Madame Jeanne Guyon: The Accused Witch Who Defied King Louis XIV
By Nancy Carol James, PhD
French culture in the 17th century demonstrated an amazing energy for spiritual and religious questions. One great genius from this time, the mathematician Blaise Pascal, pondered the question, what is a human being in the infinite? In other words, what is a human being who touches the divine? Building on this question, others thinkers wondered if this was possible while still alive on earth? If so, a living person who touches the infinity of God would be a different human being.
For as we all know, participation in religious ceremonies does not necessarily signify spiritual integrity. Many people believe a catechism out of duty, responsibility, tradition or social prestige. Pascal recognized, though, at times a mystical person finds all his or her powers of the mind, heart and soul intimately involved with God. Indeed, Pascal himself believed that he encountered the living God in his life. During his unexpected experience, Pascal grabbed paper and quickly described it as he wrote, “Fire, Fire, Fire! Not the god of the philosopher, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Another such person in Pascal’s own era in France also tried to describe her experience of the infinity of God. This happened in the mysterious life of Madame Jeanne Guyon (1648-1717). A profound thinker, Jeanne Guyon wrote eloquent books and poems describing what she called her union with God. Though some denied the truth of her words, the very evidence of her life and accomplishments gave pause to the criticism. Now in the 21st century, many scholars look upon Guyon’s words as powerfully prophetic yet still a puzzling mystery.
Born into an aristocratic family living in the town of Montargis on the Loire River, Jeanne knew deep sorrow at a young age. Both of Jeanne’s parents, Claude Bouvier de la Mothe and Jeanne le Maistre de la Maisonfort, had children from a previous marriage. From an early age, Jeanne knew a conflicted blended family with constant friction between the siblings. At a young age, Jeanne already sought solace in prayer and spiritual reading. Jeanne’s parents planned her education as occasional years spent in nunneries and she found a strong comfort from the presence of some nuns, including her paternal sister who was a dedicated nun, Marie de St. Cecile Bouvier.
Yet Jeanne seemed surrounded by a sense of destiny that others recognized. At the age of eight, the Queen Consort of England, Henriette Marie de France (1609-1669) visited Jeanne’s family and asked to take Jeanne back to England to be in the royal court. Even while recognizing the many social benefits this would have given Jeanne, her parents refused this proposed adoption.
As a girl, Jeanne believed she had a vocation as a nun. Her parents denied her fervent requests; at the age of twelve Jeanne forged her mother’s signature and ran away to the Visitation Convent, a religious community founded by Jane de Chantal. Even though the mother superior in charge of the order wished to allow Jeanne to join, she feared the wrath of Jeanne’s influential father and sent the chastened girl home again.
To compensate for being barred from the nunnery, Jeanne read all of the saints avidly, especially Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal, and Teresa of Avila. She felt Jane de Chantal’s passion for Jesus when this saint enthusiastically declared “Live Jesus!” Indeed, young Jeanne made a note reading, “Live Jesus!” and placed it on to her skin under her clothing in imitation of Jane de Chantal and her close friend, Francis de Sales.
Jeanne’s hope to “Live Jesus!” also included Francis de Sales’ unusual idea of spiritual annihilation. Francis de Sales went to great lengths to describe this, saying that a small number of believers know the annihilation of their natural personality so that they may experience a resurrected and spiritual unity with God.
In his spiritual classic On the Love of God, de Sales described annihilation in a narrative. On the Greek town of Sestos, a young girl tenderly cared for an orphaned eaglet. After the magnificent bird’s growth to adulthood, the eagle would leave to hunt during the day and that evening bring his prey home to please the girl. One day the eagle left for the day and suddenly the girl fell sick and died.
As the custom specified, on the same day her grieving family began to burn her in a funeral pyre. They built a raging fire and placed the dead girl’s body in the flames. At that moment, the dedicated eagle came flying back, looking for his sweet friend. The immense bird saw the girl’s body being consumed by flames and in deep sorrow he dove down to save the girl. In the intense heat of the flames, he beat his immense wings in a vain attempt to save her. After the fire began to envelop him as well, the eagle chose to stay and die with his friend. The girl and eagle, consumed simultaneously by flames, became eternally united in love.
Francis de Sales explained the metaphor. As the eagle joined with the girl, so in annihilation, the soaring eagle of God unites with the humble person. The person, lost in chaos, fully and suddenly find the refreshing updrafts of immense, transcendent power, through the bonding with the divine eagle. The eagle and the human soar and float together.
