Guyon, Jeanne Marie Bouviéres de la Mothe (1648–1717)
Guyon, Jeanne Marie Bouviéres de la Mothe (1648–1717)
French Catholic aristocrat who, despite rigorous opposition and persecution, devoted her life to the pursuit of spiritual union with God through faith and prayer. Name variations: Jean Marie Guyon; Jeanne Marie Bouviéres de la Mothe; Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Mothe; Jeanne Marie de la Motte-Guyon; Madame Guion or Madame Guyon. Born on April 13, 1648, in the town of Montargis, 50 miles south of Paris, France; died on June 9, 1717, age 69; daughter of Claude Bouviéres de la Mothe, Seigneur de la Mothe Vergonville (a widower whose first wife was Marie Ozon ) and Jeanne le Maistre de la Maisonfort (widow of Etienne Ravault); married Jacques Guyon (1625–1676), on March 21, 1664; children: Armand-Jacques Guyon (b. May 21, 1665); Armand-Claude Guyon (b. January 8, 1668, d. October 20, 1670); Marie-Anne Guyon (b. 1669, d. June 4, 1672); Jean-Baptiste-Denys Guyon (b. May 31, 1674); Jeanne-Marie Guyon, later countess of Vaux (b. March 21, 1676).
Spent most of early years in convents where she received a rudimentary education; lived at home until marriage at age 15 (1659–1663), did not meet her wealthy, 38-year-old husband, who had been selected by her father, until three days before the wedding; despite her long cherished ambition to become a nun, was attracted by the idea of comfort and independence; found herself a virtual prisoner, however, of her husband and mother-in-law; became increasingly spiritual and, after the birth of her first two children, underwent a religious "conversion" (1668), from which time she dedicated her life to God;, widowed at age 28 (1676); though two of her children had died in infancy, was left with three others; felt called to go on amission to Geneva, to convert the Protestants there and left Paris (July 1681), renouncing her possessions and giving up her sons to the care of her stepmother; thwarted in plans to get to Geneva, traveled with her little daughter and a maid to Gex, Thonon, Turin and Grenoble, speaking to small groups and individuals about religion, particularly the importance of faith and prayer; also began to write devotional works; because her doctrines were regarded with increasing suspicion by church and state authorities, was confined in the Convent of the Visitation for most of the year under suspicion of Quietism (1688); was rearrested (December 1695) and imprisoned in the castle of Vincennes for nine months; was then transferred to a convent near Paris where she was kept for two years; was sent to the fortress prison of the Bastille (June 1698), where she spent more than four years in solitary confinement; released (March 1703) and was banished to Blois, in the custody of her son, Armand-Jacques.
Madame Guyon had been imprisoned before. She had spent most of 1688 confined in a convent, and in December 1695 she had been held in the royal prison at Vincennes for almost a year before being transferred to close captivity in another convent. But on June 4, 1698, she entered the Bastille and began the harshest and most isolated confinement of all. When she was eventually released, almost five years later, although she was only 54 years old, her active life was over. Madame Guyon's health had been broken but her ardent spirit burned on.
Nothing is greater than God: nothing more little than I. He is rich: I am very poor. I do not want for anything. I do not feel need of anything. Death, life, all is alike. Eternity, time: all is eternity, all is God.
—Madame Guyon, Autobiography .
Jeanne Marie Bouviéres de la Mothe was born on April 13, 1648, in the town of Montargis, 50 miles from Paris. Her father, Claude Bouviéres de la Mothe, lord of la Mothe-Vergonville, and a legal officer of the king, was a widower with a son and a daughter from his first marriage. Her mother, Jeanne le Maistre de la Maisonfort , was a widow with a daughter from her first marriage. Both parents came from wealthy and influential families and both, especially Jeanne Marie's father, seem to have been deeply religious, unswerving, during this century following the Reformation, in their adherence to the Catholic faith. Born a month premature, the little girl was weak and sickly and neither parent seems to have had much concern for her. At the age of only two and a half, Jeanne was sent to stay at an Ursuline convent; she returned home briefly, placed mostly in the care of servants, only to be sent to live at three different convents in turn before she reached the age of 11. Following her First Communion on April 14, 1659, she returned home to live with her parents.
With such an early upbringing, it would have been surprising if Jeanne Marie had not become religious; in her autobiography, she describes having nightmares as a small child in which she had vivid visions of Hell. It was perhaps the nightmares which helped shape her early decision to become a nun. "Young as I was," she recalled in her autobiography, "I loved to hear of God, to be at church, and to be dressed in the habit of a little nun." But the child felt her parents' neglect keenly, particularly missing her mother's affection. Her half-brother was her mother's favorite, and the boy, who was later to become a priest and cause endless trouble for his sister, started to plague Jeanne Marie early. According to her own account, he persuaded her to climb to the highest point on the carriage, then threw her down, almost killing her. She was convinced that only divine protection saved her.
