In the depths of silence is the depths of the soul

— From Project Gutenberg archives

Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon.

I’m still surprised at how few Christians, especially Roman Catholics, have heard about the spiritual writer Madame de Guyon — though small groups of believers practice the prayer she taught.

I came upon Jeanne-Marie years ago when I was writing a book-length essay on the Trappist poet Thomas Merton who prayed the way Guyon did. Though living three centuries apart, they would have made an interesting couple, comparing notes on what it takes to be happy.

The public became aware of Madame De Guyon’s ideas in 1685 when her mini-tome “Moyen court et très facile de faire oraison” appeared. In English it’s: “A Short and Very Easy Method of Praying.”

Part of the reason Guyon has been swept under the rug of Christian consciousness is because of the style of prayer she advocated. The Roman Catholic Church condemned her as a “Quietist,” a heretic they went after with bilious venom.

It was an economic matter: Guyon and her acolytes were drawing customers away from the Catholics: People liked the concept, the method, and the results her Moyen court produced.

It’s hard to say exactly how popular she became but popular enough that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church began to surveil her, and later took her into custody.

Guyon said the most direct way to be in touch with God is for a person to sit and listen — for a period of time each day, day after day, as a way of life — in total silence. She said in the depths of silence is the depths of the soul and that is where God resides — quite different from the person who says God tells him what to do — a neurotic projection.

Not long after Guyon’s book came out, it was filed in the stacks of books the Catholic Church forbade all Catholics to read; it was called “the Index,” short for Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which needs no translation.

As a kid, I recall going into our parish rectory for some reason or other and there, right in front of me in the foyer of the priest’s house, was a tall glassed-in bookcase that housed the Index; a sign on the glass said so; I have no idea who collected them.

Such a prohibition would be laughed at now, a lot of people saying: Who the hell is some bishop to tell me what I can and cannot read; hey, I watch porno on the internet!

The Catholic Church hierarchy said anyone who read one of those books was going to hell and to prove it on earth, they had their ecclesiastical police drag transgressors to the church station-house to be questioned by one of Torquemada’s kin.

You’d think the work was “Das Kapital” or Mao’s “Little Red Book” even “The Anarchist Cookbook,” or the in-the-works, “How I Led a Violent Insurrection Against My Country, Went Unscathed, and Made Millions.”

Guyon says people by nature are “called to inward silence” and that prescribed vocal prayers detract from it. She intimated that in silence a person can find “that self,” as Kierkegaard says, “which one truly is.” All religions are based in psychology.

Nancy James, a serious student of prayer and of Guyon’s life and method, put together a beautifully-arranged, -written, and -edited “The Complete Madame Guyon” (Paraclete Press, 2011). The introduction is a touching portrait of Guyon’s life before the quiet — she was married, had kids, etc. — and why the Roman Catholic Church shut down a peaceful woman who all she wanted in life was to sit and speak to God.

James said the Church lost its mind because the “hierarchy feared this popular movement [Quietism] … was attracting so many to a spiritual path that did not need the mediation of the clergy or bishops.”

To be saved, Catholics had to go to Mass, receive the sacraments, pray the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary,” memorize a catechism of questions: That came with the answers! Guyon said all that was unnecessary.

She also said meditative reading can enhance the silence but, to be effective, the aspirant must withdraw from the marketplace, factional politics, and obsessional consuming — to simply sit and read and render thanks for living.

French monastics called this set-aside time l’examen particulier — the particular examen — when a person assesses how well he or she or they are doing that day. Did they grow more? Were they good to others? Had they heard the voice of God?

Guyon said the aspirant should pick, “some strong abstract or particular truth” and read, “two to three lines and look for … the essence of the passage,” find the truth therein.

Does this sound heretical? Like something someone should be locked up for?

Jeanne-Marie became a hit in Paris but, while she and her followers were practicing Zen-like silence, the Roman Catholic Church sicced its police on her, arrested her, locked her in an airless room in a convent, and quizzed her like she was Judas Iscariot.

Nine months later, without an evidentiary leg to stand on, the fascists let her go, but did not release her from the cross-hairs of their long gun. On June 8, 1698, she was back in jail, this time by order of Louis the XIV — a favor to the Catholic hierarchy — they locked her in the Bastille of Le Quatorze Juillet.

They put her in solitary, interrogated her, threatened her with other forms of torture. The charge? Praying in quiet; living the life of a contemplative wanting to be a better person.

She was released from the Bastille in March 1703, again charged with nothing but being a pious old lady seeking to be with God. Her daughter took her in; she was 70 and feeling the effects of prison.

She wrote about it in a personal book that came out in 1772, fifty years after she died. The title page is truly 18th-century and worth sharing in full: The Life of Lady Guion, Now Abridged, and translated into ENGLISH, Exhibiting her eminent Piety, Charity, Meekness, Resignation, Fortitude and Stability; her Labours, Travels, Suffering and Services, for the Conversion of Souls to God; and her great Success in some Places, in that best of all Employments on the Earth.”

It continues: To Which are Added REMARKABLE ACCOUNTS of the LIVES OF worthy Persons, Whose Memories were dear to Lady Guion. BRISTOL: Printed by S. Farley, in CASTLE-GREEN.  MDCCLXXII.

Toward the end of the second volume, she addresses those who harmed her: “I forgive those who have been the cause of my sufferings, from the bottom of my heart, whatever they have done against me, having no will to retain so much as the remembrance thereof.”

She says it all started when a friend saw her notes on prayer, read them, and took them to share with others; Guyon says, “Everyone wanted copies. [The friend] resolved … to have it printed.” Guyon said she received all the “proper approbations” from the Church, there was no mention of heresy.

Guyon said the work, “passed through five or six editions; and our Lord has given a very great benediction to it. [But] The devil became so enraged against me on account of the conquest which God made by me, that I was assured he was going to stir up against me a violent persecution. All that gave me no trouble. Let him stir up against me ever so strange persecutions. I know they will all serve to the glory of my God.”

They were the same people who killed Jesus.