After annihilation, the person knows spiritual power like an interior eagle. In this metaphor, the magnificent bird floats free to go higher to commune with the totality of creation. Together the eagle and human rise to catch a glimpse of the One God, while enjoying the whole and sublime beauty of creation.
This idea of annihilation captivated Jeanne and took root in her soul. Calling this divinization, Jeanne wanted this union with all her heart and called this annihilation and subsequent union a consummated marriage. In this fulfilled state, the person may soar through prayer into new heights, while still remaining fully human.
The annihilation of love became a theme of Jeanne’s, along with others who also treasured this hope. Jeanne understood the process of annihilation as love that carries faithful people to places of suffering, a place that offers many blessings if it is not rejected. She noted the possible annihilations in many dedicated relationships: the faithful parent nurses the sick child, the committed priest cares for his parish, and the fervent believer cares for the poor. As the believer serves others, the divine joins with the human, and the two, the human and the divine, become as one.
For the youthful Jeanne learned from her reading of the saints that the greatest mystery of human life happens when love between a human being and the divine makes them as one. In this grace-filled blending, the greatest suffering as well as the greatest fulfillment spring up. The person, a nothing as Jeanne called herself, and Christ, the all in all, meet with a passionate, fiery love enveloping them together.
Jeanne’s parents seemed to fear her passion for God and attempted to stop this by arranging a marriage. Sadly for Jeanne, they chose a wealthy man 22 years her senior. Jeanne tried her best to stop the marriage but her parents tricked her into signing the articles of marriage without informing her what they were. On February 18, 1664, the bishop performed this marriage ceremony. Almost immediately, Jeanne found herself in an extraordinarily unhappy marriage with no way out of the situation. She lived with both her husband and her mother-in-law, both of whom tried to stop her prayer life.
On July 22, 1668, Jeanne could bear her sad life no more. She sought out the counsel of a wise Franciscan monk, Abbé Archange Enguerrand, who advised her to change herself. “It is, Madame, because you seek outside what you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your heart, and you will find him there.” Jeanne described the experience of hearing this like an arrow going through her heart.
Maybe we would understand Jeanne’s experience through the more traditional term of stigmata, a spiritual wound that opens a deep connection with God. Later she called this the beginning of divinization, as she changed the noun “divine” into an active verb “to divinize.”
No words easily describe what happened to Jeanne in her divine wounding. Reaching beyond terrestrial cause and effect, she moved into places of unimaginable love. Her heart became mysteriously intertwined with the divine. She describes God as if he were a human lover. In her revealing quote, Jeanne said, “I loved Him, and I burnt with love, because I loved Him. I loved Him in such a way that I could only love Him; but in loving Him I had no motive but himself.” To pray in solitude became her highest joy.
And Jeanne knew the passion of God was for her, a fiery love she never became separated from again. Nothing stood in the way of this love: threats and imprisonments did not deter Jeanne from seeking and confirming the love of Christ.
Yet Jeanne still experienced real struggles and unhappiness in her home. She had quickly given birth to five children with the family tensions impacting all of the relationships. Through the well-documented conflicted marriage described in Jeanne’s Autobiography, we get an understanding of Monsieur Guyon as a solid and serious engineer who felt torn between his young wife and controlling mother. Yet it is also clear that he admired many of his wife’s qualities. Indeed, when he got into legal problems when King Louis XIV’s brother sued Monsieur Guyon, at his request Jeanne successfully represented him in court. Jeanne wrote that before he died, she and her husband shared an intimate reconciliation.
After her husband’s death in 1676, Jeanne was left a wealthy widow with a four-month-old daughter and two older children (two of her children had already died of smallpox). She put most of her money into trusts for her children. Then Jeanne planned her new life along with the assistance of her spiritual director, Abbé François La Combe. She and La Combe bonded and shared hopes that the direct spiritual action of God would work through their lives. Through their faithful obedience, the sick would be healed, the ignorant would see, Christ would walk in merciful kindness among his people.
Abbé La Combe moved to work in Geneva and shortly afterward Jeanne moved her young daughter to a place near him in Gex to live at a nunnery. Together La Combe and Jeanne developed hospitals and worked for the relief of suffering. Jeanne started writing her books, including her two most famous A Short and Easy Method of Prayer and Commentary on Song of Songs. With her growing popularity as an author, La Combe and Jeanne became increasingly controversial and in 1685, the Bishop of Geneva, d’Aranthon told them to leave his diocese. Jeanne and her daughter Jeanne-Marie began to travel all over Europe, staying with aristocrats while Jeanne talked to others about spiritual wisdom.
