The life of Madame Guyon

I have borne long and sore languishings, and oppressive and painful maladies without relief. I have been also inwardly under great desolations for several months, in such sort that I could only say these words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” All creatures seemed to be against me. I then put myself on the side of God, against myself. – Jeanne Guyon

Early life

Jeanne de la Mothe Guyon (1648-1717), was a French mystic* in the time of Louis XIV. She was born into an aristocratic family, and like other children of her class she was left in the care of servants when she wasn’t boarding at one or another convent, where she received somewhat better care. Jeanne was sickly as a child. Her illnesses, solitude, and upbringing in the convents formed the ideal conditions for attaining her life’s goal, union with God. 

At the age of eleven Jeanne was introduced to silent prayer while reading about the life Madam de Chantal, and she prayed for what she called the “gift of prayer.” At twelve she repeatedly tried to join a convent but her father wouldn’t allow it. Jeanne’s karma moved her father to arrange for her marriage, at fifteen, to Jacques Guyon, a wealthy, disagreeable man twenty-two years her senior, who may have been responsible for the death of her daughter.

Jeanne had her first awakening in 1668, when she was nineteen. She had been very ill with her first child and was pregnant with her second, and she was in low spirits from the incessant fault-finding of her mother-in-law, her husband, and an ignorant servant they assigned to her. She was visiting her parents, and at her father’s suggestion she went to see a visiting Franciscan priest.

Jeanne’s primary concern was prayer: she aspired for that state of continual prayer that she had seen in a cousin who was a priest–what Hakuin called uninterrupted meditation. After she had explained her difficulty, the priest was silent for a time. Presently he said, “It is, Madame, because you seek without what you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your heart, and you will there find Him.” The following is her description of her awakening:

These words brought into my heart what I had been seeking so many years. O my Lord, Thou wast in my heart, and demanded only a simple turning of my mind inward to make me perceive Thy presence. While I was running hither and thither to seek Thee my life was a burden to me, although my happiness was within myself. It was for want of understanding these words of Thy Gospel, “The kingdom of God cometh not with watching . . . For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20). This I now experienced.

I, Lord, went wandering like a sheep gone astray, seeking thee with anxious reasoning without whilst thou wast within me. I wearied myself much in looking for thee without, and yet thou hast thy habitation within me, if only I desire thee and pant after thee. I went round the streets and squares of the city of this world seeking thee, and I found thee not, because in vain I sought without for him who was within myself. – St Augustine

I told this man that my heart was quite changed, that God was there. He had given me an experience of His presence in my soul; not by thought or any application of mind, but as a thing really possessed after the sweetest manner.

I slept not that whole night, because Thy love, O my God, flowed in me like a delicious oil, and burned as a fire which was going to devour all that was left of self. I found no longer those troublesome faults or reluctance. They disappeared, being consumed like chaff in a great fire.

Nothing was more easy to me than prayer. Hours passed away like moments, while I could hardly do anything else but pray. It was a prayer of rejoicing and possessing, devoid of all busy imaginations and forced reflections; it was a prayer of the will, and not of the head. The taste of God was so great, so pure, unblended and uninterrupted, that it drew and absorbed the power of my soul into a profound recollection without act or discourse.

The will absorbed the two others, the memory and understanding, into itself, and concentrated them in LOVE; not but that they still subsisted, but their operations were in a manner imperceptible and passive. They were no longer stopped or slowed by the multiplicity, but collected and united in one, just as the rising of the sun does not extinguish the stars, but overpowers and absorbs them in the brightness of its incomparable glory. (Autobiography, Cp. 8)

A wife and mother

Jeanne had five children, of which two died. She accepted the death of her infant son from smallpox, and a few years later, the suspicious death of her eldest daughter from a hemmorhage, as God’s will.

My youngest little boy took the distemper the same day with myself, and died for want of care. This blow indeed struck me to the heart, but yet, drawing strength from my weakness, I offered him up, and said to God as Job did, “Thou gavest him to me, and thou takest him from me; blessed be thy holy name.” The spirit of sacrifice possessed me so strongly, that, though I loved this child tenderly, I never shed a tear at hearing of his death. (Autobiography, Cp. 15)

Her domestic life was a continual trial, yet she suffered all patiently in the belief that God was purifying her soul of self-pride. Years later, in prison, she told her spiritual director,

I ask you not to look at things on the side of the creature, which would make these persons appear worse than they were. My mother-in-law had virtue, my husband had religion, and not any vice. It is necessary to look at everything from the side of God: He permitted these things only for my salvation, and because He would not have me lost. I had besides so much pride that had I received any other treatment I should have continued therein, and should not, perhaps, have turned to God, as I was induced to do by the oppression of a multitude of crosses.

