Dutch Mysticism

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Course about Christian spirituality
in a cultural-historical context

Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries

Hadewijch and John of Ruusbroec, their faith and way of thinking

Rozemarijn van Leeuwen
© 1999-2001


Lecture 7b.  John of Ruusbroec: To meet Him

Topics this hour:
  • 'To meet Him': becoming similar formed after God and the unification
  • Two ways to meet God: Hadewijch and Ruusbroec
  • Recapitulation: 'to meet him' according to Ruusbroec
  • Rounding off the course Hadewijch and Ruusbroec:
    Mysticism and Western spirituality in the christian tradition
    • The mystical experience according to Hadewijch and Ruusbroec
    • Late-medieval Brabantian mysticism


This last hour I'll round off John of Ruusbroec and also the course as a whole. As far as Ruusbroec is concerned, I've told you that his writing starts quite easily and that he slowly develops his ideas in The spiritual wedding. And now we've arrived at the end of the Inward Life, so these are the deeper layers, or highlights of his thoughts, his teachings.

In this final hour, we finally arrive at the meeting with God, in the subdivision 'to meet him', at the end of the Inward Life. We will see how the spiritual growth, that can take place in a human being in the unit of the spirit and the spiritual faculties through virtues and love (of one's fellow man), is related to the mystical experience.

And then, to bring the course to a conclusion, I'll go back to a question that I asked during the very first lecture: what is mysticism? After everything we read and discussed during this course, we now can expand that question: what did we learn about mysticism from Hadewijch and Ruusbroec? What is the mystical experience according to Hadewijch and Ruusbroec?

And last of all, with that, we'll consider whether this gave us an insight into a late-medieval spiritual tradition. Does something exists like late-medieval Brabantian mysticism?

And there our quest through medieval mysticism will end.

'To meet Him': becoming similar formed after God and the unification

Finally we ended up at the subdivision 'to meet him' (Inward Life). Ruusbroec here summarises the whole Wedding, by means of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Right at the beginning, Ruusbroec further explains the idea of becoming similar to God (literally he calls it 'becoming similar formed') and the following unification in one more sentence (page 289). He talks about the virtues and the meaning of acquiring these virtues, and then he says the following. First I'll read the translation, then the Middle Dutch text (click on 'play').

Hoe dat wij Gode ontmoeten selen in ghelijcheiden, soe moghen wij met hem rasten in eenicheiden.

Jan van Ruusbroec, Werken, ed. Poukens and Reypens (Ruusbroec Society, 1932).

speaker music play middle dutch   play Middle Dutch  /  or click here



According as we shall meet God in similarity, we will rest with him in unity.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The spiritual wedding (± 1335). Inward Life, To meet Him.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Die gheestelike brulocht (1989), p. 289.  Entire paragraph (M.D. and translation).

In this sentence he explains the importance of spiritual growth (in virtues, love, conscience and good works, as we talked about before the break and last week, the 'fertility'), the importance of spiritual growth for the final mystical unification with God.

And that is: the more a human being resembles God in the unit of the spirit (by acquiring virtues and increase of love), so the more a human being becomes similar formed after God, the more unity with Him, in delighting rest, is achievable. So this doesn't refer to the mystical experience that unexpectedly can happen to a human being, even if he/she isn't spiritually fully grown; this is about a human being that has grown towards God and achieved similarity, resemblance after God.

This is very similar to Hadewijch's ideas about the ghebreken, the lacking: by living an earthly life, a person can acquire virtues and love of one's fellow man, becoming independent, fier (proud), acquire likeness to God and become 'god with God' (which is called theosis or deification in theology).

During this summary Ruusbroec also goes back to the thought how the human psyche is an image of God. For example (page 295):

Because of this gift, the Father internally pulls on the human being and invites him to his unity (...). And the Son speaks inside him in a spiritual manner: "Follow me to the Father: one thing is necessary". And the Holy Ghost opens the heart and inflames it in burning love.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The spiritual wedding (± 1335). Inward Life, To meet Him.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Die gheestelike brulocht (1989), p. 295.  Entire paragraph (M.D. and translation).

It can't get any clearer. The Father represents unity; the Son represents insight; and the Holy Spirit love. And what happens to the human being?

A few pages later Ruusbroec writes (page 299):

This gift consolidates our spirit in unity, she opens the truth and nourishes a wide love.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The spiritual wedding (± 1335). Inward Life, To meet Him.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Die gheestelike brulocht (1989), p. 299.  Entire paragraph (M.D. and translation).

