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The Quietist Affair

by Henri Daniel-Rops

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  • Description:
    The following essay by Daniel-Rops, written in 1957, discusses the controversial topic of Quietism, which raged through the French Church of the seventeenth century. The author provides a detailed history of the key figures involved (Michael Molinos, Madame Guyon, Fénelon, and Bossuet) as well as the consequences of the Quietist quarrel.
  • Larger Work:
    Thought
  • Pages: 485 – 515
  • Publisher & Date:
    Fordham University Press, Bronx, NY, Winter 1957-1958

Quietism, A Heresy of Divine Love

Although the French Church had too long been in a state of agitation because of the Jansenist quarrel, it was hoped that the Clementine Peace of 1669 would be a lasting one. No sooner had it been inaugurated, however, when a new controversy broke out, whose repercussions disturbed the Court and the City to the same extent. In itself, the subject was not one to arouse minds passionately. The doctrinal deviation it involved, while it sometimes led to real moral aberrations, dealt essentially with nuances of thought perceptible only to the sharp eyes of the theologian. Seldom, however, does one see two bishops, in this instance, the most illustrious of their period, confront each other in a duel to the death, until one of them falls to the ground in defeat. An unimportant affair in itself, Quietism was to take on historical significance because of the great combat waged over it between Bossuet and Fénelon.

This is not to say that the new deviation was substantially in opposition to Jansenism. It has often been so maintained, but such a position represents an oversimplification of the matter. An exaggerated and distorted form of Augustinianism could be found in Quietism as well as in the theses of Jansen. The idea of man formulated by the Quietists was not much more optimistic than the one of Saint-Cyran, Pascal or Arnould. In the eyes of the general Catholic public, the difference in emphasis related rather to a general attitude of the soul before God and to conclusions dealing with matters of practical morality. Jansenism prostrated man on the ground before a fearful God Who elected some and rejected others at His own good pleasure. Its morality depressed and desiccated the heart. Quietism led to positions of a much less pessimistic nature. To resort to the language of politics, it was a deviation of the lenient faction against a deviation of the rigorist faction represented by Port-Royal.

The point of departure was in no way different from positions that the very orthodox French School held in common with the Jansenists: the conviction of the wretchedness of man, whom Cardinal de Bérulle spoke of as this "nothing" and Pascal referred to as "the vilest and most useless of creatures," the "refuse of the universe." It was on the basis of such a notion, which was correct enough in itself, that the great spiritual directors of the French School, men like Bérulle, Vincent de Paul and Olier, had developed the doctrine at once mystical and practical that drew man to God simultaneously through his own efforts on himself and the gift of his being to Divine Love. Rabid in their contempt for human nature — although Pascal proclaimed its "glory" in the same breath that he referred to it as being the refuse of the universe — the Jansenists had focused, in practice, only upon the first stage of spiritual experience, namely, the task of asceticism. The Quietists were to insist far too much upon the second stage. St. Francis de Sales, in his great wisdom, had counseled a certain abandonment to God as a sure consolation in distress: "I will do all that I can to avoid the least disfigurement of my countenance, but if I possess a disfigurement, I will love the humiliation of it." Don't try to "get the jump on" Grace! Put yourself in God's hands. What a source of peace to restless souls! But the true doctrine of The Devout Life, like that of the great St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, teaches that the Infinite Bounty of God actually dispenses its gifts only to the completely faithful soul heroically advancing in Its direction by overcoming the temptations of its sinful nature. Total abandonment and abnegation, indeed, but of our self-centeredness, and not of the very faculties and activities of the soul itself.

Confusion on this point was rendered easier since the doctrine of abandonment was reunited to a current that has always existed in Christianity and which existed even before, among the Ancients. It can be found in the apatheia of the Greeks, in the skepticism of Pyrrho and in the famous declaration of Seneca, Deo non pareo, sed assentior (I do not obey God; rather, I will what He wills). This doctrine of indifference had found numerous supporters within the framework of Christianity. Was St. Augustine so far from Seneca when he declared that there was no true liberty except for those who surrendered themselves completely to God, to His Will and to His Law? The Alexandrian thinkers, Isaac the Syrian and St. John Climacus, the author of The Ladder of Paradise, and Maximus the Confessor, had repeated in various ways that radical indifference to earthly passions constitutes the first degree of contemplation. In the Middle Ages, and even more in the great school of the Rhenish and Flemish mystics, indifference had become a synonym for renunciation, something indispensable to the flight of the soul according to Eckhart, Tauler, Suso and the author of the Imitation. It was a widespread notion in the sixteenth century. Universal indifference, for St. Ignatius of Loyola, was the means for renouncing every affection and desire. St. John of the Cross held it to be the starting point in the soul's journey toward the mystical summits. It was this alone, for St. Francis de Sales, that would permit the human will, unresigned to the acceptance of everything, but despoiled of self, to abandon itself entirely and to love "nothing except out of love for the will of God."

In the Middle Ages, this state was characterized by the term, quies mentis, repose of the spirit. The very expression conveys a sense of the danger inherent to this doctrine if improperly interpreted. It is not only on the physical plane that it is easy to glide from a legitimate state of repose to one of complacent inactivity. Does the soul that is totally abandoned to God and steadfastly united to Him, still have to put forth any efforts of its own? Does it still have to perform any actions or impose upon itself any mortifications? No. It is sufficient for it to rest in God, to remain passive and to be indifferent to everything, even to the temptations that assail it and to its very salvation. A notorious Quietist, Soeur Marie-Rosette, declared, "My desire is to desire nothing, my will to will nothing, my inclination to incline toward nothing . . . but I do not wish to desire not to desire anything, because I am persuaded that that would still be a desire." At this point one has crossed over into some strange moral and spiritual universe! Is the climate here any longer Christian? Or is one being enveloped in an atmosphere of some sort of Nirvana? "Wait until God moves us"; it is very easy. "Do nothing; rather, let things be done." But suppose it is the Devil who does them?

There had always been Quietists in the Church. St. Jerome had already denounced the tendency in the monk, Evagrius. Around the year 1000 in Byzantium, there were the "hesychasts," that is to say, the silent ones, who used to remain motionless and mute, their eyes fixed upon their navels, in the hope of arriving at the contemplation of supernatural light. They believed that in such a state the soul is radically incapable of sin. In the thirteenth century, there were Quietists also in the West, like the disciples of Amaury de Bêne and the Brethren of the Free Spirit of Professor Ortlieb,1 who, on the pretext of total abandon, attained to nothing short of spiritual degradation. There were also the mysterious Beghards,2 in whom the best and the worst features were to be found side by side. Even Luther, in his youth, between 1515 and 1518, despairing of his own salvation, had extolled the virtue of total abandonment to God, the suppression of all effort and desire, and the acceptance of everything, even Hell, a doctrine so disconsolate that he renounced it.

In the seventeenth century, particularly in France, the temptation to Quietism was observable among some of the noblest and most sincere mystics, namely, the upholders of the doctrine of Pure Love. They instinctively rejected the temptation, remaining within the limits of a Love of God as rightly understood, and to which the efforts of the faithful soul had constantly to correspond. M. Olier, however, told a certain religious, "You must purify yourself for the sole purpose of pleasing God." He also admonished certain priests, "so to annihilate themselves within that they would no longer think of the reward they hoped for in return for serving God." Père de Condren counseled those he was directing, to "leave yourselves to God, abandoning within yourself every desire to live and to love." Jean-Pierre Camus, Bishop of Bellay, the friend and biographer of St. Francis de Sales, preached about the indifference in which the soul "would give up its own salvation in order to rush to its own damnation if, by an impossible hypothesis of the imagination, it saw the will of God somewhat more in the latter than in the former." Such expressions as these could be easily misunderstood. Similar expressions continued to multiply. They were to be found in the writings or on the lips of Père Surin and Père Nouet, both of them Jesuits, of the famous Capuchin, Benoît de Canfeld, of the devout layman, Jean de Bernières Louvigny, author of The Interior Christian, of his friend, M. Bertot, spiritual director of the Benedictines of Montmartre, and of the admirable M. Boudon, the great Archdeacon of Evreux and author of God Alone. False mysticism lay in wait for those who listened with too ready an ear to these sincere exhortations to holy indifference and abandonment to the mystical élan. The Church would discern the danger better in the glow of the Molinosist conflagration.

