John Ruusbroec (1293-1381) is one of the greatest of the Christian mystics. His masterpiece, The Spiritual Espousals (sometimes translated as The Adornment of the Spiritual Marriage) in my opinion belongs on the short list of “must read” classics of western mysticism.
Here is just a taste of the poetic breadth of his wisdom. At one point in the book he writes about the various gifts of the Holy Spirit as described in Isaiah 11. One of these gifts, Understanding, can be seen as comprising several effects, including simplicity in the spirit, enlightenment, and love in the will. To quote the mystic himself, spiritual Understanding leads to “an enlightened power of reason and a love common to all.” In other words, the Holy Spirit’s gift of Understanding transforms the intellect (leading to enlightened reasons) and also the will (leading to love for all).
How, then, does this manifest in the life of the believer? Ruusbroec provides a list of qualities that is well worth reflecting on:
- Humility, the “foundation of all virtue,” is the starting point of the life of enlightened reason and common love;
- Worship, which when offered with honor and reverence to God will “lift up in spirit” we who seek God’s love;
- Praise, Thanksgiving and Service, the elements of worship, will in Ruusbroec’s words enable us to “thus become free”;
- Confessing and lamenting the blindness and ignorance of human nature — rather than focus on our private moral failings, he calls us to confess, in solidarity with others, all the corporate failings of our human nature;
- Desiring the enlightenment of all — if we confess the sins of all, ought we not also fervently desire the healing and transformation of all?
- Beseeching God’s mercy on behalf of others, so that they might advance in virtue; this leads to greater corporate love for God;
- Giving generously to those in need, out of God’s rich goodness — Ruusbroec recognizes that this is more effective than mere evangelizing of others; supporting those in need helps to naturally create the space where we all may love God more;
- Offering to God our imitation of Christ, which, when done out of love, will deepen our sense of God’s response to our prayer;
- Offering to God our devotion to the angels, saints and all good people, which will deepen our sense of being part of the communion of saints; in Ruusbroec’s words, “we will thus be united with them all in the glory of God”;
- Offering to God the good work of the church and our participation in the Eucharist — another surprise: many might think of the Eucharist as belonging at the head of a list like this, but Ruusbroec places it at the end. The good work of the church, including the miracle of the sacraments, does not lead our response to God’s gifts in our lives, but rather functions as a summation of that response. Ruusbroec affirms that through our participation in the sacramental life of the church “through Christ we might meet God, become like him in a love common to all, transcend all likeness in simplicity, and be united with him in essential unity.”
Ruusbroec summarizes this list by flatly declaring “this is the richest kind of life I know.” It seems to me that not only does the spiritual gift of Understanding naturally lead to the cultivation of all these other blessings, but that it can work the other way around: and we who seek to live the life of joyful response to God’s grace can work on each of these ways of responding to Divine Love, and in doing so we create the space in our souls for the gift of Understanding to be poured in.