Spiritual Emptiness

Upon the death of her husband in 1676, Jeanne exclaimed, “Oh, my God, thou hast broken my bonds!” But she could not celebrate her emancipation as she was physically exhausted from the birth of her second daughter, and moreover she was in a state of moral despair that had begun a few years before:

This state of emptiness, darkness, and impotency went far beyond any trials I had ever yet met. I could now no longer pray as formerly. Heaven seemed shut to me, and I thought justly. I could get no consolation or make any complaint; nor had I any creature on earth to apply to. I found myself banished from all beings without finding a support of refuge in anything. I could no more practice any virtue with facility. I often thought all creatures united against me. Laden with a weight of past sins and a multitude of new ones, I could not think God would ever pardon me, but looked on myself as a victim destined for hell.

Second Awakening

Jeanne found herself a widow at twenty-eight with three children to care for. For their sake she remained with her mother-in-law for four more years. Then, in 1680, at thirty-two, she conceived the idea of moving to Geneva. There she envisioned using her wealth and her experience in nursing to found hospitals and convert people through charitable works. To this end she was corresponding with a priest in Geneva named Francois de La Combe. They had met many years earlier and had formed a friendship. It was in this state of happy anticipation, of beginning a new life in a new place and of being near her friend, that she had a second awakening:

About eight or ten days before Magdalene’s day (July 22), 1680, it came into my mind to write to Father La Combe and to request him, if he received my letter before that day, to pray particularly for me. . . . On that happy Magdalene’s Day my soul was perfectly delivered from all its pains. It had already begun since the receipt of the first letter from Father La Combe, to recover a new life, but it was then only like that of a dead person raised, though not yet unbound from the burial clothes. On this day I was, as it were, in perfect life, and set wholly free. I found myself as much raised above nature as before I had been depressed under its burden. I was inexpressibly overjoyed to find Him, whom I thought I had lost forever, returned to me again with unspeakable magnificence and purity. It was then, O God, that I found again in Thee with new advantages, in an ineffable manner, all I had been deprived of; the peace I now possessed was all holy, heavenly and inexpressible. All that I had enjoyed before was only a peace, a gift of God, but now I received and possessed the God of peace. Yet the remembrance of my past miseries still brought a fear upon me lest nature should find a way to take to itself any part therein. As soon as it wanted to see or taste anything, the ever-watchful Spirit crossed and repelled it. I was far from elevating myself or attributing to myself anything of this new state: my experience made me aware of what I was.

I hoped I should enjoy this happy state for some time, but little did I think my happiness so great and immutable as it was. One day of this happiness was worth more than years of suffering. It was indeed, at that time, well worth all I had undergone, though it was then only dawning. An alacrity for doing good was restored to me, greater than ever. It seemed to me all quite free and natural to me. At the beginning this freedom was less extensive, but as I advanced it grew greater. I felt a kind of beatitude every day increasing in me.

I was released from all crosses. I resumed my care of the sick, and dressing of wounds, and God gave me to cure the most desperate. When surgeons could do no more, it was then that God made me cure them. I did all sorts of good, without selfishness or premeditation. Whenever a self-reflective thought was presented to my mind it was instantly rejected, and as it were a curtain in the soul drawn before it. My imagination was kept so fixed that I had now very little trouble on that. I wondered at the clearness of my mind and the purity of my whole heart. (Cp. 27)

In Gex: The start of conflicts with the Church

A year later, in July of 1681, Jeanne quietly left with her four-year-old daughter for Geneva; but her destination was Gex. She had met with the Bishop of Geneva in Paris, and when she told him that she wanted to use her wealth for missionary work, he told her that it was providential, since the New Catholics* were going to establish a convent in Gex. She told him that her calling was for Geneva, but he told her that she might go there from Gex. He drew up a contract for her engagement, but she refused to sign it, although she made a large donation. (*The New Catholics were part of an initiative of Louis XIV to make Roman Catholicism the only religion in France. To this end he had driven thousands of Protestant families into exile, and the Church was charged with the conversion of those who remained.)