Remember the scheme of the human being as God's image and resemblance, before the break: unity; truth (or insight or wisdom); and love.

     the human being as God's image and resemblance





memoria unity   Father
reason wisdom spirt. light Son
will love spirt. warmth Holy Ghost

Repeatedly this is about how the psyche of the human being resembles God. And in this summary Ruusbroec repeats this scheme very clear. Due to enlightenment of the reason, the human acquires insight in himself and knowledge of God (page 305-7). Because of this, the will gets heated.

And the lighter the reason, the wiser the human becomes; and the more heated the will, the more love the human possesses. And the more lighted and heated, the more the human being resembles God. And the more the human being is similar to God, the more complete the unification can be.

Ruusbroec says this beautifully on page 309; surely also listen to his own words in Middle Dutch:

Want Hi is eenvuldicheit in sinen wesene, claerheit in sinen verstane, ende eene uutvloeyende ghemeyne minne in sinen werkene. Ende soe wij Gode in desen drien ghelijckere sijn, soe wij met Hem meer vereenicht sijn. Ende hier omme selen wij in onsen gronde eenvuldich bliven, ende met verlichter redenen alle dinc merken, ende met ghemeynre minnen alle dinc dore vloeyen.

Jan van Ruusbroec, Werken, ed. Poukens and Reypens (Ruusbroec Society, 1932).

speaker music play middle dutch   play Middle Dutch  /  or click here



After all, God is oneness in His being, clarity in His reason and outward flowing common love in His works. And the more we are similar formed after God in these three points, the closer ('the more intimite, profound') we are united with Him. That's why we should remain one in our ground, and behold all things with an enlightened reason, and moreover flow over into everyone with an expanding love.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The spiritual wedding (± 1335). Inward Life, To meet Him.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Die gheestelike brulocht (1989), p. 309.  Entire paragraph (M.D. and translation).

After this, Ruusbroec says something remarkable. He continues with his summary and says: as soon as the human being comes this far, and turns inwards towards God, he will experience God as follows (page 311):

Nu verstaet, inden weder inkeerne houdet hare die ghebrukelijcke eenicheit Gods rechte alse een duysternisse ende een onwise.

Jan van Ruusbroec, Werken, ed. Poukens and Reypens (Ruusbroec Society, 1932).

speaker music play middle dutch   play Middle Dutch  /  or click here



During this once-again-turning-inwards, the ghebrukelijke ('delightful') oneness of God displays itself as a darkness and a non-manner.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The spiritual wedding (± 1335). Inward Life, To meet Him.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Die gheestelike brulocht (1989), p. 311.  Entire paragraph (M.D. and translation).

The enlightened and heated soul experiences God as a 'darkness'. We remember this from Hadewijch. She also describes the non-personal, groundless depth of God as 'dark' ('donker'), a 'pre-illuminative darkness' from which light can come into existence.

And now we arrived at the very last fragment of Ruusbroec that we'll read. The human that has become similar formed after God (lighted and heated) turns inwards, into the endless darkness of the divinity. And there, finally, this human meets God:

Ende die afgront Gods roept inden afgront: dat sijn alle die vereenicht sijn metten gheeste Gods in ghebrukelijker minnen. Dit inroepen es een overvloeyen eere weselijcker Claerheit.

Ende dese weselijcke Claerheit, in eenen ommevanghe eere grondeloser Minnen, doet ons selven verliesen ende ontvlieten in die wilde duysternisse der Godheit.

Ende alsoe vereenicht, zonder middel een metten gheeste Gods, soe moghen wij Gode met Gode ontmoeten ende met Hem ende in Hem blijflijcke besitten onse eewighe zalicheit.

Jan van Ruusbroec, Werken, ed. Poukens and Reypens (Ruusbroec Society, 1932).

speaker music play middle dutch   play Middle Dutch  /  or click here



The abyss of God evokes in itself the abyss. That are all who are united with God's spirit in 'ghebrukelijke minne' ('delightful love'). This evoking is the overflowing or the pouring out of an essential clarity.

This essential clarity makes us to forget ourselves, due to the embracement by a groundless love, and flow away into the endless darkness of the divinity.

And in this way united with God's spirit without medium in between, we can meet God with god, and in a lasting way possess our eternal salvation with Him and in Him.

Jan van Ruusbroec, The spiritual wedding (± 1335). Inward Life, To meet Him.