As she grew into a beautiful young woman, Jeanne Marie felt torn between the religious life to which she was sure she had been called and the allure of the rich and elegant world into which she had been born. In 1661, the visit of a pious cousin, about to depart as a missionary to China, moved her towards religious life again and induced her to read the biographies of Jeanne de Chantal (1572–1641) and St. Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva. Jeanne Marie "loved reading madly" and would read day and night, so that "for several months I had completely lost the habit of sleeping." However, rather than the lives of missionary saints, she was soon reading romances; "I was not prevented; on the contrary, people have the foolish idea that they teach one to speak correctly." At last, her mother began to take some interest in her: "My mother, seeing that I was very tall for my age and more to her taste than usual, only thought of bringing me out, making me see company and dressing me well." In her autobiography, written almost 30 years later, Jeanne Marie judged her younger self harshly: "I began to seek in the creature what I had found in God.… I readily gave way to sallies of passion. I failed in being strictly conscientious and careful in the utterance of the truth. I became not only vain, but corrupt in heart."
In 1663, the family moved from Montargis to Paris, at that time the most magnificent capital in Europe, reflecting the splendor of the absolutist "Sun King," Louis XIV. According to Madame Guyon's biographer, Thomas Uppham, the glittering city was "equally characterized by its unfounded pretensions, its vanity and its voluptuousness." Paris charmed the young Jeanne Marie, and her tall good looks, keen intelligence, good manners and engaging conversation soon captivated a bevy of suitors. She seems to have developed some affection for a cousin but refused his offer of marriage. Instead, on January 28, 1664, her father arranged her engagement to Jacques Guyon. The chosen suitor was a man of great wealth whose father had been given his patent of nobility by Cardinal Richelieu. Jeanne Marie's ambivalence about her future life was clear in the period leading up to the marriage: she accepted her father's choice, even though there were other suitors she would have preferred; she says that she signed the articles of marriage without knowing what they were; and she saw her husband only three days before marriage.
The wedding probably took place on March 21, 1664; Jeanne Marie was almost 16, her husband 38. Although she wept after the ceremony, remembering her plans to become a nun, "I was well-pleased to be married, because I imagined thereby I should have full liberty." The young Madame Guyon's dreams of liberty were dashed immediately. She was taken to live in her husband's house which was firmly under the direction of his widowed mother; it became "a house of mourning" for Jeanne. If she dared to speak, she was contradicted and reproved. She was lodged in her mother-in-law's room: "I had no place into which I could retire as my own; and if it had been otherwise, I could not have remained alone in it for any length of time without offence." Even the maid treated Jeanne Marie like a governess. "For the most part I bore with patience these evils, which I had no way to avoid; but sometimes I let some hasty answer escape me, which was to me a source of grievous crosses and violent reproaches for a long time together." Her movements were watched and reported. "My proud spirit broke under her system of coercion. Married to a person of rank and wealth, I found myself a slave in my own dwelling rather than a free person." Unwilling to sadden her parents with reports of her misery, "I was alone and helpless in my grief."
The birth of her first child, Armand Jacques Guyon, on May 21, 1665, seems not to have
ameliorated her miserable situation. Jeanne Marie tried to revive her spirits by going for walks. Her pregnancy had improved her appearance, and she tells of removing her mask and gloves when out walking so as to show off her beauty. At the same time, she attempted to curb her vanity: "I did not curl my hair, or very little; I did not even put anything on my face, yet I was not the less vain of it." She rarely looked into a mirror so as not to encourage her vanity, and she read pious books, such as the Imitation of Christ and the works of St. Francis de Sales while her hair was being combed so that "the servants profited by it." She wore no make up but "other women, who were jealous of me, maintained that I painted, and said so to my confessor, who reproved me for it, although I assured him to the contrary." But still, according to her autobiography, she was vain and proud and told lies.
Madame Guyon dates her "conversion" from the feast day of the Biblical sinner Mary Magdalene , July 22, 1668. She was 20 and had given birth to her second son earlier that year. Visiting her father during his illness, she was introduced to a Franciscan friar, and she described to him her futile efforts to become closer to God. She quotes his response in her autobiography: "Your efforts have been unsuccessful, Madame, because you seek outside what you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your heart, and you will find him there." From that moment, she records, "my heart was quite changed.… God was there; for from that moment he had given me an experience of his presence in my soul.… I slept not all that night, because thy love, oh my God, flowed in me like a delicious oil, and burned as a fire which was going to destroy all that was left of self in an instant."