Jeanne’s project was destined to failure from the start, and it marked the beginning of her political troubles. While she and Father La Combe did set up some hospitals, the bishop and his priest envied her spiritual attainment and coveted her money. It wasn’t long before they were preaching publicly against her and writing to Paris to denounce her.

Instead of seeing the hostile reaction from the Church as coming from God, however, Jeanne made an illogical distinction between God’s will and the will of her enemies. Laboring under the delusion that God wanted her to lead a reformation of the Church, she spent fourteen years (1681-1695) in the attempt. She moved back and forth between withdrawal and engagement with the Church, but remained defiant right until the approval of her release from the Bastille.

God’s purpose in giving us trials and tribulations

Jeanne believed that God visits tribulations on us first to turn us towards him, and then to destroy the self with all of its impurity. Because of this, she didn’t merely accept her crosses, but prayed for them. In A Short and Easy Method of Prayer she writes:

You can only find consolation in the love of the cross and in complete abandonment. He who has no love for the cross has no love for God (see Matt. xvi. 24). It is impossible to love God without loving the cross; and a heart which has learned to love the cross finds sweetness, joy, and pleasure even in the bitterest things. “To the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet” (Prov. xxvii. 7), because it is as hungry for the cross as it is hungry for God.

The cross gives God, and God gives the cross. Abandonment and the cross go together. As soon as you are sensible that something is repugnant to you which presents itself to you in the light of suffering, abandon yourself at once to God for that very thing, and present yourself as a sacrifice to Him. You will see that, when the cross comes, it will have lost much of its weight, because you will desire it.

While in prison (1698-1702), writing her autobiography for her spiritual director, Jeanne wrote that with her second awakening (1680) she was “released from all crosses” (see Cp. 27, above). But then she contradicted herself and said that her crosses had increased “until the present time.”

After twelve years and four months of marriage, crosses as great as possible, except poverty, which I never knew though I had much desired it, God drew me out of that state to give me still stronger crosses of such a nature as I had never met with before. For if you give attention, sir, to the life which you have ordered me to write, you will remark that my crosses have been increasing till the present time, one removed to give place to another to succeed it, still heavier than the former. Amid the troubles imposed upon me, when they said I was “in a mortal sin” (the time of her imprisonment) I had nobody in the world to speak to. I could have wished to have had somebody for a witness of my conduct, but I had none. I had no support, no confessor, no director, no friend, no councillor. I had lost all. And after God had taken from me one after another, He withdrew also Himself. I remained without any creature; and to complete my distress, I seemed to be left without God, who alone could support me in such a deeply distressing state.

The explanation is simple. When Jeanne had her first awakening, her self withdrew; but this was only temporary. When she had her second awakening, she again had a glimpse of a highest state, one without the self, but again this was temporary. Jeanne knew this was so because she continued to suffer; but she did not give up. She was so determined to attain sanctification that she made an enemy of the most formidable man in France: Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Lignel Bossuet.

A thorn in the side of the Church

From the time she arrived in Gex, Jeanne’s enemies could always count on the support of her half-brother, Father de La Mothe, to try to destroy her. He wanted only her money. It was de La Mothe who accused Jeanne of going to Geneva in order to be near Father La Combe.

As soon as it was known in France that I was gone there was a general outcry. Father de la Mothe wrote to me that all persons of learning and of piety united in censuring me. To alarm me still more he informed me that my mother-in-law, with whom I had entrusted my younger son and my children’s substance, was fallen into a state of childhood (senile dementia). This, however, was false. I answered all these fearful letters as the Spirit dictated. My answers were thought very just, and those violent exclamations were soon changed into applause. Father La Mothe appeared to change his censures into esteem, but it did not last. Self-interest threw him back again, being disappointed in his hopes of a pension, which he expected I would have settled on him.

After a few months in Gex the sisters began to mistreat her. The bishop kept the letters her friends sent her, and he and the sisters wrote to her friends and others in an attempt to destroy her reputation. Finally she was given an ultimatum: engage as prioress or withdraw. But she wasn’t disposed to go back home:

My near relations did not signify any eager desire for my return. The first thing they proposed to me, a month after my arrival at Gex, was not only to give up my guardianship, but to make over all my estate to my children and to reserve an annuity to myself. They sent me an article to execute, and I signed it. Though what I had reserved to myself was sufficient to support me in this place; yet it was scarcely enough to do so in some other places.