English translation by RvL, based on: L. Moereels, Die gheestelike brulocht (1989), p. 317.  Entire paragraph (M.D. and translation).

This fragment is mystical in a way you would imagine medieval mysticism to be. But you're only able to understand all concepts and underlying ideas, and feel the medieval meaning, when you, as we did, read the whole preceding reasoning, the whole line of thought, and have been starting to sense the nuances and the emotional value of the used terminology (the ghebrukelijke minne, the unification without medium, the divine darkness).

The enlightened and warmed soul, or the spiritual fully-grown soul, who turns inside towards God, experiences an unification in 'ghebrukelijke minne' ('delightful love'), without medium-in-between, im-mediate. Thanks to the 'essential clarity' (light/insight) and 'groundless love' (warmth/love), this human arrives at the 'endless darkness of the divinity'. And there the meeting between the full-grown soul and God (god with God) finds place, unifying without medium, the mystical unification.

Or, in other words: the spiritual wedding between the spiritual fully-grown human being and God.

Ruusbroec associates the divine darkness with rest, just as we have seen with Hadewijch; and Ruusbroec associates it with the Oneness (the Father) of the Trinity. Hadewijch already showed, that there in the divine darkness where activity starts, light and warmth came into being (due to the delightful love internally within God).

When I extend this scheme, here with the unity of God (the Creator, the Father) is the darkness and also the rest.

     the human being as God's image and resemblance





memoria unity   Father: darkness/rest
reason wisdom spirt. ligth Son
will love spirt. warmth Holy Spirit

Ruusbroec never describes the psyche of the human in terms of darkness; this is an eternal distinction between God and human, namely: God as creator, as origin of everything.

God is active (or: Christ is coming towards the human, or: God is giving mercy) by means of light/wisdom and warmth/love; and these mirror the human spiritual faculties.

The reason is after God's wisdom and Ruusbroec describes this as light at a spiritual level. The will is after God's love and he describes this as warmth at a spiritual level. (And the memoria, the human consciousness, you could say is after the Unity, but that can't be described as darkness).

So Ruusbroec doesn't describe the spiritual wedding at all as a decorated city in which eagles fly, oh no. To him it is a spiritual unification between God and the human being who spiritually has grown towards God (with virtues, conscience, love) and who became similar to God (perfected his 'resemblance') in the reason (light, insight) and in the will (warmth, love). The more the human is similar to God, the more complete the unification can be.

To formulate this as a wedding (The spiritual wedding) indicates an affective, personal and equal connection, that became possible because the human being has grown towards God, acquired similarity to God.

Ruusbroec rooted in the medieval way of thinking

Although this last scheme, the human being as God's image and resemblance (in terms of light and warmth), seems to give an elegant image of the similarity between man and God, still some elements seem not to match so well. Especially when you also read Ruusbroec's more extensive elaboration of this subjet in the Tabernacle (the passage about the master masons).

This shows that Ruusbroec is deeply rooted in medieval thinking and is tied to some elements in advance. I will discuss this further in the 'Supplement' to this lecture. Although it's interesting to think critically and in more detail about this scheme of the similarity between man and God, it's too time-consuming for this last half hour. I leave it to your curiosity to read a little bit more about this yourself in the 'Supplement' afterwards.

In this 'Supplement' you will also find a hand-out about how this way of thinking, about the relation between the spiritual faculties and light and warmth, remains present in the history of ideas and changes through the centuries. It is a sideway, but even in nowadays esoterism, you can find a similar spiritual tradition, with again more detail.

Go to the supplement to lecture 7b: Ruusbroec rooted in the medieval way of thinking.

Two ways to meet God: Hadewijch and Ruusbroec

The last fragment that we've read, brought us to 'to meet Him', meeting God or the mystical unification between a human and God according to Ruusbroec.

To bring our introduction to Ruusbroec's mystical thoughts to an end, I want to finish with a comparison between his description of meeting God, and Hadewijch's description (as we've defined it during the second lecture, vision versus mysticism). No doubt that you have noticed, today before and after the break, that their description of meeting God is radically different.

In Hadewijch's writings we found again and again, in all visions we've read, a similar story line. In the first lines she describes that she is taken 'into a spirit', and it became clear she was referring to an angelical sphere (first she was accompanied by a Throne Angel, in later visions a Seraphim, in an even higher planetary or angelic sphere). So she (or better: her soul) is in the celestial spheres, above the moon). After a vision with images, she falls 'outside the spirit', so into the Empyrean. There she experiences the ghebrukelijke, delightful, unification with God, an im-mediate experience without images.

