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Quaker Theology #6 -Spring 2002

                                                                       Friends' Theological Heritage:
                                             From Seventeenth-Century Quietists to A Guide to True Peace

                                                                          By Dianne Guenin-Lelle

The purpose of this paper is to re-establish an historical link between Friends theology and practice of silent worship and the Quietist movement of seventeenth-century Europe, especially France, Italy and Spain. The most evident connection between Quakers and seventeenth-century Quietists is the nineteenth century text A Guide to True Peace or the Excellency of Inward and Spiritual Prayer Compiled Chiefly from the Writings of Fénelon, Guyon, and Molinos, compiled anonymously by two Quakers. In this study, we will examine the contributions of the three authors Fénelon, Guyon, and Molinos, whose works were translated and compiled into A Guide to True Peace, in order to rediscover the distinct connection between Friends theology and this particular mystical tradition within Christianity.

This analysis attempts to address the concern of contemporary Friends, especially in unprogrammed meetings, who see the lack of understanding of theology and insight into the historical grounding of Quaker beliefs as a problem. For example, in a recent article in Friends Journal, Robert Griswold examines the importance of rediscovering Friends’ theology in order to regain what he sees as lost vitality. In no uncertain terms he states, "Theology is generally considered an arcane subject that deals with meaningless questions having no relevance to our lives. This is not so. We are famished for meaning in our lives and in our actions." He claims that a theological understanding of Friends’ beliefs can help us grow in understanding of Truth. (13) Griswold then states five principles of Friends theology: Divine Love, Divine Power, and Divine Authority exist and are known to exist by direct personal experience; this Light, this Christ, is universal and there for all people; Christ (by whatever name) is a reality that we can know personally and be in a relationship with now; the self we acquire in the process of our immersion in our culture, the ego we learn to defend and support in our daily lives, is not our most fundamental reality; and finally God finds us – not the other way around. Griswold concludes by mentioning our rich heritage, and inviting us to add our own thoughts on this issue so that "we can work to bring our understanding together and strengthen our witness in the world. (13-16)

One historical basis of Griswold’s five tenets of Friends’ theology is indeed A Guide to True, a text considered one of the most important books on spiritual practice ever written for Quakers. It draws principally from Guyon’s Moyen court et très facile de faire oraison, Fénelon’s Maximes des saints and Molinos’ Guía espiritual. Howard Brinton states in his history of Quakerism, "The works of Madame Guyon, Fénelon and Molinos, valuable guides in the life of prayer, could at one time be found in almost every Quaker library"(72). In a well-known introduction to the Guide to True Peace, Brinton speaks of the popularity of this particular work:

This little book was written to nourish the spiritual life. Evidently it succeeded in its purpose, for it passed though at least twelve editions and reprintings from 1813 to 1877. Compiled anonymously by two Quakers, William Backhouse and James Janson, from the writings of three great mystics of a century earlier, Fénelon, Guyon, and Molinos, it was widely used as a devotional book by members of the Society of Friends." (vii)

The popularity came from the fact that this book spoke clearly to the needs of Friends as spiritual seekers who wanted more instruction on how to cultivate contemplative prayer because it offered an accessible method for this practice. For some today, A Guide to True Peace represents a lost tradition that Quakers should redis-cover. In a Pendle Hill Pamphlet from 1983 John Yungblut writes:

There is a curious analogy between this period [when A Guide to True Peace was first published] and our present situation. Now, since Friends are failing once more to provide an instrument for the instruction of their own, young Friends are turning to the theory and practice of Eastern meditation. As we have already acknowledged, there is much to be learned from other approaches to the cultivation of mystical consciousness. But we need to be aware that there are differences in the objectives of different disciplines. A Guide to True Peace proposes a technique that has an avowedly Christian purpose. (18)

Let us now examine the religious context of these three writers whose works were the basis of A Guide to True Peace. The historical period when Molinos, Fénelon and Guyon lived and wrote is very interesting to Quakers, because it is this time when George Fox lived, and Quakerism was born. As in England, we find deep socio-political upheaval, intellectual skepticism and religious persecution throughout France, Italy and Spain. We only need to remember that this was the time of the Inquisition, the Thirty-Years War, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and the beginning of experiential scientific inquiry.

