The challenge is to awaken to God coming to us in both ways.
Jan Van Ruusbroec was a Flemish mystic. His life can be seen in three phases: his youth including life with his uncle at a cathedral church, his ordination as priest and work as a chaplain at the large collegiate church, St. Gudula and the remaining third of his life as prior for the canons regular of St. Augustine in the forest of Groenendaal. His duties included solitude and writing.
We have two selections from Jan Van Ruusbroec’s treatise The Spiritual Espousals. These selections are a part of a whole that begins with a discussion on the active life. Our excerpt begins with The Interior Life.
The text from which Van Ruusbroec wrote is simply this: “See. The bridegroom is coming. Go out” (Matt. 26:6). In this first section, Van Ruusbroec discusses the various ways of meeting God. Van Ruusbroec proposes that we have union with God in two ways: without intermediary and with intermediary. In presenting the way without intermediary, Van Ruusbroec states, “According to its essential being, you should know that the spirit receives Christ’s coming in its bare nature. . . ” (188). Our spirit receives Christ ceaselessly. The spirit lives in God and God in it. This shared dwelling includes the possibility of participating in God’s glory and power. For the spirit receives the imprint of God upon her nature.
In presenting the way with intermediary, Van Ruusbroec states “In this unity the spirit must always be either like God by means of grace and virtue or else unlike God because of mortal sin” (190). So we can lose our likeness to God but not our image. When we present our will to Christ, he comes to us in both modes--filling us with himself, his gifts, and delivering us from our sins--and sets us free.
Thus, Van Ruusbroec says the practice of dying to oneself at once fills us with blissful love, an experience so deep it can be only simply understood. Here we find rest for our souls. This unity with God is more highly valued than all one’s natural or supernatural gifts. “In this unity we are received by the Holy Spirit, and we ourselves receive the Holy Spirit, the Father, the Son, and the divine nature in its entirety, for God cannot be divided” (191). We have an experience with the Trinity. Our spirit is fed and we gain in power to grow in virtue. Union with God brings union within our spirit and grace to live a fruitful life, grounded in Love. Van Ruusbroec believes that this active meeting as a continuous movement.
Van Ruusbroec describes meeting God without intermediary in three modes: emptiness, active desire and both resting and working in accordance with righteousness. Emptiness is blissful savor, a profound sense that one is well loved. Active desire is an intense longing to be fully united with Love. God often brings the gift of savorous wisdom in this mode. The third mode--both resting and working in accordance with righteousness--Van Ruusbroec understands it this way: “An interior person therefore possess his life in these two ways, that is in rest and in activity and in each is whole and undivided, for he is completely in God when he blissfully rests and is completely in himself when he actively loves” (195-6). In this mode one richly experiences a sense of wholeness in enjoyment of God and all holy and natural activity.
In The Contemplative Life, Van Ruusbroec speaks of an embrace with God, comprehending God in the deepest way, with an interior gaze to this light. This requires a dying to self, an orderly exterior life, a devotion like that of fire and a final reorientation to the Godhead. Now one can contemplate eternal life and “find oneself to be nothing other than the same light which he sees” (200). The bridegroom ceaselessly comes birthing illumination. Van Ruusbroec brings us to understand one can enter a sense of timelessness, the eternal now. This likeness is . . . one with the very image of the Holy Trinity which is the wisdom of God, in which God contemplates himself and all things in an eternal now that has no before or after” (202). Van Ruusbroec explains that when we join God in seeing himself, we pursue the divine light and find our life.
Van Ruusbroec teaches that the bosom of the Father is our own ground and origin (202). When we choose to reside in the bosom of the Father, we find our freedom and are masters of ourselves. “With each loving movement within, he is able to grow in nobility of life beyond anything that is humanly understandable.” (203) We begin to resemble God’s nobility. Now is the time for savoring and seeing, without amazement, for our spirit has been brought beyond itself, made one with the Spirit of God.
