The ‘Quietist controversy’ of the 17th century is one of the most distressing in the history of Christian spirituality. The spectacle of Christians quarrelling about the love of God is far from edifying, and can only be understood against the background of the post-Reformation Church still reeling from the traumas of the Reformation and marked for centuries to come by the restricting certainties of the counter-Reformation.  The theological background was the doctrine of grace and its relationship to human effort.  The Jansenists, accused of being Protestants in disguise, insisted on humanity’s fallen nature, teaching an austere form of piety and a rigorist morality; while the Quietists, with a more optimistic view of the improving effects of grace, enlarged the way to contemplative union with God.   

The bête noire was a Spanish priest, Miguel de Molinos, once held in high esteem in Rome as a spiritual director, but whose book, The Spiritual Guide, became his undoing. He had taken the via negativa and run with it in ways that were unbalanced, and highly imprudent in that era.  “Anyone who loves God in the way that reason argues or the intellect understands, does not love the true God.”  Embedded in a balanced theology and suitably qualified, such phrases might have passed; indeed theologians and mystics have ever insisted that God is beyond our comprehension.  But he insisted instead on a disjunction between “the outer way” (all the practises of the Christian life) and “the inner way,” the way of passive contemplation.  The inner way is “by pure faith, without image, form or figure, but with great assurance founded on tranquillity and inner peace”.  The outer way, he wrote, “is for beginners, and there is no arriving at perfection by it, not even by one step, as experience shows in many who after fifty years are void of God and full of themselves, having nothing spiritual in them but only the name of it.”  The book was very popular at first, and went into twenty editions and several translations within a few years.  Soon however several Italian bishops delated him to Rome, and his enemies began to circle.  His teaching began to be seen as a threat to external religion, and every abuse in every diocese was thought to stem from his influence.  In 1687 sixty-eight propositions taken from his works were declared by the Inquisition to be heretical.  He was imprisoned for life, a sentence he bore with patient resignation and humility.  But a new word, ‘Quietism’ – now an official heresy – had come into circulation, to be used against anyone whose teaching or speech appeared to bear any kind of resemblance to that of Miguel de Molinos. 

It was the age of royal absolutism, ‘the divine right of kings’.  It was the age of the ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV of France, who had no objection to his own divine rights.  It was the age of Bossuet, bishop of Condon, who gave classic expression to those rights in his book, Politics Derived from Holy Scripture.  “The royal power is absolute,” he wrote.  “The prince need render account of his acts to no one…. As all perfection and all strength are united in God, so all the power of individuals is united in the person of the prince.”  Bossuet was tutor to the king’s son, and a rising star.  “O kings,” he wrote, “exercise your power then boldly.”  Louis proceeded to do just this, by revoking the Edict of Nantes, which had afforded some protection to Protestants (Huguenots), some ten per cent of the population.  Bossuet hailed this revocation as "the greatest achievement of the second Constantine," though to his credit he also exercised some restraining influence on the king.  Louis took his divine rights seriously, and there followed ‘the Gallican controversy’, Louis maintaining that he could limit papal authority in collecting the revenues of vacant sees and in certain other matters, while the Ultramontanists held the pope’s rights supreme.  Bossuet found himself in the most uncomfortable of all places, the middle, attempting to hold the sides together.  The unity of the Church became his great theme.  Anyone who threatened or appeared to threaten that unity would thenceforth be in his sights.  

Abbé François de Selignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651-1715) was superior of the community of ‘New Catholics’, an institution for the instruction of young female converts  from Protestantism, when he met Mde Guyon, a young widow already well known for her profound spirituality and charitable work.  It was a dangerous time to be holy, and she had already been arrested and interrogated on suspicion of following the teaching of Molinos.  (Her mentor, Père La Come, had been arrested in 1687, condemned by the Inquisition in 1688, and was to die in prison twenty-seven years later in a state of complete mental collapse.)  Mde Guyon’s friends, however, had made intercession for her with Mde Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV, and she was once more at large.  At their first meeting Fénelon was reserved, but after they had spoken at length he was deeply impressed and personally helped by her profound spirit.  His letters reveal how she had helped him to appreciate that union with God lay in complete surrender to God and forgetfulness of the self, not in discursive reasoning.  From this time he began to make a serious study of the mystical tradition of the Church, and became convinced that Mde Guyon was in full accord with it. 

Mde Maintenon’s attitude to Mde Guyon changed with time, however, and with it her attitude to Fénelon.  She began to suspect the teaching of heresy.  Mde Guyon was advised to submit her teaching to some recognised authority, and Fénelon suggested his friend Bossuet, now bishop of Meaux.  Perhaps he thought that if her books received Bossuet’s approval they would be forever above suspicion.  Bossuet was warmly impressed by Mde Guyon, and began his investigation in 1693.  This was his opportunity to study the mystical tradition, but he proved himself entirely out of sympathy with it.  The following year he condemned the ideas of Mde Guyon.  Fénelon, now archbishop of Cambrai, wrote in her defence.  An official investigation now followed, by Bossuet and two others.  Fénelon had some hand in softening the wording of the condemnation, but she was officially condemned in April 1695.  Fénelon refused to issue the condemnation in his diocese.  Realising that conflict with Bossuet was inevitable, he wrote his Explanations of the Maxims of the Saints on the Interior Life.  Bossuet replied with Instruction on the States of Prayer.   Bossuet’s book is regarded as a parody of the mystical tradition, relegating it to the miraculous and to the few.  There followed a bitter controversy, in a multitude of pamphlets, between these two bishops, which did little credit to Bossuet who descended to the personal level.  Mde Guyon was arrested, imprisoned and interrogated in December 1695, but thenceforth it was a battle of two bishops.  The orthodoxy of Fénelon’s book, Maxims, was questioned by Bossuet.  Fénelon appealed to Rome.  As an Ultramontanist he could expect sympathy there, against Bossuet, the Gallican.  Pope Innocent XII, whose sympathies lay entirely with Fénelon, yielded to pressure from the king, whom he wanted to appease rather than confront just then, and condemned the Maxims.  It was a shameful betrayal, mitigated only by the mildness of the condemnation.  23 propositions taken from the book were condemned.  Fénelon submitted with humility and grace.  He was congratulated by the pope in a letter, and rewarded the following year with a red hat.  The king expelled him from the royal palace (where he had been tutor to the young prince) and confined him to his diocese.  He remained active in his ministry and maintained his friendship with Mde Guyon until his death in 1715.  She was imprisoned in the Bastille until 1703, then exiled to Blois where she lived with her son, writing poetry, until her death in 1717. 

The whole episode with its long-lasting consequences was called by Henri Brémond “the rout of the mystics.”  As background to the widespread interest in contemplation (meditation) today, it is of exceptional interest.  We have tended to see contemplation only as the interest of monks and nuns.  It is very distressing that there is scarcely a bishop in the Catholic Church today who is actively promoting it among the laity.  We hear of an Australian bishop who is doing so, with extraordinarily good results.  We must pray that many others may soon join him.

I use an extract from one of his letters as this month’s ‘Wisdom Line’.

Donagh O'Shea

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