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Messengers of the Word
THE LIFE OF MADAME GUYON
Scripture references are to the New International Version, UK edition (NIV-UK)
Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life
MADAME GUYON was a seventeenth-century French evangelist. She lived and died in the Roman Catholic church and yet is championed by Protestants. By the time of her birth in 1648, Europe was divided politically and religiously, the effects of the Reformation which had begun in earnest a century earlier. The Bible, newly translated into the vernacular, was in the hands of the people and the widespread migration from Catholic teaching and practice, set into motion by Martin Luther’s public denunciation of Rome, was well under way. Many turned from the corruption in the church to tread the old and trusted paths then brought back to light. The papacy asserted its authority and met reformation with counter-reformation.
Combat leads to exaggeration. Each side, wary and distrusting, denounced the other, Protestant against Catholic. The middle ground was lost, each dug in behind their wall of doctrine. Catechisms were written, articles of faith published, and church councils issued decrees. Truly, St. Paul warned that ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’, and such a close scrutiny of the outward confession of faith, promoted the form of religion above its spirit. An age of dead orthodoxy arose in the wake of a century-and-a-half of doctrinal warfare (2 Corinthians 3: 6).
Europe was divided and wasted. The religion of the monarch decided the religion of the people and one’s confession of faith determined personal freedom. Out of this oppression great evils were born. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) left at least eight million dead. Germany and her neighbours, once prosperous, were reduced to poverty by scavenging armies and famine prevailed. In England, the civil wars (1642-1648) overturned the social order, while across continental Europe great persecutions arose in the name of religion. In France the spiritual life of the people had withered and was dying.
The World of Mme Guyon
Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte was born on 18 April 1648, in the French town of Montargis. Her father and mother, both religious, came from families established in the French nobility. Their wealth and influence were a means for works of charity and not indulgence.
From earliest infancy Jeanne-Marie’s affections towards God were marked in habits of thought and acts of devotion. She confesses that these deep religious feelings arose, not out of any parental pressure, but from a precocious faith. In her youth, her schooling and religious life were directed by the Ursuline and Benedictine nuns. At the age of sixteen she married Jacques Guyon, and after twelve years and five children she was widowed. In 1681, following the guidance of a close religious friend, she moved from Paris to Gex, near Geneva.
Her heart was in serving God so she resigned her wealth and inheritance to the church, retaining only modest possessions. Taking accommodation in a religious house, her love found service in several fields of work.
[O]ur Lord put it into the heart of Father La Combe to establish a hospital in this place for the poor people seized with maladies, to institute also a committee or congregation of ladies to furnish such as could not leave their families to go to the hospital with the means of subsistence during their illness, after the manner of France, there having been yet no institution of this kind in that country. Willingly did I enter into it; and without any other fund than Providence and some useless rooms which a gentleman of the town gave us, we began it. We dedicated it to the holy Child Jesus, and He was pleased to give the first beds to it from my pension. He gave such a blessing that several other persons joined us in this charity. In a short time there were nearly twelve beds in it and three persons of great piety gave themselves to this hospital to serve it, who, without any salary, consecrated themselves to the service of the poor patients. I supplied them with ointments and medicines, which were freely given to such of the poor people of the town as had need of them. These good ladies were so hearty in the cause, that, through their charity, and the care of the young women, this hospital was very well maintained and served. These ladies joined together also in providing for the sick who could not go to the hospital. I gave them some little regulations such as I had observed when in France, which they continued to keep up with tenderness and love.[fn1]
Her reputation spread and she attracted a small, but growing, audience. Interested souls from all walks of life came to hear of the joys she had found in her own inner life. By her exhortations to holy living and the cultivation of a deep heart’s love for God, she helped to sow the seeds of true religion. Many learned from her that peace of soul and ease of conscience came not from the closeted confession or the ritual of the mass, but from forgiveness of sins and communion with God through prayer.
The open prayers of the small assembly, diminished confessions and the new-found rejoicing did not go unnoticed. Seeing the renewal in their own congregations, many pastors and priests went in search of the source of the transformation. Some came to Madame Guyon with words of thanks; some, fearing a falling away, came with hard questions to prove her motives. Others, hardened by envy, condemned her. It was the beginning of her troubles.
St. Peter warns of ‘false prophets among the people’ (2 Peter 2: 1). Countless men, each aspiring to be God’s champion and defender of the faith, have hunted out ‘false prophets’. In their fight against heresy, they take no prisoners. Any professing other than the established creed must renounce their differences or be removed from the common union of the church. Madame Guyon soon found opposition to her ministry with the poor.
Her advocacy of personal prayer and the development of a perfect intention to do God’s will, challenged the traditions of seventeenth-century Roman Catholicism. It appeared to some as dissent, a different Gospel. Religion, like any subject close to the heart, is hotly debated and many are the councils and synods that have fretted over teachings and arrangements to preserve unity. Do you have to be ordained to pray? Can sinners possess a perfect love? These questions tested all they came to. The schism in society widened, taking in peasants, priests, cardinals and the King. Even the Pope was drawn into the controversy.
But Guyon was not without support. Francois Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambray, tutor to the King’s grandson, defended her views. Others added to the numbers, publicly aspiring to the suppression of self and the elevation of God’s will as one’s chief ambition. There was no co-ordinated organisation, only a network of friends and acquaintances united by a personal conviction of truth. Society branded them Quietists, a reference to their peaceful disposition in spite of adversity. (There are striking similarities with a contemporary movement in the English church that became known as the Quakers.)