Jeanne first went to stay with the Ursulines at Thonon, who had been caring for her daughter, but the Bishop of Geneva continued to incite people there to turn against her. An aristocratic friend wrote to invite her to stay at her home in Turin, some 300 km to the south and east, and so she took her daughter to Turin for a time. But Father La Combe had previously taken a position nearby in Vercelli, and the Bishop of Geneva wrote to several people saying that Jeanne had gone there to be near him. One day La Combe arrived in Turin and abruptly told her that she had to return to Paris without delay.

I confess this sudden news startled me. It was for me a double sacrifice to return to a place where they had cried me down so much; also toward a family which held me in contempt, and who had represented my journey, caused by pure necessity, as a voluntary course, pursued through human attachments.

Nevertheless she left with her daughter the next day, and for their safety, Father La Combe was obliged to accompany them as far as Grenoble, to the west. At his advice she went no farther but stayed in Grenoble for some time at the home of a friend. There Jeanne became a celebrity:

I placed my daughter in a convent, and resolved to employ all this time in resigning myself to be possessed in solitude by Him who is the absolute Sovereign of my soul. I made not any visit in this place; no more had I in any of the others where I had sojourned. I was greatly surprised when, a few days after my arrival, there came to see me several persons who made profession of a singular devotion to God. I perceived immediately a gift that He had given me of administering to each that which suited their states. I felt myself invested, all of a sudden, with the apostolic state.

It was thou, O my God, who didst all these things; some of them sent others to me. It came to such excess that generally from six in the morning till eight in the evening I was taken up in speaking of the Lord. People flocked on all sides, far and near, friars, priests, men of the world, maids, wives, widows, all came one after another.

In a letter to her brother Gregory, she wrote: “The Lord has seen fit to bless me in labours for the revival of inward religion, especially in Grenoble, where the work was very wonderful.”

In Grenoble an influential visitor found a prayer tract that she had written lying on a table and asked to borrow it. He and his friends liked it so much that he had it printed. Published in 1685, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer became instantly popular, and a matter of months it had spread throughout Europe. However, its publication came at an inconvenient time, since there was a campaign underway against silent prayer, known at the time as quietism. Nancy James (2011) explains:

In 1685, Louis XIV requested that the Vatican condemn as a heretic a popular Spanish priest named Miguel Molinos, accusing him of something called quietism. . . . The work of teachers such as Father Molinos, as well as Madame Guyon, was gaining more and more followers. At times their teachings were believed to advocate the idea that when one receives a divine word from God in quiet prayer, the person then knows a type of spiritual purification and enlightenment that is unavailable through the normal course of life–including through the sacraments of the Church alone. Understandably, the Church hierarchy feared this popular movement that was attracting so many to a path that did not need the mediation of clergy or bishops. In 1687, the Vatican declared quietism to be heretical.

In the midst of this controversy, Father de La Mothe . . . charged that Father La Combe had a secret relationship with Rome that could undermine the authority of the French Roman Catholic leaders. These charges concerned the powerful Bishop Bossuet, who helped lead the Gallican Movement encouraging French isolation from excessive Vatican influence. Father de La Mothe stated that La Combe brought into France ideas of undue submission to the pope, an idea that the Gallican bishops did not accept. He also said that La Combe and Jeanne had an immoral relationship. (pp. 26-28)

Hearing about her growing influence in Grenoble, Jeanne’s enemies began to stir up fear:

Libels began to spread. Envious people wrote against me, without knowing me. They said that I was a sorceress, that it was by a magic power I attracted souls, that everything in me was diabolical; that if I did charities, it was because I coined, and put off false money, with many other gross accusations, equally false, groundless and absurd. As the tempest increased every day, some of my friends advised me to withdraw.

Jeanne decided to go back to Turin, so, leaving her daughter in the convent, she set off. But because she took a boat to Genoa, she arrived first in Vercelli. Father La Combe was embarrassed by her presence, but his bishop had a great regard for her and begged her to stay.

However, La Combe had gained popularity not only by his good conduct, but by what he had learned from Jeanne. Jeanne’s half-brother, Father de La Mothe, therefore set about to destroy La Combe. He contrived to have him ordered to Paris. Jeanne decided to go with him. She wrote,

As soon as it was determined that I should come into France the Lord made known to me that it was to have greater crosses than I ever had. Father La Combe had the like sense. He encouraged me to resign myself to the divine will, and to become a victim offered freely to new sacrifices. He also wrote to me, “Will it not be a thing very glorious to God, if He should make us serve in that great city for a spectacle to angels and to men?” I set off then with a spirit of sacrifice to offer myself up to new kinds of punishments, if pleasing to my dear Lord.

