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A self-destructive dogma

20 February 2015

Robin Ward considers how passivity caused one French mystic to fall from grace


The Complete Madame Guyon
Nancy C. James, editor and translator
Paraclete Press £16.99

The Prison Narratives of Jeanne Guyon
Ronney Mourad and Dianne Guenin-Lelle
OUP £35.99
Church Times Bookshop £32.40

THE 17th century was a period of extraordinary religious effervescence in France. But, as at court the early promise of Louis XIV's reign gave way to war-weariness, paranoia, and decay, so the vitality of the French Church began to wane, faced with deep-seated controversies about grace and authority.

In particular, the pursuit of holiness of life through prayer began to throw up curious and unsavoury currents, in which indifference to the sacramental life, and even to Christian morality, seemed legitimate as ways of showing submission to the will of God.

Jeanne Guyon (1648-1717) is a key figure in this story for three reasons: first, she was of high social rank, and her influence as a spiritual guide was felt right up to the King's circle. Second, she expressed her teaching in popular writing; third, she enjoyed the support of the ablest of the French bishops, François Fénelon of Cambrai.

The King's secret wife Madame de Maintenon came to admire Guyon's most important popular work, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, but then was disillusioned with the moral indiscretions apparently prompted by the doctrine of passivity arising from Guyon's involvement in her school at St Cyr. Moreover, as her patron Fénelon fell out of favour with the King for doctrinal and political reasons, so Guyon suffered vicariously for him, eventually being imprisoned from 1695 to1703.

After her release, she became an odd sort of pietist tourist attraction in retirement at Blois, where she was much visited by the English, who saw her as a martyr to popery and absolutism.

The Complete Madame Guyon, edited and translated by Nancy Evans, is, in fact, not complete. It contains her two most important works, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer and The Song of Songs of Solomon, together with a very short extract from her autobiography, and some of her poems. This is the pith of her spiritual teaching, in which the centrality of contemplative prayer, and the indifference of the soul to acting in its own interest before God, are evident.

This collection overlaps to a great extent with Jeanne Guyon: Selected writings, published in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, and edited by Mourad and Guenin-Lelle. They have now extended their work with this English translation of the Prison Narratives, a section of Guyon's autobiography, omitted to protect her family, which remained undiscovered until 1992. It contains little that enlarges our understanding of what she taught, and is a dismal history of a devout soul subjected to pointless ill-treatment.

Guyon's life is a depressing testimony to the way in which the first fervour of the Catholic revival in France dissipated itself in the febrile atmosphere of a declining monarchy, even if her contribution to the life of the spirit was, in the end, one that harboured the seed of its own demise.

Canon Robin Ward is the Principal of St Stephen's House, Oxford.

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