Essay / On This Day

Ruusbroec: Tipsy on the Trinity

Today (December 2) is the anniversary of the death of Jan van Ruusbroec, also called John of Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), a 14th-century Flemish mystical writer whose work is often considered a high point of medieval Christian mysticism. In a 1984 lecture in Kentucky, Louis Dupre called him “Western Christianity’s most articulate interpreter of the trinitarian mystical tradition.”

What is the “trinitarian mystical tradition?” It is a nebulous movement in the history of Christianity that has framed the spiritual life in terms of a conscious experience of the Trinity. Mysticism is always a mixed bag in the history of Christianity, and it has not always been good for the doctrine of the Trinity. Far too many of the mystics have followed an apophatic path toward union with God beyond all revealed words or signs, with the result that they claim to have transcended Trinity and reached the great unity behind it. But guess what: They’ve transcended themselves right out of Christian faith.

In contrast to this, the trinitarian side of the Christian mystical tradition knows that there’s no transcending the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In fact, trinitarian mystics usually take the Trinity to be a kind of road map or itinerary for the soul’s ascent to union. There are many varieties of this trinitarian mysticism, of course; it seems that no two mystics can be known to agree about what they’re talking about! And as for me and my house, we prefer a gospel-centered experience of the Trinity, and would “rather be found in Christ than lost in God,” in the words of James Denney.

But Ruusbroec’s own take on the experience of the Trinity is interesting. He thought of the Trinity as a kind of tripersonal tide, flowing out from unimaginable unity into perfect distinction, and then somehow flowing back without ever really leaving. His starting point was the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, but he developed it in strange and evocative ways. The three persons ebb and flow, or rather they are an ebb and a flow, an eternally complete and always ongoing dynamic of going-out and returning.

Ruusbroec described the mystical path as a participation in that trinitarian ebb and flow. By that he meant, among other things, that the Trinity was the key to reconciling the two kinds of lifestyles, the active and the contemplative. The trinitarian mystic would flow out in ceaseless activity, but return and recollect in perfect completeness. Should you do works of charity, or should you contemplate God? Yes, said Ruusbroec; both. Because of the ebb and flow of the Trinity.

Whatever you think of the procession-and-return model for conceptualizing the Trinity, that ebb-and-flow routine is a pretty abstract dynamic. And on the basis of it, Ruusbroec goes on to make some astounding claims, claims that compete with anything in the mystic tradition: “To comprehend and understand God as he is in himself, above and beyond all likenesses, is to be God with God, without intermediary.” And he goes on with page after page of that kind of writing:

The Spirit of God now speaks within our own spirit in its hidden immersion: ‘Go out, into a state of eternal contemplation and blissful enjoyment after God’s own manner.’ All the richness which is in God by nature is something which we lovingly possess in God –and God in us– through the infinite love which is the Holy Spirit. .. There the spirit is caught up in the embrace of the Holy Trinity and eternally abides within the superessential Unity in a state of rest and blissful enjoyment. In this same Unity, considered now as regards its fruitfulness, the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, while all creatures are in them both.

Ruusbroec is a rich and strange mixture, sometimes as wild as the wildest mystics, at other times very cautious and doctrinally circumspect. Reading him today is definitely a cross-cultural encounter: Our age is so timid about trinitarianism, and his was so effusive. Even where I cannot (or will not) follow him in his claims, I have occasionally benefited from Ruusbrec’s attitude. He knows for sure that the Trinity is the answer to his questions. He just asks some odd questions.

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