June 9th is the anniversary of Mme. Guyon's death.
I decided to write a bit about Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon*, a French mystic and promoter of a little heresy known as Quietism, who died in 1717. Mme. Guyon's story reminds me that idiosyncratic mystics have always been around in the Church - often getting in trouble - just like today. It seems rather fortuitous that I'd come across Madame Guyon today, not just because it is the anniversary of her death, but because I've been thinking about the recently deceased M. Nadine Brown, foundress of the Intercessors of the Lamb as well. (Like Mme. Guyon, many of M. Nadine's followers hold her in the highest esteem, and I have no intention, nor competence, to criticize that, much less denigrate M. Nadine's reputation.)
That said, I often write about charismatic new monastic, religious groups, and or idiorrythmic hermits, mystics and contemplatives. For one - I'm fascinated by them; two, I kind of sort of used to be attracted to such groups; three, I'm suspicious of such groups. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
While reading about Mme. Guyon I was led to the religious phenomenon of the Beguines-Beghards, lay-religious folk: a sort of school of mysticism developed around these folks throughout the 13th-15th centuries. If you are looking for scholarship here, read no further - I'm not writing a study - just sharing my thoughts and making a few observations. For brevity sake I will cut and paste information about who, what, and where.
The Beguines and the Beghards were Christian lay religious orders that were active in Germany and the Low Countries in the 13th–16th centuries. Their members lived in semi-monastic communities but did not take formal religious vows.
They were influenced by Albigensian teachings and by the Brethren of the Free Spirit, which flourished in and around Cologne at the same time but was later condemned as heretical. - Read more here.
Madame Guyon was a French mystic and one of the key advocates of Quietism. Quietism was considered heretical by the Roman Catholic Church, and she was imprisoned from 1695 to 1703 after publishing a book on the topic, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer
After her husband's death, Madame Guyon initially lived quietly as a wealthy widow in Montargis. In 1679, through circumstances, she re-established contact with François La Combe, the superior of the Barnabite house in Thonon in Savoy .
After a third mystical experience in 1680, Madame Guyon felt herself drawn to Geneva. The Bishop of Geneva, Jean d’Arenthon d’Alex, persuaded her to use her money to set up a house for “new Catholics” in Gex, in Savoy, as part of broader plans to convert Protestants in the region. In July 1680, Madame Guyon left Montargis with her young daughter and travelled to Gex.
The project was problematic, however, and Madame Guyon clashed with the sisters who were in charge of the house. The Bishop of Geneva sent Father La Combe to intervene. At this point, Guyon introduced La Combe to a mysticism of interiority. While her daughter was in an Ursuline convent in Thonon as a pensioner, Madame Guyon continued in Gex, experiencing illness and great difficulties, including opposition from her family. She gave over guardianship of her two sons to her mother-in-law and renounced her personal possessions, keeping a sizeable annuity for herself.
In consequence of the effects her mystical ideas produced, however, the Bishop of Geneva, D'Aranthon d'Alex, who had at first viewed her coming with satisfaction, asked her to leave his diocese, and at the same time expelled Father Lacombe, who moved to the Bishop of Vercelli. - Read more here.
[So. As Frank Costanza might say: "So what you got here is this: you got your mystics, your contemplatives, your hermits and your new orders and movements - you got trouble! (He yells that - "YOU GOT TROUBLE!" And Estelle gets upset. That's how this blog works - but I digress.)]
Quietism. What is it?
Centering prayer. What? Tongues then? The Jesus prayer? I'm just throwing that stuff out here to upset Estelle. But the following is a brief description:
Quietism is the name given to a set of Christian beliefs that rose in popularity in through France, Italy, and Spain during the late 1670s and 1680s, were particularly associated with the writings of Miguel de Molinos (and subsequently François Malaval and Madame Guyon), and which were condemned as heresy by Pope Innocent XI in the papal bull Coelestis Pastor of 1687. The “Quietist” heresy was seen to consist of wrongly elevating ‘contemplation’ over ‘meditation’, intellectual stillness over vocal prayer, and interior passivity over pious action in an account of mystical prayer, spiritual growth and union with God (one in which, the accusation ran, there existed the possibility of achieving a sinless state and union with God.) - Read more here.**I suspect things are crazier today because everyone is so 'learned' and mystical teddy bear books abound to teach people how to pray and become mystics - and imprimaturs are few and far between.. Likewise, there are charismatic visionaries and mystics popping up all over, and there are religious instructors and spiritual directors - some priests - who are there to guide the eager contemplative along their way.
So put your discernment caps on - not the 'sorting hat' - but the Roman Catholic discernment hat. Don't go to strangers, trust only what is approved and authorized by the Church. In Guyon's day, just as in our day, one was able to find priests and bishops who were just as misled as the souls they approved. They too were sanctioned - some obeyed, some did not - some were called Protestants back then. Today they are usually identified as dissenters. One more reason to wary, and maintain a healthy skepticism.
The amazing thing about the earlier mystics and Quietists is they had a substantial following and influenced many religious and churchmen... just like today. Errors are often deeply embedded in traditional teaching and observance - all heresies are like that - very easily mistaken for what is true. We usually think of these leaders as saints - sometimes they may be. Sometimes not. One can't help but think of personalities such as Fr. Gino, and Fr. Maciel and others who have gone off the rails and perhaps unintentionally deceived others by their show of piety and 'schools of spirituality'. Then of course there are so many seers and locutionists who purport to have a direct contact with God... what is one to do?
IMHO, more insidious are the false mystics who began well but drifted into quietist types of spirituality. Think of some of the Cenacle nuns who run retreats, or traditional retreat houses and monasteries which host New Age retreats and speakers. Then there are the charismatic leaders of spiritual movements, some good, some cult-like. When the local ordinary finds a problem with them - you can be sure something is not right. If it goes to a higher authority, such as the Vatican - you wait and see.
Don't go to strangers. Oh. And just because someone has a spiritual director that doesn't give them carte blanche to promulgate their personal meditations as 'teachings'.
Some see Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement as a sort of modern day Beguinage.
I would think L'Arche communities fit that description better.
I personally think Centering Prayer borders on Quietism and New Age spirituality. I know many disagree with me on that.
If a blind man leads another blind man, both fall into a pit. John of the Cross said something like that.
*Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon died in the good graces of the Church as well.
**Yes, I used the Wiki descriptions because they are more succinct and are basic enough for my purposes here.