The Mysterious Michael Molinos

The tendency to distort the "charter of sublime and holy Love," to use the phrase of Henri Bremond, was not restricted to the Church in France. It was not only in France that the charter that held sway over the religious life of the century of great souls was distorted by the tendency to understand divine love in the manner of a kind of voluptuousness, and prayer in the manner of a "vague, celestial hashish." Analogous theses had also been maintained in Italy by the "Lady of Milan," Isabella Bellinzaga, authoress of a Breve compendio intorno alla perfezione cristiana, a woman of intellect, who, in her youth, had assisted St. Charles Borromeo in the administration of a hospital, and by her spiritual director, Padre Achille Cagliardi. In Spain also, we have two very saintly persons, Gregorio López, who left for Mexico to live a hermit's life of continuous contemplation, and Jean Falconi, the author of l'Alphabet pour lire dans le Christ, whom the Church would proclaim Venerable. "The short road to perfection," Falconi taught, "is to dwell in peaceful and silent repose, in pure faith in God and total abandonment to His holy Will." The same tendencies were again to be found in other, perhaps less exemplary, or in any case, less orthodox, circles. In the confraternities called Schools of Christ the prayer of quiet went along very nicely with ideas stemming from Islam or from India. Some such form of spirituality was in vogue among the Alumbrados or Illuminists, like those who were condemned at Seville in 1625. Similar groups existed also in Italy, notably the "Pelagins," so called because they held their assemblies in oratories dedicated to St. Pelagius. In the Marches, we also have the "Lombardists" of Dom Giacomo Lombardi. All of these movements would soon be brought together and carried away by a strange current.

The figure of Michael Molinos3 is an enigmatic one. History is far from having penetrated its secret. Was he a saint or an impostor? Men of considerable wisdom and learning can be found to support either opinion. Was he a Rasputin of sorts, who duped the pontifical court in the same way that the celebrated monk would deceive the court of Nicholas II? His own words seem to condemn him. As a matter of fact, however, the official condemnation that fell upon him is astonishing in its moderation, so disproportionate is it to the crimes imputed to him. The Dreyfus Affair has taught France and the whole world how difficult it is to see things clearly in the sort of controversy wherein a man becomes a sign of contradiction.

Molinos was born of a humble family near Saragossa in 1628. He studied under the Jesuits at Valencia, received his doctor's cap in theology at Coimbra, and was ordained when he was twenty-four years old. His talents were certainly outstanding. An authority emanated from him that witnesses declared "was at first disconcerting, but before long dominating." At thirty he was already the idol of the religious world of Valencia. He was the preacher in vogue and the confessor sought after by every convent. His fellow citizens sent him to Rome in 1664 to plead a canonization cause dear to their hearts. In the Eternal City, Michael Molinos again met with the same success. His Mass became the rallying center for a group of souls in search of the ways of mysticism. Some were even members of the Sacred College, among them the future Pope and Saint, Innocent XI, then Cardinal Odescalchi. Letters came to him from all over Italy. In reply, he signed his own letters, "Moved by the Holy Spirit" or "In the light of the Most High." He was "deluged by this flood of souls, but he himself was as detached and solitary as any hermit." This unclouded triumph lasted for ten years.

In 1675, Molinos published an exposition of his teaching, first in Spanish and then in Italian, called The Spiritual Guide. Its success was enormous, not only in the two original languages, but also in Latin, French and German. A Short Treatise on Daily Communion was less renowned. He received the most flattering approvals. And when his opponents dared to criticize his thesis, it was they whom the Holy Office condemned, including Father Segneri, who was at that time the most celebrated Jesuit preacher and a renowned doctor of ascetical theology. Molinos ostensibly held himself aloof from such matters, however, and declared that "his only desire was to be made nothing and to be condemned by all for the sake of Jesus."

The doctrine of Molinos was a categorical form of Quietism. Its spirituality was reducible to two main themes: absolute passivity and contemplation in total repose of the spirit. The soul must aim at mystical death, annihilate itself before God, and let God be substituted for self in the government of its entire being. Every action is displeasing to God because it interrupts the state of passive receptivity. Even devotions are harmful, if they are directed to something sensible, to the Humanity of Christ, the Blessed Virgin or the Saints. There was only one way open to the mystical soul, the interior way. There is no longer any need of the "purgative" way! A plague upon all forms of asceticism! Had Molinos ever meditated upon the verse in the Fourth Gospel where Christ says: "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me"? (John 14:21). He did not deny sin and transgression in any way, however, but he declared that even these were consented to by God to make the soul feel humiliated. When they occurred, it was because the Demon had been authorized to do violence to the will of the best of souls, even to the point of making them commit acts of a morally depraved nature. In keeping with the doctrine of abandonment, it was wrong to put up any resistance. What seemed to be grave faults were only the wretched snares of the Spirit of Darkness. Etiam peccata . . . This was going too far.

That these theses had not been condemned sooner can only be explained by the prestige Molinos enjoyed in the eyes of Innocent XI, the Cardinals, Ricci, Azzolini, Cybo, Secretary of State, Capizucchi, responsible for the Imprimatur accorded The Spiritual Guide, and Petrucci, author of a book with analogous tendencies, not to mention so many of the Roman princesses and Queen Christina of Sweden. What is less comprehensible is why opinion turned against him so suddenly when it did. Various reasons may have combined to this effect. Some confessors noted that certain penitents, particularly women, were interpreting the Molinosist thesis in something less than a moral sense. The Archbishop of Naples, Inigo Caracciolo, asserted that, particularly in convents of religious women, the prayer of quiet led to the rejection of vocal prayer and confession entirely. Albizzi, the old Cardinal of the Holy Office, understood the position in the same sense. Did Quietism appear to Innocent XI to be an error antithetical to the condemned error of Jansenism which, in the interest of public justice, it was equally necessary to condemn? Did his confessor, Father Maracchi, urge him along these lines in order to emphasize the fact that the Jesuits had no connection with such doctrines, although they had fought against Jansen's assumptions and the very rigid morality of Port-Royal? Bizarre rumors spread all over Rome and denunciations were forwarded to the Inquisition, in connection with the relationship between the holy man and his female penitents.

In 1685, he was arrested by the pontifical police. His servants protested the absolute purity of his life and kissed his feet as he mounted the carriage that was to take him off to prison. Mabillon, then at Rome, notes in his journal, that no one knew exactly why he had been arrested. "It is thought that it is not because of the doctrine of his printed books, but because of certain letters, or at least because of certain regrettable interpretations that certain of his adherents have placed upon his thought," he writes. Pasquino himself joined in, the famous cobbler whose gibes made the Romans laugh so much, and vindictive epigrams were posted in defense of the victim of the Inquisition. The affair rapidly took on great proportions, and several of the mystic's disciples joined him in the prisons of the Holy Office. It was as clear as day that Molinosism had made inroads not only among women who were trying to attain the nirvana of perfect spiritual repose, but also among others, who were after joys of a less celestial character. Molinos admitted everything with which he was reproached, all that they wanted, everything that the demon, doing violence to his will, had caused him to do. To all appearances, his attitude was that of the Christian who, suffering insult and injury, rejoices in his resemblance to the outraged Christ. Innocent XI condemned sixty-eight propositions extracted from his writings. He instantly submitted and agreed to solemnly abjure his errors. When he carried out his agreement, in the Church of the Minerva, on his knees between two of the secret police, holding a candle between his bound hands, with the crowd in the plaza shouting, "Au feu! Au feu!," he appeared mysteriously cheerful and impassive, perhaps in that state of total repose of the spirit where "no new fortune brings with it joy, and no misfortune sorrow." Innocent XI absolutely refused to let him be condemned to death. It is this refusal that leaves a doubt hovering over the infamies of which Molinos had been accused, and of which he acknowledged himself to be culpable. He spent the last nine years of his life in prison, until 1696, with all the appearances of mortification and prayer — if not repentance.

