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15.10.07, Arblaster and Faesen, eds., A Companion to John of Ruusbroec

The Medieval Review

15.10.07, Arblaster and Faesen, eds., A Companion to John of Ruusbroec

Studies on Jan van Ruusbroec's writings in Dutch and Latin are not readily available in Anglophone circles though he was influential in manuscripts in Middle English at the time of Julian of Norwich. This handbook, written in excellent English by mostly Belgian and Dutch scholars from Antwerp's Ruusbroec Institute (Ruusbroecgenootschap), the Catholic University of Louvain (KU), the University of Chicago and the Nijmegen's Titus Brandsma Institute, presents their analyses of aspects of Ruusbroec's life (1293-1381) and work, surveying both texts and previous scholarship.

Jan van Ruusbroec, first a canon of Brussels' St Gudule, then a hermit at Groenendaal (1343), finally, and reluctantly, the father founder of that monastery of Augustinian canons (1350), is a crossroads author, influenced by Origen, Pseudo-Dionysius, Bede, the Victorines, Guillaume de St Thierry, Bernard of Clairvaux, Beatrice of Nazareth, Hadewijch, Marie d'Oignies, and Marguerite Porete and had a particular ministry in his writings to women. Though he was not of the Rhineland Dominican Friends of God, he strongly influenced them, and, while also sharing his works with Carthusians, he would exert a great influence on Geert Grote of the Devotio moderna, and on the Golden Age Spanish Carmelite contemplative writers. The Englished version of The Sparkling Stone appears immediately after Julian of Norwich's Showing of Love in the 1413 Amherst Manuscript, now British Library, Additional MS 37790. Like Hildegard von Bingen he is seen today as a proto-ecologist, particularly because of the manuscript illumination which shows him joyously writing on a wax tablet while his amanuensis copies out his text, both seated amongst the trees of Groenendaal's forest. The 1624 printed version of this image portrays the words he writes as Ecce sponsus venit of The Spiritual Espousals.

The editors, John Arblaster and Rob Faesen, in the introduction and the two opening essays, discuss Ruusbroec's use of the 'common life' (ghemeyne leven), beginning with The Realm of Lovers, a concept derived from Beatrice of Nazareth and Marguerite Porete as the perichoretic fusion of the created human through contemplation with God (61). Next The Spiritual Espousals was acquired by the Strasbourg banker and founder of the Dominican 'Friends of God' (Gottesfreunde) movement, Rulman Merswin, in the Jubilee year of 1350 (62). It was then translated into Latin by Willem Jordaens, who also translated The Sparkling Stone, The Spiritual Tabernacle, and The Seven Rungs and these works soon circulated widely. The Sparkling Stone (Apocalypse 2.17), written for a hermit, gives the stages of contemplative perfection from hired servant to faithful servant to secret friend to hidden beloved son of God, a progression seen also in Julian's Parable of the Lord and the Servant, the servant progressing from fallen Adam to resurrected Christ. Ruusbroec sees the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit become One (John 17.21) 'without difference (sonder differencie)', in loving union with the contemplative in a beatitude of unknowing, but this as 'creature', with Christ's humanity, not His divinity. Eastern Orthodox theology concerns 'deification', which is seen in western Catholic theology as heretical, giving rise to the Carthusians at Herne questioning Ruusbroec concerning The Realm of Lovers and its use of 'without difference', and, like Marguerite Porete and Birgitta of Sweden, by Paris University's Jean Gerson in 1398 condemning The Spiritual Espousals. Ruusbroec writes The Seven Enclosures to the enclosed Poor Clare, Margaret van Meerbeke, anticipating Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle. In The Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, he speaks of us as in a wild, waste desert, where God dwells, whom we can only find through love, through coming out of ourselves (76). The Twelve Beguines counters the growing condemnation of that movement. In an appendix the volume will give poems associated with Ruusbroec, using the Porete concept of loing prés as verre bi, far/near and contemporary biographical materials.

Guido de Baere then discusses the manuscript and print editions of Ruusbroec in Dutch, Latin, Middle and High German, these by way of the Friends of God (Gottesfreunde), and often attributed to John Tauler. Eric Colledge and Marleen Cre edited the Middle English versions of Ruusbroec, while Wynkyn de Worde's Chastising is Ruusbroec's first appearance in print (95). Also discussed are the editions in Romance languages, the first complete works of Ruusbroec in a vernacular language being in Spanish (1696-1698).