Madame Guyon's earlier sporadic efforts to become more spiritual were completely eclipsed by this conversion experience; "Through an inconceivable goodness, O my God, you introduced me into a state very pure, very firm, and very solid." Her new state meant a change in her behavior: "I bade farewell, forever, to assemblies which I had visited, to plays and diversions, to dancing, to unprofitable walks, and to parties of pleasure." All such entertainments "now appeared to me dull and insipid." She replaced worldly distractions with rigorous bodily mortification; she whipped herself for long periods with a lash tipped with nails, and although the beatings drew much blood, they failed to satisfy her. She wore tight girdles made of hair and nails and, she writes, "I tore myself with brambles, thorns and nettles, which I kept on me." The resulting pain "entirely deprived me of sleep." In order to mortify her appetite, she kept bitter tasting herbs in her mouth and mixed her food with a purgative. "All that could flatter my taste was refused to it. All that was most disagreeable to it was given to it" with the result that her taste was soon unable to distinguish. She lost all sense of disgust by dressing wounds and nursing the sick. Although she continued with these austerities for many years, "in less than a year my senses were reduced to subjection."
She describes her new relationship with God as being like a "devouring fire," a kind of purgatory in which "you [God] purified me from all that was contrary to your divine will." She was active in giving charity, donating money, food and clothing to the poor, and arranging for young beautiful women to be taught a trade so that they might not be tempted to prostitution; "I went to visit the sick, to comfort them, to make their beds. I made ointments, aided in dressing wounds, and paid the funeral expenses incurred in the interment of those who died." Yet despite her bodily penances and good works, as a young married woman of the nobility, Madame Guyon was expected to conform to the role imposed by society. While she gave up all social activity and refused to curl her hair, she continued to be well dressed "for my husband wished it so." She took care not to let anything appear on the outside, but her "occupation by God" gave her such a "gentleness, modesty, and majesty that people of the world perceived it." However much she might have attempted concealment, her new spirituality encountered opposition: "When the world saw that I had quitted it, it persecuted me, and turned me into ridicule." Her husband and mother-in-law were particularly unhappy with the change: "My husband was out of humour with my devotion; it became insupportable to him. 'What!' says he, 'you love God so much that you love me no longer.'" He objected to her praying even when he was away from home, and he and his mother watched her constantly.
Madame Guyon asked God to send her more suffering to test and purify her devotion and, as if in answer to her prayers, in 1670, she was infected with smallpox and almost died. She describes her body as being covered in sores, like a leper, "but as for my soul, she was in a contentment I cannot express." Both sons also contracted the disease, and the younger one, aged two, died. Two years later a third child, Marie-Anne, her much-loved daughter, died at the age of three, and Madame Guyon's father and her dearest friend died the same year. Her friend, Geneviève Granger , had been prioress of a house of Benedictine nuns: "I concealed from her none of my sins nor of my troubles. I would not have done the least thing without telling it to her. I practiced no austerities but those she permitted me." Mother Granger must have permitted a great deal, for Madame Guyon's physical self-punishment intensified: "I often had my teeth pulled out, although they did not pain me. It was a refreshment for me, and when my teeth pained me I did not think of having them pulled out.… I once poured molten lead on my naked flesh, but it did not cause any pain, because it flowed off and did not stick. In sealing letters I let Spanish wax fall on me, and this causes more pain, because it sticks. When I held a candle, I let it come to an end and burn me for a long time."
She was to have two more children, a son in 1674 and another daughter, Jeanne-Marie Guyon , in 1676, just four months before the death of her husband. Madame Guyon reconciled with her husband before his death; he had come to value her piety and realized that others, especially his mother, had conspired to turn him against her. She was left a widow at the age of 28 with three small children to care for. If it had not been for the children, she recounts in her autobiography, she would have finally fulfilled her childhood ambition and become a nun. As it was, she resisted invitations to remarry and attempted to reconcile with her mother-in-law. She was becoming increasingly close to Father La Combe, a priest whom she had first met in 1671; he had immediately seen "an extraordinary presence of God on my countenance" and had experienced his own "conversion" as a result of their meeting. She began to feel that God was calling her to be a missionary to the Protestant city of Geneva, and La Combe sensed that he was being called to assist with the task.
