Guyon, Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte
GUYON, JEANNE MARIE BOUVIER DE LA MOTTE
Spiritual writer, famous for her quietist doctrines and the controversies they provoked; b. Montargis, France, April 13, 1648; d. Blois, June 9, 1717.
Life. Her family belonged to the petite noblesse, but the father was old and twice-married, and the mother neglectful, although both were devout; so Jeanne Marie spent most of her childhood in various convents. Her happiness lay largely in the reading first of romances and then of mystical literature, and she developed a strong though unguided attraction for prayer and the interior life. At 16 she was married to Jacques Guyon du Chesnoy, an invalid nearing 40; she was left, after 12 unhappy years, a widow with two children (1676). In 1681, she felt called to the apostolate; she left her son with relatives and took her daughter to Gex, near Geneva, where, at the invitation of the bishop, she assisted in the establishment of a group of converted huguenots, or Nouvelles Catholiques. Here she encountered the Barnabite Father François La Combe (1643–1715), whom she had once met at Montargis. In Rome La Combe had absorbed some of the ideas of quietism propagated by the Spaniard Miguel de molinos (1640–96), but after becoming Madame Guyon's director, he was before long led by her into a more complete quietism, which she had developed independently and now conceived it to be her mission to spread. From 1681 to 1686 she traveled about Switzerland, Italy, and southern France, often in the company of La Combe. They then went to Paris, under suspicion both as to doctrine and morals. It was known that ever since the Middle Ages, moral degradation had sometimes resulted from the quietist attitude of passivity with respect to virtue or temptation. La Combe was arrested (1687) and imprisoned for life; Madame Guyon was detained in a Visitation convent in Paris (1688). After eight months she was liberated through the interest of Madame de Maintenon (1635–1719), who had secretly married Louis XIV in 1684, and she became the center of devout circles at Court and at Saint-Cyr (Madame de Maintenon's school for girls), and finally the storm center of the quarrel about quietism between Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1625–1704), Bishop of Meaux, and the Abbé François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon (1651–1715), later archbishop of Cambrai. Madame Guyon voluntarily spent some months (1695), at the Visitation convent of Meaux, which she also left freely, but was accused (perhaps through misunderstanding) of fleeing. Now in danger, she hid in Paris, but was arrested and imprisoned at Vincennes (1695–96); then detained at a convent in Vaugirard for two years; later imprisoned in the Bastille (1698–1703). Finally, she was permitted to spend the rest of her life in Blois, at the estate of her son-in-law.
Personal Character. Madame Guyon's personality and history have puzzling aspects. The principal source, her 700-page autobiography, begun in 1687 and concluded just before her death, is revealing but so riddled with contradictions and extravagances that often it cannot be taken at face value. She charmed her hearers, and was quick to find a sympathetic following. Copies of her Moyen Court (1685, Short and Easy Method of Prayer) were carried in the pockets of most of the pious aristocracy. Great schemes for universal reform were built up, only to end in conflict or other disappointing eventualities. Historians are hampered by incomplete, inexact, and often contradictory evidence, even apart from Madame Guyon's own account. Further, the whole history of both quietism and orthodox mysticism bristles with moot points, so that it is not surprising that some modern scholars have tended to approve Bossuet's part in the matter, others Fénelon's; or that some are sympathetic toward Madame Guyon, while others are not. However, the main factual lines in the picture stand out fairly clearly. Madame Guyon's virtues are undeniable, though she often went to extremes, as when her charity led her to abandon not only the greater part of her own fortune but that of her children as well. She can hardly be accused of cowardice, for, when freed from one stretch of imprisonment, she straightway risked another through continuation of the activities that had gotten her into trouble. It is even admitted that she had the makings of a saint, and A. Poulain, SJ, is "led to regard it as probable that she really had the prayer of quiet in her youth" (The Graces of Interior Prayer, 16.38), that is, the first stage of genuine infused contemplation. She has been called half saint, half lunatic, good in heart but weak in mind, and these characterizations appear to be a fair summing-up. In spite of constant apostolic zeal, she lacked prudence and that humility that made the great saints and mystics distrust their own revelations. Although many pages of her writings might find a counterpart in orthodox works (as she was wont to emphasize), the marks of delusion are plain in the whole. She composed a dictionary of mystical terms, assigning to each her own definition, so that while the uninitiated might suppose they were reading the same things the saints had said, adepts of quietism understood her meaning, which was often not at all what the saints had meant. She constantly professed docility to the Church, but was nevertheless so unshakably convinced that she was a prophetess with a great mission that she could have no real understanding of docility. She pushed to strange, often unacceptable, lengths concepts of spiritual motherhood, oneness with her protégés, and her mediation between God and them. Yet so meek was her manner, so subtle her approach, and so apparently wholesome her first influence, that she could boast of having received approval from several prelates, although they later regretted having given it. Even Bossuet found himself in that embarrassing situation.
