JEANNE MARIE BOUVIER DE LA MOTHE GUYON TIMELINE
1648: Jeanne Bouvier de la Mothe born in Montargis, France.
1659: Jeanne Bouvier received her first Communion.
1664 (January 28): Jeanne Bouvier was forced to sign articles of marriage without being told what they were.
1664 (February 18): Bouvier married Monsieur Guyon, becoming Madame Guyon.
1668 (July 22): Guyon experienced a “delicious and amorous wound” of God that made her love God “more than the most passionate lover loved his mistress.”
1672: Two of Guyon’s children died of illnesses.
1672 (July 22): Guyon committed herself to taking Jesus as her spouse. In individual prayer, she vowed to unite herself to Jesus Christ in marriage.
1676: Guyon gave birth to a daughter. Four months later her husband died.
1681: Guyon left her home in Montargis and went to Geneva. She renewed her vows to Jesus Christ in a Mass said by the bishop of Geneva in Annecy in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France. She later settled at Gex, France, in the same region.
1681–1686: Guyon traveled around Europe, meeting with Barnabite Father François La Combe in various locations. During this time, she wrote her most famous books, including A Short and Easy Method of Prayer (1685) and Spiritual Torrents (1682).
1682: King Louis XIV moved the royal court to Versailles, where Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet and Father, later, Archbishop François Fénelon became influential religious leaders.
1685: The Edict of Nantes was revoked, which had assured Protestants’ safety to some extent. Dragoons (mounted infantry units) were sent around France to force Protestants to convert to Catholicism. On July 16, 1685, The Vatican arrested the popular Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos for the heresy of Quietism. Subsequently, he was sentenced by cardinal inquisitors to life in prison.
1686 (July 21): Guyon returned to Paris shortly after the arrival of Father François La Combe.
1687: Guyon’s Commentary on the Song of Songs of Solomon was published.
1687 (October 3): La Combe was arrested by the Inquisition in France and imprisoned in the Bastille. Following a trial for heresy, La Combe was convicted and transferred to a prison farm.
1688: Guyon’s A Short and Easy Method of Prayer was placed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books.
1688 (January 29–September 20): Guyon was incarcerated at the Convent of the Visitation by order of Louis XIV. Her eleven-year-old daughter was taken from her.
1688: Guyon met Father François Fénelon at a social gathering.
1689: Father François Fénelon became tutor to Louis XIV’s young grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne.
1693: Madame de Maintenon, the wife of King Louis XIV, issued a command that Madame Guyon may not visit the girls’ school at St. Cyr again. Guyon had taught her method of prayer to the girls attending the school.
1693–1694: The Great Famine occurred, resulting in the starvation of about 600,000 people (about ten percent of the population) of France. Fénelon confronted King Louis about this mass starvation in a letter.
1694: Guyon gave Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet her “Autobiography” manuscript and other writings. Guyon began writing her three-volume work Justifications.
1694 (October 16): Archbishop François de Harley of Paris censured Guyon’s Short and Easy Method of Prayer and Song of Songs of Solomon in his archdiocese.
July 1694–March 1695: Clerics meeting in secret conferences at Issy, France explored the many mystical writings that included Guyon’s writings. They particularly examined her A Short and Easy Method of Prayer and Commentary on the Song of Songs of Solomon. The group included Bossuet, Tronson, Noailles, and beginning in 1695, Fénelon.
1695 (February 4): Fénelon was nominated by King Louis XIV to become Archbishop of Cambrai, while also continuing to tutor his grandson.
1695 (March 10): Issy 34 Articles signed by clerics Bossuet, Tronson, Noailles, and Fénelon condemned books judged to contain the Quietism heresy, but Guyon’s books and writings were not condemned.
1695 (July 2): Bishop Bossuet decided that Guyon’s writings were not heretical. He also gave her Communion to show her good standing in the Roman Catholic Church.
1695: Under political pressure, Bishop Bossuet urged that Guyon be arrested by the Inquisition and tried for heresy.
1695 (July 7): Three nuns, including Mother Picard, from the Visitation Convent wrote a letter upholding Madame Guyon’s character and gave her a good reference for her behavior during her stay at the convent.
1695 (December 27): Guyon was arrested. She was held at the prison in Vincennes, France, where she was interrogated.
1696 (October 16): Guyon was transferred to incarceration in a nunnery at Vaugirard in Paris, where she was abused by nuns.
1697: Molinos died in prison, possibly executed by Vatican authorities.
1697: Archbishop Fénelon published the Maxims of the Saints to defend Guyon. Another Fénelon book, Telemachus, indirectly criticized Louis XIV.
1698: (June 4): Guyon was transferred to the Bastille prison in Paris.
1699: Pope Innocent XII censured twenty-three propositions of Fénelon’s Maxims of the Saints.
1700: Bishop Bossuet called for another meeting of the participants of the earlier Issy conferences. They declared Guyon innocent of all charges.
1703: Guyon was released from the Bastille. She went to live in Blois on the Loire River. Many from England and Germany came to visit her.
1704 (April 12): Bishop Bossuet died.
1709 (December): Guyon finished her Autobiography.
1715 (January 7): Archbishop Fénelon died in his archdiocese at Cambrai, France.
1715 (September 1): King Louis XIV died.
1715: Still incarcerated, François La Combe died.
1717 (June 9): Guyon died surrounded by her daughter Jeanne-Marie and some followers.
1720: Guyon’s Autobiography published.
Jeanne Marie de la Mothe Bouvier Guyon (1648–1717) lived an extraordinary life of intense suffering because of a Catholic inquisition led by French Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) and King Louis XIV (r. 1643–1715), and yet knew victories as an acclaimed theological author and spiritual mentor. Guyon [Image at right] documents her unhappy life in her Autobiography, books, personal letters, and biblical commentaries, saying she discovered that Jesus Christ lived in and united with her soul. Guyon understood her life as an interior martyr of the Holy Spirit who lived in the welcoming and passionate embrace of God, whom she called “my dear Master Jesus” (James and Voros 2012:87). Her many books and writings have survived the test of time and have brought hope to many, including Archbishop François Fénelon (1651–1715), theologian Pierre Poiret (1646–1719), author of “Amazing Grace” John Newton (1725–1807), English poet William Cowper (1731–1800), founder of Methodism John Wesley (1703–1791), Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith (1832–1911), Harvard scholar William James (1842–1910), and author Gene Edwards (1932–2022). The paradox of Guyon’s intense, interior joy in the Lord while suffering eight years of incarceration granted her an unquestionable authority as one who both lived and testified to her Christian faith.
Though raised in a wealthy French aristocratic family in Montargis on the Loire River, Guyon lived a difficult life as a child and teenager. Her mother was a cold and distant woman who largely ignored Jeanne and deprived her of many normal childhood activities, such as regular educational and social opportunities. Although her mother “did not much love girls” (Guyon 1897 1:9), Guyon compensated for this by spending much of her time reading the Bible and religious books, including the works of St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622), a former bishop of Geneva. Guyon’s mother claimed to have religious responsibilities at the church that interfered with the care of her daughter. This neglect obviously made an impression on Guyon, who later wrote that using church responsibilities as an excuse not to care for children causes serious damage to children and should not be done (Guyon 1897 1:11–14, among other sources).
Both of Guyon’s parents had been married with children before they married. The family never successfully developed into a unified group. Guyon felt concerned about her relationships with her older siblings because of the tensions in the family (Guyon 1897, 1:19), among other sources). Indeed, Madame Guyon’s elder half-brother, Father La Mothe, a member of the Barnabite order, initiated one of the first church persecutions against her later in life (Guyon 1897 1:261).
Guyon believed that the predominant influence in her life was her intense love of God which created hope within her. In her Autobiography she writes, “I loved him and I burned with his fire, because I loved him. I loved him in such a way that I could only love him, but in loving him I had no motive save himself” (Guyon 1897 1:96). Guyon writes that this love for God manifested itself when she was young (Guyon 1897 1:17–18). She focused her attention on God and, though straying at times, she always returned to God with increasing intensity as she grew older.
