1902 Encyclopedia > Madame Guyon

Madame Guyon
French mystic
(1648-1717)




JEANNE MARIE BOUVIERES DE LA GUYON, or GUION, (1648-1717), a leading exponent of the quietistic mysticism of the 17th century, was born of wealthy and aristocratic parents at Montargis (dep. Loiret), on the 13th of April 1648. From infancy a sickly and excitable child, she was at the age of two years and a half placed for a short time under the charge of the Ursuline nuns of Montargis, and in 1652 she became resident in the Benedictine convent for a somewhat longer period; but the state of her health rendered it necessary that she should again be taken home, where for a time she was left almost exclusively to the care of domestics. From her seventh to her tenth year she was once more with the Ursulines, and after another short interval at home she next passed eight months in the Dominican cloister, where she spent much time in reading the Bible, and in committing large portions of it to memory. In her 12th year she communicated for the first time, and also began to form some acquaintance with the writings of St Francis de Sales and of his disciple Madame de Chantal, "la Sainte de Monthelon." In imitation of the latter, she tells us in her autobiography that she at this time carried the name of the Saviour visibly inscribed on her person, subjected herself to severe bodily austerities, and made a solemn vow ever to aim at the highest perfection in an absolute surrender of her will to God. She earnestly wished also to take the veil, and in fact made an attempt, by means of a forged letter purporting to be signed by her mother, to gain admission into the order of the Visitation of Mary, but her father interfered. In 1663 she removed along with her parents to Paris, and went much into society, where her youth, beauty, and talent secured for her a very flattering reception; in the following year, before she was quite sixteen, she was married to M. Guyon, a man of some wealth and position, but of weak health, and twenty-two years her senior. The union, on her side at least, had not been dictated by love; her husband's affection, though probably genuine enough, appears to have been of a some-what tepid kind; and disparity of age, as well as wide differences of taste and habit between herself and M. Guyon, combined with other circumstances, such as the jealousy of her mother-in-law, and her own eager temper, to make her married life anything but happy. She " began to eat the bread of sorrow and to mingle her drink with tears," and her lonely and desolate heart was not comforted until it found quiet in God. It was in her twenty-first year, on the 22d of July 1668, she tells us, that, after much reading of Thomas a Kempis, St Francis de Sales, and other religious writers, much spiritual conversation with those who knew best about the mysteries of the " inner life " and the happiness of the state of "recollection in God," much groping in deep darkness, and much wrestling in agonized prayer, she at last experienced the change of heart which filled her with joy and peace in the life of faith. The words in which she describes that crisis, if indeed they are not coloured by later experiences, are interesting and important, as showing that thus early she had already reached all that was distinctive of her quietism. " Nothing was more easy to me now than to practise prayer. Hours passed away like moments, while I could hardly do any-thing else but pray. The fervency of my love allowed me no intermission. It was a prayer of rejoicing and of pos-session, wherein the taste of God was so great, so pure, unblended, and uninterrupted, that it drew and absorbed the powers of the soul into a profound recollection, a state of confiding and affectionate rest in God, existing without intellectual effort. For I had now no sight but of Jesus Christ alone. All else was excluded in order to love with greater purity and energy, without any motives or reasons for loving which were of a selfish nature." In the months and years that followed she learned by much experience how difficult it is to keep even such heights as the soul has already gained; but her aim, ever more clearly seen and more steadily followed, continued to be "entire consecra-tion," " perfect faith and love." Amongst those who were helpful to her during this period was Genevieve Granger, the prioress of a Benedictine community in Paris, under whose influence she, on July 22 (St Mary Magdalene's day), 1672, drew up a solemn act of consecration, sealed with her ring and signed with her blood, in which she surrendered herself to Christ as His spouse, accepting as a part of her marriage portion " the temptations and sorrows, the crosses and the contempt, which fell to Him." In the beginning of 1674 she passed into a state of "privation" or " desola-tion," which she considers to have continued with but slight variations for somewhat more than six years ; during the whole of this period, however, she had the benefit of the spiritual direction of Bertot, a kindred spirit, whose mystical writings she afterwards edited. On the 21st of July 1676 she was left a widow, with three surviving children,—two sons and an infant daughter,—and began to live a life of still deeper seclusion and isolation than before, interesting herself, however, in works of charity, and in the education of her family; in connexion with the latter occupation she commenced and made some progress in the study of Latin. Her temptations and crosses continued nevertheless to multiply; she began to lose hope, and to regard herself as wholly forsaken by God; in her deep despondency she began to correspond with Francis de la Combe, superior of the Barnabites at Thonon, Savoy, with whom she had ten years before become acquainted, and in whom she had even then recognized a sympathizing spirit. On the 22d of July 1680 she tells us her soul was delivered from all its pains. " From the time of the first letter from Father La Combe, I began to recover a new life. I was then, indeed, only like a dead person raised up, who is in the beginning of his restoration, and is raised up to a life of hope rather than of actual possession ; but on this day I was restored, as it were, to perfect life and set wholly at liberty. I was no longer depressed, no longer borne down under the burden of sorrow. I had thought God lost, and lost for ever; but I found Him again. And He returned to me with unspeakable magnificence and purity. In a wonderful manner, difficult to explain, all that which had been taken from me was not only restored, but restored with increase and with new advantages." In this changed state of feeling she began to revolve new plans for the disposal of the remainder of her earthly life. She for some time thought of winding up her worldly affairs and taking the veil; but her duty towards her children, especially the two younger, seemed to prohibit that step. Several proposals of marriage were also received, but re-jected. Gradually, in the course of 1681, she had almost, though with hesitation, reached the conclusion that she was called to active religious work, and the field to which inward intimations seemed to point was that part of France and Savoy which borders on Geneva, if not Geneva itself. The advice of D'Aranthon, titular bishop of Geneva, was asked and obtained ; he approved of the proposal. After making some important arrangements with regard to her property, and entrusting her two sons to the care of suitable guardians, she accordingly secretly left Paris accompanied only by three female attendants and her daughter, then a child of five years of age. _ The party arrived at Annecy on the 21st of July ; on the following day, at the tomb of St Francis de Sales, Madame Guyon renewed her spiritual marriage with the Redeemer; and finally she fixed her abode at Gex under the spiritual care of D'Aranthon, by whom La Combe was assigned to her as her director in the place of Bertot, who had died some time before. Here she at once began her benevolent labours, tending the sick and poor, praying with them and giving them religious instruction ; yet still it seemed to her as if the "seal of her mission was not yet broken." Something within her whispered that she had not' yet found the great and special work to which God had been calling her. Amongst other things the state of her director caused her much solicitude. She saw that he had much, but felt that he ought to have more. Her vocation at last was revealed to her, to become to him a spiritual mother, and her efforts towards the fulfil-ment of that vocation were not in vain; La Combe at last became possessed with the doctrine of present sanctification by faith in the Saviour, and began to preach accordingly.





