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5. Faces Modelled Inside Out

Our scientific knowledge has advanced a lot since the time of the Chinese Masters. We know much more about the size of the universe, the power locked in nuclear structures, the intricate chemistry of living organisms. This does not invalidate the insight of the Taoist mystics; if anything, it makes it more relevant. For science has not, and cannot, answer the fundamental questions of meaning: the origin of being itself, the why and wherefore. The idea of a divine principle, the Tao, underlying all reality makes much more sense, even today, than the mechanist world view governed by dead matter and chance.

Christian mystics have usually seen God as the Other, the merciful God who revealed his infinite love to us, by creating us and saving us. This external approach to God was due to a number of factors: the “otherness” of God in the Jewish and Old Testament scriptures; the architect approach to God in Greek philosophy; the stress on work and achievement in the Western cultures; the focus on sin and human fallibility in Augustinian and Protestant theologies. Western mystics would be inclined to stress the utter dependence and “nothingness” of creatures, and the complete perfection and other-worldliness of God.

But there have been exceptions. One of them was Jan van Ruysbroeck, a spiritual writer who lived in Belgium in the fourteenth century (1294-1381). Jan maintained that the proper way to find God is to seek him within us, teaching that the way to God is not the way of philosophy, but the way of contemplation.

Just like Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, Ruysbroeck lived in a time of social and political upheaval. The year 1347 brought the outbreak of the “Black Death”, the plague which ravaged Europe, killing thirty million people in wake. That same year also saw the beginning of the Hundred Years War between England and France. From then on hungry armies roamed the countryside, plundering farmsteads as well as cities, reducing most people to poverty and famine. Brabant, Ruysbroeck's native land, experienced a number of severe famines, one of which led to a bloody uprising of the tenant farmers against their landlords. It was a time of suffering and death; but also a time of opportunity for ambitious men. Many a merchant became rich by trading with the right partners. Many a local leader increased his power by joining the winning side.

Ruysbroeck, who had been ordained a priest in 1317, devoted twenty-six years of his life to the apostolate in the city of Brussels. Then, in 1343, he withdrew with two companions to a hermitage in the Forest of Soignes near Groenendaal. It was there, in the seclusion of his small monastery, that he composed most of his eleven spiritual books. But he remained active as a counsellor. Many came to ask for his advice; he travelled from time to time to give retreats and courses.

Ruysbroeck taught that we can only be successful in life if we draw inspiration from God's presence within us. Inner prayer and external action go together: they are the breathing in and the breathing out which together make life possible. “The Spirit of God blows us out so that we can love and perform good acts. Then he draws us in so that we can take rest and find enjoyment in him. This is eternal life: not unlike our breathing the air out of our lungs and breathing in fresh air. What I mean is: we move inwardly in a mystical enjoyment and move outwardly in good works, both in communion with God. Just as we open our eyes, look and close them again, in such a smooth transition that we hardly notice what we are doing, so we die in God and live from God, always remaining united to him.” (1)

Our inner union with God, for Ruysbroeck, is an indisputable fact. But how do we become aware of it? Ruysbroeck distinguishes three stages. During the first stage, when we try to live an honest life and seek deeper dimensions, we are drawn to God by brief flashes of insight. “Then the finger of God stirs in our hearts”, Ruysbroeck says. He calls this “mediated union”, because we are united to God by means of short moments of awareness. If and when we reach a stage of total openness to God, he may lead us into “immediate union”, a condition in which somehow we know that God has taken hold of us. It is the glorious night of the second stage. Our mind, though in darkness, is full of light; our will glows with the desire to love God; our imagination is fascinated by God without being distracted by distinct images. Finally, in the third stage, God may, if he so chooses, admit us to “union without distinction”, a state of awareness in which we perceive ourselves as lost in God, as basically one with God.

Ruysbroeck does not say that God becomes more united to us as we progress in holiness. God is already united to us. He is united to us all the time; it is only our awareness of this union that increases. For this is precisely the difference between God and the created beings of the world: God is within.

God is more interior to us than we are ourselves. His acting in us is nearer and more inward than our own actions.

God works in us from inside outwards; creatures work on us from the outside. (2)

How are we to understand this inner presence of God? Ruysbroeck explains it by a reference to the scriptural creation stories. Other theologians and mystics had drawn inspiration from the text in which God is compared to a potter fashioning the human person. “The Lord God took some clay from the ground and formed a human person out of it. He breathed life-giving spirit into his nostrils and the man began to live” (Genesis 2:7). It is a beautiful picture. We see God, the supreme artist and craftsman, moulding the clay with his fingers, modelling the human face, shaping the ears, the nose, the eyes and the mouth, and breathing on it to make it alive. A beautiful picture, indeed; but for Ruysbroeck it was incomplete, because another scripture text read: “God created the human person in his own image. In the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). The human face, and even more our spiritual personality, did not receive an external mould, but an internal one. The image of God shapes us from within.

To understand Ruysbroeck's point, think of a daughter who looks like her mother. She received the facial expression and other features of her mother, not by some external imprint, but by the genes in her cells. The daughter carries the image of her mother because—as we know now—she has in the nucleus of every cell of her body copies of her mother's chromosomes. This is a modelling from inside. This is, Ruysbroeck tells us, how God models us. “God's image supports the essence and personality of all human beings. Every person possesses it totally and undividedly. And so we are all one, united in our eternal image, which is the image of God; an image which is for all of us the origin of life and existence. Our created being is anchored in that image as in its eternal cause. ” (3)

If only we knew ourselves, we would know God. For we are the way we are because God makes us so—from within! Our existence as beings who can know and love, the mystery of our individuality, our hunger for meaning and fulfilment, it all finds its source and explanation in God within us.