Guyon, nonetheless, developed into a charming and attractive teenager who drew the attention of her family and friends. She reports reading the works of St. Jane de Chantal (1572–1641) and Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli (ca. 1530–1610). Guyon’s father allowed her the freedom of spontaneous conversation at social events and she became known for being an intelligent conversationalist. Through the years of her lonely childhood, she developed an active imagination and a quick mind. These charming qualities drew persons to her, even as she protested that she wished to live and die for God alone (Guyon 1897 1:10–11).
At age fifteen Guyon was forced to marry a wealthy widower with high social standing, who at the time of the marriage on February 18, 1664 was thirty-eight years old. Her horror at the marriage is made clear in her Autobiography where she writes that she “wept bitterly during the wedding celebrations and parties, for she wanted instead to become a nun” (Guyon 1897 1:43). Even as she appreciated the beauties of romantic love, she yearned to dedicate herself to divine love, which was denied by the reality of this ill-conceived marriage.
Soon after her wedding, a struggle began with Guyon’s mother in-law and her husband actively trying to change her. They developed harsh rules involving restricted church attendance, limited prayer, and little time for reading. Her social conversations were monitored and she was instructed not to talk to others. She received constant and severe criticisms about her behavior, and responded by becoming detached from the world around her and praying constantly. In her own words, she developed an “alienation from the corruption of the century” (Guyon 1897 1:63).
Several years passed in the conflicted household. On July 22, 1668, Guyon went to speak with a visiting Franciscan Father, Archange Enguerrand, about her troubles because she knew she needed help. The Father listened to Guyon’s story as she poured out her heart. He felt moved by her sorrow and gave her counsel. He said, “It is, Madame, because you seek without what you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your heart, and you will find God there” (Guyon 1897 1:65). Guyon felt the presence of God in these words. No more would she look outside of herself for what she needed: God lived within her. She would now apply her heart to find God.
This began the ancient spiritual gift of divinization (theosis) for Guyon. She writes about this saying, “This love was so continual, and always occupied me, and so powerful, I could not think of anything else. This profound stroke, this delicious and amorous wound, was inflicted on me on the Magdalen’s Day, 1668” (Guyon 1897 1:76). The wounding in her heart influenced her desire for divinization and kept her open to increasing union with God throughout her life.
Guyon still endured much unhappiness in her marital family. She bore five children, two of whom died as young children. She states in her Autobiography that her husband and mother-in-law alienated her children from her. However, when Monsieur Guyon’s health eventually collapsed, Madame Guyon nursed her husband through his illnesses. While a reconciliation never fully occurred, her husband developed some appreciation for her gifts in caring for him. His illnesses led to his early death in 1676, but before he died, he offered an apology to his wife, saying “I did not deserve you” (Guyon 1897 1:177). Guyon was left a wealthy widow. Initially she stayed with her mother-in-law, but estrangement in their family relationships ended this situation. Guyon kept her young daughter with her when she left the tense household behind, traveling to live quietly in rented houses and to stay with friends. She spent time in Paris, managing her considerable financial fortune and thinking about the next stage of her life.
Guyon developed a relationship with Barnabite Father François La Combe (1643–1715), whom she found to be a capable spiritual director. Guyon described his main characteristics as “simplicity and straightforwardness” making him a warm, trustworthy person (Guyon 1897, 1:290). When Father La Combe moved to undertake a ministry in the area of Geneva, Guyon developed an overwhelming sense of God calling her to minister to others in the same area. To accomplish this, Guyon took her five-year-old daughter with her to Geneva. Together La Combe and Guyon began hospitals and offered care to the sick. She created ointments with which to anoint the sick, and observed that many found healing through them.
During this period, Guyon wrote two of her most famous books, Commentary on the Song of Songs of Solomon (1687) and A Short and Easy Method of Prayer (1685), the latter becoming a best-selling book in Europe. She went on to write a commentary on every book in the Bible. Her success as an author made her a celebrated and popular author and public figure.
Yet Guyon once again found herself embroiled in controversy. She had placed her fortune in trust for her children while carrying on her ministry, but the bishop of Geneva, Jean D’ Aranthon (r. 1661–1695), wanted her to donate substantial amounts to the church. When Guyon refused to comply, the bishop came up with a plan for her to become a mother superior of a religious order called the Nouvelles Catholiques. Guyon adamantly rejected this idea as well, saying that her lack of religious vows made the offer ludicrous (Guyon 1897 1:227). Rumors developed about Guyon and La Combe’s relationship, and Guyon observed that “they circulated a story that I was running about with him . . . and a hundred malicious absurdities” (Guyon 1897 1:298).
In the Diocese of Geneva, Guyon’s problems were further exacerbated when she protected a young nun against the sexual advances of her confessor, an older, corrupt church official. This intercession for the young nun, the gossip about her relationship with La Combe, and her unusual popularity with a certain segment of the clergy eventually led to Guyon and La Combe’s expulsion from this diocese. They left, starting a five-year journey through different parts of Europe, traveling both separately and together. Guyon believed that she was living at the disposal of divine providence and that God would care for their needs because of their divine abandonment (Guyon 1897, 2:32).
La Combe and Guyon’s pattern of activities soon became familiar. Upon arrival in a new city, usually at the invitation of a bishop, La Combe would be hired for a prestigious position, while Guyon stayed with aristocratic women. Her spirituality attracted many and as her reputation grew for being spiritually wise, more troubles developed. Catholic church officials eventually became alarmed about La Combe and Guyon’s activities. People complained that she upset the structure of the church by being a female spiritual leader, as Guyon wrote that some monks were “vexed that a woman . . . should be so sought after” (Guyon 1897, 2:85). Questions arose about the source of her wisdom and it was frequently charged that she was a witch. Guyon writes that church officials said she was a “sorceress; that it was by magic I attracted souls; that whatever was in me was diabolic” (Guyon 1897 2:98). Consequently, she was asked to leave place after place. Out of necessity, La Combe and Guyon moved frequently. Among the places they lived were Thonon, Turin, Grenoble, Marseilles, Nice, Genoa, Vercelli, and with many travels in between these places.
During this era of their travels, a situation was brewing in Rome that impacted both Guyon and La Combe. Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos (1628–1696) became a popular spiritual director at the Vatican for both men and women and led worshippers in seeking the presence of God in quiet. This quiet worship was perceived as outside the power of the church hierarchy. Called Quietism, this growing movement attracted the attention of the Inquisition, whose officials arrested Father Molinos. In 1687, Pope Innocent XI (r. 1676–1689) judged Molinos guilty of Quietism, sentencing him to life imprisonment. This papal condemnation made Quietism a formal heresy, opening the way for accusations against additional persons.
Father La Mothe, Guyon’s half-brother and La Combe’s superior in the Barnabite order, saw the implications of this newly defined heresy. He accused Guyon and La Combe of Quietism, and showed French church officials “propositions . . . of Molinos, saying they were the errors of Father La Combe” (Guyon 1897 2:143). Father La Mothe also wrote church officials complaining about La Combe’s alleged scandalous behavior with Guyon. After observing five years of La Combe and Guyon’s journeys, Father La Mothe arranged for an invitation to be given to La Combe to return to Paris, under the pretext that La Combe’s preaching skills were needed there. Guyon recognized that her half-brother meant harm to La Combe, but he insisted on returning in order to follow his vow of obedience. The Inquisition arrested La Combe on October 3, 1687 and incarcerated him in the Bastille. Father La Mothe was able to “persuade His Majesty that he is a dangerous spirit; therefore, without judging him, he has been shut up in a fortress for his life” (Guyon 1897 2:159). Rumors were spread that La Combe was having secret dealings with Rome, which was a serious charge from the Gallican church hierarchy in France. Following the trial that Father La Mothe arranged, La Combe was imprisoned for heresy at a prison farm. His incarceration ended only with his death in 1715.
La Combe had consistently asserted that his relationship with Guyon had been chaste, but under the stress of his confinement and enforced hard labor, and under pressure from the authorities after years of imprisonment, La Combe signed statements saying that he and Guyon had carried out an immoral relationship (James and Voros 2012:58–66). Madame Guyon nevertheless states in her Autobiography that she believed that he would have a special reward in heaven because of his intense suffering for righteousness’ sake. “God, who sees all, will render to each according to his works. I know by the spirit communication that he is very content and abandoned to God” (Guyon 1897 2:159).
