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Jeanne Guyon: Learning to Pray in the Digital Age from an Imprisoned Mystic

May 11th, 2023 | 9 min read

By Stephanie Bennett

Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon (1648–1717) discovered a particular discipline of prayer in which she could inhabit the “peace of God in the very midst of oppression and intense hardship.”[1] Her autobiography and books of Biblical study are fertile ground for the maturing Christian, but it is her shorter work, Union With God that remains most widely read and useful in devotional practice. The text, edited and revised from her publication in 1685, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, continues to inspire believers to remain more fully in the rest and peace of Christ, and has appeared in various forms and editions over 300 years.

Although she spent seven grisly years confined to the infamous Bastille prison in Paris, Guyon never abandoned the Roman Catholic Church in which she was raised; her only crime was the belief that the mystery of God’s active presence in the world could be apprehended through a rich life of interior prayer.[2] The saga started slowly with a record of correspondence between Guyon and her cousin, Archbishop Francois Fenelon (1651-1715). King Louis XIV became aware of her writings and feared that they might inspire others to join the Quietist movement – a fast-growing, post-Reformation group of Christians that flourished throughout Spain, Italy, and France. Its followers advocated quiet prayer over vocal prayer along with a more general acquiescence to the trials of everyday life, trusting that the Lord would order their steps and allow all things to work toward a true transformation of the soul. The Quietists’ more passive way of prayer elevated perseverance, purity, and loving abandonment to the active presence of the Holy Spirit over and above a rules-driven faith. Ecclesial powers perceived this as a threat to royal authority, fearing that it might produce independence from the church and a lessening of the King’s power. Although she never considered herself a Quietist, Guyon’s beliefs about deep communion with God were similar to those of the Quietist movement. Her writings about silent prayer were the start of her problems with the Church and the beginning of the King’s wrath to come. Guyon’s simple, child-like faith was rooted in a longing for the peace of Christ in everyday life, peace that would allow her to walk in joy and compassion in spite of her life of intense suffering. Her own story and the devotional writings she left behind can be of great service to believers today, especially those earnestly desiring a closer communion with God, now even more elusive in the hectic pace of today’s digital culture.

Imprisonment and Ignominy

Jeanne’s “crime” was fraught with problems; she simply wanted to love God and walk with Him more closely in everyday life. But this longing for God –and her openness about it — placed her in the crossfire of religious ideology. Instead of being received as a disciple of Christ, she was accused of being a heretic, a mystic, and immoral. It was the Frenchman, Francois Fenelon, her cousin and respected tutor to the King’s son who stood up for Guyon as a character witness.[3] He knew Jeanne well and admired her ardent devotion to God. In spite of persistently advocating her innocence, a number of other church officials argued that her voice was divisive and should be quashed. Although she was eventually exonerated and released from prison, Fenelon’s efforts could not help Guyon escape the suffering and shame that put her in jail. The censure and incarceration that began with detainment at a nunnery in Vincennes intensified until she was subjected to the notorious Bastille of Paris, there spending seven years in solitary confinement. Ultimately, the drama ended with her release and exile.

The Inward Way

Finding an inner sanctuary with God through prayer is a rich part of the Christian life. Through it, true peace and rest are possible even in the worst of circumstances. Such rest and peace come from God as we dwell on the scripture and practice the deep listening that helps us attend to the Voice of the Holy Spirit. But unlike supplication or praise, Guyon’s “prayer of the heart” involves laying down one’s will to the will of God and subjecting one’s intellect to God’s in perfect trust. This act of surrender has little to do with theological explication but has everything to do with trusting in God as Father, who has revealed himself through Jesus, his Son. It is not a dismissal of the intellect, but an apprehension of God that transcends cognitive explication. Just as Jesus’ earliest followers watched him do things that were beyond their ability to grasp, such as the time Jesus walked on water or when he called Lazarus forth from the grave, Guyon learned to be content in prayerful silence even though her Here, she explains:

He who knows God primarily by the light of his intellect never enters those imperceptible passes of the spirit which are reserved for the abandoned soul alone. The one who seeks God by his intellect moves with a sure step. Why? He proceeds with the evidence furnished him by an illumination that is assisted by the strengths of reasoning. Not so the simple believer. He is led in the inward way. [. . . ] In spite of this seeming uncertainty of his way, this simple trusting believer makes progress in the spirit with far more certainty than the intellectual believer. As contradictory as it seems, intellectual illuminations are subject to misleading; yes, far more severe than those of the inward way. The believer who is abandoned into that unknown course is being guided by a supreme will which conducts him where He desires. This believer follows a path prescribed for him by a touch of God from deep within his spirit (Union pp 21-22).

Instead of keeping only to the recitation of scripted prayers, her practice was to “dwell on Christ” and seek His active Presence within her, becoming ultimately as peaceful and satisfied as an infant who has been fed and rests on its mother’s breast. There, in the inmost place of the human spirit, Guyon found that she could commune with God and experience all the “riches of Christ” that are promised as one of his disciples.