Outside world events soon impacted Jeanne and La Combe’s lives. In 1687 at the request of Louis XIV, the Vatican declared Quietism a heresy. Sadly, soon Abbé la Combe and Jeanne found themselves accused of this spirituality that emphasized the knowledge of God through quiet. The trusting priest La Combe returned to Paris to defend himself against these charges. Quickly La Combe’s superiors in the Barnabite order arranged a guilty judgment and he was sent away to prison. La Combe was imprisoned until his death 27 years later.
In January 1688, Jeanne was also charged with Quietism and incarcerated in an unventilated room in the House of the Visitation in Paris. She went through lengthy interrogations by church officials and Bishop Bossuet, a bishop at Meaux, who was also active at Versailles. Jeanne’s friends and relatives advocated for her release and after the intervention of the third wife of Louis XIV, Madame de Maintenon with her husband, Jeanne was released.
Soon after regaining her freedom, Jeanne met Abbé François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon at a social gathering near Versailles. A prestigious priest at Versailles, Fénelon was chosen to be the royal tutor for Lous XIV’s grandson, the Duke of Burgundy.
An unusual group arose at the Versailles called the Court Cenacle, a group of the leading dukes, their wives, Jeanne, Fenelon, and Madame de Maintenon. They met to pray for a spiritual reformation in France and, in particular, for the conversion of Louis XIV. The Court Cenacle chose intimacy with God and a weekly evening of quiet prayer instead of the many human pleasures available at Versailles. This group trusted that each individual would keep the existence of this prayer circle unknown so as to avoid the wrath of Louis.
For Louis XIV’s genius was to explore the human spirit while frequently neglecting the spiritual life. French aristocracy at Versailles enjoyed the arts: theater, ballet, and concerts. It was as if Louis conceived a social experiment: what happens when you take people away into grand buildings, food, theater, gambling, jewelry, and sex involving aphrodisiacs. What happens when you intensify pleasure? What is in the human heart?
Yet in France the counter-point to the pleasurable Versailles was the horrific Bastille. In this prison, Louis XIV intensified anonymity and pain. Under Louis’ authority, instruments of torture were developed and used on his prisoners who had no legal right of appeal. For when imprisoned by a lettre de cachet, people were put to an ultimate test. Will one suffer without losing one’s mind, heart and spirit?
Louis designed Versailles (where he placed his treasured court) and the Bastille (where he placed his despised political prisoners). Louis also seemed passionate about questions about the human heart. What is a human being in the infinite? Or what is a person inundated by opportunities for pleasure? Or, conversely, what is a person who only sees and experiences deprivation and, at times, pure horror?
Jeanne’s peace at Versailles did not last for long. Bishop Bossuet wanted to become the archbishop of Paris, and his chief rival for this position was his former student, Archbishop Fenelon. And soon Madame de Maintenon had become jealous of Fenelon’s relationship with Jeanne. Along with the help of the influential Bossuet, de Maintenon told her husband that Jeanne was a heretical Quietist. At the same time, both Bossuet and de Maintenon demanded that Fenelon betray Jeanne.
The stage was set for a tragedy of epic proportions. If Fenelon betrayed Jeanne, she would probably be burned at the stake, as Bossuet was requesting. If he did not, Fenelon would be ridiculed as too attached to this woman Jeanne who they considered a heretical Quietist.
Some people proposed ideas of how Jeanne could get out of this situation. Bossuet said that if she would sign statements admitting theological mistakes, he would exonerate her. But Jeanne knew that this could be an even worse danger because admitted heresy could lead to capital punishment, such as happened to Joan of Arc. But Jeanne’s friends proposed she run away to England and this would have probably promised safety to her.
Jeanne attempted with all her human powers to avoid her second incarceration, yet stopped short of leaving France, her beloved home country, for a safe haven in England. She believed that God asked her to remain faithful to both her country and her Roman Catholic Church, even if this required suffering. Maybe her thinking was something like that of Socrates who said he would not desert his country, even if it would save his life.
Difficult to imagine, Jeanne’s character allowed herself to be moved into the intensification of pain for spiritual reasons of love. But she did it knowing that this was her time of annihilation, and like the young girl she had read about, she would see if the God like a mighty eagle would became one with her.
