The Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381) was the most important spiritual writer and mystic in the Low Countries in the 14th century.
Jan van Ruysbroeck was born in the village of Ruysbroeck a few miles from Brussels. For his education and religious training he was sent to Brussels at the age of 11 to live with his uncle, John Hinckaert, a priest and canon of the Cathedral of St. Gudule. There he also came under the spiritual influence of another canon, Francis van Coudenberg, who was a friend of his uncle, and these two men had a strong effect on the young man's career and religious development.
Ruysbroeck's personal inclinations as well as his environment eventually persuaded him to adopt the religious life, and in 1317 he was ordained to the priesthood. For more than a quarter century he lived in the area of St. Gudule in Brussels and attained a reputation as a preacher and orthodox religious thinker. In order to recapture the quiet, contemplative life of his early years, in 1343 Ruysbroeck retired with his two aging spiritual advisers, Hinckaert and Coudenberg, to a hermitage in the forest of Soignes called Groenendael on the southeast edge of Brussels. With the disciples that joined them, they formed themselves into a community in 1349 according to the rule of Augustinian canons. In this place of solitude Ruysbroeck wrote the mystical treatises on which his reputation is based, and he remained there until his death in 1381, at the age of 88.
Most of Ruysbroeck's writings describe how the soul of man can be joined with God in mystical union. He was careful to avoid heresy. He rejected pantheistic doctrines that did not distinguish clearly enough between God and the creature; he rejected the overly optimistic evaluation that man could approach God apart from grace; and he rejected quietistic tendencies that obliterated human activity in the mystical union or seemingly prolonged the experience.
In one of his most important works, however, written early in his stay at Groenendael, The Adornment of Spiritual Marriage, Ruysbroeck suggested the possibility of an intuitive vision of the divine essence as well as the idea that part of the soul might be uncreated. Although stated more cautiously in his later writings, these ideas led to an attack on Ruysbroeck not long after his death. His writings, however, have been judged orthodox by most. He forms a link between the Rhenish mystics of the early 14th century, especially the Dominican mystics like Meister Eckhart, Heinrich Suso, and Johannes Tauler, and the Devotio Moderna, the major spiritual movement of the 15th century in the Low Countries, northern France, and the Rhine Valley.
Further Reading on Jan van Ruysbroeck
Most of Ruysbroeck's writings have been translated into English. Biographical studies of Ruysbroeck in English are Vincent Scully, A Medieval Mystic (1911), and Alfred Wautier d'Aygalliers, Ruysbroeck the Admirable (1923; trans. 1969). Additional material on Ruysbroeck is in Stephanus Axters, Spirituality of the Old Low Countries (trans. 1954). Almost any survey of medieval thought or late medieval mysticism includes a description of Ruysbroeck's thought, such as the work by Etienne Henry Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955).