The life of Madame Guyon

The less you have of self, the more you will have of God. 

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 made her devoutly religious.

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; he arranged for her to be married, at fifteen, to Jacques Guyon, a wealthy man twenty-two years her senior.

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 constant fault-finding of her mother-in-law and husband. 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 observation* . . . For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20). This I now experienced. [*The verb θεαομαι (theaomai) means to watch]

I, Lord, went wandering like a strayed sheep, 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 reluctances. 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)

Guyon bore five children, of which two died. Her life was a continual trial, yet she suffered all patiently in the belief that God was purifying her soul of pride of self, much in the way that fire separates gold from impurities in the crucible. Years later, while in prison, she told her spiritual director,

I request 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.

Guyon’s marriage ended in 1676 with the death of her husband. As soon as he died she said, “Oh, my God, thou hast broken my bonds!” But she was physically exhausted from the recent birth of her daughter, and in addition 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 designed for hell.

A widow at twenty-eight, with a newborn and a young son, Jeanne 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 knowledge of nursing to found hospitals and convert people through charitable works. To this end she was corresponding with a priest she knew in Geneva named Francis de La Combe: they had met many years earlier and had formed a lifelong friendship. It was in this state of happy anticipation — of beginning a new life in a new place, 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.

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. (Cp. 27)

A year later, in July of 1681, Guyon quietly left with her 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 “substance” for missionary work, he told her that it was providential, since the New Catholics* were going to establish a new 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.)

Guyon’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, her refusal to submit to the will of the bishop and his priest, combined with their envy, earned her their lasting enmity. It wasn’t long before they were preaching publicly against her and writing to Paris denouncing her. But instead of seeing the hostile reaction she provoked within the Church as coming from God, she 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, she spent nearly twenty years in the attempt. She constantly moved back and forth between withdrawal and engagement, remaining defiant even while imprisoned in the Bastille.

The purpose of suffering

The story of Mme Guyon’s struggle with the Church is intimately tied to the theme of suffering. She believed that God visits suffering on us to turn us towards him and to destroy the impurity, or sin, of the self — pride of self, self-love or self-will. Because of this, she not only accepted “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.

Guyon also claimed that at times she underwent spiritual suffering on behalf of others in order to hasten their conversion. One might be tempted to dismiss this, except for the fact that Yogananda said that his guru, Sri Yukteswar, did the same.

There is, however, a glaring contradiction that she was never able to explain. If, as she said, she had been purified of the sin of self, why did she continue to suffer — not for others, but in her own body and mind?

While in prison (1698-1702), writing an account of her life for her spiritual director, Guyon stated that in 1680 she was released from all crosses. Yet she also stated 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. (italics added)

In order to understand why she continued to suffer from physical and mental afflictions and even abandonment by God long after she claimed that she could no longer find her self, it is necessary to examine her actions and the reactions that followed from them.

A thorn in the side of the Church

From the time she arrived in Gex, Guyon’s enemies could always count on the support of her half-brother, Father de La Mothe. It was he who accused her of going to Geneva to be with 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 had sent her, and he and the sisters wrote to her friends and others to destroy her reputation. Finally she was given an ultimatum: engage or retire; 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.

Guyon first went to stay with the Ursulines at Thonon, who had been caring for her daughter, but there the bishop continued to incite people 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 there 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 she had run after him. One day La Combe arrived in Turin and 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 Father La Combe was obliged to accompany them as far as Grenoble, to the west. At his advice she went no farther but stayed there for some time at the home of a friend. In Grenoble Mme Guyon 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 Guyon had an immoral relationship. (pp. 26-28)

Hearing about her growing influence in Grenoble, Guyon’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.

She decided to go back to Turin, so leaving her daughter in the convent she set off. 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, Father La Mothe contrived to have La Combe ordered to Paris, and Guyon decided to go back 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.

Guyon 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 high rank, and it wasn’t long before she had built a following among some of the most important families in France. She formed a little association of noblewomen which held meetings. Paris was divided between admirers and enemies.

