Jan van Ruysbroeck (or Ruusbroec; 1293 or 1294-1381) was a great fourteenth-century contemplative of the Low Countries. He wrote in the vernacular, middle Dutch, rather than Latin. He was a proponent of a “common” or mixed active and contemplative life. Of him, Evelyn Underhill said that “Ruusbroec is thought, by no few competent judges, to be the greatest of all the medieval Catholic mystics.” CCEL has a book about Ruysbroeck and a collection of three of his works entitled The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage, both by Evelyn Underhill. I have also been reading John Ruusbroec: The Spiritual Espousal and Other Works, a volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality series.

In The Sparkling Stone, Ruysbroeck writes about several types of Christians, with the intent that we may examine ourselves and not think too highly of ourselves.

The first and lowest group are “good” Christians. Elsewhere he calls those in this group participants in the “virtuous life” or “active life.” They

  • have a clean conscience without reproach of mortal sin
  • are obedient to God, the church, and their own conscience
  • intend and desire above all else to live according to the dearest will of God

One who lacks any of these three things, according to Ruysbroeck, is neither good nor in the grace of God, but one who resolves to fulfill these three points in that instant becomes good and filled with grace.

The second group, according to Ruysbroeck, are those who have an “inward” or “spiritual” life. Those in this group also need

  • a heart unencumbered by images, possessing nothing by affection but God
  • spiritual freedom in the desires, so that all that they do is out of love
  • a feeling of inward union with God

The third group are those who are “God-seeing” or who have a “living life” or “contemplative life.” For them, three additional things are necessary:

  • the feeling that the foundation of their being is a measureless abyss, and should be possessed in that manner
  • their inner exercise should be without form or method
  • their inwardness should be characterized by the enjoyment and fruition of God

Sometimes when I look at a list like this I think that I may have some hope of getting into the lowest group, but the rest is simply unintelligible to me. At other times I think I may understand some of the other points to an extent but have a very long way to go. Most often, I try not to judge myself in such ways. I simply try to give myself to God in the moment and leave the rest up to Him.

But occasional self-examination is necessary, at least in the entrance to the Christian life or the spiritual life. I intend to write more about what Ruysbroeck says about the entrance to the spiritual life in upcoming posts. But the prerequisite, the foundation of all is the virtuous life. There is no point in attempting to build a structure until the foundation is set.

Is there anything you ought to be doing, or not doing, anything that touches your conscience? You can go no further until your conscience is clear. You don’t have to be perfect, just genuinely trying to get there and praying for help when you are tested, for forgiveness and strength to overcome when you fail.

Have you determined to do whatever God asks you to do, and others in authority? Quickly? You may fall frequently, but then you get up and try again.

Most fundamentally, have you committed above all else to live according to His dearest will? What follows will be written for those who are in this group.

Lord, I praise and thank you for your beauty, for your goodness and strength, for your care. I thank you for the gift of your son, for your Spirit, for your salvation. Help me to die entirely to myself and live entirely to you and for you and in you.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.