Madame Guyon

Molinosism had penetrated to France from the very beginning, where, as we have seen, the soil had already been prepared for it. The French Quietists, however, while they exaggerated the notions of assimilation to God and passivity, had still never embarked on the path of the singular theory of evil and lack of human responsibility opened up by Molinos. Thus, in 1664, the pathetic, blind mystic, Malaval, "the lay saint of Marseilles," as his fellow citizens called him, had published a Pratique facile pour parvenir à la contemplation, that had an immense vogue, in which P. Segneri had discovered seven "illusions." But that was all. The more serious deviation began with Père Lacombe and Madame Guyon.

The situation is almost the same with regard to these two personages as it is with Michael Molinos. They were so vehemently attacked and the center of such a maelstrom of furious discussion and impassioned debate, that the historian hesitates to put any faith in charges brought against them in a situation where it seems the demands of justice were not always adhered to and where even their own voluntary confessions could have been prompted by a fierce, but nevertheless Christian desire for abnegation.

Père Lacombe was born at Thonon in 1643. He appears not to have been endowed at birth with the solid qualities of balance and practical wisdom ordinarily associated with his Savoyard compatriots. He was "a good man and a zealous missionary," says Msgr. Calvet, but also "a pious visionary," incapable of putting his ideas in order, an emotional sort of person, who himself declared, "I make senseless mistakes, which soon afterwards I have to pay for . . . more by the stinging reproaches I experience within my own soul than by the punishments I attract to myself." Such a temperament was fatally exposed to risks. He entered the Barnabites, an order founded in the previous century by St. Anthony Mary Zaccaria, became professor of theology at the mother house of the order, and later on superior of the community of his congregation at Thonon. He had been sent to Rome in connection with the case of Molinos, and was linked by friendship to a fervent disciple of Molinos, the Bishop of Verceil, Auguste Ripa. He set forth his spiritual doctrine, which was akin to that of the Aragonese, in two short treatises, one of which was in Latin. They would not have attracted much attention and undoubtedly the good Father would have shared the obscure lot of the minor Quietists, had not chance — or was it the devil? — thrust into his path Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Mothe, the widow of Jacques Guyon du Chesnoy and the half-sister of his own Provincial, Père Dominique Bouvier.

Some time before, at Gex, opposite Thonon, on the other side of Lake Leman, a house of "Nouvelles Catholiques" had been established to insure the perseverance of recent converts from Protestantism. It had been founded at the request of the Bishop of Geneva by a woman who everyone agreed was an extraordinary person and whom Père Lacombe had the greatest admiration for, after he became spiritual director of the house. This little bourgeoise from Montargis was certainly extraordinary in every sense of the term. From her earliest childhood (she was born in 1648) she attested to having had "visions like Saint Teresa" and to have had a paper bearing the letters of the name of Jesus sewn upon her abdomen "with a large needle threaded with ribbons"! She was physically abnormal, subject to strange phenomena of swellings of her body, during which time her skin would become pocked with violet blotches. She also seems not to have been much more balanced psychologically. At fifteen, her romantic readings and mystical reveries generated some strange artificial sparks in her constantly ebullient spirit. This explosive conglomeration was thrust into the arms of an amiable cousin, thirty-eight years old. She married him, only to declare between sobs on the day after their wedding that the marriage had been an odious sacrifice for her and that she would have preferred entering a cloister. Although she brought four children into the world, she had, by a process Freud made a study of, transferred her great unassuaged amorous passion to the religious plane. She lived in a state of mystical delectation that made her oblivious to real life, and attributed to herself all the spiritual states she read descriptions of in books. She went so far as to announce that the Infant Jesus had placed upon her finger the invisible ring of heavenly espousals.

This strange woman, in whom elements of mystical experience and symptoms of hysteria astonishingly intermingled, undoubtedly exercised a prodigious influence. She was young, attractive and coquettish, with expressive eyes and tempting lips, but smallpox had streaked her countenance with ugly marks, something she declared to be a signal grace on her behalf. Had she really any need of such vulgar weapons of seduction and domination? She actually spoke with a fluency whose eloquence disconcerted even the most recalcitrant. She also wrote with a velocity that even St. Jerome might envy, commenting upon the most difficult books of the Bible in eight days and the Canticle of Canticles in twenty-four hours! When she became a widow, Jeanne-Marie Guyon was at last able to devote herself to her true vocation: the winning of souls. "Our Lord has made known to me that He destines me to become the mother of a great people!" she declared. She added, "Down deep I possess an instinctively right judgment that never fails me." As far as humility goes, it is apparent that this Christian woman was afraid of nobody.

This exuberant woman's encounter with Père Lacombe resulted in arousing her to a prodigious degree of fervor. Totally free, thanks to the substantial income of 50,000 livres bequeathed to her by Jacques Guyon, she was in a position to devote herself without reserve to an apostolic zeal that her interior voices were constantly extolling. In the course of her spiritual odyssey, she won over the worthy Barnabite, whose temperament already leaned in her direction. A complete fusion of souls was brought about. Together they discovered "a totally new country for both of them, so heavenly" that it was altogether indescribable. A steady flow and ebb of grace was communicated from the one to the other. Their souls were united in a supernatural silence that had no need of words. It is hard to say which of the two was directing the other. It required only a word from Père Lacombe, or a magnetic stroke on the forehead of his penitent, to cure Madame Guyon's headache or stop her chronic coughing. But, away from her, the Barnabite confessed he felt bereft of part of himself. Did their relationship take a turn in a less ethereal direction? Louis XIV, Mme. de Maintenon, Bossuet and Cardinal de Noailles thought it did, and they said so publicly. Mme. Guyon would never admit to anything more serious than a few harmless kisses. Père Lacombe, however, would accuse himself of immoral actions. But this was when he had lost his mind and his avowals appeared questionable.4 Be that as it may, these mystico-sensual relations were well calculated to bring about a disequilibrium in two temperaments already on the verge of erring.

Gex, Thonon — where Mme. Guyon took the Ursuline habit for a time — the apostolic fields of Marseilles, Lyons and Dijon, days spent in admirable charity as a simple infirmarian in the hospitals of Turin — the zeal of the prophetess knew no bounds. Père Lacombe, in spite of the admonitions of his Provincial, his client's brother, his Bishop, who was henceforth very uneasy, and Cardinal Le Camus, the Bishop of Grenoble, enthusiastically pursued her in a state of exaltation. A nest of fanatical devotees of both sexes gathered around them. For them they reserved the secret teaching of ineffable truths, while they acquainted the public with only the "a, b, c" of their doctrine. In 1683, Mme. Guyon went through a terrible physical and psychological crisis, in the course of which she was in doubt as to whether she was pregnant with the Infant Jesus or being tormented by the Great Dragon of the Apocalypse. When her calm had been restored, she composed a short treatise, the Moyen Court et très facile de faire oraison. It made its appearance two years later and met with enormous success. Mystical theses for the initiated were circulated in clandestine papers known as the Torrents spirituels. The doctrine was a reinvigorated form of Quietism, an uncompromising Molinosism. Abandonment, passivity, "withdrawal into God," spiritual marriage, "inconceivable innocence," indifference to actions — there was nothing new in all that. The only point on which Mme. Guyon and Père Lacombe parted company with Molinos was on the question of sin. They did not speak of it in terms of violence perpetrated by the devil. They asserted rather, that "total abandonment" and detachment from self could lead the soul to commit faults, even "to commit the sin for which one has the greatest horror." That was the greatest sacrifice to offer to God! Such assertions as these justified the worst suspicions.