A letter de cache was issued by Louis and signed by Bishop Bossuet ordering that Jeanne be found and incarcerated.
Jeanne struggled with this situation and wrote, “Since I am not a theologian, . . .why put me in prison?” (11) The real goal here was the destruction of Fenelon. What could happen to Fenelon if his close friend was publicly burned at the stake? Why kill these women they called witches? The burning at the stake was the ultimate test. Would their powers end when their bodies ended or would an irrepressible power manifest itself? The question became, what power does a human being have if they touch the infinite.
Jeanne attempted to escape this incarceration with honor. In July 1695, Jeanne moved to Paris under an assumed name, taking with her two servants. When one of her faithful servants went to move furniture one day, she was recognized on the street. Someone followed her home to find out Jeanne’s address. The police were notified. They watched and when the servant came back out, they stopped and searched her. Finding the key to Jeanne’s house, they went there.
On December 27, 1695, the French policeman Desgrez quietly walked into Jeanne’s room and arrested her. He had stationed from twenty to thirty armed policemen all around her house. She went with him quietly and the first night of her incarceration she spent at his home.
She was taken to the imposing Castle Vincennes, on the outskirts of Paris. This was used as a prison for religious heretics and freethinkers. When they searched her upon arrival, they found two wax statues and assumed that this was part of her witches’ tools. Instead she protested that this was a statue of the baby Jesus and the archangel Michael. They did not believe her.
The head of police in Paris, Monsieur Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, searched for signs of any possible crimes during many twelve hour interrogations. After months of questioning and finding no evidence of any crime, M. de La Reynie assured Jeanne, “All justice will be rendered to you.” (Bastille Witness, 4) She hoped that legal justice would be given to her but she believed that this suffering would continue to touch her.
Jeanne was asked to write a letter of condemnation of La Combe and refused saying that she would prefer to suffer than to obtain freedom through such dishonest means. Expressing her inner conviction about God’s protection of her, Jeanne declared, “Nothing in the world is capable of breaking me.” (7)
Jeanne wrote that de la Reynie said to the policeman Desgrez, “Let’s get out of here. They want us to make that lady guilty and I find her very innocent. I do not want to serve as an instrument of her destruction.” She greatly feared her situation when de la Reynie left because she did want to be left under the complete power of the Roman Catholic Church. Bossuet had written openly that she should be sent “to the fires,” or burning at the stake.
Monsieur de la Reynie reported to the authorities, “You have tormented this person for so little.” (5) Yet at this time her torments had really only begun.
Following her ten-month incarceration in Vinceness, on October 16, 1696, the church authorities moved her to a nunnery in Vaugirard. There she was frequently beaten on the face, while living in a decrepit room. “I easily saw that they had some plan to have me escape and then blame my family or friends for it.” (21)
Yet Jeanne had a way of understanding her incarceration that aided her in keeping her sanity. She wrote, “I considered myself a little bird that You had in a cage for Your own pleasure and who had to sing to fulfill her state.” (5) She said, “My solitude was my delight.” (7)
Jeanne had many interactions with a priest, the rector of Saint-Sulpice named La Chétardie. “I also asked him to consult the king on my behalf.”(32) Following her frequent requests, she received attention from the Archbishop of Paris Louis de Noailles. He processed into her small room at the nunnery fully vested in his hierarchical finery. Accusing her of immoralities with La Combe, he informed her that she would make a public confession of shameful and licentious acts with La Combe. He declared, “I am your archbishop. I have the power to condemn you. Yes, I do condemn you.’” Jeanne described her response to him, “I responded to him, smiling. ‘Sir, I hope God will be more indulgent and that he will not approve of that sentence.’ He told me that my servants would suffer martyrdom for my sake since I seduced everyone I came in contact with.” (61)
Several of the servants at the nunnery began to warn Jeanne of terrible things that were going to happen to her. They presented a forged letter to her, saying that it was from La Combe confessing of immorality with her. Jeanne confronted them with the differences in handwriting from that of La Combe’s. Jeanne began to have dreams in which La Combe appeared to her. In one dream, he was sick and suffering, yet told her that her afflictions prepared her for an eternal weight of glory; Jeanne found comfort in this dream, yet the sad predictions were true.
Finally in the most poignant and understated sentence in her autobiography, she wrote in one brief sentence, “They then took me to the Bastille alone.” (65)
In the Bastille, Jeanne knew humid, dank conditions with little human contact. She listened to pacing and screaming humans waiting to be ‘put to the question,’ i.e. to be tortured. The authorities refused Jeanne the sacraments and Jeanne watched two young women assigned to guard her sicken and die.