In Ruusbroec's writings: nothing of that kind. Before the break we read about the human being touched by God in the spiritual faculties (light flows into the reason and warmth into the will) and after that a level higher, in the unit of the spirit, the gherinen (stirring: the reason falls short, the love unifies with God). And just now, in the subdivision 'to meet him', we read that the human is 'pulled internally'; and that the human then turns inwards, deep into the abyss, in the 'endless darkness of the divinity', and, thanks to clarity (light) and love, without medium, there unifies with God.

So in Hadewijch's writings the whole cosmology is the stage of her spiritual experiences, and she climbs along the choirs of angels up to the Empyrean - and in Ruusbroec's writings he descends, step after step, deeper into the human soul, the spirit and the being. Hadewijch meets God in the cosmos, in the highest of heights, Ruusbroec meets God internally in the deepest of depths.

Both these different ways to meet God, we in fact already had encountered during the first lecture (What is mysticism?). Just like Hadewijch, for example Teresa of Ávila wrote: 'The fact is, that the spirit really seems to leave the body. (...) It appears to her she was right in an other land, very different from the one we live in. This is a vision with images'. And you even could think of the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (in La divina commedia, around 1310-1320), who describes a journey through the medieval hells and heavens; climbing up along all the planetary spheres and finally reaching the Empyrean and seeing God as three radiant circles. Here the celestial spheres, the cosmos itself surrounded by the infinite divine Empyrean, is the stage of the ascend towards and the meeting with God.

But also the other way to meet God, like Ruusbroec describes it, we had already seen, for example in the diary of the anonymous Carmelite: 'During the prayer, the third day at night, I entered my soul and it seemed to me that I descended in the dizzying, staggering depths of an abyss. My impression was that I was surrounded by a boundless space. Then I felt the presence of the holy Trinity'. So here the internal, the being that is open towards the divine infinity behind it, is the stage of the ascend towards and the meeting with God.

If possible, how could we connect and understand these two completely different ascends towards God and meetings with God, logically together? That takes us, for the very last time, back to the medieval cosmology, the medieval view on man and on the world in the second lecture.

In the medieval and through and through christian world view, the cosmos consists roughly of three parts: the earth, the sublunary sphere (the physcial world of decline and mortality, residency of mankind); the planetary spheres and the firmament (the spheres of the choirs of angels, that connect earth and Emyrean); and the Empyrean (that encloses the whole cosmos, the residency of God). But remember: God encloses the whole creation, but also penetrates the whole creation. So God is present in a transcendent way (transcending everything), but also in a immanent way (within everything).

Furthermore, you will remember, the human being was considered to be a micro-cosmos: a reflection of the cosmos as a whole. A human being also was mortal and immortal, sublunar and celestial - body and soul. After that, Ruusbroec described the human soul in great detail, as: the soul (shapes and animates the body), the spirit (potentially active, origin of the spiritual powers), and the being (hangs in God, substantial, in rest). With the soul a human being is connected with the body, the physical, declining world. And with the being a human being is connected with God, the spiritual, eternal world.

You could say that soul-spirit-being (together one living 'I') is a reflection of sublunar-angelicchoirs-empyrean (together one creation). Last week we discussed the similarities 'per layer': earth-soul (matter, sublunar, connected with the body), etherical spheres-spirit (ether, celestial, insights/developing resemblance after God) and Empyrean-being (divine, image of God).

Furthermore Ruusbroec explicitly described that God works into the human being 'from the inside out'. Mercy is flowing from the inside out, not from the outside in. So it doesn't flow through the physical senses, not even through the spiritual faculties. It arrives there, but from the inside out, from the deepest core inside the human being.

So you could clarify the difference in the ascend towards God, out of the idea of the cosmos and the microcosmos. The ascend and the meeting with God, as Hadewijch describes it, takes place within the cosmos, within creation. And the ascend and the meeting with God, as Ruusbroec describes it, takes place within the microcosmos, internally within the human being. In both cases, you end up with God: either in the Empyrean, or in the being that's hanging in God, open towards God - after all, they are a reflection of each other.

Thus Hadewijch and Ruusbroec together cover the whole medieval view on man, view on the world and view on God. How different they might write, they're both writing out of the same underlying way of thinking and way of believing. With that I've reached the end of our quest through Ruusbroec's works and I'll finish as usual with handing out the recapitulation.  
And in this last half hour of this course, I'll conclude this course as a whole.

