Theology Thursday: Madame Jeanne Guyon, A Life Transformed Through Prayer

A woman in prayer with a Bible

Imprisoned and living in solitary confinement inside the infamous Bastille prison, Madame Jeanne Guyon (1648-1717), wrote that she passed her time there in great peace and was content to pass the rest of her life imprisoned if that was God’s will. She sang songs of praise to God during her imprisonment. She explained that because her heart was so full of joy that God gave her, she even viewed the stones of the prison as if they were beautiful rubies.1

Her extraordinary faith, rooted in a deep relationship with Christ, developed over years of unfulfilled longings, losses and ever-increasing love, allowed her to experience joy and beauty even from within the grisly walls of the Bastille. Her autobiography and devotional writings have mentored scores of people over the years, teaching them to pray, and helping them develop a rich interior life with Christ that leads to peace and joy that transcends human understanding — even in the worst of circumstances.

In This Article:

Difficulties and Discipleship

Madame Guyon was born to a religious, elderly father and a neglectful mother. Consequently, she spent most of her childhood in various convents and planned to become a nun.2, 3 However, at age sixteen she was married to an invalid twenty-two years her senior. The marriage was unhappy, with her husband and mother-in-law virtually holding her prisoner in her home.1 She experienced the loss of two of her five young children and then was widowed at age 28.4

When she became a widow, Guyon devoted her life to pursuing a deep interior life with Christ through prayer and to serving the poor, even traveling throughout Europe to serve and teach.2, 3 She also began writing about prayer, Scripture and her experience of God’s love.1 Just as Jesus’ original twelve disciples learned that he gave them peace even in the midst of troubles, so did Guyon. As she pursued a life of obedience and discipleship, her challenges only seemed to multiply, but then, so did her peace.

In 1687 she was arrested by church leaders who were suspicious of her theology and her emphasis on an interior life of prayer. Due to the intervention of a benefactor, she was released.2 Following her release, she began corresponding with the priest François Fénelon who would later become the archbishop of Cambrai and who would also defend her against future charges of heresy. Despite Fénelon’s defense and influence, Guyon’s theological views eventually led to a second arrest in 1695.5 She was condemned and imprisoned in the Bastille until 1702.5 She is known for her devotional writings (e.g., “The Song of the Bride”, “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ”) and her autobiography.5

Growing Deeper Through Prayer

Guyon wrote extensively about her experience of moving from a prayer life comprised of vocal, traditional and prescribed prayer to the practices of praying Scripture and contemplating God’s love in silence. In her autobiography she wrote that as she prayed the Scripture and contemplated God’s love, her desire to grow deeper in her relationship with Christ grew and became so strong and pervasive that everything else seemed dull. She continued to pursue this life of prayer and discovered that it led her into a stronger faith and confidence in God, which in turn, led her to a commitment to be wholly devoted to God.4

Passionate about how prayer had changed her own life, she wrote to instruct others in the practices of praying Scripture, contemplating God, and resting in silence. She wrote simply, intending that her instruction about prayer would be accessible to all people, commoner, and aristocrat alike. Using the Lord’s Prayer, which most people would have memorized, she offered instruction for the illiterate, convinced that a deep relationship with Christ is for everyone.6

Her instruction about praying the Scripture — taught in two stages of “Praying the Scripture” and “Beholding the Lord” or “Waiting in His Presence” reflects the ancient form of prayer known as lectio divina (divine or sacred reading). As Guyon grew in her life of prayer, and took step after step of obedience, she came to the point of yielding everything, submitting her entire self to Christ, recognizing that God had made this kind of obedience and love possible.6

Growing Deeper Even Through Death, Disease and Dryness

Guyon’s autobiography is striking for her stories of learning to praise God in all circumstances, good or bad, for they drew her closer to God. She wrote about the death of one of her young sons, whom she adored, recounting that “this blow struck me to the heart;” still, she offered her son up to the Lord. Returning from the brink of death after a severe case of smallpox, she discovered that her once beautiful face had become drastically pitted. Her marred beauty caused her husband to turn away from her, but she considered the scarring a blessing — and a reason to praise God — because it stripped her of her pride and taught her humility and reliance on Christ.4

During seven consecutive years even when God seemed distant, she persisted in prayer and obedience, learning that prayer is not pointless even when it feels dry and barren. As she explained, God gives us what is best, even if it is not what we want, and we are called to enjoy God himself (not just his gifts) otherwise we will “spend our lives running after little happy moments, feeding on them instead of God.”4

Her life of prayer, obedience and surrender resulted in a tranquil soul that could endure interruptions with ease, remaining focused on God, rather than being consumed with her own preferences and agenda because a soul in a state of calm “seeks nothing for itself but all for God.”4

The Lasting Influence of Spiritual Depth

In an era that elevated intellectualism and reason above all, Madame Guyon helped people not just know about God, but know him personally, showing them that a deep inner life with God through prayer is possible. Both witty and wise, this once wealthy widow wrote about the importance of engaging not only the intellect, but the heart and the will, in pursuit of a deep relationship with Christ.4

The influential pastor and evangelist John Wesley said that Madame Guyon was the “greatest Christian to rise since the first century.”4 Her influence was significant during her lifetime, and has persisted ever since, helping generations of Christians develop a deep interior life with Christ through prayer. Out of this deep interior life, they, too, like Guyon, have discovered that a deep life in Christ brings “unspeakable happiness” that is a “true balm” for all the pain and sorrows of life.6

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1 Guyon, J. (1997). Madame Guyon: An autobiography. Whitaker House: 1st edition.

2 Hendry, M. & Uglow, J. (2005). The Palgrave MacMillan dictionary of women's biography. Macmillan Publishers Ltd: 4th edition. ISBN: 978-1-4039-3448-2

3 Bakewell, J. & Rodger, L. (2011). Chambers biographical dictionary (9th ed.). Chambers Harrap. ISBN: 9781782682714

4 Johnson, J. (1998). Madame Jeanne Guyon: Her autobiography (Condensed and modernized). SeedSowers.

5 Cohn-Sherbok, L. (2001). Who's who in Christianity, Routledge (2nd ed.). Routledge.

6 Guyon, J. (1685). Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ. SeedSowers.

Approved by faculty for the College of Theology on Aug. 27, 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.