Father La Combe was the first to fall victim to their enemies. La Mothe led a group to the Archbishop to accuse him of heresy, and the latter signed the accusations and presented them to the king. He 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, but he never regretted having had Guyon as his teacher. His life in prison was not unlike life in a monastery, as he told her in a letter:

“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)

While La Mothe was pursuing the same course against his sister, he warned her to leave Paris, telling her that she was accused of high crimes. Her response is interesting as it betrays a sense of self-importance, of concern for her reputation:

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 Guyon’s daughter, then twelve, as the girl had inherited considerable properties from her father. The king had approved of the union.

In January, 1688, at thirty-nine, Mme Guyon was imprisoned in a convent. Her daughter was taken away from her and held in secret. Guyon was told that she would be released if she gave up guardianship of her daughter and allowed her to marry, but though they threatened her with life imprisonment or the scaffold, she refused.

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

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 betrays her confusion about the source of her suffering — was it her enemies or was it God? I have found no statement to indicate that she ever realized that she brought everything upon herself.

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 attendance, 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 self-importance on display in these letters explains why she was afflicted, why she experienced extreme destitution and depression, as well as poor health. She clung to her reputation, and she exalted herself above others, whom she referred to as her spiritual children. There is the vanity of 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) Finally there is the blindness with regard to God’s will: if her enemies did as God allowed them to do, as she acknowledged, then clearly it was God’s will that she give up her crusade to reform the Church.

Through the intervention of the king’s wife, Mme de Maintenon, she 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, Guyon 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 Guyon 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, Guyon submitted some of her writings to him for his criticism. (Upham, p. 312)

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

But it 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 Mme Maintenon had for her, and he wrote her to tell her that Guyon was a bad influence, putting an end to her visits to St. Cyr. Maintenon eventually spoke out against her.

Though he was an admirer of Bossuet, Thomas Upham’s account shows that Bossuet had been aware of the campaign of defamation against Guyon and approved of it. But her influence, instead of decreasing, continued to grow, so he 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 (Guyon’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). Guyon 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 Guyon 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, Guyon 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. Guyon’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 Guyon 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) Guyon 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; he was pleased by this. However, the ladies who came to pick her up took her to Paris.

When it was known that she 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 through his support for Guyon (James, 2011). The king issued a letter for her arrest, and in late December of 1695 she was taken prisoner.

Guyon 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, she was released, at the age of fifty-four. 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.

External activities and their consequences

That Mme Guyon was persecuted is indisputable, but she was persecuted in direct proportion to how the Church hierarchy felt threatened by her influence. 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)

Her enemies simply wanted her to go away, and gave her every opportunity to do so, but for some reason she felt compelled to defy them. When she returned to Paris in 1686, her purpose was none other than to lead a religious movement that threatened the political order. She saw herself as emulating Jesus, who returned to Jerusalem to lead a religious movement that threatened Roman rule. In prison she wrote this surprisingly defiant statement:

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 legislator Himself is condemned by the learned and great as a malefactor, and dies an ignominious death.

But in Jerusalem God went out of Jesus — “Why hast thou forsaken me?” — and in Paris God went out of Mme Guyon. She was often ill and in a state of moral distress. She wrote in prison:

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.

The source of suffering

As was already mentioned, Guyon believed that suffering has two purposes: to turn the soul towards God, and to purify the soul of impurities that adhere to it as a consequence of sin. She welcomed suffering until the moment she was sanctified; however after this point I think it is fair to say that instead of welcoming it she simply endured it, no doubt uneasily, because it was an unmistakable sign that she was doing something wrong. In Paris, at a loss to explain why she continued to suffer, she attributed it to her enemies, contrary to her teaching that suffering is only inflicted by God. 

A. W. Marston, who translated A Short Method of Prayer, was perplexed by the contradiction, and he 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.

Marston is correct to relate suffering to self-will, but he doesn’t venture to say what the Divine will was that she refused to resign herself to.