No proof exists of moral delinquency on the part of Madame Guyon; and La Combe's letter (1698), confessing "sins" supposedly committed with her years before, was extracted under duress, if not actual force, from a man on the way to the complete madness in which he died. Madame Guyon repudiated the charge, even though she readily admitted a familiarity in which she saw no harm. Historians have generally exonerated her, especially in view of her constant obsession with "motherhood," and the want of evidence of interest in any other relationship.
Quietism and Semiquietism. Madame Guyon claimed that she had never heard of Molinos until his condemnation (1687). It appears that besides absorbing quietistic ideas that were in the air at the time, she developed her own doctrine from ideas gathered from her own abundant reading, and colored by her own fantasy. Some cardinal points of her doctrine are: (1) Perfection, even in this life, consists in a continual act of contemplation and love, which includes in itself all the acts of religion, and which, once produced, subsists permanently unless expressly revoked. (2) Therefore, a soul that has reached perfection is no longer obliged to specific acts, distinct from charity, and must suppress generally and without exception all acts proceeding from its own industry, as contrary to perfect repose in God. (3) Such a soul must be indifferent to all things concerning either the body or the soul, and either temporal or eternal goods. (4) In the state of perfect contemplation, the soul must repulse all distinct ideas, and consequently even the attributes and mysteries of Christ. Besides the Moyen Court and the Life, her chief works amplifying these ideas are the Explanation of the Canticle of Canticles (1685) and the Spiritual Torrents, circulated only in manuscript during her life.
Madame Guyon met Fénelon in October 1688, at Beynes, near Versailles, in the home of the Duchess of Charost. Fénelon, little impressed at first, was soon not only befriending Madame Guyon but following her guidance, and the great drama was underway. He did moderate her rashness of expression, so that later he was really defending a guyonisme fénelonisé (Calvet). One key to the Bossuet-Fénelon quarrel is the fact that whereas Fénelon had scarcely bothered to read Madame Guyon's earlier effusions, Bossuet fastened on every detail, frequently with horror. Guyon herself, after seeking pronouncement on her doctrine, took no part in the quarrel, and during most of it was in prison. The chief focal point of the long dispute came to be disinterested love (pur amour ), pushed to the point of formally giving up any desire for eternal salvation. Orthodoxy was concerned for hope, and would permit such disinterestedness only on condition that it were God's will, a proviso that could not be fulfilled. Historians generally agree that the extent of Madame Guyon's hold on Fénelon is regrettable, especially in view of the so-called "secret letters" brought to light by Philippe Dutoit (1767). The authenticity of this correspondence from the first two years of their acquaintance has been questioned, but most scholars accept the "proof" of M. Masson. No doubt touches Fénelon on moral grounds; it was a matter of spiritual intimacy, and domination by Madame Guyon, more complete than had been suspected in the lifetime of the principals. On the other hand, it must be admitted that Bossuet knew little about mysticism, at least at the beginning, and was at length carried into a certain violence by the heat of polemics.
Although Fénelon did not see Madame Guyon in their later years, he neither repudiated her as a person nor questioned her good faith. There was some indirect communication between them when members of their respective circles traveled between Cambrai and Blois. She was under the surveillance of a friendly bishop, and entertained visitors, though few were orthodox Catholics, and she went on expounding her ideas of pure love to the end. Her writings spread to other countries, and many Protestants, especially from England and Holland, became interested. They saw in her a victim of ecclesiastical persecution and managed to give some of her teaching a Protestant interpretation. She received all comers as her "children," did not speak of specifically Catholic doctrine or practice, but did keep to the latter in her life, and at her death wrote a testament of adherence to the Church. After her death, she continued to have a following among non-Catholics. Madame Guyon's works have no literary value, and she would almost certainly be unknown to history had she not encountered Fénelon and touched off the great controversy, whose reverberations have not yet entirely subsided.
Bibliography: Oeuvres, ed. p. poiret, 39 v. in 12 (Cologne 1713–32). t. c. upham, Life and Religious Opinions and Experience of Madame de la Mothe Guyon, 2 v. (New York 1855), "interpreted" translation to make her sound Protestant. r. a. knox, Enthusiasm (New York 1961). j. calvet, La Littérature religieuse de François de Sales à Fénelon (Paris 1956). a. largent, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 6.2:1997–2006. p. pourrat, Christian Spirituality, tr. w. h. mitchell et al., 4 v. (Westminster, Md. 1953–55). a. poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, tr. l. l. y. smith (St. Louis 1950). p. m. masson, Fénelon and Madame Guyon (Paris 1907). h. brÉmond, Apologie pour Fénelon (Paris 1910); Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, 12 v. (Paris 1916–36). The last two works favor Fénelon and are sympathetic to Madame Guyon; the last work is epoch-making for the entire period.