Van Ruusbroec wrote from a deep well. He was immersed in mystical theology and the patristic heritage of the east and west. We are aware that Van Ruusbroec wrote in response to the rise of quietism and pantheism. Yet, the content of this treatise transcends those concerns. In The Spiritual Espousals we see Van Ruusbroec was given a gift of desire and ability to express corrective and informing treatises on spirituality that he honored with this work before us.
Van Ruusbroec proposes that the divine within is a given. By virtue of my existence, I am well loved and invited to experience healing, growth, delight and joy. Van Ruusbroec is not alone in building his spirituality around image and likeness. His particular contribution is in exposing to us what it means to be created in His image. He does this well, describing the origin of our union with God. He states “Christ comes to us from within outward, while we come to him from without inward. It is this which gives rise to a spiritual meeting” (188). Since Christ is the divine light within us, at our invitation, he will move out gathering all of our brokenness, making us whole. While we can bring our scattered selves inward, where Christ is, ready to orient us to this divine light, within the darkness of our soul.
Van Ruusbroec describes well the experience of being in relationship to God with intermediary. “. . . it is the powers of the soul which act, but in whatever way they act they derive their power and potency from their originating source, that is, from the unity of the spirit, where the spirit subsists in its personal mode of being” (190). As I read this section, I pictured a doe moving about the forest of its own power given her. She is not carried by other animals. She has her own muscle, sinew, thought and senses to allow her to move in a dignified way.
Van Ruusbroec builds a detailed case to show us how through God’s grace and our virtues we can become like God and experience bliss. As I reflected on this section, I thought of the macrocosm and microcosm Lars Thornberg described in “The Human Person as Image of God,” It is in knowing and sensing in our spirits that we have a transcendent home, beyond our flesh and that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves, that our spirits find bliss and our egos rest. Describing union with God as an active state, not static, assures us, welcomes us, into relationship with a God who is alive, not just an idea. Van Ruusbroec is convincing us that embodied spirituality is possible and available for all.
As I mentioned we are aware that Van Ruusbroec wrote in part in response to quietism. Quietism espoused that one had need of no one but God. Van Ruusbroec’s treatise speaks of two primary ways we relate to God. The first is experienced in an entirely private manner, without intermediary. But the second, with intermediary, is only realized in relationship to other people. For grace is not realized apart from a response we often identify as virtue, such as, kindness, patience, forgiveness. Van Ruusbroec teaches that we are to be familiar with both ways of being in relationship with God.
Perhaps somewhere else in Van Ruusbroec’s writing he describes in more detail the pain involved in giving one’s will to God. For usually, that is done after much failure living without God at all, or half-heartedly. We have all been wounded by those who say they love us and by those who never pretend to. Acknowledging our wounds and how we have hurt others by living out of them is a life’s work. Van Ruusbroec says: ”He imprints his image and likeness upon us, namely, himself and his gifts, delivers us from our sins, sets us free, and makes us like himself” (190). Van Ruusbroec describes the union with God after we are delivered from our sins, but does not help us with the painful struggle itself.
In this picture of God given to us interiorly, we know that God has made an eternal covenant with us that can not be severed by the foulest sin. All that God would ask to enliven a broken relationship with him is acknowledging our sin and giving our wills to him. A powerful reminder to someone experiencing great sorrow and hopelessness around one’s deeds. We can choose to be refreshed by God at any moment. The power of God is ready to be ignited in each of us. No one has been left out.
Let me repeat myself. Van Ruusbroec writes from the simple, short text: “See, the bridegroom is coming. Go out.” Van Ruusbroec perspicuously states in The Spiritual Espousals, that the heavenly marriage proposal is an invitation to not just a life of honor but of bliss. “Now Christ comes from above as an almighty Lord and generous Benefactor. . . ” (188) He convinces this reader that choosing Christ as one’s bridegroom, no matter what the cost, is a winning choice. I am entirely convinced as I contemplate the image of a divine bridegroom courting me that this is a wedding I do not wish to miss! This is a bridegroom I would be foolish to resist.
Van Ruusbroec, Jan. “Spiritual Espousals.” Light from Light, An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, Paulist Press, 2001. Eds. Louis Dupre and James A Wiseman. New York:Paulist Press, 2001. 182-207.