Opposition and persecution almost immediately began; Bishop D'Aranthon did not fail to take notice of the new doctrine, though on this occasion it escaped formal con-demnation by the authorities at Rome; seeing, however, that Madame Guyon was the real author of the heresy, if heresy it was (and it certainly seemed to involve a theory of perfec-tionism hardly compatible with Catholicism), he resolved that she should not continue her activities within his diocese unless she should consent to accept a sphere where the facilities for doctrinal propagandism would be less than those for the exercise of ordinary benevolence. He accord-ingly proposed that she should give what property still remained within her control to a religious house at Gex, and that she should herself become prioress; this proposal, how-ever, she declined, chiefly on the general ground that it did not seem to be in accordance with the designs of God in regard to her. The alienation of the bishop now made her stay at Gex to be far from comfortable ; and accordingly, at the close of a residence of rather more than six months, she removed early in 1682 to Thonon, apparently in the expectation of being near her adviser La Combe. Here she remained for upwards of two years, engaged in religious work of various kinds, especially in spiritual conversation with the people of the neighbourhood, and in tending a small hospital which, at the suggestion of her director and with the assistance of some benevolent ladies of Thonon, she had formed. Meanwhile her doctrines of " pure love " and of that "fixed state" which consists in the complete identifi-cation of the human will with the will of God were taking more definite shape; and in 1683 they first found literary expression in Les Torrens, probably the best of her writings, and really in some respects a fine performance, which describes the progress of the soul from the commencement of its inward life to its union with God, by a reference to " streams or torrents flowing from the mountain tops with greater or less rapidity and with greater or less directness, and mingling at last in the ocean." Although Madame Guyon was not herself conscious of any disharmony with the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church, her doctrines could hardly fail to be regarded by the ordinary orthodoxy of that time as more or less hostile to the generally accepted views as to the nature and mode of sancti-lication, and as to the normal state of the graciously renewed heart; at Thonon they soon' gave deep offence, and ultimately it was intimated both to her and to La Combe, on the part of Bishop D'Aranthon, that both must leave the diocese. Her next resting place for a few weeks was Turin, whence, in the autumn of 1684, she removed to Grenoble, where she again became a centre of attraction and influence. Here, for the direction of the many who flocked to her for instruction and advice, she wrote and circulated her Moyen court et tres facile de faire oraison, a treatise in which she pointed out, doubtless in a manner highly susceptible of misconstruction, that prayer might often well be both silent and wordless. The commencement of her commentaries on the Bible also dates from this stay in Grenoble. Her numerous and popular "conferences" or meetings for conversation and prayer or " self-recollection in God," and the effect produced by the Moyen court de faire oraison, however, speedily excited ecclesiastical opposition similar to that which she had already encountered at Gex, and although the bishop (Camus) was himself disposed to be tolerant, if not friendly, she was ultimately constrained, in the spring of 1686, to yield to strong representations, and seek an abode elsewhere. Nice, Genoa, and Vercelli (where she again met La Combe) were visited in turn; but it was finally resolved, with the advice and concurrence of her friends, that Paris now offered itself as the field of labour most suited to her powers. Here accordingly she arrived on the 22d of July 1686, and soon she and her teaching began to meet with a very favourable reception in the higher circles of society. But meanwhile the doctrine of Molinos and the Guida Spirituale had been formally condemned by the Inquisition at Rome, and the sentence had been taken up as a signal, especially in France, for the persecution of all suspected quietists. In October 1687 LaCombe was suddenly arrested by a royal " lettre de cachet" and committed to the Bastile; and by the same authority Madame Guyon herself was, three months later (29th January 1688), ordered to be detained as a prisoner in the convent of St Marie in the Faubourg Sainte Antoine. The charges brought against her were the maintenance of heretical opinions ; the holding of private religious assemblies, contrary to the practice and rules of the Catholic Church, for the spread of these opinions ; the publication of a dangerous book containing opinions similar to those of the Spiritual Guide of Molinos; and correspondence with Molinos. These, however, were not destined to come to a definite issue, for through influence which friends succeeded in bringing to bear upon Madame de Maintenon a release was obtained in the following October. Madame