On January 29, 1688, Guyon [Image at right] received a lettre de cachet, a secret letter from the French king, ordering her imprisonment. King Louis XIV commanded that she be incarcerated at the Visitation Convent on Rue Saint-Antoine in Paris. The royal letter stated that Guyon had correspondence with Miguel de Molinos, the condemned heretic, and she was also suspected of heresy. Guyon submitted willingly to the incarceration during which she was questioned about her beliefs by the archbishop’s chancellor and others. For the next eight months, groups of supporters worked for her release and detractors worked for her continued confinement. Finally, because of the compassionate intervention of Madame Françoise de Maintenon (1635–1719) with her husband Louis XIV, Guyon was released on September 20.
About six weeks after her release, Guyon met Father François Fénelon at a social gathering. They quickly became spiritually close, engaging in lengthy conversations and frequent correspondence. Throughout the course of their friendship, Fénelon believed that Guyon did indeed have a special relationship with God. He asked for her guidance in developing his own mystical sense and also turned to her for help with his own spiritual problems (Fénelon 1964:100).
In his contemporaneous Historical Memoirs of Versailles, Duc de Saint-Simon wrote about Guyon and Fénelon. He described Guyon “as a woman all in God, whose humility and whose love of contemplation and solitude kept her within the strictest limits.” Saint-Simon describes Fénelon saying, “Fénelon was a man of quality, without fortune, — whom the consciousness of wit — of the insinuating and captivating kind — united with much ability, gracefulness of intellect, and learning, inspired with ambition.” Saint-Simon captured the essence of Guyon and Fénelon’s friendship saying “There was an interchange of pleasure between their minds. Their sublimes amalgamated” (Saint-Simon 1967 1:114–15).
Together Fénelon and Guyon grieved the persecution of French Protestants (known as Huguenots), the state’s neglect of starving French peasants, and the horrors of child labor and domestic violence. Advocating conversion of the Protestants through the example of holy lives and gentle conversation rather than the use of violence, Fénelon had successfully converted many to Catholicism. Indeed, Fénelon had become known for his gentle treatment of all human beings. Guyon believed that God worked through Fénelon, using the power of his position to spread Catholicism and care for suffering human beings (Guyon 1982:183).
Yet many challenges to Fénelon’s conception of Catholicism existed in the French court. King Louis XIV challenged the authority of the pope in the Roman Catholic Church through his Gallican movement, which asserted that the French Catholic Church had autonomy from Rome. Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) helped lead the Gallican movement. Bishop Bossuet preached sermons at the court of Louis XIV, had supported the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which had given some protections to Protestants, and contributed to the theory of the divine right of kings. In 1682 the “Four Articles of the Declaration of the Clergy of France” were published, asserting that the pope had no authority over kings, and that in the Catholic Church, a General Council possessed authority over the pope, as per the Council of Constance (1414–1418). Fénelon, on the other hand, believed that the pope indeed possessed spiritual authority over the Catholic Church in France, a position known as Ultramontanism. Bossuet struggled with Fénelon regarding the difference between Gallicanism and Ultramontanism. This conflict eventually made the pope’s position difficult in 1699 after Louis XIV demanded that the pope condemn Fénelon for heresy.
As Guyon and Fénelon corresponded after their meeting in 1688, the latter’s career continued to rise. He became the tutor for Louis XIV’s grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne, in 1689, giving Fénelon a powerful position in the court. Guyon believed, as did others, that God would work a revival in the French court through the ministry of Fénelon. They dreamed of a new and righteous France brought about through their prayers, beliefs, and actions. Fénelon’s widely recognized gifts of leadership and wisdom also roused jealousy and competition (James 2007a:62).
Madame de Maintenon, who had once championed Guyon’s cause, did a sudden turnabout and became responsible for Guyon’s second incarceration. In 1686, the king’s wife had founded a school for girls at Saint-Cyr, which educated daughters of impoverished nobility. Maintenon invited Guyon to teach small groups of girls how to pray. Guyon’s prayer method from her book, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, spread throughout the school and influenced the adolescent students. Some clerics who came to Saint-Cyr worried about Guyon’s prayer methods, calling them Quietist. The bishop of Chartres and Saint-Cyr, Paul Godet, told Madame de Maintenon that Guyon was upsetting the order of the school by her efforts with the girls. Bishops and priests spread rumors about the dangerous Quietist influence at the school. On May 2, 1693, Madame de Maintenon gave an order that Guyon could not visit Saint-Cyr again and attacked Guyon (Guyon 1897 2:317).
Believing that Bishop Bossuet was a decent person, Guyon and Fénelon invited his intervention in the matter of her Catholic faith and teaching. A pious member of the French court brought Bossuet to Guyon’s home, and Guyon voluntarily gave Bossuet everything she had ever written. The bishop carefully studied these documents, but instead of being sympathetic to Guyon, he reacted in horror. For the next six months he continued to examine her writings and then arranged another meeting with Guyon and Fénelon in January 1694. Though he considered her to be a deluded woman, Bossuet believed Guyon was nonetheless a good Catholic. He gave her a certificate saying she was a genuine Catholic with an orthodox faith and served her the Eucharist. Both of these actions proved crucial as the Quietist controversy continued to escalate (Guyon 1897 2:317).
A group of clerics consisting of Bossuet, [Image at right] Father Louis Tronson (a former teacher of Fénelon), and Louis-Antoine de Noailles, the Bishop of Chalons, convened to analyze the writings of Guyon. This group kept its meetings confidential so that Archbishop François de Harley of Paris would not have to be notified, since Harley was neither respected as a theologian nor as a person of integrity. They met at Issy, a rural area south of Paris, from July 1694 until March 1695. In 1695, Fénelon was nominated by the king to be Archbishop of Cambrai, at which point he was added to participants in the Issy conferences. He had studied orthodox mystical literature and was considered the authority about them in the committee. The participants in the Issy meetings issued a document in 1695, which they all signed. Written in the form of a series of articles that contained a catechism of the church, this document also issued a list of condemned books that were judged to contain the Quietism heresy. Guyon was not explicitly condemned in these Issy Articles, which were published and widely circulated (Guyon 1897 2:305).
When Archbishop Harley learned of the secret Issy conferences, he became angered and requested a meeting with Guyon. Following the advice of Bossuet, however, Guyon refused to meet with Harley; consequently Harley officially censured Guyon’s books in his archdiocese (McGinn 2021:246–47). Fearing arrest, Guyon went to live in Bossuet’s cathedral town of Meaux in the Visitation convent in the winter of 1695, seeking Bossuet’s protection from Harley.
Madame de Maintenon then influenced Bishop Bossuet to condemn Guyon in hopes of breaking her influence on Archbishop Fénelon. Madame de Maintenon had become angry at Fénelon, apparently because of his refusal to support her in her ambition to be named queen of France. Louis XIV had made a secret marriage with Madame de Maintenon because she was not of the aristocracy and had been a Protestant. Hence, her desire to be queen of France was continually denied. Maintenon was also jealous of the friendship between Guyon and Fénelon. Bossuet desired to advance his career in the episcopacy and knew Maintenon influenced King Louis XIV’s decisions on whom to elevate. Sadly, influenced by Maintenon, Bossuet started to torment Guyon with actions and words witnessed by nuns at the Visitation Convent while Guyon was living there (Guyon 1897 2:314). He threatened her with penalties if she did not agree to sign documents agreeing to his charges of heresy. Guyon refused to cooperate and started writing letters telling friends what was happening to her at the convent. Guyon explains in her Autobiography, “But the Bishop of Meaux, who had promised Madame de Maintenon a condemnation and who wished to make himself master of the business, raised so many difficulties, sometimes under one pretext, sometimes under another, that he found means of evading all I had asked, and letting nothing appear but what seemed good to him” (Guyon 1897 2:301). The Mother Superior François Elizabeth Le Picard and two additional nuns signed a letter saying that Guyon had “great regularity, simplicity, sincerity, humility, mortification, sweetness, and Christian patience, and a true devotion and esteem of all that is of the faith.” Their conclusion to the letter reads, “This protest is simple and sincere, without other view or thought than to bear witness to the truth” (Guyon 1897 2:315).