According to his or her creatureliness the human person undergoes the imprint of God's eternal image without ceasing; just like an untarnished mirror which always reflects the image and which without ceasing renews our knowedge of our appearance with new clarity. This essential unity of our spirit with God does not exist in itself. It rests in God, and flows from God, and hangs in God, and returns to God as its eternal source. (4)

The human spirit receives according to its most interior and highest being, in naked nature, the imprint of God's eternal image.and God's own radiance without ceasing. The spirit is a perpetual dwelling of God which God inhabits all the time. (5)

Because of our special nature human beings possess this inner presence of God in an outstanding manner. However, the same divine presence, though in a lesser degree, sustains and supports all creatures. For it is God who, from within, gives existence and life and individuality to everything that exists.

Our essential and highest individuality lies in God. For all creatures exist and live and are preserved by being united to God. If they were to be separated from God, they would return to nothingness. We possess this divine individuality in ourselves, yet beyond ourselves, as the beginning and support of our existence and our life. (6)

In the highest stage of awareness, Ruysbroeck taught, we are so keenly conscious of the divine presence in us that we lose ourselves in God. We experience what he calls a “union without distinction”. We experience, as it were how God fulfils himself in us. We become God to some extent. Some of his contemporaries accused Ruysbroeck of being a pantheist; that is: of making creatures like ourselves equal to God. But this was far from Ruysbroeck's mind. We are created by God through direct contact from within; we are in no way equal or co-extensive with the infinite mystery of God. “God's transcending nature”, he said, “must be understood as oneness and simplicity unscalable height and unfathomable depth incomprehensible breadth and infinite length, dark silence and ferocious energy.” (7) God himself, though creating us cannot be touched by the limitations of our earthly existence.

In God is neither time nor place, before nor after possessing nor desiring, giving nor taking, vices nor virtues, nor visible love, lightness nor heaviness, night nor day, nor anything else that could be put into words. (8)

If Ruysbroeck had known Taoist thought, he would have agreed with its main tenets. Like Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu he would hold that God is revealed in nature as the underlying divine presence which gives existence, life and shape to all beings. But as a Christian, I am sure, he would have added the dimension of the Tao revealing himself as a Person. I imagine that he would have spoken to the Chinese Masters in these terms:

“You are quite right in saying that the Tao, God, transcends our human imagination to such an extent that human terms cannot strictly be applied to him. We cannot say that God knows, or loves, or wills, or plans, in the way we human beings do. God is the One, as you rightly maintain.

“However, this absolute oneness of God could be misunderstood as if God is vague and indistinct. But the opposite must be true. We know this not only from Christian revelation—which I personally firmly believe in—but also from seeing what God's presence in us does. For if we human beings are made in God's image, God must possess to a superior degree those qualities that we admire most in human beings: our ability to understand, to give love, to communicate and to achieve a purpose we set ourselves. In other words: God must possess par excellence the qualities that make up a person. This 'personal' quality of God, however imperfectly we conceive of it in human categories, is surely one of the aspects of the Tao we should acknowledge and respect.”

Ruysbroeck would also be in very close agreement with the fundamental attitude of silence and humility demanded by the Taoist masters. He prescribed the same path to his own disciples. Contemporaries described him as unassuming in appearance: quiet and reserved, dressed in simple clothes, walking through the streets of Brussels alone and lost in thought. When invited to address a gathering, he spoke with great simplicity in his native tongue “without any pretension of learning”. One biographer contends that his decision to live in the hermitage was triggered by the loud and incessant chatter of one of his fellow priests at the Rectory of St Gudule in Brussels where he was staying at the time! It was the last straw which helped Ruysbroeck to flee the noise of city life and settle in the quiet and solitude of the forest. But what about us today? What can we do to discover the Tao? How can we become aware of God whose imprint we bear all the time? About this we will speak in the next chapter.


1. J. van Ruysbroeck, Van den Geesteliken Tahemakel (“About the Spiritual Tabernacle”), Kompas, Mechelen 1934, Vol. 2, p. 365. In this and all other quotes from Ruysbroeck I offer my own free translation of the original Flemish.

2. Ruysbroeck, De Gheestelike Brulocht (“The Spiritual Wedding”), Kompas, Mechelen 1932, Vol. 1, p. 148. Compare the English edition by E. Colledge, The Spiritual Espousals, New York 1953.

3. Ruysbroeck, Een Spieghel der Eeuwigher Salicheit (“Mirror of Eternal Beatitude”), Kompas, Mechelen 1934, Vol. 3, p. 166.

4. Brulocht ibidem (see note 49), pp. 203-4.

5. Brulocht ib. p. 203.

6. Brulocht ib. p. 145.

7. Ruysbroeck, Van den Blinkenden Steen (“About the Sparkling Stone”), Kompas, Mechelen 1934, Vol. 3, pp. 6-7.

8. Taken from Ruysbroeck’s letters recently published in Dutch: De Boodschap van Jan van Ruusbroec, Lannoo, Tielt 1980. Among the little that has been published on Ruysbroeck in English, see: V. Scully, A Mediaeval Mystic, London 1910; J.H. Freeman, John of Ruysbroeck, Boston 1959.

Next? Go to:

The Way in to the Creator

The Way in to GOD

Creator in us

Inner Judge

Beyond thought



This course is based upon the book God Within Us by John Wijngaards and published by Collins, Fount Paperbacks, London, 1988..

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