Catholic Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook

By Mary R. Reichardt | Go to book overview

MADAME GUYON (1648–1717)

BIOGRAPHY

In Catholic circles, Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon’s name has been chiefly associated with the Quietist controversy that raged in late-seventeenth-century France. In Protestant circles, she has long been esteemed as an inspiring spiritual writer who overcame adversity to live the life of faith. She seems to have seen herself simply as a believer touched by God and impelled to tell of that irresistible touch. She was, to use her own image, a “spiritual torrent”: “We who are believers are like rivers. There are rivers that flow very slowly, arriving late to their destination. Others move more rapidly than that. The third type moves so fast that none dare sail upon it. It is a mad, headlong torrent” (Spiritual Torrents, p. 2).

Jeanne was born in Montargis, France, in 1648, the daughter of a royal procurator and his second wife. She recalled feeling neglected in childhood. From the age of two, she was a frequent boarder at a series of monasteries, receiving there little intellectual training but rather a fervent, if eclectic, spiritual formation. In these years she was introduced to the life of Jeanne de Chantal, a widow-become-religious, which served as an inspiration and her introduction to interior prayer. Her early desire to enter religious life was thwarted by illness, and just before her sixteenth birthday her family arranged a marriage with Jacques Guyon, a wealthy businessman twenty-eight years her senior.

The marriage was a sad one, plagued by illness, loss, and the domination of a jealous mother-in-law. The union produced five children, two of whom died young, intensifying Jeanne Guyon’s sorrows. During these difficult married years, she developed an intense devotional life and, in 1668, experienced an inner transformation which resulted in a form of non-conceptual prayer she termed the “prayer of faith.” Guided by a Benedictine abbess and a priest renowned as a spiritual director, Madame Guyon’s interior life blossomed.

In 1676 Guyon’s husband died, leaving his young widow a considerable fortune. Her intention was never again to lose her liberty, so she pursued an

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