Return to Paris

Jeanne arrived in Paris on July 21, 1686, five years after she had left. She rented a house where she lived with her daughter and her two sons. Because news of her gifts and her writings had spread, she was warmly received by several women of the aristocracy, and it wasn’t long before she had built a following among some of the most important families in France. She formed an association of noblewomen and conducted meetings. Paris was divided, according to Upham, between admirers and enemies.

Jeanne’s confidant, Father La Combe was the first to fall victim to their enemies. Father de La Mothe led a group to the Archbishop to accuse him of heresy, and the Archbishop signed the accusations and presented them to the king. The king issued a letter of imprisonment, and on Oct. 3, 1687, La Combe was taken to the Bastille. Upham writes: “It was not enough to put an end to his labours as a preacher. His work, entitled An Analysis of Mental Prayer, written originally in Latin, and translated into French, was submitted to the Inquisition at Rome and condemned by a formal decree, September 4, 1688.”

Father La Combe spent the remaining 27 years of his life in prison. However, he never regretted having had Jeanne as his friend and teacher. And as he told her in a letter, his life in prison was not unlike life in a monastery:

“It is true, there has been some mitigation of my state. I am now permitted to go beyond the walls of my prison into the neighbouring gardens and fields, but it is only on the condition of my labouring there without cessation from morning till evening. What then can I do? How can I meditate? How can I think? —except it be upon the manner of subduing the earth, and of cultivating plants.” (Upham, p. 272)

First imprisonment (1688)

When La Mothe began to pursue the same course against his sister, he warned her to leave Paris, telling her that she was accused of high crimes. In her response, she used surprisingly worldly reasoning for remaining:

I cannot flee, I cannot go out of the way. There are abundant reasons why I should remain where I am. I have made an open profession of dedicating myself to the Lord, to be His entirely. If I have done things offensive to God, I ought by my punishment to be made an example to the world; but I am innocent, and shall not prejudice my claims to innocence by taking flight.” (Upham, p. 275)

The following is her account of the events of 1687 that led to her first arrest:

They continually spread stories of horrible crimes. They then made the king believe that I was an heretic, that I carried on a literary correspondence with Molinos, that I had written a dangerous book; and that on those accounts it would be necessary to issue an order to put me in a convent that they might examine me. I was a dangerous person, it would be proper for me to be locked up, to be allowed no commerce with any one since I continually held assemblies, which was very false. To support this calumny my handwriting was counterfeited, and a letter was forged as from me importing that I had great designs but feared that they would prove abortive because of Father La Combe’s imprisonment, for which reason I had left off holding assemblies at my house, being too closely watched, but that I would hold them at the houses of other persons. This forged letter they showed to the king, and upon it an order was given for my imprisonment.

This order would have been executed two months sooner than it was had I not fallen very sick. I had inconceivable pains and a fever. Some thought that I had a mass in my head. The pain I suffered for five weeks made me delirious. I had also a pain in my breast and a violent cough. Twice I received the holy sacrament, as I was thought to be expiring.

As he had done with La Combe, La Mothe took his accusations to the archbishop, who presented them to the king. But there was an additional detail: the archbishop had a nephew who wanted to marry Jeanne’s daughter, then twelve, as the girl had inherited considerable properties from her father. Furthermore, the king had approved of the union.

In January, 1688, at thirty-nine, Jeanne was imprisoned in a convent. Her daughter was taken away from her and held in secret. Jeanne was told that she would be released if she gave up guardianship and allowed her daughter to marry; but though they threatened her with life imprisonment or the scaffold, she refused. This was the moral decision, since her daughter was a mere child and dependent on her mother’s protection.


Jeanne’s letters from her first imprisonment point to the self-will that caused her to suffer in spite of her high state. While at the convent, she corresponded with her friends, who did what they could for her release. Although she always said that one should not merely endure but welcome whatever God wills, she rebelled against her imprisonment:

While I am kept here by the power of my enemies, I cannot help but think of those who need spiritual instruction. What a mysterious providence it is, which keeps me out of my place of labour, out of my element! It looks to me as if there were great numbers of children asking for bread, and there is scarcely anyone to break it to them.”  (Upham, p. 295)

In another letter, written after she had gotten medical treatment at the convent, she is confused about the source of her suffering. If God put it into the hearts of a servant and doctors to treat her, then God must also have put it into her enemies’ hearts to imprison her.