Yet as Jeanne discovered, suffering can be a gift—the intensification of life so that she have eyes to see. Jeanne’s theology of life was based on a scripture from I Peter that reads. “Place your worries in the hands of the Lord and He will act himself. Abandon yourself to His guidance and He will guide your steps.” (5)
Jeanne described her move to the Bastille. “Then I was placed in solitary confinement in the Bastille in a bare cell. At first I had to sit on the floor.” (69) She said she listened to the torments of other human beings. On the floor above her, she listened to a man who “paced day and night without ceasing or resting for even a moment, and ran around like a maniac.” Jeanne heard him fall and when she could, told the guards that he tried to kill himself. They found him “drowning in his own blood” after stabbing himself in the stomach.
Jeanne wrote about the conditions at the Bastille. “In this place they only let you know what can afflict you and you know nothing of what can please you. You only see stern faces that treat you with the worst sort of harshness. You are without defense when they accuse you. They let the outside world hear what they want. . . But in the Bastille, you have no one.” (85)
Her interrogator, the new chief of police in Paris was René de Voyer d’Argenson (1652-1721). He threatened Jeanne and attempted to get her to confess crimes but she continued to declare her innocence. D’Argenson also warned her that he was capable of sending her to the infamous prison the Conciergerie that could lead to torture and a death sentence, the prison that later sent many to the guillotine. Jeanne wrote, “For d’Argenson told me: ‘You are tired of being in an honorable prison. If you want to taste the Conciergerie, you will taste it.’ Sometimes, when they were taking me downstairs, they showed me a door and told me that it was there that they tortured. Other times, they showed me a dungeon. I told them I thought it was very pretty and that I would live well there.” (90)
Yet something very odd happened to Louis XIV. From the hometown of Nostradamus came a man with a warning to Louis. He knew something that verified himself to Louis as an authentic prophet and gave a private warning to Louis. Some speculate that the warning was about the incarceration of Jeanne and other faithful believers. In 1700 after Bishop Bossuet met with the bishops, they declared her innocent of immorality and in 1703 Jeanne was released from the Bastille. They had to carry her out of the Bastille on a litter.
And then Jeanne found a profound ministry. People from around the globe showed up at Madame Guyon’s cottage wanting to talk of spiritual matters. Quakers from Pennsylvania came seeking guidance about human happiness, a Scottish Lord Deskford came to offer his administrative and writing skills, and Protestants everywhere asked about her faithful joy. Letters to and from her friend Archbishop Francois Fenelon flew fast and faithfully between them. And her daughter Jeanne-Marie offered a sweet consolation that fulfilled Jeanne’s heart.
The world did its best to separate Jeanne with her unusual passion for God in many ways: a forced marriage, a personal inquisition, and a long incarceration. Still Jeanne prayed joyously, singing like a bird in the cage of this world.
But even as scholars heatedly debate Jeanne’s life and words, we see how profound her interpretation of her century was. She correctly understood how deeply the peasants needed help; she gave much money and food to the poor, while building hospitals for the ill. She saw that if people knew how to pray, they would hope and work to make better lives for themselves. She helped with the education of girls and helped improve the lives of women.
All of her very successful work gave evidence that she understood the needs of her century and poured out her life trying to help. One of her translators, Thomas Taylor Allen, wrote that if the French leaders in her time had listened to Fenelon and Jeanne, the horrors of the French Revolution might have been avoided.
Jeanne believed though that in the Bastille, she experienced her annihilation and her joy became powerful and intensified. Jeanne never regretted her actions and ends Bastille Witness with a plain declaration that she would never change to please the world. “And if it were necessary to change my conduct to be queen, I would not be able to do it. When my simplicity caused me all the troubles in the world, I could not leave simplicity aside.” (100)
Jeanne lived her beliefs and stated that in the Bastille she became annihilated and the eagle of God joined with her humble suffering. She described her experience in a poem,
But Love seeks nobler aims
In self-denial finds its joy,
In suffering her repose.
For sorrow and love walk hand in hand;
No height or depth can ever divide
This heaven-directed marriage;
These dear friends complete a union
Until the race of life is run.
Nancy C. James, PhD, is the author of The Complete Madame Guyon (Paraclete Press, 2011). James received her PhD from the University of Virginia with a dissertation written on Madame Jeanne Guyon.