This conflict over mysticism and Quietism in the Catholic Church was called the Great Conflict and included controversy over many issues. Arguments and debates raged throughout Europe and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, including Pope Innocent XII (r. 1691–1700), King Louis XIV, Archbishop Fénelon, Bishop Bossuet, and Madame Guyon [Image at right]. The Great Conflict began with fiery words in meetings and conferences. Relating to these French clerics as equals, Guyon’s spiritual authority itself became a target. During years of interrogations, Bossuet built a case against Guyon based on his own discomfort with mysticism, yet Guyon continued her confident defense. In her Autobiography Guyon says that when she talked to Bossuet, she thought to herself that if the Lord could work through Balaam’s she-ass (Numbers 22:23), the Lord could speak through a woman (Guyon 1897 2:264). Bossuet’s book, Quakerism a-la-mode, or a History of Quietism, attacked Guyon, repeatedly calling for Guyon’s burning at the stake (Bossuet 1689:60). He taunted the “enormous boastings of a Woman” (103) saying, “Her books and her Doctrine had scandalized the whole Church” (61). Bossuet changed his earlier stated view of Guyon and asserted that she was a dangerous criminal who had fled from both his examination and the justice that he offered. The French state now had an excuse to pursue Guyon.
Guyon was hunted by the police. She received advice from friends to leave the country to hide herself from the Inquisition. She rejected the idea of fleeing the country. She did, however, hide herself from Bishop Bossuet for six months, living in Paris under assumed names from July 9, 1695, until her arrest.
Guyon’s relationship with Archbishop Fénelon complicated the heresy charges made against her since he was a highly respected archbishop. On December 27, 1695, Guyon was finally discovered at her hiding place in Paris and charged with having escaped from Bossuet. Arrested and initially imprisoned at Vincennes prison, she began eight-and-a-half years of incarceration. At first, she was subjected to arduous interrogations by Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, Lieutenant-General of Police in France.
Guyon steadfastly denied any truth to the charges leveled against her. La Reynie eventually ruled Guyon was innocent, but the state then made another attempt to find her guilty. On October 16, 1696, Guyon was transferred out of her Vincennes incarceration to a small nunnery at Vaugirard. Guyon reports that she wept when she was told she was leaving the prison at Vincennes. She knew that at the nunnery, there would be no public witnesses and they would treat her as they wished. Guyon experienced physical and mental abuse in the convent, as the nuns taunted her and hit her on the face frequently.
Fénelon rose to Guyon’s defense in his book, The Maxims of the Saints Explained, concerning the Interior Life, published in January 1697. He believed that Guyon’s qualities were the same as saints in previous centuries. To prove this, he compared Guyon’s thoughts on union with God with other accepted saints in the church, such as Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal, and Catherine de Genoa (1447–1510).
As the controversy grew, the strong personalities of Fénelon, Guyon, and Bossuet each developed their own positions. Fénelon defended Guyon by stating that the Catholic Church has always recognized that certain persons have special relationships with God as exemplified in the lives of the saints. Guyon remained faithful to her spiritual beliefs and followed the guidance of her conscience. Bossuet declared that Guyon was a dangerous heretic who must be branded as such. On June 4, 1698, Guyon was taken out of Vaugirard and transferred to the Bastille prison where King Louis XIV incarcerated his political enemies and sometimes had them tortured (James and Voros 2012:80).
Fénelon [Image at right] refused to condemn Guyon. Instead, he appealed for a ruling from Rome. Bossuet sent lobbyists to Rome while Louis XIV ordered Fénelon confined to his archdiocese of Cambrai, refusing him the right to travel to Rome to explain his ideas and defend himself. Pope Innocent XII assigned the matter to a committee of cardinals, who examined Fénelon’s Maxims of the Saints. Innocent XII issued on March 12, 1699, a brief that condemned twenty-three propositions drawn from Fénelon’s Maxims. This brief was a minor condemnation, however, which never mentioned heresy, so the judgment was a disappointment for Bossuet. Pope Innocent XII said about the controversy, “The Archbishop of Cambrai erred through loving God too much. The Bishop of Meaux sinned through loving his neighbour too little” (Bedoyere 1956:215).
Throughout years of incarceration, Guyon suffered many lengthy interrogations without knowing her charges and not having access to legal counsel. In the Bastille, Guyon spent most of her time in solitary confinement, though at times the authorities brought in a woman to spy on her in hopes of gaining evidence of Guyon’s guilt. The judge M. d’Argenson warned Guyon that she could be tortured and put into the dungeon. Guyon writes that when they took her downstairs, “They showed me a door and told me that it was there they tortured. Other times, they showed me a dungeon. I told them I thought it was very pretty and that I would live well there” (Guyon 2012:90). Yet even in these years of torment her spiritual beliefs that the pure love of God, abandonment to God’s will, and committed faithfulness to a suffering Jesus Christ brought her peace.
In 1700, Bishop Bossuet called for another meeting of the clerics from the Issy conferences. At this meeting they cleared the reputation of Guyon, saying she had done nothing wrong. During this clergy assembly, Bishop Bossuet recorded that Guyon’s morals were not called into question, and the false testimony of others was not spoken of again. Three years later, on March 24, 1703, Madame Guyon was released from the Bastille. Because of her broken health, she was carried out of prison on a litter. Following her release, Guyon wrote Bastille Witness in which she chronicles her over eight years of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse. At the end of her Bastille memoirs, Guyon concludes about these years of intense suffering:
There is nothing greater than God and nothing smaller than I. He is rich. I am poor. I lack nothing and feel no need for anything. Death, life, it is all the same to me. Eternity, time, everything is eternity, everything is God, God is love and love is God and everything in God is for God (James and Voros 2012:99).
After her release, Guyon was ordered to stay with her eldest son and his wife, both of whom disliked her. Because of fear of physical abuse, the local bishop requested that Guyon be given her full freedom. The court granted this and she went to live in a cottage in Blois near her daughter (James 2007b:100).
In the manuscript titled “Supplement to the Life of Madame Guyon,” one of her anonymous followers writes of the many visitors who came to pray with her from around Europe and the New World. Guyon could have been sent back to the Bastille if this had been discovered, but she welcomed all of her visitors. Many Quakers from Pennsylvania came to see her and talk about quiet prayer (James 2007b).
The “Supplement to the Life of Madame Guyon” describes the continuing relationship between Guyon and Fénelon:
Her liaison with Monsieur de Fénelon continued both by written notes and by interior communication. Between souls of this kind, they are able to communicate whether they are close or far. They are able to feel each other and to know each other by an unknown means to those who don’t have the experience. Divine activities happened between these two mystical eagles. Only eternity will make these known (James 2007b:96).
Bishop Bossuet died on April 12, 1704. Archbishop Fénelon, still restricted to travel only in his archdiocese, died on January 7, 1715, in Cambrai. King Louis XIV died on September 1, 1715. François La Combe died at the prison camp where he was incarcerated, also in 1715. On June 9, 1717, at age sixty-nine, Madame Guyon died peacefully in the presence of her daughter and other friends in Blois. She had outlived most of the participants in the Great Conflict.
A number of key themes and theologies appear in the work of Madame Guyon. They include an explanation of the role of the Holy Spirit; the theology of theosis, or divinization, in which she argues for a nuptial relationship between the human soul and God; and the call to the priesthood for women and men alike.
Guyon develops a theology of the Holy Spirit throughout her various writings. Her central question was, who is the Holy Spirit and how does the Holy Spirit act in human lives? She answers these questions primarily with the emphasis that the Holy Spirit makes martyrs of chosen souls. Her thesis lies in the understanding of God’s pure love enveloping us with grace and mercy, yet the human may experience this as suffering, annihilation, and spiritual martyrdom.
