“Ruysbroeck was a humble Flemish priest of the fifteenth century. None the less, in the order of genius the ‘uncultured’ Ruysbroeck, as a theologian, and consequently as a philosopher and a poet, is as far above Bossuet as Dante, for instance, is above Boileau. Face to face with the mysterious that shroud God and man, Bossuet seeks, argues, and so to speak, gropes; Ruysbroeck knows, describes, or rather sings, and contemplates. This illiterate mystic of an obscure age finds himself at home in the sublime as in his own sphere; he speaks of what is familiar to him; the wise doctor of the world remains without. Bossuet does not enter, he does not open, he does not see. Bossuet spins words, Ruysbroeck pours out streams of light. It seems as if Bossuet were that mighty winds which was heard in the Upper Chamber; the brief words of Ruysbroeck are the tongues of fire, living and enlightening flame”. Louis Veuillot
Blessed John Ruysbroeck is practically unknown to many of our readers. He was beatified by Pope St. Pius X on 1st of December 1908. Who is this man? John Ruysbroeck was born at Ruysbroeck, a village near South of Brussels in Belgium on the year 1293. We don’t know of his father, but his mother was truly devout woman who trained her child from cradle to walk in the paths of Christian piety and perfection. At age of eleven, he left home to meet an uncle of his – a certain John Hinckaert, a major canon of St. Gudule’s (at present Cathedral of St. Gudule). He too, a devout man, received John in his devout household. John could easily feel at home and appreciate the atmosphere that was saturated with prayer. His good uncle also took charge of his education.
After four years of humanities in Brussels, John pursued the course in Sacred Science with a view to the priesthood. He was ordained in the year 1317. His mother at the same time moved near the cathedral to devout her life in the service of the Church. For twenty-six years, in all Blessed John lived as a secular priest in Brussels. Content with his modest chaplaincy in the church of St. Gudule and with his holy companion John Hinckaert, he continued to live happily in apostolic simplicity and poverty. Ruysbroeck passed his days in peaceful retirement and almost uninterrupted prayer and contemplation. He at the same time never abandoned the mortification – which played an important role in his spiritual growth. One day, as he was passing through the streets of Brussels, two laymen noticed his mean cassock, him emaciated figure and one said, “My God, would I be as holy as that priest!” “Nay, for my part” returned the other, “I would not be in his shoes for all the wealth of the world. I should never know a day’s pleasure on earth”. “Then you know nothing of the delights which God bestows, or of the delicious savor of the Holy Ghost,” thought Ruysbroeck to himself, for he happened to over hear the words and he proceeded tranquilly on his way.
In order to grow higher, John decided to retire into the forest of Soignes, to build himself a hut and live there as a hermit along with another holy monk. The Duke of Brabant offered them a place for their hermitage. And so, the hermitage of Groenendael was born on Easter Wednesday 1344. Immediately after the foundation the community of Groenendael grew and flourished. John was made prior and he too made great strides in the practice of heroic virtue and at the same time his gifts of contemplation became even more sublime and still his reputation for sanctity increased.
Amid his labors, he never lost his sense of the nearness of God’s presence. Indeed, he was wont to say that it was easier for him to raise his soul to God than to lift his hands to his forehead. Very often frequently in his works Blessed Ruysbroeck takes occasion to treat of the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and ever he speaks of this sacred mystery in terms of the most vivid faith and intense devotion, discussing it as a supreme proof of God’s love for men, on par with the gifts of Creation, the Incarnation, and Redemption. His biographers tell us of his personal love for the Blessed Eucharist, and especially of his ecstatic devotion in offering the great Sacrifice.
Heavenly favors seem to have been by no means rare with our Saint. He was frequently ravished with vision of Our Divine Lord in His Sacred Humanity. Christ appeared to him accompanied by His Blessed Mother and numerous retinues of Saints and conversed familiarly with him. One day the Saint had retired as usual into the forest, and the Brethren, knowing his occupation, respected his privacy. But when hours passed and there was no sign of his return, they became alarmed and set out to scour the woods in search of him. One of the Canons was especially intimate with the Prior and loved him most tenderly. Perhaps his anxiety urged him ahead of the rest. In a glade of the forest he lighted upon a wondrous scene. He perceived a tree as if it were in flames. On approaching he discovered that it was in fact encircled with fire. And under the tree, in the midst of the mysterious conflagration, John Ruysbroeck was seated, manifestly rapt in ecstasy. The memory of this miracle was never lost in the Community. For generations, the tree was known and venerated as Ruysbroeck’s Tree. It is no wonder that as the fame of these and similar marvels spread abroad, multitudes of the faithful, young and old, clergy and laity, flocked to see and hear the holy Prior of Groenendael. Ruysbroeck received all with unvarying simple courtesy, and his unpremeditated words were ever found to meet exactly the needs of the each.
As for his mystical theology, it is typical of Ruybroeck’s approach to Mystical theology, that he takes the reality of God as granted, rather than to climb up to it by reasoning from the creatures. And it is equally characteristic of him that he views the divine reality right away as the triune God. Trinity, or better Triunity, as it were the starting – point of his spirituality. His theology of the Triunity is set against Dinoysian background. It is dominated by the idea of the One as the first source and last end of all reality. And the divine life, whether participated by contemplatives in the mystical experience (or by all the just without such experience) or within the Trinity, is conceived by him on the pattern of the threefold movement: abiding, going out, and returning; the three moments that make up the circular movement. Ruybroeck’s theology of the Trinity is built on that structure. And he reconstructs this theology on the analogy of the mystical experience of the Trinitarian life.
He had attained the good old age of eighty-eight, when his mother appeared in a vision to warn him to make ready for the approaching end. It must seem to us there was little need for such warning to one whose whole life had been one long preparation for the coming of the Spouse! The humble Prior besought his superior to treat him as any of the lowliest brethren and to bear him to the common infirmary. This was accordingly done. There he lay for a fort-night, gradually wasting away with the burning fever, and still more, doubtless, with his burning desires to be dissolved and to be with Christ, for he was constantly heard murmuring such ejaculations as that of the Psalmist, Sicut desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum. He received all the last rites, and the end came in the greatest peace, with his weeping brethren around him, on the Octave day of St. Catherine, Virgin and Martyr, December 2, 1381, in the eighty eight year of his age, the sixty fourth of his priesthood.
In 1885, the late Cardinal Goossens, Archbishop of Mechlin, approached the Sacred Congregation to take up his cause, and a tribunal was appointed to examine into it on February 8, 1900. This was brought to a happy issue in 1908 by a Decree of the Sacred Congregation, dated December 1st, and approved by His Holiness, Pope St. Pius X., December 9, confirming the cultus, “shown from time immemorial to the Venerable Servant of God, John Ruysbroeck, Canon Regular, Called the Blessed.”
« O God, Who didst vouchsafe to adorn Blessed John, Thy confessor, with sublime holiness of life and with heavenly gifts, grant us, through his merits, and after his example, to despise the fleeting things of the world, and to desire only the joys of heaven. »
- Vincent Joseph Scully, A Mediaeval Mystic. A short account of the life and writings of Blessed John Rysbroeck, Canon regular of Groenendael A.D. 1293–1381... New York: Benziger Brothers, 1911.
- Pierre Pourrat, The Christian Spirituality Vol 2, Chapter VIII - The Teaching of the German Mystics of the Fourteenth Century (pgs: 224-251)
- P. De Letter SJ, Trinitarian Indwelling according to Ruysbroeck, The Heythrop Journal 1961, (Volume 2), pgs: 48-56
Fr. Therasian Babu