Many other believers have found a way to this peace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom found it in the midst of a Nazi prison. Another example is Henri Nouwen who, like Guyon, experienced bouts of loneliness and depression, but found ways to overcome the pangs of loneliness through prayer. Nouwen writes: “The movement from loneliness to solitude is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, for the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from fearful clinging to fearless play.” Here again the notion of rest emerges as a result of spiritual fruitfulness and intimacy with God, but it does not start with speech, service, Sunday meetings or any external thing.

Whether in solitude or the busyness of everyday living, listening for the Lord was Guyon’s modus operandi. Taking in her very powerful words and passion for God, a nettling question remains for contemporary readers: just how does one listen for the still, small voice when the tumultuous din of the street and concerns of the day so often rule our busy minds? How might we slow things down enough to be more fully present to God’s calling in our lives? The response is a journey into what Thomas Merton called “the silent life.” It is a life in which “waiting on the Lord” becomes the default posture. Although this way of being may appear to be a passive approach to the Christian life, Jeanne’s was an active faith – a belief that God would bring about His purposes in His time without the striving, tension, and frustration that is all-too-often present when one attempts to follow God whole-heartedly. It is a posture I call active passivity, one that leans into God with an expectant heart that is bowed to His will, no matter the trial.

Guyon’s work is most helpful as a means of spiritual formation. By no means is it a move of theological revisionism or of reinventing theology. Clearly, her hope was deeply situated in loving God with the simplicity and trust of a child. Her words, rooted in a desire to access a deeper spiritual life in response to scripture’s teachings on prayer, were never meant to be recorded, but were written down only at the request of Fenelon who longed to walk more closely with God, as well.

Guyon’s life reminds the contemporary reader that fellowship with God in Christ is possible. What’s more, she is an example of an individual who is within – but not trapped by – the systems of this world. The oppression, persecution, and restrictions she endured could not hold her captive to their destructive force. Her peace remained, even amidst fierce injustice.

Next, Jeanne’s writing provides guidance for those struggling with the addictive properties of contemporary media culture. She points to the importance of listening to God’s Spirit in the inward reaches of one’s own human spirit and explains how this posture creates an environment that eases the cacophonous din of a busy mind and increasingly frenetic world. Finally, Guyon’s “inward way” is not a practice associated with one denomination, church group, or Christian era. This “the prayer of the heart” has universal value for Christians everywhere and from every expression of the faith. Particularly today, with the staggering changes of ubiquitous mobile media, many are desperate to find rest and peace in the midst of lives that are excessively busy. Without the discipline of the mind that silent prayer brings, one may too easily move from using our mobile devices in God-glorifying ways to instead become ruled by them. However, it is precisely the current climate of hi-tech’s “Move fast and Break things” culture that paves a new path to Guyon’s work to be seen and heard.[4] Its heuristic value is clear for these reasons and more.

In many ways, Madame Jeanne Guyon might best be described as a nun without a convent: a woman of conviction, solitude, and prayer. Though she was misunderstood, muted, her freedom denied – none of these limitations could snuff out the light of Christ within her. She did not lose heart, for even in the midst of insults, physical suffering, and false accusations, the freedom she had was deeper and truer than all the accoutrements of the religious system that were layered over her life. She spent many years behind bars, but Jeanne Guyon was free in Christ.

Will we allow this woman to teach us? In our generation, so many hundreds of years removed from the type of oppression Guyon experienced we mustn’t take for granted the freedoms we enjoy and ask ourselves some tough questions. What have we traded for our freedom in Christ? Do we allow ourselves to become tangled up in the goals and values of Western culture? Can we give up the need to be correct, or first, or the highest achiever in the room? Will we allow the winds of change to blow though our lives as God blesses us with His holy breath or will we stand stubbornly in the same comfortable place of our generation, turning away from the still small Voice of God? Lack of freedom comes packaged in many colors and kinds. We have the opportunity to look to Jesus Christ – the only one who can bring true freedom–and ask him what that freedom looks like in our churches and our daily lives. As limits and restraints on speech have been to a large degree lifted, the lives of Christ-followers everywhere yet continue to be constrained and in many cases oppression still rules. We can do something about this, but we must be willing to ask ourselves tough questions.

Further Reading

To learn more about Madam Guyon in her own words, consider reading Jeanne Guyon: An Autobiography, and her two spiritual classics, Union with God (Christian Books), and A Short and Easy Method of Prayer: Praying the Heart of the Father.

  1. Paul refers to this mystery on multiple occasions throughout the New Testament. Specifically, in Colossians 1 when he is writing to the young church there, Paul explains the importance of the active presence of Christ among the people – His Body. “ To them God willed to make known that are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” Col. 1-27-28. NKJV
  2. A record of the spiritual correspondence with her may be found in several books, The Spiritual Letters of Archbishop Fenelon, is one.