In Spiritual Torrents (1853), Guyon offers a metaphor for the Holy Spirit-filled life. She says that God is like an ocean with rivers flowing into it. Many rivers travel towards this ocean but they have different paths, some meandering and others rolling along at a steady pace. Still others carry large boats loaded with property, while other rivers dry up and die. But the best river gushes along quickly as a torrent until it loses itself in the immense ocean. As the waters spill together, the river can no longer be differentiated from the ocean. Guyon explains that that this last example of the torrent shows the way Christians should seek God. The Holy Spirit opens the individual’s heart, mind, soul, and spirit to seek God passionately, just as a water torrent pushes aside everything in its way until it reaches the ocean. She writes in Spiritual Torrents that the believer then possesses a “state of deification, in which all is God. . . . God does not divinize the soul all at once, but little and little; and then, as has been said, He increases the capacity of the soul, which He can always deify more and more, since He is an unfathomable abyss” (Guyon 1853:204–05).
In Guyon’s most profound work, her Autobiography (1720), she relates the chronological story of her life along with interpretations of her life experiences. She explains her family history and describes influences that she believes shaped her personality. When Guyon wrote this book, she believed that only Bishop Bossuet would read it, consequently, she wrote spontaneously and recorded all her thoughts. Her openness about her life experiences shines through this work. She asserts that God led her out of a self-centered love and life, which she calls propriety. Through intense suffering, she united through a true, spiritual martyrdom with her Master Jesus (Guyon 1897 2:54).
The most controversial of her works was her 1685 book, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer. In this book, Guyon advocates teaching illiterate persons how to pray, and how the use of prayer can ease the pain of unhappy and abusive situations. Prayer and an inner life are seen as powerful tools in fighting the harsh realities of life.
In another major source of controversy, her Commentary on the Song of Songs of Solomon (1687), Madame Guyon describes the relationship with God, using the metaphor of a passionate, human bond between the Holy Spirit and a trusting believer. She writes that the kiss is the symbol for essential union between God and the believer. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” she quotes from the Song of Solomon 1:1. Human beings desire this union above all else, according to Guyon.
Guyon states that initially union with God occurs only with the human powers of understanding, memory, and will as embraces only and not the kiss that the human desires. In the kiss, the Word of God is fully communicated to the soul. She describes God as all mouth, and human beings as those who desire the kiss of his divine mouth. When God as all mouth communicates to the soul, the soul bears much fruit. Guyon writes about the experience of the marriage between the soul and God:
Christ invites all interior souls, who are the daughters of Zion, to go forth, out of themselves and their imperfections, to contemplate. . . . The divine nature acts as the mother to the human nature and crowns the interior soul with regal power (Guyon 2011b:137).
Guyon advocates for the Christian doctrine of theosis or divinization, an approach to prayer that holds that spiritual perfection and union with God may be known in one’s earthly lifetime. This perfection comes through a passive listening for God’s Word in the soul, a Word that purifies and enlightens as it is delivered. The person expresses faith in God’s willingness to act by listening intently for the divine Spirit, and at the reception of the Word, acting upon any divine inspirations that accompany the Word.
Guyon asserts the importance of the interior life of the heart, mind, soul, and spirit. She states that a religion of truth and justice must come from the heart during which the soul journeys toward union and divinization with God. The soul goes through many stages to reach divinization, beginning with God touching a human power, such as the heart, mind, or soul, and giving the person grace to perceive in the interior life the presence of God. These transitory moments guide the person to trust in God and understand that the greatest action we can make is that of full surrender and abandonment to the Holy Spirit. We begin to live by God’s desires for us, not by our own perceptions and desires.
Guyon claims that we must abandon ourselves to God, and no longer retain ownership of ourselves. Her term of losing our propriety means we have surrendered our will and rights to our own lives. We are no longer our own property, but we belong fully to God. We belong to God and God to us. In the full height of divinization, we participate and live in God, losing ourselves in the divine being. The soul experiences in this lifetime the beatitude of God, and no circumstance can take this blessing and peace away.
When the person experiences a pure love for God from the heart, a natural abandonment to God’s will flows from the person, according to Guyon. To touch God’s will in love creates a faithfulness to the suffering Jesus Christ, whom she calls Master Jesus. Abandonment to God’s will creates innocence because the essence of innocence is living in the will of God. These qualities of interior religion create the reality of living in the Kingdom of God, while progressing toward union with God. Guyon lived this faith and said that even in her incarceration in the Bastille, her abandonment to God filled her with “immeasurable joy . . . for I saw myself as you were, my dear Master Jesus, in the midst of evil doers” (James and Voros 2012:87).
Guyon derives this belief of theosis from John 17:21 (New Jerusalem Bible) in which Jesus Christ prays to his Father, “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” This harmony of the will of the human being with the will of God makes human happiness and powerful peace amidst difficult circumstances. In yielding the human will to God and receiving God’s will with agreeableness, we contract the habit of losing our will in that of God. Hence, the human passes into, transforms, and changes into God. Guyon writes, “As the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, so must the soul be in God and God in the soul. In order for God to be in the soul, the soul must be empty. So that the soul is in God, the soul must leave herself and pass into God to be one” (Guyon 2020:238).
Additionally, Guyon recounts her own experiences of the call to be a priest through her interpretations of dreams and spiritual direction. She interprets what she called anointing dreams in which God reveals meaning and purpose to those with ears to listen. Her spiritual director after she was widowed was Mother Geneviève Granger (1600–1674), a Benedictine prioress, who advised Guyon to marry the Child Jesus. Guyon followed this direction and reaffirmed these vows annually. Guyon referred to God as her husband of blood, a reference to a theophany of Moses regarding circumcision from Exodus 4:24-26.
[Mother Granger] told me to fast that day and to bestow some extraordinary alms, and next morning—the Magdalen’s Day, to go and communicate with a ring on my finger, and when I returned home to go into my closet, where there was an image of the Holy Child Jesus in the arms of his holy mother, and to read my contract at his feet, sign it, and put my ring to it. The contract was this: “I, N–. promise to take for my Spouse our Lord, the Child, and to give myself to him for spouse, though unworthy.” I asked of him, as dowry of my spiritual marriage, crosses, scorn, confusion, disgrace, and ignominy; and I prayed him to give me the grace to enter into his dispositions of littleness and annihilation, with something else. This I signed; after which I no longer regarded him but as my Divine Husband (Guyon 1897, 1:153).
Guyon also had an anointing dream in which Jesus Christ became her Bridegroom. In this powerful dream the Master Jesus unites with Guyon, which begins her priestly ministry with other persons. She crosses a stormy sea, ascends a mountain, and comes to a locked door at which she knocked. She writes:
Our Lord made me know in a dream that he called me to aid my neighbour. . . . The Master came to open the door, which was immediately again shut. The Master was no other than the Bridegroom, who, having taken me by hand, led me into the wood of cedars. This mountain was called Mount Lebanon. . . . The Bridegroom, turning to me, said, “I have chosen you, my Bride, to bring here to you all who shall have courage enough to pass this terrible sea, and to be there shipwrecked (Guyon 1897 2:154).
In another dream on the Feast of the Transfiguration, Guyon peacefully received a standard and a cross, while monks and priests attempted to stop the safe delivery of these to her. Guyon accepts these symbols with joy, knowing that mere mortals who wish to hinder this call can never stop the actions of God. The reception of the cross and the standard assure Guyon of her special favor in God’s sight and of her priestly function with other persons.
I saw descending from heaven a cross of immense size. I saw a number of people of all kinds—priests, monks—endeavouring to hinder it coming. I did nothing but remain quietly in my place, without trying to take it; but I was content. I perceived it approached me. With it there was a standard of the same colour as the cross. It came and cast itself of its own accord into my arms. I received it with extreme joy. The Benedictines having wished to take it from me, it withdrew from their hands to cast itself into mine (Guyon 1897 1:226).
When she was walking towards Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Guyon engaged in a chance conversation with a poor man. During this encounter, Guyon received the message that she was to achieve such a high degree of perfection in this life, that she would avoid purgatory. This conversation marked a turning point in Guyon’s life, deepening her seriousness about her religious search and her belief that the church was built upon her. She strove to understand what God was calling to her and understood herself as a foundation for the church.
