Quietism as a Spiritual Method & Quietism as a Spiritual Mistake

Quietism as a Spiritual Method & Quietism as a Spiritual Mistake June 9, 2023

Madam Jeanne Guyon



Jeanne Guyon died on this day, the 9th of June in 1717.

Her life was complex, involved a very unhappy marriage, numerous deaths, and a lifetime of illness. She was also a mystic and author of a controversial text, A Very Short and Easy Method of Prayer.

Madame Guyon’s treatise was an elaboration of what she learned from the Spanish priest and spiritual director Miguel de Molinos. Fr Molinos taught a form of presence that entails the annihilation of the ego and absorption into the divine. The difficulty that led to pretty much everyone associated with what came to be called the Quietist heresy is a focus on passivity.

Madam Guyon’s book led to her imprisonment for eight years.

After her release she lived with a nephew, engaged in lengthy correspondence and met with many admirers and followers. At the heart of her teachings was praying without ceasing.

As I look at the actual people who were condemned as Quietists, Fr Molinos, Francois Fenelon, and Madam Guyon, it seems to me they mostly were not guilty of the extremisms that earn the church’s condemnations. All of which turn on the relationship between the person and the sacred activities of life in the world.

And there’s a great wealth for any of us to pay attention both to what these Quietist mystics taught, and a very real problem. What I find intriguing is that while I am a fierce advocate of the practices of presence, and can easily use most of the language of the Quietists, I do see a problem that sometimes arises among people who follow the practices of presence. More than sometimes.

A dear friend came from visiting a Zen monastery and observed some large subset of the community were said to suffer from chronic fatigue syndrome. The syndrome is real. And, there is a spiritual disease that looks a lot like it. A cousin malady, perhaps. It is a spiritual torpor which looks a lot like CFS, that can overcome anyone on the spiritual way, but is particularly present in disciplines like silence or quiet.

The technical term in the west is acedia. Also called the Noontime Devil.

Acedia is traditionally condemned as idleness or indolence. Which, in my mind is a grave mistake. It is more like ennui and most like depression. Anyone who follows interior paths, especially if over many years, can fall prey to this spiritual disease.

And, this might be helpful, there are traditional ways to deal with it.

For those of us on spiritual paths, of all sorts, but particularly when we are devoted to practices of presence, is to keep a hand in the world. While the call is to be present in all things, we should also keep faithfully to the disciplines. So, in the Zen world, continue to practice. But, in addition to make sure the ordinary is there. So, again for Zen people, not to fetishize the pillow, but to make sure there are other things going on. Washing dishes is always a good thing. All work, but especially things done with hand and body.

As the Heart Sutra says, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. We know the mystery as it manifests. And we know the manifestations as we surrender our ideas about what they are.

The proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

That said, I think in general the people who called for the Quietist disciplines were misunderstood, sometimes intentionally. Especially for those in charge of the traditions.

So. I suggest a visit to some of these worthies. And a place to start might be with Madam Guyon’s small book.


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