Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon /Madame Guyon (1648-1717)


French mystic and writer, a central figure in the theological debates of 17th-century France through her advocacy of quietism, an extreme passivity and indifference of the soul, even to eternal salvation, wherein she believed that one became an agent of God.

She determined to devote her life to the poor and needy, and to the cultivation of spiritual perfection. Between 1681 and 1686 she visited several cities, but had to move on when her Quietist teachings upset the local bishops. She finally settled in Paris, but was arrested for heretical opinions. Released by the intervention of Mme de Maintenon, she continued teaching and was again imprisoned (1695–1702).

Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte lived the first 33 years of her life in Montargis, about 50 miles south of Paris. Her family was well-connected locally but not wealthy. At 16 she was married to Jacques Guyon, a wealthy neighbor 22 years older than she. The marriage was not a happy one, and she found refuge in "interior prayer," which allowed her to at least temporarily escape the frustrations of her life. Jacques Guyon died in 1676, and his 28-year-old widow was left with a good income but with three young children to care for (two others had died earlier).

Four years later Guyon felt called to leave her home in order to share with others her way of prayer. In 1681, leaving her two sons in the care of her family, she took her daughter and left France for the Duchy of Savoy. Shortly after her arrival, Guyon was assigned as confessor a Savoyard priest of the Barnabite order, Francois La Combe, whom she had met briefly ten years before.

La Combe was already teaching a form of interior prayer which church authorities were nervous about because it seemed to devalue oral prayer and "good works," and so to support the Protestant belief in justification by faith alone. Guyon's beliefs were much the same: her critics would later claim that she had been influenced by La Combe, while she always maintained that she had arrived at her belief independently. At any rate, their association---a priest and a woman living away from her family---gave rise to rumors of immorality. In fact, for the five years Guyon was in or near Savoy, she apparently seldom saw La Combe. What she did do was meet with religious and lay people and teach them her method of interior prayer. Out of these meetings grew her writings.

In 1682 Guyon wrote Les Torrents spirituels, which was circulated among her friends. She also began, at La Combe's request, to write an account of her spiritual life, which she would continue to work on until 1709; this would become La vie de Mme. J.M.B. de la Mothe Guion. In the following year she began a series of reflections on the books of the Bible; these were also circulated among her followers. For a lay person, especially a woman, to comment on Scripture was hazardous, but all this was done privately.

In 1685, however, a friend printed a work in which Guyon described her way of prayer, Moyen court et tres facile pour l'oraison (A short and very easy method of prayer); the publication meant that the work was available not only to those who shared Guyon's views but also to those who opposed them. 1685 was not a good year to be publishing non-traditional ideas: in Rome, a Spanish priest, Miguel de Molinos, was imprisoned for having written a book not much more extreme than Guyon's; in Paris, Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which had granted a measure of religious freedom) was followed by much heresy-hunting.

In 1686 Guyon returned to Paris, apparently due to ill health. She was accompanied by La Combe, who had been transferred there; this set off a new train of rumors. It was the rumors of immorality that Guyon always worried about; she believed her and La Combe's teachings so reasonable and natural that they could never get anyone into trouble. She was wrong. A year later, La Combe was put in prison (where he would remain until his death). Three months after that, Guyon received a royal "lettre de cachet," ordering her to go to a convent in a suburb of Paris for interrogation.

Among Guyon's friends were powerful courtiers, and with their help she was released after seven months. Through these friends Guyon met the priest Francois de Salignac de la Mothe-Fenelon, a rising star in the French church and court, and a protege of the powerful Jacques-Benigne Bossuet. Guyon and Fenelon became friends; depending on whom one reads, she either corrupted an innocent or taught a worldly young man how to pray.

In the same year, 1688, one part of Guyon's reflections on the Bible was published as Commentaire de Cantique des Cantiques de Salomon (Commentary on the Song of Songs of Solomon). Still, for the next few years Guyon lived safely and continued to teach and write. A long letter to Fenelon written in 1689 circulated and would eventually be published as Petit abrege de la voie et de la reunion de l'ame a Dieu (Concise view of the way to God and of the union of the soul wtith God).

By 1693 his friends saw Guyon as a danger to Fenelon, and the rumors about her re-surfaced. Convinced, as always, that reasonable men would see the reasonableness of her views, Guyon turned to Bossuet for help, and wrote Justifications, a defense of her earlier works. The result was further interrogation followed by seven years of imprisonment, including four years in the Bastille.

In 1703, Guyon was released from prison. She was paroled to her elder son in Blois, and she was ordered not to write or teach. Guyon, of course, continued to do both until her death 14 years later. The final section of La vie was published only in 1992, as Recits de captivite.

Not all of Guyon's writings have been translated into English, but enough is available to reveal a woman still controversial---still seen by some as a martyred saint and by others as a fool.

On this page you'll find:

Links to helpful sites online.

Excerpts from (or information on) translations in print:
Les Torrents spirituels
Moyen court et tres facile pour l'oraison
Petit abrege de la voie et de la reunion de l'ame a Dieu
Commentaire au Cantique des cantiques de Salomon
Commentaire sur Livre de Job
Vie de Madame J.M.B. de la Mothe Guyon

Information about secondary sources.