After these words were put into my spirit, “It is written of me that I will do your will,” I remembered that Father La Combe had told me to ask God what he desired of me in this country. My recollection was my request: immediately these words were put into my spirit with much quickness: “Thou art Pierre [Peter], and on this stone I will establish my church; and as Pierre died on the cross, thou shalt die upon the cross.” I was convinced this was what God wished of me, but to understand its execution was what I took no trouble to know. . . . The following night I was awaked at the same hour and in the same manner as the previous night, and these words were put into my mind: “Her foundations are in the holy mountains . . . .” The next day after Mass the Father told me that he had a very great certainty that I was a “stone which God destined to be the foundation of a great edifice” (Guyon 1897 1:256–57).
One of Guyon’s friends dreamed that Guyon would have many spiritual children. In the dream, Guyon bears a priestly relationship to these children for she states that these children would be drawn to the Lord through her. Guyon writes, “that our Lord by spiritual fecundity meant to give me a great number of children . . . and that he would draw them through me into innocence” (Guyon 1897 2:181).
Guyon identified herself spiritually with the woman of the Apocalypse in Revelation 12 who is bearing a child in a scene of great danger. Guyon interprets this vision as a revelation of what she is accomplishing with her struggles as she bears the fruit of the Spirit of interior religion. Writing that God explained the mystery to her, she says:
You made me understand that the moon, which was under her feet, signified that my soul was above the vicissitude and inconstancy of events; that I was surrounded and penetrated by yourself; that the twelve stars were the fruits of this state, and the gifts with which it was honoured; that I was pregnant of a fruit, which was that spirit you wished me to communicate to all my children, whether in the manner I have mentioned, or by my writings; that the Devil was that terrible dragon who would use his efforts to devour the fruit, and cause horrible ravages through all the earth, but that you would preserve this fruit of which I was full in yourself, that it should not be lost—therefore have I confidence that, in spite of the tempest and the storm, all you have made me say or write will be preserved (Guyon 1897 2:31–32).
In summary, through her visions and dreams Guyon appropriated in her interior life powerful symbols from both the Old and New Testaments. Early in life she saw herself taking the Child Jesus as her husband of blood, a reference to the call and ministry of Moses. She said that she was the spouse of the Master and called to be a mediator of other souls with God, which is the role of priest. Later in life she thought of herself as the apostle Peter upon whom the church was built (see below). Guyon identified profoundly with symbols from the book of Revelation, seeing herself both as a white-robed martyr offering herself to God and the woman clothed with the sun, suffering as she gives birth to a new Spirit.
Throughout Guyon’s Autobiography, she reports that when placed in serious trials and suffering she remembered these symbols, which gave her strength, wisdom, and courage to persevere during her experiences with the Inquisition and imprisonment. Through the personal appropriation of these major biblical symbols, Guyon saw herself as a spiritual martyr and priest, similar to the crucified Jesus and Peter.
Guyon interpreted women’s role as being active in the rituals and sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. She taught the practice of quiet, interior prayer in A Short and Easy Method of Prayer that opened the ability to pray to all people, including illiterates. The person reads a sentence or two from the Bible or a spiritual book and waits in quiet for the great and vital truth to be present. This action will happen in the center of the soul, bringing healing and consolation. As the presence of God grows, the person withdraws their attention from the world around them, and the soul engages and feeds on these truths. In a peaceful and introverted state of “respect, confidence, and love, we swallow the blessed food that we have tasted. This method will advance the soul quickly” (Guyon 2011a:48). For those who cannot read, Guyon suggests that the person say the Lord’s Prayer in their heart, in whatever language they know, and let these truths nourish the believer.
In her unique Biblical interpretation, Guyon asserts that Mary, the mother of Jesus, presided as the priest in the sacrifice of Jesus as she stood at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion. Mary had accepted the call from the angel to bear God’s word and then served during this holocaust of God’s son. Guyon places Mary as priest serving Jesus Christ, the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek. She writes this in her Autobiography:
Did not the angel ask the consent of Mary to be the mother of the Word? Did she not immolate him upon the cross, where she remained standing like a priest assisting at the sacrifice that the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek made of himself? (Guyon 1897 2:235–36)
Guyon continues her interpretation of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as priest in her Commentary on John. She writes:
She was like pure brass that resonates and receives all the blows that her Son received. But as she received all of his blows, she maintained an interior harmony with him. This same love consummated and supported them. O Mary, it was necessary that you participate in the torture of your Son. As he delivered himself to death, you imposed on yourself this torture. . . . Mary assisted in the actions of her Son, as she participated in his love and provided the body that had to be immolated. It was necessary that she be present at his torture. Although, there is one mediator between God and human beings, Mary is a mediator between sinners and her son. O Mary, full of pain and love! Who is the sinner who will not hope from your protection given by your Son? You accompany him to torture, finally to have the right to obtain the effusion of the infinite merits of this torture on human beings (Guyon 2020:253–54).
Guyon also sees the New Testament figure Anna as both a prophet and apostle who prophecies after seeing the baby Jesus in the temple. [Image at right] Guyon writes about women as apostles and prophets in her commentary on Luke 2:36–38:
A woman who is a prophet and an apostle speaks so that we see that the Lord’s hand is not too short to save (Isaiah 59:1). God communicates his Spirit to those who please him. He has nothing to do with those who call themselves wise among men and women. Instead, his people are the simple ones living in his hands, because they do not resist him. This woman is very pure. She is advanced in age, to show that she has made great progress. She lives in this state of being a prophet and apostle (Guyon 2019a:36).
Guyon interprets Anna as a pure soul who enters the apostolic state after receiving a call from Jesus Christ.
In addition to seeing women as priests and prophets, Guyon also identifies them as apostles, focusing particularly on Mary Magdalen and her role as the apostle to the apostles, based on being the first to see the resurrected Jesus as described in Mark 16:9, and John 20:1–18. She states that Jesus is the prince of the apostles who then declares to Mary Magdalen, “You must go preach to my brothers. I want to make you an apostle of the apostles” (Guyon 2020:263). Guyon carefully develops the argument that Mary Magdalen became an apostle of equal power to the twelve male apostles. First, she describes Mary’s determination to find Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.
Her defiant and jealous love looks for her beloved. It is the characteristics of strong love to have similar defiance. What does she do in her double transport? She goes to find the prince of the apostles, as she may have no other remedy for her pain. . . . Who would dispute the love of Mary? She had no imperfect failure but was in a strong tranquility because of the perfection of her love (Guyon 2020:258).
In her commentary on John 20:17–18, Guyon states that Jesus Christ as prince of the apostles formed Mary Magdalen as the apostle of the resurrection, giving her the vocation and power of the Great Commission.
Now she eagerly wants to tell Jesus Christ that she knew him, and kiss him, and throw himself at his feet. Jesus said to her, Do not hold on to me. Yet this was not Jesus’ refusal or rejection. But it was as if he had said: “It is not time to please the transports of your love. You must go preach to my brothers. I want to make you an apostle of the apostles. But I am ascending to my Father. There we will have the leisure to see and be satisfied.” Or said in another way, Jesus Christ would like to teach Magdalen that, although she was deprived of his bodily presence, she would have the advantage that he had gone to his Father, she would possess him as truly as if we were on the earth (Guyon 2020:262–63).
According to Guyon, Jesus Christ sends Mary Magdalen as an envoy to the apostles with new theological understandings of many church doctrines that include the resurrection, ascension, the essence of the Trinity, and theosis. Indeed, in this encounter, Jesus Christ fashioned her into a powerful apostle of the resurrection. Jesus Christ sending Mary on a mission with an understanding of the resurrection not based on the male apostles establishes her as an apostle, much like the apostle Paul, who encountered the resurrected Christ and was sent on a mission.
On same day that Mary Magdalen gives the message to the apostles, in the evening Jesus Christ appeared to all of them. The author of John gives the details that the doors were locked and Jesus had to be in a resurrected state to enter the room (John 20:19–23). Guyon summarizes, “Mary Magdalen was the apostle of the resurrection and her words were soon confirmed by an appearance of Jesus Christ” (Guyon 2020:263).
