Nov 7, 2023

Jan van Ruysbroeck


They were called Brethren of the Free Spirit. They were free spirits, all right. Since they had achieved perfect union with God, they were no longer subject to human codes of conduct. This led to all manner of deviant behavior. They also had no use for the church. Why do I need a priest, the sacraments, or other believers if I am in flawless union with the divine all by myself? The leader of this 14th century Free Spirit movement in Brussels was a mystic (one who emphasized an experiential relationship with God) named Heilwig Bloemardinne. She claimed two seraphim accompanied her everywhere she travelled. A Brussels pastor, Jan van Ruysbroeck (1291-1381) pronounced Ryz-bruk) was horrified by the lawlessness and free love antics of the Free Spirit society. Though a mystic himself, his spirituality flowed from a deep understanding of Scripture. Despite opposition from Heilwig and her cronies, he faithfully served his congregation for 26 years. Some suggest Heilwig’s followers drove him out. Others contend he retreated to a monastery co-founded with his uncle to write detailed instructions on the spiritual life, knowing from personal experience how Christians can go off the rails without a Biblical foundation. He rejected all attempts to separate private spirituality from Biblical theology. Ruysbroeck was known as a trinitarian mystic. This three-in-one God calls us love and good works. What good is contemplation without corresponding acts of service to one’s neighbor? To guard against free spirit tendencies, this monastic order adopted The Rule of St. Augustine for their common life. There’s a renewed interest in spirituality in our day, yet sad to say, many people don’t go looking for it in the church. It’s our own fault, really. The institutional church has been far more interested in the ABCs (attendance, buildings, and cash) than becoming lovers of God. Today’s prayer is adapted from one of Ruysbroeck’s devotional writings:

Thy love, O God is a consuming firewhich draws us out of ourselves
and swallows us up in union with Thee,
where we are satisfied and overflowing,
and with Thee, beyond ourselves,
eternally fulfilled.

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.