by Jan Johnson
All of my life people have assured me, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). I’ve wanted to believe that, but a classic dysfunctional family upbringing makes me balk a little ateverything working out for good. How can a childhood of chaos and parental alcoholism benefit anyone? In support groups, I’ve met those with more dramatic disclaimers, so I’ve wondered, Even child abuse? Even abandonment? Even kidnapping? So while I have faith in God, part of me has been decidedly cynical that everything can turn out for the best.
With that suspicion tucked away in my mind, I was asked by a publisher to condense a translated version of Madame Jeanne Guyon’s autobiography and paraphrase it in contemporary English. I’d actually begged for the job because I’d read Guyon’s book, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ and thrilled at her skill of “the turning and yielding of [the] heart to the Lord.” 1Like Brother Lawrence, who also lived in seventeenth-century France, she set herself to enjoy uninterrupted fellowship with God, a practice I’ve been working at for years. I knew that Guyon had had a difficult marriage and had even been imprisoned by church authorities. Throughout these calamities, she allowed her soul to be knit to God and didn’t become as despairing or cynical as I can be at times. I wondered how she did it.
As I tackled the writing project, I found that when this woman was fifteen her father had arranged a marriage for her to a thirty-seven-year-old invalid she had never met. She moved into his home, where he and his mother ridiculed her, giving her a maid who taunted her, spied on her, and beat her with a brush. Throughout this persecution, she sought God, but they forbid her even to pray. So she sneaked out early in the morning to go to church to call upon God.
In the meantime, her spiritual director, a monk, told her, “Madame, you seek without what you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your heart. There you will find Him.” 2 This was pure poetry to me – seeking God in my heart. This woman was my hero.
But as my acquaintance with Jeanne Guyon continued, I drew back. She suffered too much for me. When her husband and mother-in-law turned her older son, Armand 3, against her, she did nothing:
One day my son went to see my father and spoke against me, as he always did to my mother-in-law, but this pushed my father to tears. He asked my husband and mother-in-law to correct my son, which they promised to do. When they did not, I grieved but Mother Granger [her spiritual director later in life] said that since I could not change it, I would be better off accepting it.
In the midst of these crosses, I practiced continual prayer. God’s presence seemed powerful, penetrating — even irresistible. This inward prayer gave me a great love for God with an unusual reliance on Him. I feared nothing — danger, thunders, spirits, or death. It distracted me from myself, my interests and popularity. I was swallowed up in my desire to do God’s will. 4
How could this young mother accept such brutal treatment as if it came from the hand of God? And how could she have experienced such miserable circumstances when she had lived so closely connected to God? She, after all, cultivated two spiritual practices I’d read about in Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ: “praying the scripture” and “beholding the Lord.” Surely they would result in an ecstasy that would draw her enemies to reconcile with her. If nothing else, would these practices convince God to protect her from such chaos?
In praying the Scripture, Jeanne Guyon didn’t gobble down huge paragraphs of the Bible. Instead, she read a text and then prayed it. She advised, “Take in fully, gently, and carefully what you are reading. Taste it and digest it as you read.” Using the scripture passage to sense the presence of the Lord, you stay in the passage until you have “sensed the very heart of what you have read… Your purpose is to take everything from the passage that unveils the Lord to you.”5
I tried to follow her guidance. Through this practice, I found that the scripture offered me reasons to be enthralled with God, to confess mistakes, and to ask God to cultivate certain character traits within me. Praying Ephesians 1:3-8, I confessed that I had not really believed that I am “blessed with every spiritual blessing,” chosen, destined, and adopted. I did not see myself as one upon whom grace was “bestowed” and “lavished.” To be honest, I’d always thought my blessings were a few quarts low and that God was stuck with me. In praying this passage, I saw that God thinks I’m a good idea. God imagined me and spoke me forth. Whatever else has happened in my family or life circumstances, God intervened and claimed me — not because God had to (rolling the eyes in obligation), but by the “good pleasure of his will.” God chose me, and wanted to choose me.
Jeanne Guyon’s other path, “beholding the Lord,” was a model for holy waiting. First, she used scripture to quiet the mind, but once she sensed the Lord’s presence, she paused. She tasted what she’d read and waited upon God. When distractions came, she set them aside gently by withdrawing from the frenzy of interruption and enjoying the presence of God.
At first, the idea that waiting could be enjoyable seemed radical. Having lived too much of life in the fast lane, I considered “being in God’s waiting room” worse than sitting in a medical waiting room, hoping yet dreading to hear news about a loved one’s surgery. But experiments with “beholding the Lord” showed me that waiting on God can be full of alert, expectant peacefulness. The anticipation becomes electric as described by Wisdom saying: “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.” (Prov. 8:34, italics mine). I saw that God likes to show up and surprise me with urgings to love some annoying person, step out into a scary situation, or remain quiet when I want to speak out. Anticipation of God’s promptings gives an electric energy to daily life.
Praying the scripture and beholding the Lord offer a sense of ascending a mountain, just as the disciples climbed to the place of Jesus’ transfiguration. They disciplines help us retrain the inner self to taste the invisible world of God, to wait for what is ordinarily not seen. I hoped all this retraining would transform my inner life, the way Jesus’ appearance was changed into an unearthly brilliance as he prayed (Luke 9:29). Maybe I wouldn’t be so cynical, so full of “what ifs?” and “yes, buts . . .”. Maybe I would stop coming up with keen-witted, elaborate plans (such as building “dwellings” for celebrities Moses and Elijah). Maybe I would move confidently from peril to peril, convinced God would always show up.