When Père Lacombe and his inseparable soul-sister arrived in Paris, their doctrine was given an immediate hearing. Women of high society who were far from being frivolous, but who, on the contrary, were desirous of making spiritual progress, became greatly enthused over the prophetess. Such women included the Duchess of Charost, the three daughters of Colbert, the Duchesses of Chevreuse, Beauvilliers and Mortemart, Mme. de Miramion, the foundress of the Sisters of the Holy Family, called "Miramions," and Mlle. de la Maisonfort, a canoness of Saint-Cyr, protégée of Mme. de Maintenon and a cousin of Mme. Guyon.

So many rumors began to spread about the mystical couple that the Archbishop of Paris grew uneasy. In order to please Rome, where Molinos had just been arrested, he prevailed upon the Government to send the Barnabite to the Bastille "because of his scandalous conduct." It was something to talk and laugh about since the conduct of M. Harlay de Champvallon itself was in no way edifying! Shortly afterwards, Mme. Guyon was interned among the Visitandines of Rue Saint-Antoine, a trial she accepted with great strength of will, rejoicing to be "regarded as an infamous woman" and speaking of braving the scaffold, with which she was by no means being threatened. Her indignant friends, however, busied themselves about obtaining her deliverance. Mme. de Maintenon agreed to intervene, being then at the peak of her influence. And while poor Père Lacombe, more and more absorbed in God and lost in a prayer of quiet that left him insensible to his trials, went from prison to prison, from the Bastille to the Île d'Oléron, from the fortress of Lourdes to that of Vincennes, to end by becoming insane, so it was reported, and by dying in the asylum of Charenton in 1712, his spiritual client left the Visitation convent and returned in triumph to the great salons. At the house of the Duchess of Charost, she met a young prelate, about thirty-five years old, whose demeanor and irresistible charm seemed to predispose him to be inspired by mysticism, abdication of the will and absorption of one's being into divine love. His name was Francois de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon. "Their spirits took mutual delight in each other," says Saint-Simon, "and their respective sublimity intertwined."

Fénelon a Quietist?

This is only the sort of phrase in which the illustrious memoirist takes lavish delight. As a matter of fact, their respective sublimity was not intertwined immediately. Fénelon at first showed himself reticent. It took not less than three hours' conversation with the mystical lady in the carriage taking them from the Château de Beynes to Paris for the principles she set forth to succeed in affecting him. When Mme. Guyon asked him at the end of the journey if everything she told him was beginning to penetrate, he replied, "It is making its entrance via the porte-cochere." He was all but won over.

Is it surprising that a man in whom the spark of genius glowed could so let himself be taken in? Many traits reveal the widow of Jacques Guyon to have been a neurotic, "beclouded by the fumes emanating from the unconscious, which she took for divine impulsions." It cannot be denied, however, that at the same time she also possessed an ardent love of God and the conquering force of an apostle. At the time Fénelon met her she had rid herself of the burdensome memory of Père Lacombe. For the moment, there seemed to be nothing disordered about her, and in the pious circle of the duchess-daughters of Colbert, to which Fénelon was deeply attached, no one doubted her virtue and elevation of soul. The prejudices he had against her accordingly had to give way. He was just at that stage in life, moreover, when a man of noble restlessness, who is still young but already beginning to mature, questions his own destiny and discovers an ashen taste in even the sweetest fruits of success. He was therefore sufficiently disposed to listen, as to a messenger from Providence, to this woman who spoke to him in ardent tones of total abandonment, interior calling, pure silence and prayer. How important was it, at bottom, to be an illustrious preacher, the favorite disciple of the great Bossuet, the superiorat twenty-eight! — in charge of the work of the Nouvelles Catholiques, and one of the official missionaries charged by the King with the conversion of the Protestant provinces, if inside of him he was experiencing an anxiety, the more tormenting because it was bottled up, that even the surest faith was insufficient to overcome? What Mme. Guyon said to him was undoubtedly exactly what he was waiting for.

As for her, she said she experienced from their very first meeting, "a certain something that made her tend to pour her heart out" into the heart of the young director. Fénelon was at that time not unlike the picture he has painted of Ulysses in his Télémaque, with his "flashing eyes, steady glance, reserved air that concealed so much vivacity and charm, delicate smile, careless gesture and soft speech, both simple and insinuating." It is not hard to conjecture that Mme. Guyon, who had a certain sense for people, could divine something exceptional about him and discern the mysterious fire that glowed within him. It was a real undertaking of a spiritual seduction on her part. She was the lover sensing her soul to be "in complete rapport" with the soul she desired to win, a soul as "one with hers as King David's was with the soul of Jonathan." She had but one end in view: to render this sublime accord efficacious. Beyond a shadow of doubt, it was a completely chaste relationship. Bossuet added nothing to his stature by accusing them of immorality and comparing their relationship to the one that existed between the heretic, Montanus, and his concubine, Priscilla. It was a union of two souls in pure love. Notwithstanding the rather singular appearances their mystical union rapidly took on, their love never transgressed beyond the limits of the supernatural. All the same, it must be admitted that there is something astonishing about what is known of their relationship. Much can be learned about it from their letters. Allowances must be made, of course, for the fact that the vocabulary of their time is not that of ours. We have only to think of the correspondence between St. Francis de Sales and St. Jeanne de Chantal. Allowances must also be made for the fact that words today charged with ambiguity then retained their original clarity. But even if it is admitted with some that Fénelon possessed "a certain simplicity of soul, that was both profound and naive at the same time," it still remains that the filial confidence he showed toward the woman he considered his mother according to the spirit, led him to use certain puerile expressions of a disconcerting enough nature. It is embarrassing to observe the spirit of childlikeness push such a great man to the point of composing verses in the style of Taisez-vous, musette that begin: "Like a tiny babe, I am in grace . . . Scarcely can I lisp, my name I do not know" (Comme au maillot, je suis en grace . . . a peine je begaie, je ne sais pas mon nom . . .). It is even more distressing to hear him call the widow Guyon, "Maman Teton" and her reply to him by calling him, "Bibi." That all this never grew into anything worse, must have been due to a purity in the passionate and tender soul of the future "Swan of Cambrai" that acted as a mysterious safeguard. "I do not feel anything for you," he wrote to his spiritual mother, "and yet I am not attached to any other person as much as I am to you. Nothing can equal my attachment for you, so cold and dry." The last words have to be underscored.

Mme. Guyon's influence on Fénelon is therefore incontestable. He thought and believed with all his might that she had been set upon his path by God to answer and guide him. "My confidence in you is complete," he told her, "because I am persuaded of your lights about interior things, and of the design of God manifested through you." He would never renounce his confidence and admiration. Even when he was obliged to separate himself from his friend and had ceased to write to her, although she was defeated and rejected by everybody, he still remained faithful to her in the elegant manner of a great lord. "Hold fast to what I tell you," she commanded him, "because it is of God." Without doubt, to the very last day of his life, he would obey her in the depths of his heart.