Hilde Noë discusses Ruusbroec as a literary author, how, as modes of thought shifted, his oral style became disparaged, in an odious comparison with the style of Hadewijch, and taken out of its medieval frame of thought, particularly with Nominalism, then the Age of Reason, destroying figural allegory, until Frank Willaert and Paul Mommaers demonstrated that this mode of writing should be studied as the opposite to Scholasticism, as contemplative (a style well explained by Jean Leclercq in The Love and Learning and the Desire for God), its form being likewise its content, its memory system, the images being unravelled for the reader, the text interspersed with verses (in these aspects being like Julian, Boethius and John of the Cross). She notes scholars on the richness of his allegory, with Aaron's Breastplate, the upside down tree and the three little books of penance, prayer and contemplation.

Bernard McGinn brilliantly discusses Ruusbroec's theology, demonstrating that it differs from that of the Scholastics, but also from Meister Eckhart in keeping separate God's ground from the our souls' ground, the Creator from the creature. He demonstrates textually in the works how Ruusbroec uses the flowing in, being/wesen/oneness, balanced with the flowing out, acting/werk/threeness (which, along with the image of the golden penny (156), reminds one of Mechtild von Magdebourg, his contemporary): "we must go out to God and to ourselves and to our neighbours and this must be done with charity and justice" (162, Spiritual Espousals). The discussion on being touched by the Spirit also echoes Pseudo-Dionysius and Julian. Likewise does the 'Discernment of Spirits', where egoism destroys contemplative union (157).

Lieve Uyttenhove next discusses Ruusbroec's theology of the Holy Spirit, as creating with the Father's Might, the Son's Wisdom, the Spirit's goodness, all as one being, wesen, these aspects derived from the Bible, the Spirit's goodness being rainbowed as the Seven Gifts, these being inwardly God's grace, Father and Son birthing the Spirit, the Son's Spirit being God's working, as at the Annunciation, Baptism and Pentecost, the latter two with water and fire.

Rik Van Niewenhove, "Ruusbroec, Jordaens, and Herp on the Common Life", takes issue with Lieve Uyttenhove's argument that the unity of the Persons of the Trinity is effected only through exitus-reditus, seeing this instead as perichoretic regiratio (207), where the two braid together into a unifying third. He explains that the perfect life, the 'common life' is the combination of the vita activa and the vita contemplative, with love as 'oned' (using Julian's word) with the Trinity (210). He finds that Jordaens, while understanding much of Ruusbroec, fails to see his use of the divine touch in the inner unity of our soul as attaining this mirroring relationship of the 'common life' (216), the perichoretic regiratio of the Trinity. Jordaens, the early translator and interpreter of Ruusbroec, had predeceased him in 1372, having come to Groenendaal twenty years earlier. A later disciple, Harpius, Hendrik Herp, similarly fails to use Ruusbroec's perichoresis and veers towards Quietism.

Kees Schepers' essay, "Ruusbroec in Latin: Impulses and Impediments", overlaps with the others, this book's unintended regiratio, discussing Jordaens, whose translations mainly reach Romance nations and England, Carthusians and Benedictines (including Worcester Cathedral and Chapter Library where Adam Easton manuscripts are also housed), while those of Geert Grote reach the Devotio moderna circles of the north. It was Jordaens' florid translation of The Spiritual Espousals that caused Jean Gerson's condemnation on the grounds of heresy, arguing that devout persons ought not to study or expound the theology of deification (265). The final two essays, by Jos Andriessen and Loet Swart, repeat much of the same material as in the earlier ones, again an unintended perichoresis, while accounting for Ruusbroec's later influence and surveying the published scholarship on him.

The volume ends with appendices giving Pseudo-Hadewijch and Ruusbroec's attributed poems, and eulogies by his near contemporaries, a Bibliography and Indices. Just as Gerson's Scholastic theology clashed with Ruusbroec's contemplative theology, so here do academic essays when discoursing upon a contemplative's writings, while paradoxically resorting to his perichoretic regiratio where the essays repeat what has already been said, and even do so within their own confines as well as between each other, needing editing and pruning.

This handbook, Companion to John of Ruusbroec, could well be accompanied or even replaced by the CCSV Corpus Christianorum, The Complete Ruusbroec, English Translation with the Original Dutch Text, two volume set edited by G. de Baere and T. Mertens, published by Brepols in 2014 (€98,00) if not with the definitive critical editions, Jan van Ruusbroec, Opera Omnia, Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, volumes 101-110 (1989-2006), listed in the Bibliography (393-394).