She was favoured, however, after a time, through the sympathy of those who had the immediate charge of the Convent, with the assistance of a maid-servant, and a physician and surgeon. It was done, it is true, in violation of the orders of her imprisonment. But Madame Guyon remarks, ” It was God who put it into their hearts, and gave them the determination to do it; for had I remained as I was, without any proper care, I must have died. My enemies were numerous and clamorous. It was not merely death which was before me, but disgrace. My friends were afraid lest I should die; for by my death my memory would have been covered with reproach, and my enemies would have triumphed; but God would not suffer them to have that joy. After bringing me down, He was pleased to raise me up again.” Upham, p. 292

The pride displayed in these letters explains her extreme destitution, as well as her poor health. Jeanne also hoped for martyrdom: “Was not our beloved Saviour looked upon and denounced in the same manner? Is it a hard matter to walk in His footsteps, and to suffer as He suffered?” (Upham, p. 297)

Through the intervention of the king’s wife, Mme de Maintenon, Jeanne was released after eight months, in October of 1688. She was once more received into the distinguished families with which she had been associated prior to her imprisonment, and she immediately resumed her labors:

The watchfulness of her opponents rendered it somewhat difficult for her to continue her religious conferences for prayer and conversation; but, too devoted and persevering to be foiled by ordinary obstacles, she neither ceased to make efforts, nor did her efforts
cease to be availing. (Upham, p. 300)

Soon after she was released, Jeanne was introduced to Francois Fenelon, who had just returned to Paris from a mission in Poiton, where the king had sent him to oversee the peaceful conversion of Protestants. Fenelon had heard a great deal of Jeanne in the provinces and had been eager to meet her. There was immediate sympathy between the two and Fenelon became her student. As early as November, 1688, a month after her release, Jeanne submitted some of her writings to him for his criticism. (Upham, p. 312)

Jeanne also met Mme de Maintenon at St. Cyr, a charitable house that the king’s wife had founded to educate the daughters of indigent noblemen. After that Jeanne was often invited to St. Cyr, and at some point Maintenon asked her to give instruction to the young ladies. Jeanne obliged for three years, and in 1692 the two had a close acquaintance.

But the acceptance Jeanne found in high society was not to last. Bishop Bossuet was angered that Fenelon, his former student and now the tutor of the heir-apparent, had come under her influence. He was also displeased with the high regard that the king’s wife had for her, and he wrote to Maintenon to tell her that Jeanne was a bad influence, putting an end to her visits to St. Cyr. Maintenon eventually denounced Jeanne.

Though he was an admirer of Bossuet, Thomas Upham’s account shows that Bossuet had long been aware of the campaign of defamation against Jeanne and approved of it. But her influence, instead of decreasing, continued to grow, so Bossuet decided in September 1693 that the time had come to take her measure.

It seemed to him impossible that Madame Guyon, whatever might be her talents and personal influence, could produce an impression, either in Paris or elsewhere, which could be dangerous to the Church. And if it were so, was it not enough that D’Aranthon (Bishop of Geneva) and Father Innocentius, men of distinguished ability and of great influence, had already, in the early and distant places of her influence, set in motion measures of opposition; measures sustained at Paris by the efforts of La Mothe and De Harlai, of Nicole and Boileau, aided by a multitude of subordinate agencies?

He accordingly visited her, for the first time, at her residence in Paris, with the Duke of Chevreuse, in September 1693. During the conversation Bossuet remarked that he had read, with a degree of satisfaction, her Treatise on Prayer, and Commentary on the Canticles. The Duke (Jeanne’s friend) directed his attention to the work entitled The Torrents. He immediately cast his eye rapidly over some passages. A few moments after, he remarked, without condemning anything, that some things required explanation.

A second meeting took place, January 30, 1694. In the interval, the Duke of Chevreuse . . . gave Bossuet the manuscript of her Autobiography. He read it carefully, and politely wrote a letter to the duke, expressive of the interest he felt in it. All her printed works also were submitted to him, so that Bossuet felt prepared to state some of the objections which he felt to her views.

Bossuet arranged another private meeting, where they had a long interview, a fascinating reconstruction of which Upham provides in his biography (pp. 344-363). Jeanne wrote that the archbishop spoke “almost with violence and very fast, and hardly gave me time to explain some things which I wished to explain.” The experience left her sick with a fever for some time afterwards.