Does that mean that he accepted all of Mme. Guyon's theses and made her errors his own? Certainly not. When he told her, "I receive from you my daily bread," he undoubtedly was not thinking of his correspondent's dogmatic declarations, but was referring to the spiritual inspiration she had given him and the interior peace he had been able to recover through his contact with her. For the rest, it was his intention to remain free. "You take your illusions for divine motions," he wrote to her. "I have never doubted your good intentions, but I make no pronouncement about the details of your doctrine. I believe in you without judging you, although it requires an effort not to judge you. You have often deceived yourself about things of a temporal nature . . ." These are not the words of a man adhering to a doctrine and following a guide blindly. Fénelon refused to go along with his friend on many important points. And it was precisely on those points that Quietism properly so called was gravely in error and merited condemnation as a heresy. Mme. Guyon, unsure of her ideas and of her theological vocabulary, became involved in the worst traps of Molinosism. She accepted the theory that evil is imposed on the pure by the devil's violence, while at the same time she asserted that God effects such "dirty spots" in them in the cause of their own advancement. She maintained that its very salvation should be a matter of indifference to the just soul in a state of total quietude. She went so far as to proclaim that the soul in a state of absolute quiet would rest content when all religious usages were denied him, a contention that ipso facto renders the sacraments altogether useless. Not for an instant does Fénelon assent to such rash declarations. Quite the opposite! He labored to get his friend to correct them, which essentially she did. There is no doubt that Fénelon's Mme. Guyon came less and less to resemble the Mme. Guyon of Père Lacombe. A sufficient amount of feminine imitativeness manifested itself and as a result it was the spiritual son who also exercised an influence over his "mother." Msgr. Calvet very accurately observes that the doctrine of Mme. Guyon (Guyonisme) found itself affected by the emendations of Fénelon (fénelonisé).

The future Bishop of Cambrai was therefore never a Quietist in the heretical sense of the term. It is nevertheless true that his doctrinal positions, and more so his deepest aspirations — for he was not a very good theologian — were akin to doctrines that emphasized "repose of the spirit." He was born and raised in the atmosphere of the doctrine of "pure love." During his childhood at Cahors, where the memory of the venerable Alain de Solminhac remained alive, he had read in a book Père Chastenet had just devoted to him, how the great bishop had extolled the virtue of childlikeness and the love of God divorced from all hope of heavenly reward. In the Chartreuse, where he used to make his retreats, he also had listened to Dom Beaucousin speak to him about Mme. Acarie, Marie de l'Incarnation, and her mysticism of love. His uncle, Salignac Fénelon, an influential member of the Society of the Blessed Sacrament, acquainted him with the ideas of M. de Bernières-Louvigny. Later on, at Saint-Sulpice, the famous director, M. Tronson, taught him the pedagogy of divine love and established in him "the habit of God," introducing him to that admirable current stemming from M. Olier, according to which the ideal of the Christian is first of all to be found in total self-forgetfulness. All this went in the same direction, so that the doctrine of pure love and perfect abandonment to God was bound to penetrate easily into a soul that, as he says himself, "was bearing the burden of itself" and was waiting anxiously for an answer to its problems. What better antidote to the poison of doubt and scrupulosity than a doctrine that counseled letting everything go, abandoning one's self to God and listening to the voice of silence! In the circle of his friends, the duchesses, Fénelon was able to see how stifling a certain current form of asceticism could be, the ultimate climax of which was Jansenism. Is simply fighting against sin all that living as a Christian means? Does it not rather mean at the same time, and even more so, living in God and His love?

Much more than he was to "quietism," therefore, Fénelon was attached to that whole tradition we have seen spanning the entire length of the history of Christianity: the tradition of indifference. It is an attitude that necessarily accompanies all theocentric thinking. The man who seeks nothing but the will of God cannot but be indifferent to everything else. "In holy indifference," Fénelon writes, "one desires nothing for himself, but all for the sake of God." Did St. Francis de Sales, M. Olier and M. Vincent speak in any other way? It is the "a, b, c," of what Bremond calls "the metaphysics of the Saints." It is not at all a question of annihilating the human will, but of liberating it from everything that is keeping it in chains. It is liberating it from having in order to enable it to reach out toward being. The "fine point" of this endeavor is the very experience of the mystics, absolute renunciation and absorption in God. Rather than representing a more or less vague state of contemplation, Fénelon's passive state of holy indifference is a sovereign submission to the divine will. To love God is to die to self. It is to renounce every form of self-centeredness, even to the point of renouncing the self-centered hope of one day being rewarded by God for such trust. The final word is "to get rid of self." Is this a heterodox notion? St. Augustine actually said the same thing in different words. Pascal also: "The only true virtue is hatred of self." Something that was admirably and profoundly Christian in Fénelon's doctrine was the notion of waiting upon God, "upon a God Who is ever present, enveloping us and continually appealing to us, Who, though we often forsake Him, never forsakes us."5 Certain expressions may lend themselves to confusion, but Fénelon's doctrine is very much in keeping with a great conception in the Christian tradition. More exactly, it is in keeping with one of the two great conceptions of this tradition.

There are two conceptions of the spiritual life, both of them Christian, which the Church is ever attempting to reconcile and synthesize. The first envisions the spiritual life primarily from the theological point of view and insists more on specific elements than upon broad principles, principles wherein finally, at the highest level, the two conceptions are reunited. It insists primarily upon dogmas, the doctrinal propositions to which faith adheres, and upon the commandments that must govern our life. The psychological aspect of human problems remains somewhat extrinsic to this conception. The second view places religious experience on the psychological plane and asks of faith that it first of all represent a full expectation and be an answer to the anxiety of the irrequietum cor nostrum spoken of by St. Augustine. When the soul has heard itself called by its own name and has been pierced by the dart of love quivering in the heart of the great mystics, all else is added above and beyond, that is to say, fidelity to dogmas and obedience to the commandments. In the last analysis, it is this complete union with God that is the goal of all authentic religious experience, the "It is now not I who live but Christ who lives in me" of St. Paul. It is only on condition, however, that it is not lost sight of that such a union is possible only at the price of a heroic effort of the self upon itself. Fénelon was the complete embodiment of the second conception. There can be no doubt of that. Standing opposed to him, however, was another man, who was the complete incarnation of the first. Having in mind elevated souls anxious for plenitude, Fénelon will not hesitate to impose his doctrine upon them. His adversary, having in mind souls of a less elevated nature, less in need of winged flights than precise safeguards, will answer that all this mysticism is very dangerous and can lead to serious aberrations. Each of them, from his own viewpoint, will have reason to exclaim, "Religion itself is at stake!" But both of them will also be wrong in not realizing that true Christian experience consists in the harmonization of the two complementary conceptions. It was on this equivocal terrain that Fénelon was to be wounded by his former teacher and friend, Bossuet.

A Tempest at Saint-Cyr

The young prelate and the prophetess were meantime a triumphant success. From 1689 to 1694 they were to live through a dazzling period. Fénelon had just been selected to be the tutor of the Duke of Burgundy, the grandson of the King. He began to fashion a prince according to the heart of God out of this capricious and hotheaded youth. Great dreams were built around this educational mission. His pupil's father, the Grand Dauphin, was such a nonentity, living at his little court of Meudon and knowing nothing about France except what he was able to glean from the worldly headlines of the Gazette de France! Fénelon would devote himself to the task of molding the future heir to the throne into an admirable and exemplary King who would establish in France the reign of silent prayer and pure love! Would he not all at once become the Richelieu of this Louis XIII? He felt within himself "an urgent and disinterested need to become occupied with the great affairs for which he believed himself to be born." Besides, Mme. Guyon prophesied that he would be the light of the Realm, the star that would leads kings to the Infant Christ. The novel, Le Télémaque, which he began to write for his pupil, set forth his ideas on politics as strictly subordinated to morality. Over and above that, he addressed a fulminating letter to the Sun King himself, that was worthy of the prophets of Israel, in which he reproached him for his errors and threatened him with the thunderbolts of Divine Justice. All was going well!

