Ruusbroec and the Dark Night: “Suffer, and He Will Teach You Truth”

I like posting different descriptions of the dark night of the soul given by different Christians from the past. This post is about Blessed Jan van Ruusborec.

Like Saint Alphonsus Liguori, he treats of sensible and spiritual desolations and darknesses together. That is, he treats of the dark night of the senses, the first dark night, and the dark night of the deeper spiritual roots of the soul, the second dark night, together and without conscious distinction. This makes sense. It is perhaps lacking in some precision, but it is a reasonable thing to do. Not everyone is “led so mathematically” (as John of the Cross says) that they go precisely according to the order that theologians specify as the two dark nights. Some people have slightly mixed up spiritual trajectories. Nonetheless, both the sensible and the spiritual parts of us must be cleaned up if we are to become truly united with God. This is why, even if the senses and the spirit and not clearly distinguished, Ruusbroec touches on the darkening and purification of each.

In the second book of his Spiritual Espousals, Ruusbroec tells us at length of the person who, previously knowing the “fierce tempest of [divine] love,” now finds only dead coal. The fire has died. Warmth is gone. Light is fading. It seems like a period of great loss has come. Previously, there had been a love with which the soul was engaged, and the very substance of the soul had become wounded out of pain for its Divine Lover. It longed for the very Source which had wounded it with love, and it knew that it could not unite itself to this Source which it loves above all things; so pain had already sprung forth from the wound of love. But now, things have worsened. Inward consolation, that intimate joy found in virtue and goodness and righteousness—where is it? The soul finds it not. The gifts of God seem to have become dead within the soul. The very fabric of relationship seems to have given up on the existence of this tortured human being:

Sometimes these unhappy men are also deprived of their earthly goods, of friends, of kinsmen; and they are abandoned of all creatures, their holiness is not known or esteemed, men speak evil of their works and their whole lives, and they are despised and rejected by all their neighbours. And at times they fall into sickness and some into bodily temptations; or, that which is worst of all, into temptations of the spirit [terrible temptations against the spiritual, theological virtues which the soul loves].

This is, assuredly, “the utmost point at which a man can hold his ground without falling into despair.” And so God can, as we pass through this point, confirm us in the virtue of hope. (Likewise, when the light of faith and the warmth of charity seem to fail us, the very clinging to their exercise can confirm us more in such virtues, too.)

Of course, in passing through these times, the soul desires greatly the presence of God. It desires it, but it finds it not, neither sensibly nor spiritually. The soul craves even the presence of good people, virtuous people, people from whom virtue radiates. To simply be heard by such a one is a consolation indeed, a greatly sought-after relief, for in the prayers of the just, there is much gentleness and help. Faced with these great torments, “the forsaken man” can but hold on in humility, suffering with the most inward joy, while the outer layers know nothing but bitterness and pain. The one who would climb to God and be brought to God must deal with life such as this. The counsel under life circumstances like these is full of complexity and its own pain, but in short, it is: “Suffer, and he will teach you Truth” (The Seven Degrees of Love). The weight of such words is beyond description.

So does Bl. Jan van Ruusbroec tells us of the dark night.


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