Recapitulation: 'to meet him' according to Ruusbroec

In this last hour, we've reached the end of the Inward Life, the subdivision 'to meet Him'. Ruusbroec writes here about the importance of spiritual growth for the mystical unification with God.

•  The more a human being becomes similar formed after God (the more enlightened his reason, the more heathed his will), the better unification with God, in delightful rest, is possible. But ghebruken (delight and resting in God) and working (working in the world) have to be in balance.

•  There always remains a difference between God and man: God as Creator, Father, the transcendent infinity, darkness. By growing spiritually a human being can become god-like, but not God.

•  In the active part of God, the human spiritual faculties are reflected (God as example for the human being). Christ as light / wisdom is reflected in the reason, the Holy Spirit as warmth / love is reflected in the will.

     the human being as God's image and resemblance according to Ruubroec





memoria unity   Father: darkness/rest
reason wisdom spirt. ligth Son
will love spirt. warmth Holy Spirit

With this we've reached the end of the fragments we could read as part of this course, of Jan van Ruusbroec's The spiritual wedding.

I hope you got an impression of the content of this treatise. It's incredibly structured and detailed. In the three levels he distinguishes, the Active, Inward and Contemplative Life, he repeatedly describes the same process of seeing, a coming, a going out and a meeting - and eventually a spiritual wedding between Christ and the human soul, or in other words a spiritual unification of God and the soul who has become spiritually fully grown, similar to God.

Especially after he described the human psyche (soul, spirit and being) he is able to describe in great detail the spiritual ascend of the human towards God, the increasing similarity to God.

Unlike Hadewijch, Ruusbroec has written down a profound and complete mystical body of thought. Not only in the Wedding, but also in the rest of his vast oeuvre, like the Tabernacle, The sparkling stone and The little book of enlightenment. The large preservation of his works, the many translations, and the broad, international spreading of all his texts, give an impression of the reputation and authority John of Ruusbroec must have had during his life and the later centuries.

With Ruusbroec, the Dutch linguistic region has a mystic of an extraordinary stature - comparable with just a few others. Uncommonly he in fact never speaks about his own personal experiences, he never becomes very personal. He generalizes these experiences in order to explain spiritual processes in great detail.

In this way Ruusbroec acts as a spiritual mentor as well. He wants to educate the common people, in Middle Dutch that's understandable for everyone, about a spirituality in which the affective, personal religious experience is the center point: growing spiritually towards God, in 'resemblance'; with love, virtues, conscience and good works; and finally meeting God.

Rounding off the course as a whole

Mysticism and Western spirituality in the christian tradition

To round off this course as a whole and to bring this last half hour to a conclusion, I'd like to ask two final questions. First I'd like to return to one of the first questions of this course: what is mysticism? What is christian, theistic mysticism?

We now can expand the answer to that question with everything we read and discussed about Hadewijch and Ruusbroec during the last seven lectures. So what did Hadewijch and Ruusbroec teach us about the mystical experience?

And the second question to conclude this course is: what has reading both Hadewijch and Ruusbroec taught us about the spirituality that flowered here in the Low Countries during the thirteenth and fourteenth century? Did we find an analogy between these two mystics? Which image has risen of a late-medieval Brabantian mysticism?

(N.B.: for the record: I only could read and discuss a very limited part of their texts - we've expanded our outlook, but obviously there's much more to know about them).

The mystical experience according to Hadewijch and Ruusbroec

The question I asked in the very first lecture, 'what is mysticism?', we now, during this seventh lecture, can expand to the question: what is a mystical experience according to Hadewijch and Ruusbroec?

In short a mystical experience can be defined as 'meeting God' or 'experiencing God': a mystic reports that he experiences God's presence. During the first lecture, I listed five characteristics of the mystical experience. I'll return to that list, features of the mystical experience itself.

      Mysticism is 'meeting God' or 'experiencing God'
  • im-mediate
  • conscientisation
  • it happens to you
  • presence in the soul (immanent): unity (being one)
  • surpassing everything (transcendent): infinity

This sudden experience, that unexpectedly can happen to a mystic, we also recognise in Hadewijch's and Ruusbroec's writings. Several of Hadewijch's visions start with the statement that all of a sudden, 'on a Whit Sunday', or 'during a mass', she is taken 'into a spirit', into an angelic sphere (for example: 'I defeatedly lay down, one Christmas night, and I was taken into the spirit', vision XI). It happens to her at that moment.