A little group, with something of the aura of a secret society about it, gathered around the mystical pair. They formed a community of saintly souls, the order of the "Michelins," who, like the Archangel Michael, would set about defeating the Devil, the demon "Baraquin." A general, assistants, a master of novices, even brother-porters and brother-gardeners — there was no position left unforeseen or unprovided for in the order! It was a mixture of a childish mystical conspiracy and certain more temporal ambitions. The Duke of Burgundy would finally one day rule over France. The uncrowned queen, Mme. de Maintenon, was kept informed and gave her approval to these pious intentions, hoping for the complete conversion of her spouse and the religious renovation of all society.

It was with Mme. de Maintenon that the difficulties commenced, however. In the beginning she placed full confidence in Mme. Guyon, "hoping to find no joy or consolation except in the sweetness of her conversation." But things were bound to change. She had just established Saint-Cyr, where she proposed to educate the "Demoiselles" of high society and thereby form an elite among French women. Fénelon came to give conferences there, in the course of which he spoke eloquently about pure love, the prayer of silence and the renunciation of "every rational method," as being, the fortunes allotted to the little children of God. Mme. Guyon was not late in also gaining entrance to the establishment and speaking there with the same kind of fire. The youthful institution, which had no religious tradition behind it, was literally carried away, therefore, in a whirlwind of fervor and delight. It was at that time that Racine was having his Esther and Athalie performed there, with the King himself looking on at the entrance to the spectacle hall and Mme. de Sevigne swooning with admiration. Mme. Guyon henceforth had an ally in the place, her cousin, the ravishing Mlle. de la Maisonfort, who was more of a "Guyoniste" than she was herself. She spread strange doctrines abroad among the students. There was no longer any need for works, prayers, the practice of the virtues and the performance of penances. The way of union and passive purification were sufficient. It was a strange kind of teaching indeed. Motivated perhaps by a certain unconscious jealousy at seeing another woman wield so much influence over the young ladies, Mme. de Maintenon opened up to the bishop of the place, M. de Chartres, Godet des Marais, her ordinary director. Altogether unconsciously also, he himself was, without doubt, not very happy about the success of Fénelon. An investigation was conducted among the students and they were all found to be Quietists of one degree or another! When the King had been informed of the situation, he expressed the desire to read the texts of Mme. Guyon and her great friend, but he found all the spirituality contained in them too chimerical for his taste. A group of theologians was consulted in private. All except Tronson and Bourdaloue expressed reservations. Père Joly, the superior of the Lazarists, even used the term, "heresy." Mme. de Maintenon decided to submit the affair to an arbiter, Bossuet.

The choice of Bossuet, a choice that Fénelon accepted with a great show of respect, was well calculated to make the Saint-Cyr incident turn out for the worst. An excellent theologian, Bossuet was well versed in patristics, but he knew very little about the mystics of the preceding two centuries, even about St. Teresa and St. Francis de Sales. Moreover, he instinctively mistrusted them. In giving his opinion, therefore, he was going to approach mysticism via the writings of an unbalanced woman about whom the most shameful rumors were current. It was enough to make him more or less confuse true with false mysticism, the doctrine of Mme. Guyon with that of Fénelon, and Quietism with moral decadence. The more he progressed with his reading of Mme. Guyon's texts, notably with her autobiography, and the more his conversations — rather the interrogations he subjected her to — were multiplied in the Visitation convent at Meaux, where the prophetess had agreed to be confined, the more the conviction took root in him that he was dealing with a mad woman. This was not altogether untrue, of course, but it was somewhat summary all the same. He was convinced that he was dealing with a very dangerous woman in any case.

Realizing she was lost, Mme. Guyon requested that two other judges be added as arbiters along with the terrifying Bishop. She obtained satisfaction, and a commission of three assembled at Issy, in the country-house of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice, to make a study of the affair, Bossuet, M. Tronson and Noailles, the Bishop of Chalons. The discussion lasted nearly eight months, to the great annoyance of Mme. de Maintenon, who desired a speedy conclusion of the matter. Mme. Guyon defended herself with material drawn from her enormous memory, pointing out that she had the Fathers of the Church and all the spiritual writers on her side, while Fénelon discreetly supplied her with arguments. The three judges did not approach the matter all with the same attitude. Bossuet arrived at Issy, his carriage full of books, determined to demonstrate that he was right a hundred times over. Tronson, more subtle, was afraid that too categorical a condemnation might hurt the cause of authentic mystics as well. Noailles saw things from the vantage point of Versailles. Knowing how things stood, in order to hasten the verdict of the three arbiters, the Archbishop of Paris, Harlay de Champvallon, once again condemned poor Père Lacombe and the Moyen Court of Mme. Guyon. A verdict was at length prepared. Certain "articles" extracted from works containing the ideas of Mme. Guyon were to be formally condemned, but the author's name would not be mentioned. Mme. Guyon still counted many friends, and it was considered undesirable to publicly discredit one who had been the Egeria of Saint-Cyr. Fénelon, a great nobleman, had powerful relations.

During all the Conferences at Issy, he personally had not been an issue. He himself acted only privately, proclaiming publicly that he was in agreement with the decision of the three judges beforehand. Was it to reward him for his attitude, was it with the covert thought of keeping him away from Versailles, or was it in line with a clever maneuver on the part of his friends, the duchesses, that in February, 1695, he was appointed Archbishop of Cambrai? "A country bishopric," says Saint-Simon disdainfully, but one that brought with it no less than 200,000 livres. He immediately took advantage of his new title to have himself associated with the three judges and to add certain articles that somewhat mitigated the sense of the condemnation. Everything seemed well on the road to peace. Mme. Guyon agreed to make a public retraction. Bossuet arrived to consecrate the new bishop in the Chapel of Saint-Cyr, in the presence of Mme. de Maintenon and the Duke of Burgundy. The affair of Quietism seemed terminated. Actually, it was only beginning.

A Duel between Bishops: Bossuet against Fénelon

What caused the quarrel to be revived? Why did the two great men, who up until that time had not attacked each other publicly, become involved in a duel from which neither was to emerge enhanced? To tell the truth, exactly why is not known, except to know that the reasons were certainly complex. The Abbé Bremond pictures a fantastic conspiracy concocted by the Jansenists for the purpose of simultaneously discrediting the official Church, which had struck them a severe blow, and turning attention away from themselves. This is pure hypothesis. A more likely explanation seems to lie in the area of psychological motivation. Fénelon had made his submission in all sincerity and proclaimed to Bossuet that henceforth "he would espouse no other doctrine but his own." Did he have a change of mind in one of those reversals of soul that had become so customary with him? There was something unstable about his nature. He admitted it himself when he said, "I do not know how to say anything that a moment later might not seem to me to be false." Had his friends reproached him, perhaps, with having yielded and betrayed the cause of Pure Love and true mysticism? Had those who staked their future on him and were dreaming of obtaining high positions through the "Michelin" conspiracy reacted in the same way? Then there was Mme. Guyon, who remained as a living sign of contradiction. Bossuet was keeping her near him in the Visitation convent at Meaux, in the hope of making her conversion still more complete. Tired out, she took flight and found refuge in Paris. She was arrested by the police, imprisoned at Vincennes and interrogated in a very indiscreet manner about her relations with Fénelon. This last fact rightly incensed the Archbishop of Cambrai. The sensitive Archbishop was also hurt by his dismissal from Saint-Cyr and his replacement by Bossuet and Mlle. de la Maisonfort, who had become an anti-Quietist. As for Bossuet, was it a case of suspecting that his former protégé was playing a double game? Did he judge harshly the courageous fidelity Fénelon showed toward his persecuted friend? Did he eye with displeasure his becoming his equal, his superior rather, in the episcopacy? Certain somewhat maladroit utterances in one of the Bishop of Meaux's pastoral instructions weighed heavily upon the heart of the Archbishop of Cambrai.