Mme Guyon’s error was twofold. First there was her belief that there was something distinct from her called God, which willed her to reform the Church; second was her belief in the distinction between herself and others. In prison she wrote that she was dismayed by the loss of all human support: “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.” Even at this late date she still believed in the duality of herself and God, the duality of herself and others, and she still craved external approval.

If there were times when Mme Guyon had no self-will, and there is no reason to doubt this, her self was never completely annihilated — only suppressed. This is the same conclusion at which D. T. Suzuki arrived in Passivity in the Buddhist Life.

The following paragraph, written about her release from prison in 1702, suggests that imprisonment had produced in her an awakening involving 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)

But in spite of her inner wisdom, her health got worse, not better, and she couldn’t explain why:

My life is consecrated to God, to suffer for Him, as well as to enjoy Him. I came out of my place of confinement in the Bastile; but, in leaving my prison, I did not leave the cross. My afflicted spirit began to breathe and recover itself a little after the termination of my stay there; but my body was from that time sick and borne down with all sorts of infirmities. I have had almost continual maladies, which have often brought me to the very verge of death.” (Upham, p. 489)

However, these maladies never affected her inner state, which was immovable.

Christianity and enlightenment

Reading the writings of Mme Guyon and Meister Eckhart, Buddhists will find a new way of understanding religious terms. For the European Christian, oneness is simplicity; enlightenment is sanctification; grasping is appropriation; sentient beings are creatures; evil karma is sinful thoughts or actions; the fruit of karma is divine justice or retribution; abandonment and renunciation are forsaking; meditation is quietism or silent prayer; psychic abilities are mysteries or gifts; etc.

Perhaps because she was a laywoman who had received little in the way of formal education, Madame Guyon explains herself with an openness and artlessness that is wanting in the teachings of Buddhist masters, with the exception of Hakuin. I also find that her descriptions of what different stages of enlightenment feel like perfectly describe my own experiences.

Like Meister Eckhart, another saint denied sainthood because of accusations of heresy, Mme Guyon struggled in her writing to bring the enlightenment experience into accord with Church doctrine. The first difficulty lay in advocating silent prayer: she was imprisoned for advocating quietism, a controversial doctrine at the time. She also had to find a term to describe the post-awakening experience, that peculiar state of being drawn in by something, which the Chinese sometimes called the virtue of the Tao. She called this simply prayer.

Meister Eckhart often went well beyond the teachings of the Church and even contrary to them, yet he peppered his sermons with random Biblical quotes and ended each one with a perfunctory prayer for God’s help, even if he had said in that same sermon, “Never pray to God for anything.” Madame Guyon also used short Biblical quotes to give her writing the appearance of orthodoxy and made frequent appeals to God — tedious, yet they contain important lessons.

Furthermore, like Eckhart, Mme Guyon wasn’t sure where to place Jesus Christ. They knew that he wasn’t unique as God made flesh, that they were God as much as Jesus. They also knew that his death on the cross wasn’t indispensable for salvation — Guyon always said she owed her salvation to God’s grace, not the self-sacrifice of Jesus. When she had her awakening at nineteen, for example, she felt a strong aversion to receiving indulgences, saying that if God willed that she suffer for her sins she preferred to suffer. At times Jesus was God incarnate, and at other times he was a divine power, what Eckhart described as “God’s continual begetting of his only begotten son” within:

I was astonished at myself. I found there was nothing which I was not fit for or in which I did not succeed. Those who observed said that I had a prodigious capacity. I well knew that I had but meager capabilities, but that in God my spirit had received a quality which it had never had before. I thought I experienced something of the state which the apostles were in after they had received the Holy Ghost. I knew, I comprehended, I understood, I was enabled to do everything necessary. I had every sort of good thing and no want of anything. When Jesus Christ, the eternal wisdom, is formed in the soul after the death of the first Adam, it finds in Him all good things communicated to it.

 

The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Autobiography of Madame Guyon, by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon: https://archive.org/stream/theautobiography22269gut/pg22269.txt

James, Nancy C. The Complete Madame Guyon. Brewster, MA, Paraclete Press, 2011.

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

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