And Ruusbroec writes about the preceding or common mercy, that every person naturally possesses and that as a common love and common light enlights the soul of every human being - and within that light, God gives Himself. It seems possible for every person to become aware of this at any moment.

Such a sudden, unexpected mystical experience can right away lead to a first spark of self-knowledge and knowledge of God. For example Hadewijch depicts the human being as consisting of nature, soul and body (a mortal part and an immortal part) and describes God's being as 'minne', love. Ruusbroec defines his image of man even more thoroughly: the human being as soul, spirit and being, with the active spiritual faculties, and the human being as image of and resemblace after God.

But this passive experience, and the knowledge, the enlightenment that derives from it, doesn't contain any merits yet. Both Hadewijch and Ruusbroec exhautively make clear, that it's much more important what derives from this experience: a development, becoming 'full-grown' and 'fier', proud, as Hadewijch calls it, 'fertility', Ruusbroec calls it - a spiritual development, spiritual growth. Some academics even claim that an unexpected mystical experience, that suddenly happens to a mystic, doesn't make this person a mystic. The experience asks for a reaction, an action. Only if the experience changes the mystic, urges him to change, urges him to take a moral, ethical road, a road of development, then he becomes a mystic.

Both Hadewijch and Ruusbroec put in large efforts to write in great detail about, what you could call, a road of spiritual growth.

Hadewijch elaborately writes about the 'ghebreken'/lacking: living her earthly life, being a human being with the human beings. Within the ghebreken, a person can go through spiritual growth. She describes this road, among other things, as: acquiring virtues; letting her love grow (love of one's fellow man and love of God); getting fully grown, grown up, becoming independent, becoming 'fier'/proud; realising the divine within herself (becoming 'god with God', 'like this one becomes god and remains it for ever').

Also for Ruusbroec the mystical experience isn't restricted to the passive experience of God's presence: for him, enlightenment of the reason and heating of the will, always lead to fertility: acquiring virtues, developing the conscience, increasing love and doing good works.

In the being of the human, Ruusbroec states, the image of God is situated (eternal and invariable, already perfect), but in the spirit of the human, the -still immature- resemblace after God is situated (the reason, insight, spiritual light is similar to the Son; the will, love, spiritual warmth is similar to the Holy Ghost). By developing the four aspects of the 'fertility' (last paragraph), by spiritual growth, the human being can become similar formed after God (in the unit of the spirit).

And Ruusbroec continues: the more a human being start to resemble God in the unity of the spirit, the more the human can rest in God in delighting unity. The more a human being becomes similar formed after God, the more complete unification with God is possible. The core of that mystical unification is love. Love doesn't try to grasp God, love, mutual love, is connecting, unifying. Love makes one.

In short: we can make a distinction between the sudden mystical experience that can happen to a mystic, also when they are still young and (spiritually) immature. And on the other hand a 'full-grown unification' with God, an unification that is the end point of a road of spiritual growth, when the mystic has grown towards God (with virtues, love, conscience and good works). When the mystic has become 'god with God' and he not only has the 'image' of God inside his being, but also has perfected the 'resemblance' after God in the unit of the spirit.

But this spiritually full-grown mystic though never becomes passive: resting in God (the 'ghebruken', delight) and working in the world, have to be balanced. In this Western affective mysticism a mystic also never becomes God and never dissolves into God and never end in nothingness: God always remains the divine Other, the Creator - otherwise the love bond wouldn't be possible anymore.

The spiritual, mystical thought of these two medieval christian mystics, clearly implies an idealistic and ambitious view on man and gives a strongly ethical directive. Most religions emphasise the spiritual, eternal part of the human being (the soul), the human as God's creation, the reassurance of an eternal life, a heaven, and in the core urge the human being to an ethical, virtuous life, love of one's fellow man and (sometimes even called the core of every religion): compassion (feeling empathy, merciful).

In that sense, christian mystical ideas seamlessly correspond with the christian belief, the belief of the church. At the same time, the personal experience is put in the center point, without church or priest as mediator; and also the equal relationship between the full-grown man and God, the connection made by affection, 'minne', love.