Both men were so unlike each other that their mutual antagonism actually seems a normal thing. There was the conflict of two generations, between an old man going on seventy and a younger man in the full vigor of his prime. There was also a temperamental opposition between the lofty, touchy aristocrat from the south, lively and simple to boot, and the descendent of a bourgeois Burgundian family, who was not much given to dreams and was more solid perhaps than he was subtle. More important, however, was the radical difference between them in spiritual outlook, corresponding, as we have seen, to what was more essential to their respective genius. In the last analysis, it is for doctrinal reasons that these exceptional men would attack each other, each believing himself to be championing the laws of God and the rights of the Holy Spirit, the one defending the integrity of dogma and morality against dangerous innovations and the other fighting for the liberty of the interior life against religious conformism and its sclerotic influence. In spite of the fact that human weakness on both sides led the adversaries to employ weapons in their fight that are not a credit to their honor, it must be recognized that the debate between two such men of genius on such matters as these is one of truly great proportions.

In July, 1696, Bossuet began to compose a second Instruction pastorale sur les états d'oraison. When he had finished it, he sent the text to Fénelon for his approval. His intention in doing so was undoubtedly to emphasize that their accord was complete concerning the articles of Issy. Mistrustful and nervous, Fénelon felt it was a trap. He barely opened the manuscript and noticed in the margin certain citations from the Moyen Court of Mme. Guyon, which were treated in an unfavorable way. He indignantly shut the book again. Was it possible that he was expected to heap further condemnation on his defeated friend? Was he being asked to denounce someone he held dearest to his heart? He sent the work back after three weeks, without having read it, much less given it his approval. Then, putting his pen to paper, he wrote in all haste an Explication des Maximes des saints sur la vie intérieure, setting forth his doctrine on religious experience, and secondarily aiming to show how easy it was to turn true mystics into heretics by distorting their ideas. Read today in an objective way, the two books are not so opposed as their authors believed them to be. Both contain things of great beauty, particularly the work of Bossuet. Had Fénelon given it his calmer attention, he would have been able to find some common ground with it. But their covert thoughts had already turned in the direction of bitterness. His book barely finished, Fénelon sent it to his friends. The Duke of Chevreuse speedily took it to the printer's, although Fénelon seems not to have been completely in accord with this action. Everything moved so fast that the Maximes des Saints appeared (1697) a month before Bossuet's États d'Oraison. His author's vanity wounded, the Bishop of Meaux judged, not without reason, that it was a discourteous procedure.

This marked the breaking point. Furious with the "perfect hypocrite," Bossuet undertook to cast himself at the feet of the King to beg his pardon "for not having revealed the heresy of M. de Cambrai to him sooner." He knew what he was about. There was a whole anti-Fénelon faction at Versailles. It was composed of all who envied him his very great success, who coveted his tutorial position, or who hated the Jesuits, who were friends, not of Quietism but of Fénelon, as well as Noailles, the Archbishop of Paris, and Mme. de Maintenon, who was unforgiving of the Saint-Cyr incident. The King's sentiments with regard to Fénelon were ambivalent. Although he admired him, he considered him to be a "chimerical spirit," a phrase that on his lips amounted to a severe criticism. Perhaps he had also become acquainted with the accusation — a judicious one — that Fénelon made against his moral conduct, politics, expenditures and wars. All this was enough to make the "Swan of Cambrai" turn out to be the loser.

The Maximes des Saints had hardly made their appearance when they were violently attacked — often by many people who had not read them and who were most incapable of understanding them anyway. Very unfavorable reports spread to the court and through the city. It was asserted that the entire book was nothing but special pleading on the part of the Bishop for Mme. Guyon. What was the real relationship between them? The theologians who read the book were for the most part hostile. Even the sage M. Tronson showed himself to have reservations. When the austere Abbé de Rancé, the reformer of LaTrappe, was consulted, he replied that "if M. de Cambrai was right, it would be necessary to burn the Gospels and to complain that Jesus Christ had come into the world only to deceive us!" Nothing short of that! Kept au courant of all the commotion, the talk and the epigrams being circulated,6 and knowing how his enemies were deliberately confusing his ideas not only with those of Mme. Guyon, but with Molinosism, of which he disapproved, Fénelon made a tactical mistake. He refused to participate in a proposed discussion of his book if Bossuet was going to take part in it. He added that, since his own conscience was for him, he would not in any case make any retraction. That meant open warfare.

For the honor of the Church and still more out of admiration for both of the great men involved, one would prefer to ignore the successive episodes of the war that ensued. Not only did they hurl at each other's heads compositions combining theology with polemics, but they also resorted to some very strange procedures of action. Consequently, for two years, on the plane of ideas, it was, says Cardinal Grente, "In itself a magnificent joust," with Bossuet "darting out with indignation to cleave his opponent in two" and Fénelon, "prompt and splendid in his display, always courteous, and affecting the air of calumniated virtue with a bitter elegance."7 On the plane of action, however, it was a sordid affair. With palace and police intrigues, interceptions of correspondence, public insults and calumnies, and private defamations, the affair lacked nothing to make it, as Innocent XII correctly declared, "wretched and deplorable."

Whether he wanted to or not, as a matter of fact, the Pope was led to intervene in the situation, since Fénelon himself had made an appeal to him. Refusing to submit himself to a verdict of his peers, he declared that he recognized only one judge, the Vicar of Christ. It was a bold step, an adroit one as far as Rome was concerned, where it was looked upon with favor, but maladroit as far as the King was concerned, who saw it only in the light of treason to the cause of the rights of the Gallican Church. This was too much, fifteen years after the Assembly of the Clergy and the Four Articles! The Ruler's response was not slow, and was all the more prompt because fragments were being circulated sub rosa from Le Télémaque and certain political reflections that later would comprise the Tables de Chaulnes. Louis XIV had very little taste for anyone's explaining to him the art of ruling. The order came down from on high that Fénelon was to leave the Court, go back to Cambrai, and never again leave the place. The Duke of Burgundy pleaded his tutor's cause in vain. Fénelon left Versailles "under a flood of insults." He was refused permission to assist at the marriage of his pupil and Marie-Adelaide of Savoy, and even to visit his niece who was very ill. His brother, his family and his friends were all encompassed in his disgrace. This would endure right up until the time of his death, the premature demise of his pupil in 1711 depriving him of all hope of vindication. It would extend even beyond his death, with the canons of his chapter not daring to pronounce the words of his funeral Oraison and his successor in the French Academy cutting short the traditional eulogy in such a way that Télémaque was not even cited.

In disgrace, defeated, the target of innumerable attacks, Fénelon made the best of it. With melancholy humor, he said to his friends who had the courage to remain faithful to him, "Be careful, I have the plague!" His foil was so supple, however, that Bossuet felt its retaliatory stings. The pitch increased from week to week, from memoir to memoir. The conflict reached its height with the Relation sur le Quiétisme, published by Bossuet in June, 1698. It was a veritable lampoon worthy of the Provinciales on the literary plane, in which the Bishop of Meaux, using the same methods Pascal had used before him, transposed the debate from the realm of ideas to the realm of action, attributing malicious intentions to his adversary and making up for the weakness of some of his arguments by the violence of his invective. It was a masterpiece of style, and of bad faith. Worse still, using firsthand documents against Fénelon and Mme. Guyon, Bossuet permitted himself to make certain outrageous insinuations, which he was later on to regret, such as speaking about Montanus and Priscilla. The very excessive character of the attack was able to serve Fénelon well. He replied with such finesse that his rival exclaimed, "A clever man. There is something about his spirit that is frightening." Bossuet was struck a resounding blow when, without saying so explicitly, Fénelon accused the old Bishop, his former friend and teacher, of having used a written confession against him which he had made to him in the impetuosity of his heart and in all confidence before the conferences at Issy. There was no question formally, of course, of a sacramental confession. Such an indiscretion was a flagrant one, all the same, and did little honor to its author.

