QUIETISM . Although some of the important insights of Quietism—a movement distinguished from the generic sense of the word quietistic, which implies withdrawal or passivity with regard to politics or ethics—can be found in medieval devotion, in sixteenth-century Spanish spirituality, and in various mystical sources, both Christian and Buddhist, the usual meaning of the word is restricted to the late seventeenth-century devotional movement in the Catholic Church in Italy and France. The main figure in the history of Quietism was Miguel de Molinos (1628–1696), a Spanish priest who settled in Rome at the end of 1663. He became an enormously popular spiritual adviser, especially among nuns and women of high society. His new contemplative way of Christian perfection was summed up (without some of its esoteric aspects) in a book he published simultaneously in Spanish and Italian: Guida Spirituale, che disinvolge l'anima e la conduce per il interior camino all'acquisito della perfetta contemplatione e del ricco tesoro della pace interiore (1685), often referred to as his Spiritual Guide.
Though supported by a number of theologians and, for a time, probably by Innocent XI, the Guide was soon attacked by the Jesuits for its total disregard of meditation, spiritual asceticism, vocal prayers, and, implicitly, the cults of Jesus and of the Virgin. The criticism ended with the arrest of Molinos on the order of the Holy Office, a long trial, and his condemnation in May 1687. He spent the rest of his life in prison. On November 20, 1687, the papal bull Coelestis pastor anathematized sixty-eight of his statements. The material of the condemnation was taken not only, and not mainly, from his published works, but also from about twelve thousand of his letters and from his oral teaching; in addition to the enumerated theological errors, it included the charge of sexual licentiousness—something Molinos inferred from his own doctrines and apparently frequently practiced with his penitent women.
The new devotion (the word Quietists had been used since the early 1680s by the enemies of Molinos) was based on the belief that any Christian can achieve an entirely disinterested insight into God; this insight is permanent, internally undifferentiated, and free from images and affects, and it involves a previous destruction of one's own will and consciousness; it is the work of divine grace, which, after the self has emptied itself, totally fills the void and becomes the sovereign owner of the higher part of the soul; as a result, the animal part of the soul as well as the body are no longer the responsibility of the person. This state of perfectly passive contemplation is not only the highest form of religious life, but makes other, more specific forms of worship—the cults of Jesus and of the saints, the acts of repentance and hope, confession, mortifications, prayers, and even concern about one's own salvation—either useless or even harmful insofar as they divert the soul from union with God. And although contemplation is at the beginning inspired by the love of God, it eventually abolishes love, desires, will, and all separate affects. What remains is not an affect, but God himself present in the soul. While it is God's gift, this contemplation is in fact given to everybody who makes a sufficient self-destructive effort, and it does not depend on education, sex, or status. Once acquired, it is effectively permanent. Since it involves a total separation of the soul from the body, the acts of the latter do not disturb it; in fact the devil often inflicts violence on the body of a contemplative and compels it to perform externally sinful acts, in particular, of a sexual character, but those acts cannot break the union with God, as they do not affect the soul. Sexual permissiveness is thus justified. The contemplative, being absolutely devoid of his will and transformed into God, cannot do good works on his own initiative or have any intention to help his neighbors; he can perform such works only on a direct order from God.
Molinos's doctrine was obviously unacceptable to the church not only because of its suspect moral consequences, but because it practically abrogated the entire external cult, along with discipline, intellectual effort, and the variety of virtues, merits, and religious acts. It reduced the religious life to one habitual act for which the mystic no longer needs the church and which is proclaimed to be the only genuine way of union with God. Further, although Molinos did not consider himself a rebel, but rather a reformer within the church, his devotional program, especially since it was not confined to monasteries but was also propagated among the laity, undermined the role of the church as a mediator between God and humans.
Molinos had a few less well-known predecessors, such as the Spanish mystic Jean Falconi (1596–1638), the blind theologian from Marseilles, François Malaval (1627–1719), and the bishop of Jesi, Pier Matto Petrucci (1636–1701), all of whom preached the superiority of passive and unreflective contemplation over meditations and vocal prayers, none of whom, however, extended the theory of mystical kenosis (kenosis meaning the relinquishment of the form of God by Jesus in becoming a man and suffering death) to the acceptance of "diabolic violence" or to the point of advising that we should not fight against temptations.
The more philosophically elaborated variety of Quietism arose on French soil, thanks to the works of Jeanne-Marie de la Motte Guyon (1648–1717) and François Salignac de Fénelon. Guyon had already been trained in mystical devotion when she met, in 1680, the Barnabite father François La Combe, who had been converted in Rome to Molinos's way of perfection. She lived in Paris after 1686, having previously organized small conventicles of mystics in various places. Among her many works, amounting to over forty volumes in the collected writings, the most popular were Moyen court et très facile de faire oraison and Les torrens spirituels. With highly developed prophetic claims, Guyon believed that God had entrusted her with the mission of a total renewal of Christianity. The contemplative devotion in her description involves all the previous Quietist tenets except for the theory of diabolic violence, but adds some metaphysical ideas. A totally passive contemplation, implying the absolute annihilation of the self, is said to be the only proper way of Christian life. At the highest stage the soul loses everything that is personal or human (laisser agir Dieu) and is transformed into God, like a river after reaching the ocean. The self, indeed the very fact of separate existence, is the source of evil, or rather is evil itself, and, after the annihilation, the soul attains the status of God before the act of creation. The soul returns to the original source of being where no place is left for differentiation: "At the very beginning one has to die to everything by which we are something." And this form of being cannot be lost; the deification is inalienable. Indifference to everything other than God, to sin, to the past and to the future, to life and death, to one's own and others' salvation, indeed to divine grace, all this naturally accompanies the blessed state of theōsis. The entire variety of religious worship, both external and internal, is done away with once the soul reaches perfection. Priests and the visible church are nothing but obstacles.
Accused of spreading heretical doctrines, Guyon was imprisoned at the beginning of 1688, but she was released after a few months. She then experienced a period of celebrity, during which she enjoyed the friendship of Fénelon and Mme. de Maintenon. The attacks did not stop, however, and a special committee headed by the influential prelate Jacques Bossuet organized a campaign against the Quietist doctrine. Although both Fénelon and Guyon signed the articles confirming the church's traditional doctrine in points where it seemed to be incompatible with the Quietists' devotion, the debates, accusations, pamphlets, and intrigues continued. They ended with the formal condemnation, in a breve (1699) of Innocent XI, on twenty-three erroneous statements on contemplation and caritas pura (disinterested love of God, with no regard to one's salvation) taken from Fénelon's book Explication des maximes des saints sur la vie intérieure. Fénelon immediately bowed to the verdict. Guyon was imprisoned from 1695 to 1702.
The Quietist mysticism was certainly incompatible with the teaching and educational system of the Roman church; implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, it questioned the very need of the visible church. The condemnation of Molinos and Fénelon, however, had a negative impact for many decades on the development of mystical spirituality in the Catholic world.
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Kolakowski, Leszek. Chrétiens sans église. Paris, 1969.
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Leszek Kolakowski (1987)
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