Since it was brave to the point of folly to aspire to be a Catholic missionary in the city which was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, Madame Guyon left Paris in secret during the summer of 1681, heading first for the Catholic city of Gex, just 12 miles from Geneva. Leaving her sons in the care of her mother-in-law and accompanied only by her five-year-old daughter and a maid, she established a convent for Protestant converts, the "New Catholics" as they were called, at Gex. There she found Father La Combe, who had been assigned by the local bishop to be her confessor. After a fall from a horse which forced her to return briefly to Paris, she left the capital again, renouncing all her possessions in return for a small pension and settling, in April 1682, at Thonon, close to Geneva. Having spent two years at the convent of the Ursulines, she moved, with her daughter and faithful maid, to a small cottage. "Never did I enjoy a greater content, than in this hovel" she wrote. Her daughter and maid had the larger room—she had only a small chamber, reached by ladder. It was at Thonon that she spent some of the most contented months of her turbulent life. It was there that she received "the most pure, penetrating, and powerful communication of grace that I had ever experienced," and there that she wrote the first of her devotional works, The Torrents. Eventually her collected works were to fill 40 volumes, and her vast correspondence was to be collected into 5 thick volumes.
With her attention focused on the conversion of Protestants, Madame Guyon seems not to have been aware of her growing notoriety in Paris. King Louis XIV, determined to keep France Catholic and united under his uncompromisingly authoritarian rule, was unwilling to tolerate forms of worship which appeared to deviate in any way from conventional Catholicism. In 1685, signalling the new religious conservatism, the king had revoked the Edict of Nantes, the 1598 legislation which had given Protestants the right to worship in France. Paradoxically, some of those most concerned with converting the Protestants, fell under suspicion also.
Madame Guyon's writings and her meetings with those seeking spiritual enlightenment centered around a single question; she asked those who were searching for God "were they willing to be NOTHING? That is to say, nothing in themselves, in order that the Lord might be ALL IN ALL." Hers was not an ecstatic, empowering spirituality of visions and revelations. Rather, Madame Guyon felt herself becoming more and more childlike, as she advanced in spirituality towards the ideal state of complete self-negation, or "pure love," a state sustained by the simplicity of prayer. Such a private, interior means of seeking salvation was clearly a source of suspicion for the established church, which it could, potentially, render redundant. Nor did it help that this fervent spirit was a woman; her gender further accentuated the negative reaction of the religious and state establishment.
Madame Guyon's own experiences paralleled those of the poor laundress whose story she tells in her autobiography. The woman had five children and a sick husband and was sustained in her hard life only by her prayer. When two devout tradespeople came to assist her by reading from religious books, they found that God "had taught her inwardly.… So much was this the case, that they were willing to receive instruction from her." The conservative church authorities reproved her, telling her, "it was very bold in her to practice prayer in the manner she did. They said it was the business of priests to pray, and not of women." Like the laundress, Madame Guyon remained steadfast in the face of threats, enduring the burning of all her books on spirituality in the public square. Opposition to her mounted following the official condemnation of the Spanish preacher, Michael de Molinos, by the Papal Inquisition in July 1685. Although Madame Guyon had never heard of him, her ideas and his were seen to be similar and were both branded as "Quietism." In October 1687, Father La Combe was arrested. Scurrilous stories were spread about Madame Guyon's relationship with the priest: they were alleged to have ridden together on horseback on their return to Paris the previous summer; one rumor even claimed that she had become pregnant by him. She reports that her half-brother, Dominique de la Mothe, who had introduced her to La Combe, intrigued with her enemies against them both.
La Combe was imprisoned in the Bastille, and his book, An Analysis of Mental Prayer, was condemned by the Inquisition. He died, still in custody, 27 years later. But Madame Guyon was quite undaunted. She had no fear for her friend: "I know by the spirit communication that he is very content and abandoned to God." Nor was she afraid for herself, although she must have known that her turn would come next. On January 29, 1688, she was taken into custody and confined to the Convent of the Visitation. She was held in solitary confinement for eight months by devout nuns who had been instructed to regard her as a dangerous heretic. During this period, cut off from her beloved daughter and refused any news of her, she stubbornly refused to admit that she had been in error, nor would she condemn Father La Combe. So far was she from repentance that on her release in October 1688, she met and soon won over an even more distinguished disciple, the Abbé Fénelon, archbishop of Cambray, missionary to the Protestants, tutor to the royal household, and one of the most brilliant men of his day. Fénelon's conversion to the "new spirituality," as Madame Guyon's religious practice was sometimes called, soon brought his chief rival, Bossuet, the bishop of Meux, into the dispute. Bossuet was the effective head of the Catholic Church in France, and he resolved to eradicate the heretical teachings of Madame Guyon and her new adherent. After interviewing her several times, Bossuet succeeded in obtaining an official condemnation of her doctrine of "pure love" in March 1694. Later that year, a royal commission, headed by Bossuet, was set up to examine the whole body of her writings. Although the other members of the committee were inclined towards leniency, Bossuet remained in resolute opposition, and in December 1695 Madame Guyon was arrested and shut up in the castle of Vincennes, "accused of having maintained, both by word of mouth and by her writings, a very dangerous doctrine, and one which nearly approaches to heresy."