The mystical range of ideas also give space to deviate radically, to criticise, or to resist dogmas, an established doctrine, or church traditions. This becomes possible by refering to another authority than the church or the theology, namely the authority of an angel, a saint, Christ, or God Himself. In this way, the medieval mystical texts are rooted into, and function within the medieval world view and the societal and religious circumstances of the late Middle Ages.

So reading Hadewijch's and Ruusbroec's mysticism added one important element to the list of features of the mystical experience: the distinction between the sudden mystical experience and the full-grown unification with God. So far the question: what is mysticism, what is mysticism according to Hadewijch and according to Ruusbroec?

Late-medieval Brabantian mysticism

The last seven lectures, fourteen hours, we've read mystical texts by Hadewijch and Jan van Ruusbroec out of their cultural-historical context. What has it brought us to read both these two Brabantian mystics? Is there an ongoing line between them, or do they differ too much from each other? Does something exist like an overarching spirituality in the late-medieval Low Countries?

The differences between the two of them are immense. Hadewijch wrote around the middle of the thirteenth century; Ruusbroec a century later, during the fourteenth. She was a beguine, semi-religious, who lived in the world; he was a priest, a man of the church. She wrote vivacious visions and personal letters, he deeply elaborated treatises with a detailed mystical doctrine. She often writes incomprehensible, for initiates; he writes didactical, as complete and understandable as possible. She was a woman, who wrote in the regional language for laymen, for women; he was a man, and although he also wrote in the regional language, and partly wrote for laymen and women, he explicitly also had monks and recluses (educated priests) as target audience.

What does it bring to read them after each other. Have we found similarities, lines that continue? Does it give us a view on a late-medieval Brabantian mysticism?

It's very clear that Hadewijch and Ruusbroec both write within a same spiritual tradition: the affective and personally lived-through faith that developed in the twelfth century in northern France, particularly around the order of the Cistercians, the mendicant, beggar's orders, and people like Bernard of Clairvaux (for whom the love songs of the Song of Songs were the starting point), William of Saint-Thierry and Richard of Saint Victor.

Numerous elements clearly are in line with that 12-century spirituality: the ideal of poverty (remember Ruusbroecs criticism towards monasteries and church); carrying out Christ's message yourself (Hadewijch and her circle of female friends); more innerly felt faith, spiritualisation of faith, a subjectively experienced religion, the mystical experience as source of knowledge of God; and an affectively experienced faith.

This affective mysticism, love mysticism, bridal mysticism, that arises alongside that spirituality during the twelfth century, is completely new in that time and leads to new images to describe the relationship between, and the unification of the spiritually full-grown human and God: the spiritual wedding (remember Hadewijch's bridal visions and Ruusbroec's title The spiritual wedding) and spiritual friendship (for example in letter 28). These are images of connection, affection, love and also equality.

(Also remember the rise of the courtly love as literary ideal, just that same 12th century, which carried out an inner love ('minne') of a man for an unreachable woman; followed by the ideal of mutual love. This new, worldly ideal of a love that innerly fills and elevates the human being completely, is also the background of the rise of a similar spiritual ideal).

But as I earlier pointed out about Hadewijch, the word 'bridal mysticism' doesn't completely cover the content of her whole corpus (with only two visions with bridal images). And Ruusbroec is often associated with the essence-mysticism or speculative mysticism, but we already saw that also this label falls short. And although he repeatedly uses nuptial terms on key places ('the spiritual wedding', 'behold, the bridegroom comes') and cleary corresponds with this spiritual tradition, also in his case the word 'bridal mysticism' doesn't cover his whole range of ideas.

I'd rather call the late-medieval Brabantian mysticism love-mysticism, or even better minne-mysticism. With the side-note that reason and will (loving power) both have their significance, that light and warmth, insight and love, both are indispensable - in image and resemblance, in growing and becoming similar formed, in deification (divinisation) and unification.

As we just saw: the human being can develop spiritually (through virtues, conscience, love and good works) and thus grow towards God, after which an equal relation or unification has become possible. The image of friendship or a wedding represents this spiritual ideal of eventual equality and mutual (unifying) love. This is the image of the fully-grown mystical experience.

The core of Brabantian mysticism is this unifying, mutual love between God and the spiritual fully-grown human being. With that the one word for late-medieval Brabantian mysticism is: minne-mysticism.

Within this Bernardine, 12th-century ideal both Hadewijch and Ruusbroec also have their own contribution, insights, emphasises, their uniqueness.