To bolster her argument, Guyon turned to Revelation 12:1–2, where she writes that the woman described there is the female image for the church. [Image at right] In the labor pains of childbirth, the woman struggles to bring forth truth and justice. In pain, she struggles to deliver the interior Spirit, which is a very rare reality in the church. The woman also exemplifies the power of prayer as it brings new life into the church. Guyon critiques the church when she writes that:
The church is ready to give birth to the interior Spirit. She is pregnant with this Spirit, which is like the second coming of Jesus Christ. She is crying out in birth pangs, in agony to produce the fruit. . . . The church has not yet produced the divine motion in her children but there have been some who have been sprouts and have been part of the divine filiation, explained in Paul. But they are very rare. However, all Christians have been called to this vocation, but they do not respond (Guyon 2019b:76–77, emphases in original).
The church, symbolized as the women clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and wearing a crown of twelve stars (Rev 12:1), struggled to give birth to truth and the interior Spirit. In their respective works, Guyon and Fénelon attempted to keep mysticism alive to bring the interior Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers. Guyon understood that the church needed to develop and live the interior life, while accepting the full ministry of women.
How did Guyon understand her own suffering as she pursued these difficult goals? Even though she suffered much physical, spiritual, and emotional abuse, she describes how God’s justice gives us the delight and pleasure of pure love. In her own priestly mediation, she knew God as Father and understood that her written words interpreting the role of women as priests and apostles would endure because they were based in the great truth of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The widowed aristocratic woman, Madame Guyon, accepted her identity from her Master Jesus Christ as an apostle sent to minister to many people, whom she called children. She suffered over eight years of incarceration, including five years in the infamous Bastille. Because of these years of torment, Guyon suffered and struggled with her self-understanding. Guyon painfully searched for new thoughts about her spiritual gifts and how to use them. At times her progress seemed quite painful, particularly as she desperately sought to understand her priestly function in regard to other souls. Guyon used her insights from her interior life, scriptures, and conversations with devoted friends to help her in this excruciating struggle. Her words tell of her struggle for self-understanding, as we now examine these illuminations that she experienced
Guyon frequently expresses profound introspection, as she attempts to understand herself. She tells of her experience as she left the convent after her first imprisonment in which she expresses poignant questions about who she is.
Yesterday morning I was thinking, But who are you? what are you doing? what are you thinking? Are you alive, that you take no more interest in what affects you than if it did not affect you? I am greatly astonished at it, and I have to apply myself to know if I have a being, a life, a subsistence (Guyon 1897 2:217).
Guyon rejected the traditional roles for women both in her personal life and in her religious work. She refused the role of nun, believing that her call from God was too broad for the limitation this would place on her ministry. She also rejected the role of nurse, even though she found satisfaction in making healing ointments and caring for the infirm. Following the death of her husband, she turned away from any possible future marriages and hence from the role of wife. During the long struggle with her half-brother, Father La Mothe, Guyon expressed herself as an assertive sister and did not fall into a submissive role with him.
The role she accepted was that of priest, which she understood as a supernatural role mediating on behalf of humanity, as she accepted suffering from God on behalf of all people. Recognizing that she had weakness and infirmity, she could sympathize with other human beings, which is the standard for the high priest spoken of in the book of Hebrews 4:14–15. This passage says that the high priest is “not incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us but has been put to the test in exactly the same way as ourselves.”
Guyon said she experienced the ecstasy of the transcendence of God while knowing the darkest human despair. She spent hours in contemplation of God, thinking about the scriptures, meditating on wisdom, and then offering her knowledge and insights to other persons. She taught illiterate persons how to pray, she taught beaten, abused women how to endure what they could not change, and she spiritually fed priests, monks, nuns, and clergy of all stations in the Roman Catholic Church. She felt that she suffered to assist those for whom she cared. In particular, she experienced suffering over her mediation for the soul of François La Combe, who died in 1715 while still imprisoned (James 2007a:10).
Madame Guyon overcame her understanding of the traditional role of women in seventeenth-century France and assumed the role of priest for other souls, believing she had heavenly power over other souls. Because of the strict prohibition of women in ecclesiastical leadership roles, Guyon felt deeply the disapproval of society that surrounded her, and experienced pain at being called a witch (Guyon 1897, 2:98). While enduring these persecutions, she maintained the integrity of what she perceived as God’s call and claim upon her life. As such, Madame Guyon was a pioneer in the expansion of the understanding that women could seek and approach the Holy of Holies, following the example of Mary (priest, apostle, the mother of Jesus) and Mary Magdalen (apostle of the resurrection).
Guyon expressed strong belief in her role as priest or mediator. She dreamed of her martyrdom and union with God, even as she expressed visions of helping countless other persons. She wrote that out of her own martyrdom, the Holy Spirit would create spiritual food for many. As a result, she would then have her own spiritual crucifixion and resurrection. One sees in Guyon’s dreams and visions her mind forming the image of a priestly role for herself, about which she wrote at great length.
Vivid biblical metaphors of herself as the bride of Christ and the woman clothed in the sun appear throughout Guyon’s work. She used this metaphorical language to help others comprehend her identity and her ministry. Unfortunately, these visions infuriated Bishop Bossuet and others when she presented them.
Guyon recognized that her spiritual insights were not welcome in many places in the Roman Catholic Church. Guyon both challenged and threatened the church hierarchy by calling on it to ordain priests, men and women, capable of receiving divine messages or oracles. Her visions and dreams indicate that Guyon exercised her priestly functions generously, for all persons, believing that God blessed her ministry and would grant her innumerable spiritual children. Guyon dreamed that a new and righteous era was coming, an era when her feminine gifts of priesthood would be understood and welcomed.
The challenges Madame Guyon faced continue into our current era, with Bishop Bossuet’s persecution still casting shadows over historical remembrance of her gifts and accomplishments.
The complex controversy, called the Great Conflict, was filled with contradiction, strife, and irony. Bishop Bossuet had previously issued the Issy document saying that Guyon was not a heretic, but later charged her with heresy, even though she had not issued any new writings. Madame de Maintenon, the wife of King Louis XIV, said that she wished to save Archbishop Fénelon from the influence of Guyon even as she worked for his destruction. Madame Guyon advocated passivity before God and abandonment of self to God’s will even as she strongly defended herself. Fénelon attempted to serve King Louis XIV, although the king stripped away his right to travel and confined him to his archdiocese in Cambrai when he should have been able to travel to Rome and defend his publication. Fénelon and Guyon remained loyal friends, even as many throughout Europe scorned their relationship.
The Great Conflict occurred as the French Catholic Church was not only resisting Protestantism, but was also torn apart internally by discord between the Jansenists and the Jesuits, the controversy over Quietism, and Louis XIV’s Gallican attempt to eliminate the authority of the pope over kings. In this conflict, the three strong characters of Guyon, Bossuet, and Fénelon each endeavored to realize their own conception of truth, each totally convinced that they were correct. They struggled both with the intensity of understanding the experience of God, while participating in the tumultuous life at the royal court at Versailles. Seeking their understanding of eternal truths in the highly charged worldly atmosphere of the French royal court, Guyon, Fénelon, and Bossuet eventually also involved the pope and Vatican officials in a controversy that touched upon many delicate, yet significant issues, not the least of which were the power of the pope himself and the very nature of the human mystical experience of God.
A key question was whether there was truth in Quietism and, what, if any, was the validity of mystical experience itself? The question of whether Guyon intimately knew God and spoke God’s words consumed the lives and hearts of many persons for several years. She has been identified as part of the self-emptying apophatic mystic tradition in which she focused on affective issues (James 1997:235). Her personal concerns about the meaning of suffering caused her to develop a soteriology that leveled distinctions in church and society. Beyond that, Guyon asserted that suffering purified her and allowed her to develop priestly gifts of mediation between God and others. This role was deemed unacceptable by Bishop Bossuet and other clerical and temporal authorities, leading to her condemnation and incarceration.
Guyon was a pioneer in the Roman Catholic Church, as she searched for ways for all women to express their thoughts and ministries. [Image at right] An active mystic seeking union with God, she constantly sought to help other women find their places in society and in the church. As such, Guyon can be classified as a Christian feminist long before other women claimed central roles in the ministry of the church, and she interpreted Bible passages in support of her justification of the priesthood and apostleship of women.
