John Ruusbroec: The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works

John Ruusbroec: The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works

John Ruusbroec: The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works

John Ruusbroec: The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works

Excerpt

Fourteenth-century Brabant provides an unlikely setting for the most articulate Trinitarian mystic of the Western Church. In a succession of social and doctrinal crises, the imposing structure of Europe's spiritual culture was rapidly disintegrating. Philosophy and theology were abandoning Aquinas's system of balanced rationality for the uncertainties of nominalist scholasticism. Moral abuses disfigured ecclesiastical life and the need for a religious reformation began to emerge. Rome found itself, once again, in a state of spiritual and civil disarray that rendered it unfit to function as center of the Christian world: In 1309 the popes took up residence in Avignon. In the prevailing climate of unrest, movements of spiritual renewal or eschatological expectation sprang up everywhere—feverish, intense, undisciplined : the Franciscan "Spirituals," Beghards, reborn Waldensians—all of them extremist in claims and aspirations. Brabant provided no shelter from this turbulence. The once sleepy duchy under the remote sovereignty of the German emperor was rapidly, though less radically than the adjacent county of Flanders, becoming an arena of hot disputes between the municipalities and suzerain. Spiritually also, Brabant passed through a period of upheaval, albeit with less violence than southern France or northern Italy.

First as an assistant parish priest in Brussels and later as a canon regular in the wooded solitude of Groenendaal, Ruusbroec wrote his majestic summa of Christian life in the spirit—at once daringly speculative and remarkably balanced. In a time of utter confusion he achieved the kind of synthesis normally reserved to those privileged moments of tranquillity so rare in history. In that respect he evokes a comparison with his older contemporary, the author of the Divina Commedia. I shall leave the discussion of Ruusbroec's theological system to the competence of Dom James Wiseman. Here I wish to highlight only one facet of Ruusbroec's oeuvre: its unique Trinitarian character.

Basic differences separate Western from Eastern theologies. The Latins, on the basis of psychological introspection or metaphysical specula-

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