Jeanne Guyon—who Fenelon, John Wesley, Count Zinzendorf and other historical Christian leaders readily praised for her insights and writings—was born on April 13, 1648. Raised in the hedonistic reign of Louis XIV, Guyon’s intellect, wit, beauty, and conversational skill placed her firmly within the most popular elements of fashionable society. If there had been a “People” magazine in the 17th century, she’d have been in it. Jeanne married a wealthy man, but in doing so also gained a tyrannical mother-in-law, and thus paid dearly for her married property.
It all began when Guyon’s husband lost much of his wealth, which helped turned Jeanne’s bitter mother-in-law into a bitter, avaricious mother-in-law. That followed a bout of serious sickness on Jeanne’s part, followed by the death of a close, much loved relative, which hurt Jeanne deeply.
Jeanne eventually received these calamities as God’s gift to her soul: “Thou hast ordered these things, O my God, for my salvation! In goodness Thou hast afflicted me. Enlightened by the result, I have since clearly seen, that these dealings of Thy providence were necessary, in order to make me die to my vain and haughty nature.”
In a hagiography (a typical “saint’s” biography), Jeanne would have gone from “glory to glory.” Once she saw the error of her ways and the shallowness of her life and faith, she’d never be the same—but the truth was far more complicated. Her conversion was certainly genuine, making her initially lose her taste for the frivolous entertainments of Louis XIV’s court; but after a couple more years, Jeanne found herself gradually slipping back into her former ways and appetites.
Haven’t we all been there? God convicts us and we earnestly turn back to him, resolving to change our ways, reform our behavior, and grow in grace. But then time passes, and our heart’s passion cools. God has a way of using severe tests, coupled with good teaching, to bring us back into focus.
In Jeanne’s case, God helped solidify her heart and win back her allegiance with two major events: a conversation with a godly stranger on a
bridge; and then the onset of smallpox, which all but wiped out Jeanne’s famous
beauty. In King Louis’ court, appearance mattered far more than character, at
least as far as women were concerned. To be disfigured was the surest pathway
to being ostracized. Yet Jeanne received
her permanent facial scarring as another divine gift: “The devastation without
was counterbalanced by a peace within.” Paris
In a move shocking to her intimates, after Jeanne recovered from the sickness of smallpox and was well enough to speak, she ordered her servant to bring a mirror. The servant’s hesitation told Jeanne all she needed to know, but still, she persisted, and the mirror was brought.
After studying her marked face, once considered her most valuable feature, Jeanne confessed, “I was no longer what I was once. It was then I saw my heavenly Father had not been unfaithful in His work, but had ordered the sacrifice in all reality.”
Freed from lesser concerns—vanity and the royal court’s acceptance—Jeanne’s sanctity reached inspiring, even heroic levels. There was something about dying to the vanity of the “flesh” that lifted her to unusual understanding of spiritual realities. Since that time, Jeanne could seem even cold in the face of calamity, but that was only because she realized there is sometimes no other way for us to be freed from the shackles of our superficiality. Her own painful experience kept her from bringing false comfort to those whom God was in the process of breaking: “Oh, adorable conduct of my God!,” she wrote. “There must be no guide, no prop for the person whom Thou art leading into the regions of darkness and death. There must be no conductor, no support to the man whom Thou art determined to destroy to the entire destruction of the natural life.”
By “destruction of the natural life,” Jeanne was referring to our vanity, selfishness, and carnal desires.
There is something simply wrong with our culture valuing and rewarding women primarily for what they look like—meaning they “peak” in their twenties—and devaluing the depth of wisdom and character that takes a woman decades to develop and nurture. Who deserves the most attention? Hollywood starlets and pop stars who live lives of devastation, or wise women in their fifties, sixties and beyond who can share a wealth of hard won wisdom and display the beauty of a godly character?
Guyon left behind approximately sixty volumes that have fed church leaders for centuries. Many of her writings are still read today, the most popular of which is Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, which was originally published as A Short and Easy Method of Prayer. Experiencing the Depths explores a life of unceasing prayer, meditation, and contemplation, emphasizing abandonment and union with God. At times, I believe she veers too far into quietism, but her works are important feminine contributions to the rich treasury of Christian spirituality. Women often stress surrender in a way that ancient male writers neglected, who tended to prefer “heroic” forms of active discipline (think William Law and John Climacus, for example).
Some choice quotes from Guyon are:
“If you seek the Lord and yet are not willing to stop your sinning, you shall not find Him. Why? Because you are seeking Him in a place where He is not.”
“As you come to Him, come as a weak child, one who is all soiled and badly bruised—a child that has been hurt from falling again and again. Come to the Lord as one who has no strength of his own; come to Him as one who has no power to cleanse himself. Humbly lay your pitiful condition before your Father’s gaze.”
“You and I are very weak. At our best we are very weak.”
“If you set forth for the spiritual lands…you must realize that times of dryness await you…. You will have times of spiritual dryness. It is part of the Lord’s way.”
I write more about Jeanne Guyon in two of my books: Thirsting for God and Holy Available.