Fénelon attempted to explain and justify Madame Guyon's views in his own published works; he claimed that her concept of "pure love" was not a rejection of the Catholic faith but was, rather, a rejection of self, an advanced spiritual state of "holy indifference." Despite the unremitting opposition of Bossuet, he stoutly defended her piety by incorporating significant aspects of her theology into his own. But not even Fénelon could withstand the pope. Pressured by Bossuet and other conservatives at the French court, the pope finally issued a decree on March 12, 1699, condemning 23 propositions extracted from Fénelon's book. Fénelon was submissive; he withdrew from all doctrinal controversy, left Versailles forever, and spent the rest of his life serving the people of his diocese.
After nine months in custody at Vincennes, Madame Guyon was transferred, probably in August 1696, to Vaugirard near Paris, remaining there for two years, all the while refusing to admit culpability in any aspect of her thought or behavior. Doubtless as a result of her stubbornness, in September 1698 she was moved once more, this time to the most dreaded of all the royal prisons, the Bastille. It was here that Madame Guyon was held for four years in solitary confinement. Her autobiographer records the irony of the situation: "It was thought necessary, by those who knew her influence and thought it unfavorable, that twelve feet of thick wall, built up on every side, should guard her against making any exertions in the cause of Christ." This pious, middle-aged woman was incarcerated at the same time and in the same terrifying place as the legendary Man in the Iron Mask, rumored to be the twin brother of the king and a dangerous threat to royal power. Yet Madame Guyon's spirit remained strong: "So long as God is with me, neither imprisonment nor death will have any terrors." Her imprisonment was the talk of Versailles, and a memoir of the period records that although she was interrogated by the chief of police, "She is said to defend herself with great ability and firmness."
Released in 1702, Madame Guyon was permitted only a brief visit to her daughter Jeanne-Marie, now the countess of Vaux, in Paris, and was then banished for life to Blois, 100 miles from the capital, given into the custody of her eldest son, Armand Jacques. She lived for another 15 years, but her health, never robust, had been broken by the harsh conditions of her imprisonment. Although she was ill most of the time, she continued to write letters and conduct private conversations on spiritual matters. It was during her enforced retirement that she resumed writing the autobiography she had begun during her first imprisonment in 1688. In a passage dated December 1709, she asks for forgiveness of those who have treated her unkindly. They had done their worst but their efforts had served merely to bring her to the state of "profound annihilation" for which she had always striven. As she records in her closing pages, her state had become "simple and invariable.… There is neither clamor nor pain, nor trouble, nor pleasure, nor uncertainty; but a perfect peace."
Jeanne Marie Bouviéres de la Mothe Guyon died at 11:30 pm on June 9, 1717, age 69. It must be said that, according to her own terms, her life ended in triumph. It had been a life completely dedicated to God from the time of her "conversion" at the age of 20. While she felt herself to be in almost constant communication with God, she did not become an ecstatic in the visionary sense; she distrusted "illumination" and all other spectacular evidence of holiness. Rather, neglecting her beauty, abandoning her wealth, and giving up her children, she devoted herself to prayer and self-imposed suffering. Consumed with a sense of mission, she endured constant harassment, ill treatment and accusations of heresy from political and religious leaders as a result of her efforts to spread God's word. For her, there was no choice. She had received a Divine calling and, in response, she gave all she had and all she was.
Allen, Thomas Taylor, trans. Autobiography of Madame Guyon. 2 vols. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1898.
Guion, Madame. Poems, Translated from the French of Madame de la Mothe Guion by the late William Cowper. Newport-Pagnel: J. Wakefield, 1801.
Lillie, Arthur. Modern Mystics and Modern Magic. NY: Scribner, 1894.
Sahler, Benjamin. Madame Guyon et Fénelon; La Correspondance secrète. Paris: Dervy-Livres, 1982.
Upham, Thomas C. Life and Religious Opinions and Experience of Madame de la Mothe Guyon. 2 vols. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1862.
Dr. Kathy Garay , Acting Director of the Women's Studies Program at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada