van Ruysbroeck, Jan
Jan van Ruysbroeck was a Flemish theologian, born in 1293 in Ruysbroeck near Brussels. He was a Catholic Christian who took orders in 1317.
Much of his youth and middle age was spent as a very unassuming and unremarkable theologian and cathedral chaplain. He was described then as simple, quiet and ‘shabby’, someone who went about his duties with little fuss and who lived unnoticed and unremarked.
During his early life from about the age of 11, he was taught by priests and theologians and was trained in theology and philosophy. It was these two aspects that appear to have marked those first two quarters of his life. He campaigned against heretics, who he saw as anyone against church dogma. He was quite happy to support torture of those found to be against doctrine as being a just punishment for wrong doers. In fact, overall he could be summed up as being judgemental, intolerant, bigoted, strident and almost fanatical in his beliefs. His writings are tedious and lack any understanding or compassion.
Then something happened to change him and it happened in 1343 when he was about 50. What it was I cannot find out, but he was attacked verbally for his outspoken criticism of others and appears not to have been liked that much by his contemporaries for much the same reason, [loneliness and isolation] these may have had some impact. He went to live in the old hermitage at Groenendael which was a retreat in the woods near Brussels [the safe house] and there he softened.
One can only sum it up by saying that whatever it was, changed him into a practising Christian, one whom Jesus might have supported. Before he was not, he may have been a Christian in name but he certainly wasn’t one in nature. But he acquired over the next 38 years or so until his death at 88 on December 2nd 1381, all the virtues that Jesus espoused – compassion, tolerance, helpfulness and kindness, he became less judgemental and more humble and loving. Gone was the ranting of a man who appeared to espouse only hate and instead, one who understood the nature of love. It took time and his later writings are occasionally tinged with his past, but on the whole you get a sense of a changed man.
By the time the change had taken place he was described by Gerard Naghel Prior of Herines as ‘peaceful, joyful, humble and good natured’.
Those who follow the way of love
Are the richest of all men living
They are bold, frank and fearless
They have neither travail nor care
A complete turn-round.
The spiritual experiences he did obtain were actually - as experiences go - neither unconventional or extraordinary. He had no out of body experiences, nor did he have many visions and he never attained union with his higher spirit , being happy to simply achieve knowledge of that spirit. He quotes St Mathew the Evangelist in this
“Behold the Bridegroom cometh, go you out to meet him”
Not join him note, but just meet.
Most of his experiences, from what one can tell would be classified as just ‘bliss’.
“we shall speak of a ghostly and supernatural sight in which all our bliss abides”
But we will see that he had certain types of experience which are quite special, thus what he lacked in the numbers of types of experience he made up for in quality.
These experiences gave him peace and understanding and changed him for the better. He became a poet, a sure sign of one who has opened up. He certainly attracted more friends who genuinely liked – even loved – him [friendship and companionship].
In this quote we see the change. From being a rather intolerant strident hater of all other religions except his own, we get this wonderful gem of tolerance coming from his later truly spiritual life….
“grace is common to all men, Pagan and Jew, good and evil… whosoever wishes to turn to Him can turn to Him…. God is a common light and a common splendour … enlightening every man each according to his need and worth”
There is little point in concentrating on his early beliefs because they were not only based on no spiritual experience, but they clearly made him very unhappy. As he changed his approach, he started to get better and more profound spiritual experiences and his beliefs changed.
Despite the Catholic church’s beautification of him, if you examine his beliefs carefully, they would be regarded even today as somewhat ‘unconventional’. He must have had to tread a very careful path given what he was discovering, as opposed to what he had been taught and what was dogma.
"Despite this declaration …and other similar saving clauses scattered over his pages, some of Ruysbroeck's expressions are certainly rather unusual and startling”.
“ 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 of the weak’”.
“He lived to see certain passages in his works heavily criticised as supporting a pantheistic and heretical view [Underhill]”.
It must have been extraordinarily difficult for him given that his home was owned by and his means of support was provided by the Catholic church.
I do like converts to the spiritual world.
The techniques he used
Within his books, Ruysbroeck mentions a number of types of action that can give you an experience, but he does not necessarily advocate them. Some are involuntary, some voluntary. So he knew but he did not necessarily recommend. Towards the end of his life, for example, he started to go blind and this is an involuntary mechanism of experience – see Blindness. He knew of the effect of Grief and mentions it by quoting Jesus “Blessed are those that mourn; for they shall be comforted”. He also saw in the teachings of Christ the effects that Extreme pain can produce; that hunger, thirst and thus fasting produced; he evens mentions ‘flagellation’, citing the effect the scourging of Jesus had. Again, using the life of Jesus as an example, he mentions cold – hypothermia – and overwhelming fear and terror.
