The Flemish mystic Jan Van Ruysbroeck spent the second half of his life in contemplative solitude. Looking to streams, rivers, and sky, he produced some of the finest writing in the Christian contemplative canon. But he certainly didn’t write very efficiently. In fact, he maintained that he never never wrote a word the Holy Spirit didn’t move him to write. And his insight into the contemplative process has much to teach us. Like many of the medieval mystics before him, he often divided his concepts into threes, modeling the Trinity. In one model, he had:
- The Active Life
- The Inward Life
- The Contemplative Life
The active life refers to a life of service in the world, and the traditional ethical teachings of the Church.
The inward life focuses on the movement into contemplative silence, quieting the mind’s racing thoughts and images, working towards what Rueysbroeck called “spiritual clarity.”
The contemplative life came later, when, after God cleansed the clutter of the false self, His divine fire bubbles up inside us as “infused heat.”
It is the second phase, though, that reminds me so much of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven,” is an oft-quoted verse that has both a conventional meaning and a deeper, spiritual one. The conventional meaning is usually emphasized, but let’s focus on the spiritual one for a moment.
What does it mean to be “poor in Spirit?” Or, maybe an easier way to address it is, “what does it mean to be poor in Mind?” A rich mind would, in this case, be a full one, full of learned knowledge, fixed ideas and expectations, assumptions that one’s own mental faculties can figure things out, and of course, a picture-book of images that never seems to empty, only accumulated more images. This is especially true today, in the info-age of constant bombardment of screens, ad copy, and pop-ups. So what would it mean to not have any of that in our minds? What would it mean to know nothing, expect nothing, imagine nothing, to just Be?
Strange as it might seem, the phrase, “I don’t know,” comes to mind as a spiritual understanding consistent with Ruysbroeck’s teaching. It’s used often in Zen, and sometimes referred to as “Don’t Know Mind,” yet the Christian contemplative traditions is rich, too, with the contemplative experience of unknowing, from the famed work The Cloud Of Unknowing to St. John of the Cross’s Dark NIght, where dark is translated from the Spanish obscura, meaning hidden, unknown, obscure. The ultimate teaching here, of course, being that nothing of our own efforts and mental strain can usher a flood of Divine Light into our beings; it is by Grace alone that we are brought into a deeper union with our Creator.
Unfortunately, for most of us, our own efforts and intentions are extremely hard-wired into us. Everyday life seems to demand that we have solutions, answers, ideas about how to go about things. And while that has its place, in the deeper contemplative waters, our own mental framework is nothing but a heavy weight that ultimately becomes too heavy to carry in the Ocean of Eternity.
So while Ruysbroeck may have had a hermitage and endless days alone in the woods to allow Nature’s original wonder to clear his faculties for Divine Grace, we may have a million things to do everyday, and be pushed to the point of exasperation by automated voice systems that put us on hold and technology that seems to need endless adjustments and fixes. So, in the midst of it, we can sometimes pause and remember the phrase I don’t know – about our lives, about our path, about the world around us, about anything, and it may open up an endless depth and breadth within us we never knew was there.
This process towards spiritual clarity is only one aspect of Ruysbroeck’s teachings, yet it is an important one, the beginning – and the biggest challenge – or entering more profoundly into contemplative life. Ruysbroeck believed this was the purpose of this second phase of the inward life, to allow contemplative practice to give us this depth and breadth, a quality he called “abysmal.” This isn’t the negative implication that gets attached to the word today, but as the literal meaning, within our bodies our Spirits open into an Infinite “abyss” stretching in all directions, making room for Grace, preparing us for the Divine sparks to kindle a fire of Holiness within.
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You may also be interested in a collection of Blessed Jan Van Rueysbroeck’s writings.