Those practicing Quietism, particularly in the Catholic countries of France, Spain and Italy, were mystics of the tradition who believed that God’s love was immediately available through the act of contemplation and through abandoning oneself to the will of God. During the late seventeenth century, Guyon, Fénelon and Molinos, all devout Catholics, developed notoriety and popularity within the Catholic Church, which led to their ultimate condemnation by the Vatican itself. In other periods, those following this same mystical tradition, such as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Francis de Sales, were considered saints. However, at this point in history, Guyon, Fénelon and Molinos were considered heretics, becoming embroiled in what was known as the "Quietist Affair."

Some Quakers and other scholars have assumed that Quietism began with Madame Guyon, but the tradition is much older, as Davis claims, beginning with Clement of Alexandria (c. 160-220), and includes Teresa of Avila (translated into French in 1601), Roysbroeck (translated into French in 1606), Harphius (translated into French in 1617), and John of the Cross (translated into French in 1621), to name just a few of the mystics whose works were influential during much of the seventeenth century. (74) The term Quietism was first used, according to Davis, during the time that Molinos was gaining in popularity. (77) The term took on negative connotations when used by the Catholic Church to first persecute Molinos, and later Guyon and Fénelon.

The end of the seventeenth century was a period of retrenchment on the part of powerful components of the Catholic Church, in part, as a kind of backlash against the sweeping religious changes and social upheaval throughout Europe during this period. Quietists presented a further threat to the power base of the Catholic Church, and therefore could not be tolerated. Much of the hierarchy of this period feared that Quietism would weaken Catholicism because these followers of Quietism placed less value on external aspects of faith such as the sacraments, the need for redemption, the need of the clergy to act as an intermediary between the seeker and God, as well as the importance of the role of Jesus as the Christ. Therefore, Molinos, Fénelon and Guyon endured condemnation and censorship of their writings, as well as banishment and, except for Fénelon, imprisonment. Let us now examine Fénelon, Guyon and Molinos’ lives and the importance to A Guide to True Peace of these three individuals.

When readers consider the full title of this text, A Guide to True Peace or the Excellency of Inward and Spiritual Prayer Compiled Chiefly from the Writings of Fénelon, Guyon, and Molinos, it implies an equality in their contributions, in part because there is no indication of any difference in status among them and because their names appear in alphabetical order. This is, however, not the case. As we will see, Molinos had, perhaps, the least direct influence on the text, whereas Guyon had the most influence both on this text and on Quakerism in general.

When Miguel de Molinos (1640-1697) was born in Saragossa, Spain. He became a well-respected priest, enjoying prominence within the Catholic Church in Rome and developing a considerable following throughout Europe. His text Guía espiritual was, at first, well received. However, because of the premise that much of the outward manifestations of Catholic doctrine and practice were superficial to true spirituality, Molinos was criticized first by the Jesuits and ultimately condemned by the Pope to life in prison, where he endured torture and solitary confinement. Following his trial in 1687, an anti-mystical movement emerged in Rome, and Guyon and Fénelon’s critics were part of this anti-mystical movement.

The primary themes of Molinos’ text relate to how seekers can know God by simply turning inward, and in silence, finding God in the midst of a hostile world, thereby knowing God’s love and grace:

The sort of prayer to which we have alluded is that of inward silence; wherein the soul, abstracted from all outward things, in holy stillness, humble reverence, and lively faith, waits patiently to feel the Divine presence, and to receive the precious influence of the Holy Spirit. And when you retire for this purpose, which should be your frequent practice, you should consider yourselves as being placed in the Divine Presence, looking with a single eye to him, resigning yourselves entirely into his hands, to receive from him whatsoever he may be pleased to dispense to you; calmly endeavouring, at the same time, to fix our minds in peace and silence; quitting all your own reasonings, and not willingly thinking on any thing, how good and how profitable soever it may appear to be. (A Guide to True Peace, 24-25)

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