The Catholic scholar, Bernard McGinn, in his 2021 book, The Crisis of Mysticism, claimed that this era of condemnations and heresies was a “disaster” for the Catholic Church and to Western culture. He named this French controversy as the major turning point in the suppression of mysticism in the Roman Catholic Church, describing this as a disaster because of “the anti-mystical reaction that did such harm to Catholicism” (McGinn 2021:5). This scholar of mystical Christianity writes, “When the church lost faith in the mystics and their message about finding God by interiority, the game was over. This self-inflicted wound was exacerbated by the triumph of Enlightenment rationalism in Western society. . . . Mysticism thus became irrational nonsense to many, a view that continues to the present” (McGinn 2021:5–6).
Yet McGinn also misinterprets Guyon’s thoughts on female priesthood, writing, “Guyon, of course, never claimed apostolic ecclesiastical or sacramental authority, something unthinkable at the time” (McGinn 2021:231) To the contrary, Guyon not only claimed female priestly authority, but said Mary the mother of Jesus was a priest at the crucifixion of her Son. Guyon says Jesus Christ was the prince of the apostles and Mary Magdalen was the apostle of the resurrection and part of the apostles receiving the Great Commission.
The official Roman Catholic interpretation of Guyon continues to ignore the evidence presented by Archbishop Fénelon and many others (see Saint-Simon 1967). In his Crisis of Mysticism, McGinn evaluates Guyon’s narratives as “often self-centered, even self-serving” (150) with “exaggerations” (232) and “rhetorical excesses” (168). Nevertheless, McGinn declares Guyon’s spiritual authority as “extraordinary” (155) and imaginatively creates a dialogue where Guyon says to Fénelon, “I’m in control of you” (208). McGinn acknowledges the breakdown of boundaries “between female mystics and clerical advisors, directors, and confessors,” yet relies on sources unfavorable to Guyon (McGinn 2021:310). The Roman Catholic Church placed Guyon’s books on the Catholic Index of Forbidden Books and supported her eight years of incarceration. Both Fénelon’s censure and Guyon’s incarceration need an official clearing to restore the rightful place of mysticism in the Roman Catholic Church.
Madame Guyon offered spiritual consolation and hope to many, while advocating for biblical interpretations showing that Jesus Christ created and honored women as apostles and priests. The Roman Catholic Church continues to deny justice to Guyon and ignores her important theological contributions. This injustice done to Guyon needs to be addressed and corrected.
SIGNIFICANCE TO THE STUDY OF WOMEN IN RELIGIONS
Madame Guyon’s prolific number of books, letters, and biblical commentaries offer theological insights and interpretations that have exerted international influence in many different cultures and faiths. Her major works include her Autobiography, Spiritual Torrents, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, and Commentary on the Song of Songs of Solomon. Guyon also published commentaries on every book in the Bible related to the interior interpretation of scriptures.
Her compelling history of suffering an unjust Inquisition and over eight years of incarceration inspired her articulation of a theology of the Holy Spirit on suffering. Guyon offers one primary metaphor to explain the sufferings and unhappiness of her life. She states that she is a martyr of the Holy Spirit and she explains this in detail through her life story. Her Autobiography was written to show how God gave her these instances of martyrdom, not only for her personal redemption but also for the redemption of others (Guyon 1897 1:256–58; James and Voros 2012:91).
Guyon challenged the patriarchy and male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Although they made her suffer, she successfully defended herself in the hidden court in the Bastille without even knowing the accusations against her and having no legal counsel. Madame Guyon suffered almost a decade of false accusations and interrogations about sexual impropriety with Father La Combe and Archbishop Fénelon. In 1700 Bishop Bossuet led a group of clergy that completely exonerated her of charges of immorality.
Because of Madame Guyon’s steadfast and strong defense of herself, she opened a way for female leadership and priesthood. She recounted her dreams in which God supported her as a theologian and priest. She claimed the role of apostle, and stated Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a priest and apostle, as was Mary Magdalen, the apostle of resurrection to the male apostles. Guyon applied the Great Commission not only to the male apostles the church officially recognized, but the female apostles that the Roman Catholic Church ignored and overlooked. As a result, Madame Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Mothe Guyon opened a window into a different world, in which women and men alike can become priests and reveal the divine Word to humanity. She taught that through this open window, God becomes one with us, divinizing us, uniting, and marrying our waiting and purified soul.
Image #1: Young Madame Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Mothe Guyon.
Image #2: Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Mothe Guyon.
Image #3: Bishop Jacques Bénigne Bossuet.
Image #4: Madame Françoise de Maintenon, King Louis XIV secret wife. Painting by Pierre Mignard, 1694. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Image #5: Archbishop François Fénelon.
Image #6: Madame Guyon’s book, Interior Faith, a commentary on the Gospel of Luke.
Image #7: Madame Guyon’s book, Apocalyptic Universe, a commentary on the Book of Revelation.
Image #8: Madame Guyon, portrait by Elisabeth Sophie Chéron, seventeenth century.
Bedoyere, Michael de la. 1956. The Archbishop and the Lady. London: Collins.
Bossuet, Jacques-Bénigne. 1689. Quakerism a-la-mode, or A History of Quietisms: Particularly that of the Lord Arch-Bishop of Cambray and Madam Guyone…also an account of the management of that controversie (now depending at Rome) betwixt the Arch-bishop’s book. London: J. Harris and A. Bell.
Fénelon, François. 1964. Letters of Love and Counsel. Translated by John McEwen. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 2023. Jeanne Guyon’s Biblical Commentary on Matthew. Translated by Nancy Carol James. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 2020. Jeanne Guyon’s Mystical Perfection through Eucharistic Suffering: Her Biblical Commentary on Saint John’s Gospel. Translated by Nancy Carol James. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 2019a. Jeanne Guyon’s Interior Faith: Her Biblical Commentary on Gospel of Luke. Translated by Nancy Carol James. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 2019b. Jeanne Guyon’s Apocalyptic Universe: Her Biblical Commentary on Revelation. Translated by Nancy Carol James. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 2011a. A Short and Easy Method of Prayer in The Complete Madame Guyon. Edited and translated by Nancy C. James. Pages 39–94. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 2011b. The Song of Songs of Solomon in The Complete Madame Guyon. Edited and translated by Nancy C. James. Pages 95–192. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 1982. Madame Guyon’s Spiritual Letters. Jacksonville, Florida: Christian Books Publishing House.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 1897. Autobiography of Madame Guyon. Volumes. 1 and 2. Translated by Thomas Taylor Allen. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 1853. Spiritual Torrents. Translated A. E. Ford. Boston: O. Clapp.
James, Nancy Carol, and Sharon Voros. 2012. Bastille Witness: The Prison Autobiography of Madame Guyon. Lanham, MD: University Press of Maryland.
James, Nancy Carol. 2007a. The Pure Love of Madame Guyon: The Great Conflict in King Louis XIV’s Court. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
James, Nancy Carol, translator. 2007b. Supplement to the Life of Madame Guyon in The Pure Love of Madame Guyon: The Great Conflict in King Louis XIV’s Court. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
James, Nancy Carol. 1997. “The Apophatic Mysticism of Madame Guyon.” Ph.D. dissertation. Ann Arbor: UMI dissertation services.
McGinn, Bernard. 2021. The Crisis of Mysticism: Quietism in Seventeenth-Century Spain, Italy, and France. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.
Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy, Duc de. 1967. Historical Memoirs of the Duc de Saint-Simon. Volume. 1. Edited and translated by Lucy Norton. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company.
Guyon, Jeanne de la Motte. 1982. Madame Guyon’s Spiritual Letters. Jacksonville, Florida: Christian Books Publishing House.
James, Nancy Carol. 2019. Divine Love: The Emblems of Madame Jeanne Guyon and Otto van Veen, Volumes 1 and 2. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Papers.
James, Nancy Carol. 2017. Jeanne Guyon’s Christian Worldview: Her Biblical Commentaries on Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Papers.
James, Nancy Carol. 2014. I, Jeanne Guyon. Jacksonville, FL: Seedsowers.
James, Nancy Carol. 2005. Standing in the Whirlwind: The Riveting Story of a Priest and the Congregations That Tormented Her. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.
James, William. 1997. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: A Touchstone Book.
15 March 2023