Essay / Theology

Today Madame Guyon Had a Great Quiet Time

It was on July 22, 1668, that Madame Guyon (Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon, 1648-1717) had the most important spiritual experience in a life that was all about spiritual experiences. She was blown away, lost in God, plunged into the depths of the divine love. At least that’s how she talked about this day, a day that she commemorated for the rest of her life.

She had wanted to be a nun, but was not permitted by her parents to enter a religious order. She got married, but took some steps to pattern her life after some great medieval female mystics. Guyon struggled intensely with difficulties in prayer, until on this day a Franciscan monk preached in her town, and she went to him for advice.

At first the monk was put off by her intensity and lack of definiteness. “I continued to speak to him,” she says in her autobiography, “and to tell him in a few words my difficulties about prayer. He answered me at once; ‘It is, Madame, because you seek outside what you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your heart, and you will find him there.’ On finishing these words he left me.”

Good enough advice, generally. But somehow it touched off a major event for Guyon:

The next morning he was very greatly astonished when I went to see him, and when I told him the effect his words had produced in my soul –for it is true, they were for me like an arrow that pierced my heart through and through– I felt in that moment a very deep wound, as delicious as full of love; a wound so sweet I desired never to be healed of it. Those words put into my heart what I was seeking so many years; or rather they made me discover what was there, and which I did not enjoy for want of knowing it.

The next line of the autobiography shifts suddenly into prayer:

O my Lord, you were in my heart, and you asked from me only a simple turning inward to make me feel your presence. O Infinite Goodness, you were so near, and I went running here and there to look for you, and I did not find you. My life was miserable, and my happiness was within me. I was in poverty in the midst of riches, and I was dying of hunger near a table spread and a continual feast. O Beauty ancient and new, why have I known you so late? Alas, I was seeking you where you were not, and I did not seek you where you were.

Well, nobody ever quite knew what to make of Madame Guyon after this. She might as well have had business cards printed up saying, “Madame Guyon, Registered Mystic.” The prayer quoted above is typical of her expressive style. It does not propose any novel doctrines or heretical ideas. It alludes to a traditional spiritual interpretation of the Song of Solomon (“I went running here and there to look for you”) and it quotes from Augustine’s Confessions (“Late have I known thee, beauty so old and so new,” etc.)

Guyon lived in the very Roman Catholic atmosphere of France at a time when Louis XIV was scheming about how to extend his absolute power over the Protestants: Is it better to try to convert them, or to use force? Guyon, after her first mystical experience, just punched a hole right through the solid wall of the state religion. She wanted to be obedient to her church and her kingdom, but once you’ve been pierced with “a very deep wound, as delicious as full of love; a wound so sweet I desired never to be healed of it,” you just can’t take external constraints quite so seriously anymore. If Guyon heard of a Protestant who had experienced the same thing, she was unable to deny that that Protestant knew God.

This openness, or inability to draw distinctions, was one of the things that caused her trouble. But she also made the authorities nervous by talking as if she and God were so close that she couldn’t tell the two apart. And it was typical of Guyon that the more she wrote and talked about these things, the more she blurred all distinctions, crossed all lines, and stirred things up.

For example, what were her prayers like?

Nothing of my prayer passed into my head, but it was a prayer of enjoyment and possession in the will, where the delight of God was so great, so pure, and so simple, that it attracted and absorbed the other two powers of the soul in profound concentration, without act or speech. I had however sometimes freedom to say some words of love to my Beloved, but then everything was taken from me. It was a prayer of faith which excluded all distinction, for I had not any view of Jesus Christ or the divine attributes. Everything was absorbed in a delicious faith, where all distinctions were lost, to give love room for loving with more expansion, without motives or reasons for loving. That sovereign of the powers, the will, swallowed up the two others, and took from them every distinct object, to unite them the better in it, in order that the distinct should not arrest them and thus take from them the uniting force, and hinder them from losing themselves in love.

Oh, I see. Okay then. So let me get this straight, asked her inquisitors. Is it still you doing the praying?

True ravishment and perfect ecstasy are operated by total annihilation, where the soul, losing all selfhood, passes into God without effort and without violence, as into the place which is proper and natural to her. For God is the centre of the soul, and when once the soul is disengaged from the selfhood which arrested her in herself, or in other creatures, she infallibly passes into God where she dwells hidden with Jesus Christ. But this ecstasy is operated only by simple faith, death to all things created, even to the gifts of God, which, being creatures, hinder the soul from falling into the One uncreated.

If you parse Guyon’s writings closely enough, it is apparently possible to convict her of a mild case of quietism, the error that teaches that God is most glorified when we are most annihilated into total passivity by his omnicausality. Guyon was ordered to be silent, was placed in prison and under house arrest briefly, but always swore she only wanted to say what the Roman Catholic church said. The Roman church took pains to make sure nobody confused Guyon’s semiquietism with the official position of Rome.

Guyon’s work has gained considerable popularity among Protestants of a mystical or perfectionist bent, beginning with Fenelon in her own time and continuing through Holiness writers and odd birds with huge hearts like A. W. Tozer. Most people in the secret Guyon fan club who slip you a copy of Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ will warn you up front that Sister Guyon says many things which are hard to understand, which the unstable wrest to their own destruction. Page after page of Guyon’s writings are simple presentations of common Christian truth, felt deeply and expressed passionately. But these are interleaved with bald statements that the self is dissolved in the godhead like a drop of water in the ocean, an idea from which anybody with a biblically-formed spirituality will instantly recoil.

James Denney once quipped about mysticism, “I’d rather be found in Christ than lost in God.” It might be a false dichotomy: What if being found in Christ is in fact the Christian way to be lost in God. But one would have to be able to make a few distinctions in order to make a claim like that. And a few distinctions were exactly what Madame Guyon was unable to keep in place.

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