For example Hadewijch's startling image of the divine darkness: this pre-illuminative darkness can move very powerful like a whirlpool, and where the movement is the most powerful, fire comes into existence: warmth and light. And that movement, that creation, arises from the ghebruken (the delight) within God Himself, the divine love in God itself.

She also is very outspoken about fierheid/pride: God doesn't want her to kneel before Him. When a human being follows the road to God, through the ghebreken, the lacking, and acquires virtues and love, and in this way starts to gheliken/resemble God, then he can encounter God with his head held high, not kneeling down, fier/proud.

And although Hadewijch didn't write down a well-defined doctrine, it's very clear that the core of her mysticism simply is minne, love. Both Gods being (vision VI) and the being of the human (letter 29) is love, although the human being still has to develop it through the virtues. But, as she herself says, very concise: "Love is all" ("De minne es al", letter 25).

Ruusbroec uniqueness within the late-medieval Bernardine and Brabantian spirituality first of all lies in the incredible detailed elaboration and profundity of his mystical body of thought. In his writing no vaguenessess like 'the mystic became enlightened' or 'light was falling into the soul' - oh no, he thoroughly describes how the soul is constructed, where the light is falling, where it comes from and what it means.

Very remarkable is his detailed explanation of the human being as soul, spirit and being, where the being is hanging in God and open into the divinity. He also explains the mercy of God in great detail: mercy flows as light into the reason and arouses truth/insight; and it flows as warmth into the will and arouses love.

Another example of his profundity is his description of the human being as Gods image and resemblance, in which the human can start to resemble God in the unit of the spirit: the reason, the insight and the spiritual light are after the Son; the will, the love and the spiritual warmth are after the Holy Ghost.

And finally Ruusbroec explains the importance that the minne/love has within Brabantian mysticism. With his reason the human being can strive for God, love unifies with God. Mutual love has a connecting effect, love makes one. The core of the mystical experience.

This also clearly makes several differences with other religious convictions apparent.

Many beliefs and (eastern) spiritualities or philosophies mention the importance of 'enlightenment' - but that isn't enough for this Brabantian mysticism. The human being has to get enlightened with insight and heated with love. The 'enlightened person' in this case would be enlarged to: the englightened and warmed person.

Although Hadewijch and Ruusbroec both write about the ghebruken/delight and resting in God, in their writings the mystic never becomes passive. The goal never is to withdraw from the world, sitting still, meditate. On the contrary, mercy, spiritual growth or a mystical experience all do lead to fertility: an increase of virtues, the consience, the good works and the love. Resting and working have to be balanced.

And certainly isn't mentioned a resolving into the 'All', disappearing into God, becoming nothing, vanishing into nothingness. The human being always remains independent towards God, the divine Other - or else that mutual love wouldn't be possible anymore. That brings us to the final conclusion of this course as a whole, that the core of the Brabantian mysticism is the mutual, unifying love between God and the spiritually full-grown human being - the Brabantian minne-mysticism.

Reading mysticism from a cultural-historical background

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Frequently asked questions, hand-outs and additions to this course

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Some final words

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Background information

The course Medieval Mysticism in the Low Countries consists of seven lectures. The mystical writings of Hadewijch and Ruusbroec will be read and understood from their cultural-historical context.

•  About this course Medieval Mysticism in the Low Countries: content and layout.

•  Background literature about the Middle Ages, Hadewijch, Ruusbroec and medieval mysticism.

•  About the teacher Rozemarijn van Leeuwen.

•  Read the reactions or leave a comment.

•  Texts of Hadewijch and Ruusbroec: fragments in Middle Dutch and nowadays Dutch.

Original Dutch course

•  Lecture 7/7b in Dutch: Ruusbroec: Om Hem te ontmoeten.


©  Above lecture is part of the course Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries, by Rozemarijn van Leeuwen (1999-2001).

It's not permitted to copy this text digital or in print and/or to publish it.

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Follow the whole course Medieval Dutch Mysticism in the Low Countries online:

    first lesson hour (cultural-historical background) second lesson hour (reading texts)
  1 The Middle Ages What is mysticism?
  2 The medieval world view Hadewijch: vision and mysticism
  3 Hadewijch: glimpse of her life Hadewijch: roads towards God
  4 Women in the Middle Ages Hadewijch: bridal mysticism
  5 Ruusbroec: course of his life Ruusbroec: Active Life
  6 The horrible 14th century Ruusbroec: Inward Life
  7 Image and resemblance of God Ruusbroec: To meet Him  ↑