Sunday, June 09, 2013

Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon - some consider her a saint.

Mme. Guyon

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.

Like this:
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.

And this:
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'. 

Random factoids:

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.


  1. Great post. St. Teresa of Avila had trouble with Quietists trying to join her monasteries. Some clerics thought that Teresa herself was a Quietist because of some of the books she read which were burned by the Inquisition, such as THE THIRD SPIRITUAL ALPHABET, which later was approved. Not all the Bequines were into Quietism. Blessed John Soreth organized some Beguines into a real monastery and they became the first Carmelite nuns. The Beguines came to have the full approval of the Church.

  2. I have never heard that the Beguines had any connection to the Cathars. I don't think that is true.

  3. Elena - I knew this would interest you - you will know more than I do about the Beguines. I think the brief description I link to suggest more or less suggest a stray group or two may have been held suspect of Cathar influence - or something like that.

    Who was it that wrote of the medieval anchoresses as being gossip center, and so on?

    Thanks for adding the Bl. Soreth foundation and the reference to St. Teresa and the Third Spiritual Alphabet - Teresa discusses that as well in her 'Life'.

    I'm interested in what you think of my impression that the many spirituality movements in our day seem to resemble the olden days? My impression is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Of course, none of the movements were bad in themselves - as long as they submitted to the Church.

    History is fascinating and does repeat itself.

    I wish we could talk - I was surprised that Guyon was actually imprisoned in the Bastille.

    You should write a book on her.

    1. Obviously I posted my comment without editing. Sorry!

  4. Oh! Oh! And she had Bouvier in her name - what if she is related to Jackie and Lee?

  5. I couldn't sleep today (I'm working nightshift) and when I can't sleep I pull out a book I have called Chronicle of the Popes by P.G. Maxwell-Stuart. I was reading about how Innocent XII condemned certain mystical ideas of Madame de Guyon. It didn't explain what they were but I meant to google her or something. Pretty cool how you explained it all for me. Thanks. I still can't sleep though.

  6. And on the anniversary of her death yet...

  7. I've never heard anyone reliable say anything good about centering prayer.

  8. Anonymous7:48 AM

    I am now wondering if it is Quietism to let Jesus love us, like when in Adoration? I sometimes think of the notion of being still and knowing that He is God, but I am fearing that may be Quietism.

  9. Anonymous8:04 AM

    Or this: when I came across this quote from Fénelon a few years ago, who I read is associated with Semiquietism, I was really taken up with it - but I fear now it may be false:

    "The abundance of His love will do more to correct you than all your anxious self-contemplation."

    And yet, it seems to me that may be a reply to Pelagianism. Also, when I come from Adoration, most times, I do feel more 'corrected' than with all my efforts at self-contemplation or self-perfection. I feel as though I cannot really be good or striving for goodness on a daily basis without that contact with Christ in Adoration - I fall apart.

    1. No, silence is not quietism. Our adoration, or the silence of a thanksgiving after Communion is not quietism. Our abiding sense of the presence of God isn't quietism, nor is the practice of abandonment to Divine Providence. Remember, there is the prayer of quiet too - which St. Teresa writes about and brought the Inquisition down on her. Her teaching is correct of course.

      I shouldn't write about these things without going into great detail to explain the difference because they tend to be confusing. I'm sorry.

      The Fenelon quote: "The abundance of His love will do more to correct you than all your anxious self-contemplation." Works for me - in fact it seems to me to echo St. Paul who says that God's grace in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

      Don't become 'disquieted'. :)

  10. Anonymous9:51 AM

    Thank you, Terry. No need to apologize (to me, anyway). I appreciate your insight very much!

    The Fenelon quote struck me as sound when I first read it, whatever his association with Quietism may be otherwise.

  11. Yes, I totally agree that there are many parallels with off-center spiritual movements of the past and present. I don't know who wrote about the anchoresses and gossip but I know that before St. Teresa's conversion her parlor grate at the Incarnation was THE place for witty, sparkling conversation with spiritual overtones.

    Oh, dear, I don't want to write a book on Madame de Guyon. Just too boring for me.

  12. Thank you for your article. I am a descendant of Mrs Guyon and I am always surprised seeing articles on her many years after her death.


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