Throughout the 14th century, a renewal movement touched the hearts of many in northern Europe. The Modern Devotion brought people both to a personal commitment to follow Christ and to a deeper life in the Spirit. The movement’s leaders included popular writers like Thomas à Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ, still a best-seller today, and John Ruysbroeck, less famous now than à Kempis, but a very influential spiritual writer in his own time.
Between 1317 and 1343 he devoted himself to prayer and publishing several books on the spiritual life. In order to reach as broad a readership as possible, Ruysbroeck wrote in Flemish rather than the traditional Latin of scholars. In the following selection he invites people engaged in an active life to open themselves to God in prayer:
Like Zacchaeus (see Luke 19:1–10), an active person must run before the crowd, that is, the multiplicity of created things. These make man so little that he cannot perceive God. Then he must climb up the Tree of Faith that grows from above downwards because its root is in the Godhead. The upper branches reveal the Trinity of persons and the unity of the divine nature. Man must cling to the unity at the treetop because here Jesus will pass by with all his gifts. Then Jesus comes. He sees man and in the light of faith shows him that by virtue of his divinity he is unlimited, incomprehensible, inaccessible and fathomless. Thus the highest knowledge of God that man can acquire in the active life is to recognize by faith that God is inconceivable and unknowable. In this light God says to the desire of man: ‘Come down quickly, for I would dwell in your house today.’ This is a quick descent by love and desire into the abyss of the Godhead to which no intellect can attain by its created light. When the soul thus leans upon God by intention and love—beyond all her understanding—then she rests in God, and God in her. Stretching by desire towards this incomprehensible God, she meets Christ and is fulfilled with his gifts. And loving and resting above all things, she dwells in God and God in her. In this way, Christ may be encountered upon the summit of the active life.
In 1349, Ruysbroeck founded a monastery at Groenendael in present-day Belgium. John’s presence at Groenendael made it a renewal center for the Modern Devotion. Hundreds of people made pilgrimages there to hear him and obtain his advice. John Ruysbroeck, weakened by old age, spent the last few years of his long life of service confined to his cell. He died at Groenendael in 1381 at the age of 88.