Guyon now went to live for the most part with her daughter, who had become the Comtesse de Vaux, at the family seat in the neighbourhood of Paris ; but while on a visit with the duchess of Charost she became acquainted with F6nelon, and a considerable correspondence began. Her influence continuing to make itself felt at Paris, Dijon, Versailles, and other places, especially in the institution of St Cyr, founded by Madame de Maintenon in 1686, the attention of theologians was drawn afresh to the " new spirituality," as it was called ; and among others both the Port-Royalist Nicole and Bossuet, bishop of Meaux, sought personal interviews. The latter, to whom she had submitted not only all her printed works but also the manuscript of an autobiography which she had written when in confinement in 1688, after more than one long conference, is understood to have expressed himself as on the whole satisfied of her orthodoxy; but the publication by Nicole of the Refutation des principales Erreurs des Quietistes appears to have had an exciting influence on the public mind; rumours prejudicial not only to the orthodoxy of Madam Guyon's faith, but also to the purity of her life, were industriously spread, and caused great scandal in the highest quarters, so that at last she was constrained to write to Madame de Maintenon requesting that a number of suitable persons might be selected for the purpose of judging both of her doctrine and her morals, and offering at the same time to submit to any degree of confinement and restraint until it should please the king to appoint such persons. A commission was duly nominated, consisting of Bossuet, Bishop (afterwards Cardinal) De Noailles, and Tronson, the superior of St Sulpice. To this tribunal she at their request submitted the Moyen Court, Les Torrens, and the manuscripts of her commentaries along with her autobiography, to which she added her Justification. The outcome of many deliberations, extending over some months, was the preparation of twenty-four articles, usually called the "Articles of Issy," relating to the doctrine of " pure love." Her refusal to sign a "condemnation of religious errors," as drawn up and presented to her by Bossuet in a pastoral ordinance and letter, now led to an open rupture which resulted in her reimprisonment, on this occasion at Vincennes, on the 27th of December 1695. Bossuet now set himself to prepare his Instruction sur les états d'oraison, which he submitted before publication to De Noailles, and, amongst others, to Fénelon for approval, The latter after reading the manuscript withheld his imprimatur, not on account of its doctrine (with which he did not disagree), but on account of its personalities, which he held to be uncalled for and unjust. Almost forced thus into the position of a champion of Madame Guyon, he published in 1697 his Maximes des Saints, a statement of the leading principles laid down by approved writers on the subject of the higher inward experience and of holy living. In the course of the controversy which followed several important works appeared, which can only be alluded to here; the dispute, as is well known, issued in the formal condemnation of Fénelon (12th March 1699), in which achievement the hostility to Madame Guyon seems to have almost exhausted itself. She was not released, however, until 1702, in which year she was banished to Blois, where the remainder of her life was spent, Numbers of persons of all ranks, and many of them from foreign countries, visited her in this retirement ; and both in correspondence and conversation she continued to manifest considerable activity, although feeling herself " called on to glorify God by submission and by private prayer, rather than by active labours." She heard mass daily, received the sacrament every alternate day, and died in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, after an illness of three months, on the 9th of June 1717.

La Vie de Madame de la Mothe Guyon, écrite par elle-même, first appeared at Cologne in 1720. It is based upon the autobiography which at the instance of La Combe she is known to have written during her imprisonment in 1688 ; it afterwards received addi-tions and corrections from her own hands, and was finally entrusted to a confidential friend on the understanding that it should not be published until after her death. In addition to Les Torrens Spirituels, and the Moyen court et très facile de faire oraison, which were published in the Opuscules Spirituels in 1704, there appeared in her lifetime the Poésies Spirituelles (1689) ; and La Bible, traduite en français, avee des Explications et des Réflexions qui regardent la Vie Intérieure (1715). There are also several volumes of Lettres Chrétiennes et Spirituelles, addressed by her to Metter-nich, Fénelon, and other correspondents, many of them distin-guished. The edition of the collected Œuvres extends to 40 vols. (1767-1791). English and German translations of the various works are numerous. Apart from the Autobiography, the only memoir of Madame Guyon as yet in existence, is the diffuse but somewhat vague and meagre Life, by Thomas C. Upham (1854). (J. S. BL. )







Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries