John of Ruusbroec, a mystical union with God
John of Ruusbroec (Jan van Ruusbroec in Dutch) was born in 1293 in the Brabant village of "Ruusbroec", today part of greater Brussels. He holds an important place in the Rhine-Flemish mysticism movement. Aged 11, he decided to leave his parents' home and study under the guidance of his uncle, a canon of Saint Gudula, in Brussels. He was barely interested in the humanities: "He was an unschooled man", says Denis the Carthusian, "who just did not know Latin." And another Carthusian stressed "he barely even learned the grammar". Ordained as a priest at the age of 24, he became a chaplain of Saint Gudula: "Unconcerned about himself and the world", notes his biography, "he gave the impression of an unfortunate soul and a man of nothing to those who did not know him. He lived in a deep peace, silent and dishevelled. Devoted to contemplation, he deliberately avoided crowds." His first works are dated from this time, written in Middle Dutch, at the great surprise of his contemporaries.
In 1334, he and a few friends settled in the solitude of the Forest of Soignes, in Groenendael ("the Green Valley"). All of them soon took the habit of the regular chaplains of Saint-Augustine, whose rule they adopted. Ruusbroec's books and reputation became widespread. Non-religious and religious, theologians and the simply faithful increasingly flocked to hear him. One of these was the Strasbourg-born Jean Tauler. Ruusbroec's work comprises about a dozen mystical publications, the most well-known being "The Kingdom of the Lovers of God" and "The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage" written around 1330-1335. Considered to be a peak in Christian mysticism, this text spread like wildfire through the Europe of the time. The author himself seems to have considered it his best work and liked to refer to it as the most complete presentation of his doctrine.
His work is the expression of a long-standing personal experience. Rest in God and the purpose of spiritual life could only be obtained by a gradual dispossession of oneself and would only appear after three phases:
- essential purity;
- a sleep-like state in which the soul is lost in God;
- overcoming all dualism, the soul plunging into the depths of the divine darkness, incapable of discerning what comes from God or itself and everything abandoned to the sole action of God in it.
The visionary from Groenendael remains a guide for those who venture into the often-misunderstood country of the inner life. John of Ruusbroec died on 2 December 1381 aged 88. He was beatified five centuries later in 1885.