Louis XIV, heralded as the Sun King, had taken the powers of government to himself. Fearing a new Protestant uprising, and counselled by men ill informed of dangers and troubled by suspicions magnified by rumour, Louis determined to intervene. On Mme Guyon’s return to Paris in 1688, Louis issued a lettre de cachet (‘letter with a seal’), a direct order, confining her to the Convent of St. Marie. There was no trial, and she was afforded no opportunity to appeal. After eight months’ imprisonment she was released, but the matter was not settled.
Hearing of the controversy, the Archbishop of Meaux, Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, took an interest. A man of great intellect and confessed leader of the French Church, he had previously praised Madame Guyon’s work. Desiring a peaceful resolution and possessing full confidence in her innocence, Mme Guyon submitted all of her writings and some of her private letters to Bossuet for his investigation.
Over the space of two years, by exchange of letters and personal interviews, the Bishop of Meaux subjected her work to a thorough and exacting analysis. In their communications the contrast of their characters is most stark. The sharp intellect of Bossuet, ever-ready with incisive questions, made the lofty themes of a perfect disinterested love appear fanciful. Madame Guyon endeavoured to explain her choice of words. She admitted that her language often failed to express exactly her thoughts. The focus of Bossuet’s argument was too narrow to take in the sublimity of self-sacrifice and he confessed he had never been moved with a love for God like hers. There is no doubt of his moral and religious conviction, but his reasoning came from books and learning. Bossuet had studied the map; Madame Guyon had set foot in the territory.
By the end of the deliberations nothing had been proven against her. She acknowledged where she was wrong, explained where she was obscure, and defended what she knew to be right. A royal commission was appointed and the findings of Bossuet and two other prominent churchmen were published:
In 1697, following a visit by Mme Guyon to Mme de Maintenon’s school at Saint-Cyr, Paul Godet des Marais, Bishop of Chartres (Saint-Cyr was located within his diocese) expressed concerns about Mme Guyon’s orthodoxy to Mme de Maintenon. He was concerned that Mme Guyon’s opinions bore striking similarities to Miguel de Molinos’ Quietism, condemned by Pope Innocent XI in 1687. As a result, Mme de Maintenon asked for an ecclesiastical commission to exam Mme Guyon’s orthodoxy: the commission consisted of two of Fénelon’s old friends, Bossuet and de Noailles, as well as the head of the Sulpician order of which Fénelon was a member. The commission sat at Issy and, after six months of deliberations, delivered its opinion in the Articles d’Issy, 34 articles which briefly condemned certain of Mme Guyon’s opinions and set forth a brief exposition of the Catholic view of prayer. These articles were signed by Fénelon and the Bishop of Chartres, as well as by all three members of the commission. Mme Guyon immediately submitted to the decision of the commission.[fn2]
Guyon returned to Paris. News of her arrival spread and the city was in an uproar. Her enemies stirred up discontent with talk of her as a heretic and rumours of immorality. The mood turned violent and for her own safety and that of her family she went into hiding, taking refuge in an obscure tenement in Faubourg St. Antoine, on the outskirts of Paris. On 27 December, 1695, she was discovered by the King’s agents and taken into custody. The order for her arrest was given on the grounds of ‘her dangerous doctrine’.
Confined with her maid to the Castle of Vincennes, she was later transferred to the Bastille. For four years, living in solitary confinement in a stony cell, she was forbidden visitors and could neither send nor receive letters. A woman accustomed to company and often by sickness dependent on others, she later wrote of these years of solitude as almost breaking her. Under orders not to write or teach, she was released in 1703 and paroled to her elder son in the town of Blois. Undeterred, she continued her work until her (natural) death in 1717.
An Exemplary Life
In the time of her greatest popularity, Guyon confided to a companion, ‘Observe what I now tell you, that you will hear curses out of the same mouths which at present pronounce blessings’. Not that she had a vision of the future, but being instructed by Scripture she knew God’s will was for her to be conformed to Jesus’ sufferings (Philippians 3: 10). The life of Madame Guyon bears the hallmarks of a true martyr, a coveted epithet often counterfeited. The English word comes from the Greek for ‘witness’. It means exactly that. Emphatically it is one whose witness is paid for dearly, a sacrifice of self, sometimes to the death.
There is a subtlety in this. Martyrdom in its highest sense is not a pursuit of death at all costs, but a life spent in choosing God’s will over one’s own. To modern thinkers like Prof. Richard Dawkins, who have reduced humanity to the by-product of a selfish gene, the blood-soaked history of Christianity remains a mystery unless this principle is understood: God has placed in the hearts of men and women a willingness to die for a noble cause. The cenotaphs and poppies of Remembrance Day are a token of it. And the spilt blood of the Christian saints is a stain on the hands of pious men who thought they did God service by putting to death those whom He has raised up as His witnesses.
My Lord, how
full of sweet content;
I pass my years of banishment!
Where’er I dwell, I dwell with Thee,
In Heaven, in earth, or on the sea.
To me remains
nor place nor time;
My country is in every clime;
I can be calm and free from care
On any shore, since God is there.
While place we
seek, or place we shun
The soul finds happiness in none;
But with a God to guide our way,
’Tis equal joy, to go or stay.
The Autobiography of Madame Guyon, by Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon, is available free by download from the Gutenberg Project:
Also available on CD from:
Thomas C. Upham’s, Life, religious opinions, and experience of Madame Guyon (1905; London; Allenson). No longer in print, an electronic copy is available as a (large) download from:
Copyright November 2009 ukbiblestudents.co.uk
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