In 1694 Jeanne proposed a commission be formed to judge her writings and offered to submit herself to confinement:

Madame Guyon was almost universally considered as the teacher of a new doctrine. Her character was assailed, as well as her doctrine. She wrote, therefore, to Madame de Maintenon, requesting that a number of suitable persons might be selected for the purpose of judging both of her doctrine and morals; and offering to submit to any confinement and restraint until it should please the king to appoint such persons. (Upham, p. 365)

Three eminent clergy were chosen to review her works. Because of the many public attacks, Jeanne had already published “A Concise Apology of A Short Method of Prayer.” For the commission she wrote a lengthy manuscript in her defense, titled “Justifications,” as well as many letters.

The first meeting of the commissioners was in August 1694, at the house of Bossuet in Meaux. Jeanne’s friend, the Duke of Chevreuse, had accompanied her for moral support, but Bossuet asked him to retire. After the interview she went to see one of the commissioners, the Bishop of Chalons, who although kind, suggested that given the state of affairs she would be well advised to “live in a manner as retired as possible.”

In January of 1695 Jeanne went to stay at a convent in Meaux. She was sick for six weeks, until the end of February, and was not yet recovered when Bossuet came and asked her to add her signature to a pastoral letter condemning certain religious errors. She added some remarks to the letter, after which he said that he had expected her to acknowledge herself guilty of all of the errors and confess herself a heretic. She refused, and he threatened to excommunicate her. He then proposed that she declare that there were errors in the work of Father La Combe. She again refused and he went away angry (Upham p. 375). Jeanne left the convent on July 8, 1695. She told Bossuet that she needed to go to Bourbon, but proposed that she would return to spend the rest of her life at the convent; this pleased him. However, the ladies who came for Jeanne took her to Paris.

Second Imprisonment (1695)

When it was known that Jeanne was again in Paris there was an uproar: her enemies denounced her, and the king and Mme Maintenon were angry. Another complication was that the Archbishop of Paris had died on August 6, and Bossuet coveted the position. He saw Fenelon as his rival, and he set about to destroy him by discrediting Jeanne (James, 2011). The king issued a letter for her arrest, and in late December of 1695 she was taken prisoner.

Jeanne was imprisoned in Vincennes for ten months on political charges. When after long interrogations she was found innocent, the Church pressed religious charges and she was transferred to a nunnery. In 1698 she was imprisoned in the Bastille and remained there for four years. This was where she wrote a large part of her autobiography at the behest of her spiritual director.

In 1702, at the age of fifty-four, Jeanne was released. The king banished her to of Blois on the Loire, where she lived for the rest of her life. Even though she had been imprisoned for A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, the tract had remained popular throughout her imprisonment, even within the Church:

It is remarkable that they say nothing to those who prefixed their approbations, and that, far from condemning the book, it has been reprinted since I have been in prison, and advertisements of it have been posted up at the Archbishop’s palace, and all over Paris.

Karma is action and reaction

That Jeanne Guyon was persecuted is indisputable; however she was persecuted in direct proportion to how the Church hierarchy felt threatened by her. Thomas Upham gives the following example of this influence:

In the early part of 1689, a few months before the events of which we are now speaking, some priests and theologians made a visit to Dijon. And, apparently to their great surprise, they found a considerable religious movement in progress, of which Madame Guyon was the reputed author, and which was evidently sustained by the free circulation of her writings. In her return from Grenoble to Paris in 1686, she passed through Dijon on the way, and spent a day or two there. She left a deep impression on a few persons, especially Monsieur Claude Guillot, a priest of high character in the city. The seed thus sown in conversations, enforced by a single sermon from La Combe, sprang up and bore fruit; so that in 1689 the new religious principles excited much attention. The persons who visited Dijon at this time, coming with some degree of ecclesiastical authority, interposed to stop this state of things. Among other things they collected three hundred copies of the work of Madame Guyon on Prayer, and caused them to be publicly burned. (p. 329)

Jeanne’s enemies simply wanted her to go away, and gave her every opportunity to do so; but she defied them. When she returned to Paris in 1686, she hoped to lead a religious movement that threatened the political order. She saw herself as emulating Jesus, who returned to Jerusalem many times in spite of the fact that the Romans and the high priest appointed by them saw him as a threat. While in prison Jeanne challenged the Church:

God accomplishes His work either in converted sinners, whose past iniquities serve as a counterpoise to their elevation, or in persons whose self-righteousness He destroys by totally overthrowing the proud building they had reared on a sandy foundation, instead of the Rock—CHRIST. The establishment of all these ends, which He proposed in coming into the world, is effected by the apparent overthrow of that very structure which in reality He would erect. By means which seem to destroy His Church, He establishes it. How strangely does He found the new dispensation and give it His sanction! The lawmaker Himself (Christ) is condemned by the learned and great as a malefactor, and dies an ignominious death.

