . . . Our spirit receives according to its most interior and hiehest being, in naked nature so to say the imprint of God s eternal image and God’s own radiance without ceasing . . . Created by God. we undergo unceasingly the imprint of God s eternal image. Like an untarnished mirror we always reflect that image . . . The image God has of us gives all of us life and existence. Our created being is anchored in that image as in its cause. Thus our personality rests in God. and flows from God. and hangs in God. and returns to God as its eternal source. ”


The spiritual life is an ever-deepening discovery of our origin in God. If we are sufficiently attuned, Ruysbroeck maintains, we can even have a glimpse of what goes on within God, within the Blessed Trinity-of the Father. Origin of origins projecting his Image, and the mutual Love between them. For our purposes it may be good to hold fast to Ruysbroeck’s central thesis: that we should become aware of God’s imprint in us.


As did his critics in the past so, no doubt, will some people today dismiss Ruysbroeck as a pantheist. The dichotomy between God and ourselves is so obvious to them that a “union without distinction” sounds theologically unsafe if not blasphemous. It is the same dichotomy, in fact, from which our traditional arguments for God’s existence took their point of departure and which, as Gabriel Marcel astutely pointed out, made western atheism possible. While walking on the verge of pantheism. Ruysbroeck may well suggest a radical remedy for the secularism of today.



Lessons for today


Think of a housewife and mother. Her day is filled with concern and activity from morning till evening. As she cooks and cleans, caresses and worries, runs her household and, perhaps, holds down a part-time job besides, she might well ask herself: “Where is God in all this?” Surely, a fundamental answer would be: “Within yourself, to begin with.” If she discovers that in her hopes and aspirations, yes in her deepest personality she reflects God, a whole new dimension might open up to her. Prayer might come more naturally. She might learn to distinguish better her true concerns from her empty worries. She might become more sensitive to God’s working in others. In this way religion might be seen as shining naturally from within family life. not as something sandwiched precariously between meals. work and entertainment.


Politicians and businessmen too could take heart. Service of the community and furthering its economic and social welfare do not lie in an ugly sphere of profane activities. Every leader can find out that his gifts of mind and heart, his desire to achieve results. his deepest self. have their source in God. To be faithful to God’s image of us, those of us with responsibilities will even more than others need to retreat into themselves. to purify their motives and actions, to become more efficient in a spiritual, and therefore lasting sense. In the words of Ruysbroeck. they have to breathe in with the Spirit. in order also to breathe out with him and produce the works of love to which he inspires them. It is reassuring for them to know that basically it is God’s energy they are. or are supposed to be, reflecting.


In his own day Ruysbroeck was widely read. Some of his eleven books were translated into Latin. German, French and English even during his lifetime. Yet in many ways he is a forgotten mystic. No complete English translation of his works is available. Was this the price he had to pay for writing in his native Flemish? Is it due to the centuries-old suspicion of pantheism which was only cleared at his beatification? Or was his writing overshadowed by the more pragmatic spirituality of The Imitation of Chnst-a spirituality for which, ironically, he is considered to have blazed the trail?


I for one believe’ the spirituality of Europe is not complete without the witness of Ruysbroeck. Our secular society needs to be transformed from within, by all of us withdrawing within ourselves and retracing our divine origin. This is not an impossible dream. Sociological studies seem to suggest that the search for religious meaning is not waning, but on the increase.And did Jung not show that the “inner empirical Deity” is an archetype firmly embedded in our psychology? “Invoked or not invoked God is still there.”


This is what Jan van Ruysbroeck said about God:


“In him is neither time nor place, before nor after, possessing nor desiring, vice nor virtue, nor anything else that could be properly described in human words. God’s transcending nature must be understood as oneness and simplicity, unscalable height and unfathomable depth, unbounded power and infinite love, dark silence and ferocious energy.”


This is the God within us, who makes us what we are by imprinting his image. It is a realisation that should stop us in our tracks.




Published in The Tablet 5th December 1981, pp.1194-1196.