But this is not his system, this is not what he did.
All of Ruysbroeck’s techniques were based on suppression.
His system works ‘bottom up’. The first stage is to attack the subconscious, then you attack the Conscious intellect, then you go for gold. He uses some nice analogies, which also hints that he knew the effects of controlled non sexual kundalini energy.
When the natural fire has by its heat and power stirred water, or some other liquid, until it bubbles up; then this is the highest achievement. Then the water boils up and falls down to the bottom and then is stirred again to the same activity by the power of the fire; so that the water is incessantly bubbling up and the fire incessantly stirring it.
The other analogy he uses, also very helpful, is that of man as a tree. He asks us to imagine the body like the picture drawn by Leonardo da Vinci with arms outstretched in a cross shape but with the legs this time apart.
The arms legs and trunk of the body need to be considered as the roots of the tree, drawing ‘moisture’ [spiritual energy] up towards the head. The head then needs to be thought of as the trunk and then the crown of the tree. As moisture is drawn up it will create a flowering at the crown [the crown chakra] which will bring forth fruit.
Thus his system is based on the idea that you open up the crown chakra by funnelling your own and earth energy up towards the crown in a series of very controlled steps all based on suppression of the various functions, which has the effect of diverting energy we might use to fuel the emotion or the memory, for example, into a more productive opening up towards the higher spirit. – Stimulation via trigger points.
Ruysbroeck used three techniques which seemed very effective, but which barely receive a mention in his books, these are :
- The Safe House – this was what he created at Groenendael
- Communing with nature – the following short quote shows what he achieved
A tradition tells us that he would go alone into the woods and there, sitting under his favourite tree, would write as the ‘holy ghost’ [his composer] dictated… once having been absent many hours from the priory, he was at last found in the place, rapt with ecstasy.
- Friendship and companionship – from which he appears to have derived great comfort
Ruysbroeck recognised that by having bad and troubling memories one generated high emotion and ended up with high emotion as well as input to the will that blocked out the composer. His solution was two-fold he used:
- Confession [and this had to be a genuine confession with true feelings of guilt and the wish to be forgiven]
Nothing can trouble the patient man, neither loss of earthly goods, of friends and kinsmen; nor sickness, nor disgrace, nor life, nor death, …. For he has abandoned himself in perfect charity to the will of God…
And he also advocated - Contemplation and Detachment.
He must cast out all distracting images and attachments from the heart, so that he may be free and imageless, released from all attachments and empty of all creatures ………. a man must be indifferent to gladness and grief, to strange cares, to delight and dread …….. sensible love forsakes all creatures as regards pleasures, not as regards need.
He attempted chastity – but it is clear this did not work – a battle he seems not to have won…
The lower part of ourselves, which is beastly and contrary to the virtues and which wills our separation from God, we should hate and persecute and we should torment it by means of penances and austerity of life, so that it be always repressed.
On the other hand he used
With some success.
And finally he used Suppression of learning and within this technique two specific methods:
- Tedious repetitive tasks – monastery life in general provided these opportunities
- Chanting and mantra – the chanting of prayers in church and in Latin
Then the man sometimes becomes so intense and so ardent in his prayer that he receives in ghostly wise the answer that his prayer has been heard.
So what you can see from the above is that Ruysbroeck’s system was not based on one-off techniques used to achieve the end result, but his system was a way of life, every day this is what you did, you didn’t say ‘ah, I’ve got a spare half hour let’s have a go at generosity or meekness', he said 'I will aim to be this all the time’.
And it made him happy.
The only books that I consider accurately reflect Ruysbroeck’s beliefs and practises – those that actually worked and reflect his spiritual side are:
- The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage
- The Sparkling Stone; and
- The Book of the Supreme Truth.
All Translated by C. A. Wynschenk.
This translation has an introduction and notes by Evelyn Underhill, which is not helpful, but the text itself is about the most useful of all the texts he wrote and the closest to being a spiritual text.
But my goodness does he ramble on!! Nearly three hundred pages and most of what he advocates could have been said in about 50 or less.
No commentaries, no other works about him or by him seem to me any use at all. They would certainly appeal to the establishment theologian, or the religious fanatic, but they are not helpful in the spiritual content.
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - Commentary on Matthew 9:15
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - Knowledge of ourselves
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - Speculum Aeternae Salutis
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - Taught in a dream by their guardian angels
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - The Adornment of the Spiritual marriage - For the Father incessantly begets his Son
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - The Adornment of the Spiritual marriage - God may touch a man from without and from within
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - The Adornment of the Spiritual marriage - The sun, moon and the four elements
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - The Adornment of the Spiritual marriage - Whosoever would know God would go mad
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - The Three Worlds
- van Ruysbroeck, Jan - To be wounded by love is the sweetest feeling