Finally, Jeanne hit bottom, feeling abandoned even by God. She wrote:

I have borne long and sore languishings, and oppressive and painful maladies without relief. I have been also inwardly under great desolations for several months, in such sort that I could only say these words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!” All creatures seemed to be against me. I then put myself on the side of God, against myself.

Suffering and self-will

Jeanne believed that suffering has two purposes: to turn one towards God, and to purify the soul. She welcomed her crosses until her second awakening; after this point, however, they made her uneasy. At a loss to explain why she continued to suffer, she blamed her enemies for her troubles.

A. W. Marston (possibly Frances Cashel Hoey, 1830-1908), who translated A Short Method of Prayer, was perplexed by the contradiction, and she tried to explain it in a preface:

The “Torrents” especially needs to be regarded rather as an account of the personal experience of the author, than as the plan which God invariably, or even usually, adopts in bringing the soul into a state of union with Himself. It is true that, in order that we may “live unto righteousness,” we must be “dead indeed unto sin;” and that there must be a crucifixion of self before the life of Christ can be made manifest in us. It is only when we can say, “I am crucified with Christ,” that we are able to add, “Nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” But it does not follow that this inward death must always be as lingering as in the case of Madame Guyon. She tells us herself that the reason was, that she was not wholly resigned to the Divine will, and willing to be deprived of the gifts of God, that she might enjoy the possession of the Giver. This resistance to the will of God implies suffering on the part of the creature, and chastisement on the part of God, in order that He may subdue to Himself what is not voluntarily yielded to Him.

Thomas Upham devoted a chapter (XIV) to this subject. He, too, believed that the cause of Jeanne’s suffering was that she sought happiness in God’s gifts instead of seeking it directly in God. I agree with him. By Jeanne’s own hand we know that in Paris she went far astray in seeking recognition in the world. Regarding her consignment to prison she wrote:

I had nobody in the world to speak to. I could have wished to have had somebody for a witness of my conduct, but I had none. I had no support, no confessor, no director, no friend, no councillor. I had lost all.

Third Awakening

While she was in the Bastille writing about her second awakening, Jeanne added the following paragraph, which seems to describe an insight she had in prison:

When I had lost all created supports, and even divine ones, I then found myself happily compelled to fall into the pure divine, and to fall into it through all those very things which seemed to remove me further from it. In losing all the gifts, with all their supports, I found the Giver. In losing the sense and perception of Thee in myself I found Thee, O my God, to lose Thee no more in Thyself, in Thy own immutability. (Autobiography, Cp. 27)

Indeed, when she wrote about her release from the Bastille in 1702, it is clear that her imprisonment had produced in her a third awakening, one in which she transcended the body and mind:

The abbess and my children’s guardian came to get me and manifested great joy, as did all my friends. The others, however, were extremely annoyed at it. I left without feeling I was going out, and without being able to reflect on my deliverance. Yesterday morning I was thinking, But who are you? What are you doing? What are you thinking? Are you alive, that you take no interest in what touches you as if it did not touch you? I am greatly astonished at it, and I have to apply myself to know if I have a being, a life, a subsistence. I do not find it. On the outside I am like another; but it seems to me I am like a machine that speaks and walks by springs and that has no life or subsistence in what it does. This is not at all apparent on the outside. I act, I speak like another, in a manner more free and expansive, which embarrasses no one and pleases others, without knowing either what I do or what I say, or why I do it or say it, or what causes me to say it. (James, 2011, p. 238)

The remainder of Jeanne’s natural life was spent peacefully in Blois.

* * *

Ben Sira (200-175 BC). Book of Ecclesiasticus.

The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Autobiography of Madame Guyon, by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon:

James, Nancy C. (2011). The Complete Madame Guyon. Brewster, Massachusetts, Paraclete Press.

Upham, Thomas C. (1858). Life of Madame de La Mothe Guyon. London: Sampson Low, Son, and Co. (Upham-Life-of-Madame-Guyon)

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