“If a man thus falls into sickness and cold, he is sometimes caught by dropsy, that is to say, he has an inclination towards the outward possession of earthly things. The more such men acquire the more they desire; for they straightway become dropsical. The belly, that is, the appetites or lusts, swell terribly, and the thirst will not be quenched. But the face of conscience and discretion become small and thin, for these men put hindrances against the inflow of the grace of God. It they thus accumulate the waters of earthly possessions about the heart, that is, if they cling to them with desire, they cannot progress in works of charity; for they are sick, they lack the inward spirit of life and breath, that is to say, they lack the grace of God and inward charity.” ~John of Ruysbroeck
Dropsy is an outdated term used to describe a number of illnesses that resulted in swelling or water retention. What Ruysbroeck is describing is a more spiritual dropsy, but one which can have physical symptoms as well. Since we have the Hermetic, “as above, so below” to deal with, illnesses on the mental and spiritual levels can make the body sick as well. The opposite is also true. Those who are spiritually healthy are less prone to physical illness.
Healthy Spiritual Masters
Remember that time that Jesus had to cancel a talk because of a sick headache? How about the time that Buddha spent a week in bed with the flu? No, you don’t. There are, to my knowledge, no record of these prophets and spiritual masters getting physically ill.
It is true that spiritual students can get ill, but they do so less frequently than others. They also get well faster. There is one exception. Spiritual students who are growing spiritually often get a mild case of a kind of flu. It isn’t really flu, however, because it isn’t caused by the Influenza virus. It is a physical reaction to a sudden spurt in spiritual growth. This spiritual flu is always mild, and will never turn to a more severe form. And because they have lost (or should have lost) any attachments they may have had to material possessions, they cannot get materialistic dropsy.
Many illnesses are directly or indirectly caused by stress. The stress of trying to get the things we want and failing. Wearing ourselves out trying to get things we don’t really need causes even more stress. And then there is the stress of wondering how we are going to pay for the things after we have them. This stress can directly cause headaches, backaches, stomach problems, and more. It can also weaken our immune system which that leads to many other illnesses.
A Spiritual Solution
Ruysbroeck says we can’t do “works of charity,” or develop our spiritual self when we are caught up in the pursuit of material possessions, or have become too attached to those that we have. So we end up with a catch-22 type of situation. Developing our spiritual side is the best way to escape from the chains of materialism. But the hold of materialism prevents any significant spiritual growth.
The solution is a gradual approach to both. We make an effort to develop our spiritual self as much as possible. We also work on freeing ourselves of those attachments to matter. We make a little progress on one, then a little on the other. Right foot forward, then the left, and we are walking toward our goal. Each much proceed at their own pace. The important thing is to keep moving forward. And when you fall, or take a step back, just get up and start forward again. And one day you too will be free of that materialistic dropsy that is the root of all illnesses.