At Rome itself the squabble was just as lively and the means employed just as unlovely. Both camps had partisans and agents on the spot. On his side, Fénelon had the ambassador, Cardinal de Bouillon, a nephew of the great Turenne, who detested the party of Noailles. He also had on his side the Jesuits, who mistakenly suspected a certain Jansenism in M. de Meaux, and several Cardinals who feared that a condemnation might have an air about it of being applicable to true mystics. Besides, his appeal pleased the Pope and the Curia, and the virtues of M. de Cambrai were well known. His agent was a highly esteemed priest, the Abbé de Chantérac. Bossuet had sent to the Eternal City his nephew, the Abbé Bossuet, a questionable but crafty person, together with an excellent theologian by the name of Phelippeaux. He was given the support of all who had fought against Molinos, and his personal prestige was considerable. Some idea of how far these conflicting influences went can be obtained from considering two equally base facts. The "Bossuettistes" communicated to the Holy Office the verbal proceedings of the interrogations in which the unhappy Père Lacombe, half crazy, had confessed to sinful relations with Mme. Guyon. The "Cambrasiens," on their part, defamed the Bishop of Meaux by stating that he was motivated simply by base jealousy and by spreading the story abroad everywhere of the distressing adventure of his nephew, the Abbé Bossuet, who had been given a good cudgeling by the lackeys of Duke Cesarini for trying to seduce their master's daughter! It was all very far removed from the question of Pure Love.

Faced with such a sea of mud, one might almost be grateful to the King of France for intervening to ask the Pope to conclude the matter as quickly as possible. If Innocent XII had been a Julius II, a Paul IV, or even an Innocent XI, however, such a royal intervention would have been met with proper resistance. He would have sent the impertinent Abbé Bossuet off to lodge in the Castel Sant'Angelo for daring, in perfect Gallican fashion, to come to teach the Pope a lesson and to suggest he issue a Bull that accorded with the wishes of the Bishops of France. Instead, the Pope surrendered and agreed to sign a condemnation, very moderate in tone, whereby the work of Fénelon was declared suspect of "leading the faithful insensibly into errors already condemned by the Church . . ." and of containing propositions that were "temerarious, offensive to pious ears and scandalous." There was no mention at all of heresy in the condemnation.

It was nevertheless a repudiation and a defeat for Fénelon. He accepted it magnanimously. He received the news of his condemnation on March 25, 1699, just as he was about to ascend the pulpit. Abandoning the subject of his prepared sermon, he improvised in its stead a statement concerning the obedience due to the decisions of the Holy See and the virtues of submission. Fifteen days later, he published the pontifical brief himself and declared his adherence to it, "simply, absolutely and without a shadow of reservation." He undoubtedly experienced "a certain bitter joy in feeling himself respected and taken pity on," and in being, as Chantérac said, "strong and calm at the foot of his cross." His attitude was admirable, nevertheless, and it singularly increased his stature. It is not very important that later, in one or another of those rapid shifts of humor peculiar to him, he would write to one or another of his friends that he had been condemned for theses he had never held, or would sometimes give the impression of employing to his own advantage the famous "respectful silence" for which he had so much reproached the Jansenists. It is of small consequence that he rebuffed a gesture of reconciliation initiated by Bossuet, to which rejection the Bishop of Meaux, exasperated and furious, retaliated by trying to obtain a still more formal condemnation against him. Fénelon's submission put an end to the affair. Mme. Guyon ended her days (in 1717) in exile at Blois, at the house of one of her daughters. Her spiritual son would no longer write to her except at intervals. Quietism had seen its day.

What were the results of the crisis, however? Considered objectively, the books it had given birth to could have furthered knowledge about the spiritual life. Because of the magnitude of the debate, they could have provided for a better definition of the roles of the mystical élan, reason and action in the forward steps of the soul. The climate of passion, however, prevented such happy results from being obtained. Instead, others of a less magnificent nature were produced. In rightly condemning the Quietism of Molinos, Père Lacombe and Mme. Guyon and the semi-Quietism of Fénelon, Rome certainly avoided serious dangers: in substance, the dangers of moral laxity. By the same token, however, was not true mysticism adversely affected, as Innocent XII feared it would be? This was especially true in France, where a certain fully developed rationalist spirit found reasons in the condemnation for mistrusting every type of interior élan and for denouncing the "possessed of God." The bourgeois coloring (embourgeoisement) that the Catholic spirit has taken on finds one of its origins here. On the other hand, did not the party of Fénelon, by insisting upon feeling and interior experience, pave the way for the whole current of romantic egotism led by Jean-Jacques Rousseau a century later? Another consequence of the conflict in which the two heads of the Church in France attacked each other without moderation, was the encouragement it gave to the libertines. The unkind words of M. de Maux about M. de Cambrai made them laugh till the tears flowed. A song was making the rounds in Paris — since in France, too, everything ends up in songs — that went somewhat as follows:

In these combats where the prelates of France
Appear to be searching out the truth
The one says that what's being destroyed is hope,
The other holds that it is charity:
It's faith that's being destroyed, but no one thinks so.

Popular wisdom. Was it very prudent to cause the mischievous to joke about the doctrine of Pure Love?

Another consequence of the Quietist quarrel was not slow to manifest itself on still another plane, in connection with the affairs of Jansenism, which, precisely at the moment when Rome had put an end to the conflict between the two bishops, began to grow serious again. Did not Bossuet's heightened passion for combating false mystics blind him when it came to a question of recognizing a revived form of Jansenism for what it was? Did not the Réflexions morales of Père Quesnel appear to him as a sort of antidote to the errors of the party of Fénelon? In his mistrust of the doctrine of Pure Love, was he not led to defend theses that, killing love in the name of fear, would alienate men from sacramental practices and prepare the way for irreligion? As always happens in cases of such serious and violent debates, it is the truth of Christ, and still more, the charity of Christ, that come out bruised. Formally, the Pope was the only victor, since appeal had been made to his authority to put a stop to the conflict. In the same way he was going to be the true victor in the second attempt of the great Jansenist party. Spiritually, however, has not the Church as a whole been the loser?

(Translated by Bernard B. Gilligan)

End Notes

  1. See l'Eglise de la Cathédrale et de la Croisade, p. 651.
  2. Ibid., p. 695, n. 3.
  3. He must not be confused with the Jesuit, Molina, whose casuistry has also caused much to be said about it.
  4. Henri Bremond formally writes: "It is certain that Mme. Guyon has never been convicted of the shadow of a fault with Père Lacombe, or with anybody else."
  5. See Jean Lacroix, in le Monde, February 23, 1957, in connection with the book of J. M. Goré, La notion d'indifférence chez Fénelon et ses sources.
  6. The echo of this campaign is still to be found in the Dialogues of La Bruyère, in the seventeenth, for example, in the account of the Noces spirituelles. The young penitent, scandalized, exclaims, "Ah, Father, what language before a woman of my age!" Fléchier, for his part, refuted Quietism in verse.
  7. See the article on Fénelon in the Dictionnaire des Lettres.

© Fordham University Press

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