But wouldn’t such practices improve the quality of one’s life too? If Madame Jeanne Guyon was so accomplished at resting in the hand of God, why was her life so miserable? Everyone picked on her. And nothing worked for her. Even after her husband died and she became a rich widow (and forgave her mother-in-law), her half-brother, a priest, tried to extort money from her.What good was her life of endless prayer? I wondered. I wanted Jeanne Marie Bouvieres de la Motte Guyon, daughter of a wealthy man, to stand up on her own two feet and defend herself. I had to keep reminding myself that she did not live in my post-Betty Friedan culture, but couldn’t she do something?
After writing A Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer (now titled, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ), Jeanne Guyon traveled through France and Switzerland. Whenever she arrived in a town, she did not announce herself, but ecclesiastics and scrubwomen alike came to her door for help in learning to pray. On one trip, her stage coach was trapped in the snow and it looked as if she and her maid, La Gautiere 6, would die sitting on a snow bank. She said, “This poor girl and I were tranquil in our minds, though chilled and soaked with snow, which melted on us. Occasions like these show whether we are perfectly resigned to God or not.” 7 No doubt, I snickered as I updated these hopelessly quaint, old-fashioned words, she was “beholding the Lord” in the snow and the cold immobilized her brain from rational thinking.
By the time I finished condensing Guyon’s autobiography, I’d dismissed her as a religious kook who acquiesced when she should have put her hands on her hips and demanded justice. Eventually she spent twenty years in exile or prison because of political and ecclesiastical intrigue. (Her half-brother was a primary conspirator. 8) I would never have been so passive.
In desperation to reclaim my hero, I reread Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ and saw phrases I had missed. She advised people to “abandon your whole existence, giving it up to God,” 9 promising this was the “key to the inner court” since “everything that has happened to you is from God and is exactly what you need.” 10 It seemed a bit much to think that someone else’s treachery, lies, and conceit could result in my contentment, peace and freedom. She evidently swallowed the notion that all things work together for good.
On the other hand, perhaps all that praying the Scripture and beholding the Lord changed a person. Did those moments on the mountain follow her into the valleys of misunderstanding and hardship? Did these repeated encounters with the safe love of God help her anticipate God’s glory was just around the corner of her very-valleyed life? Still she seemed unreal to me. I liked her methods, but questioned the reality of her outcomes.
IMAGINING THE IMPOSSIBLE
It was about six months after finishing the project that I found myself playing a childlike make-believe game with God. When something distasteful happened to me — someone lost her temper, a golden opportunity for advancement was missed — I found her life beckoning to me. I would say to myself: Let’s pretend for a minute that Jeanne Guyon was not disillusioned, and that everything really can work for good. How would I behave then? The same answer always came to me, yet surprised me: I would love the person in front of me.
Late one Sunday night I arrived at the airport after a full weekend of leading a retreat. Bitterly tired, I waited forty-five minutes for a shuttle bus, and when it arrived I plopped myself in the front row seat as if that would get me home an inch or two faster. I longed to stretch out in my own bed and be done with the world. But before the shuttle could leave the airport property, the driver radioed in that our shuttle bus had a flat tire. I went numb. The people on board grew livid.
This circumstance seemed so dreadful, yet so unavoidable, that I stared out the front window of the bus and withdrew into a world of deadness. This is my common response: grit your teeth in misery, pretend it doesn’t hurt, and shut out the people around you who are yelling and grumbling. As I stared into the darkness, the image of Jeanne Guyon and La Gautiere sitting tranquilly in the snow, perfectly resigned to God, presented itself to me. I began thinking, If I pretended that this delay was perfectly fine — within the safe hands of God — what would I do next?
I looked at the disgruntled older gentleman sitting next to me and said, “I suppose it would have been worse if this had happened on the freeway. Here, we have a place to pull over.”
He nodded and said, “That’s true. Now the shuttle company can help us right away.”
The numbness fell away. The gentleman and I began entertaining ourselves, making jokes about what we could use to cover ourselves should a riot break out behind us on the bus. We thanked the driver for his efforts and soon another bus came. We grabbed the front seats once again, but a transformation had occurred. I enjoyed listening to him for our forty-five minute ride to the shuttle stop. This was so unlike me to do this. Instead of living in a shroud of misery and numbness, I listened to the man talk. As he did so, I peered into the darkness as if I could actually see Madame Guyon and La Gautiere sitting in the snow. It felt so automatic to enjoy the man’s stories.
GOD’S HAND IN THE VALLEYS
This make-believe acceptance has been nothing like the numbness that dictates: Just swallow hard and keep going, kid. I sense a true openness. The heart is open to receiving; the mind is open to new ideas; the hands are open to grasp new ways of responding. I don’t exactly behold the Lord in the valley, but I pretend to do so, and act upon it. Living in that pretense, I do odd things (for me) such as asking God to give me a heart of love toward an ill-tempered person or looking at the opportunity in front of me as if it were exactly right for me. I’m beginning to whine less and look for solutions more. When I do so, everything improves — my attitude, the circumstances, others’ attitudes toward me. When I do not, my whining sours the most innocent moments. I so regret not having played the game.
I now am convinced this make-believe game is part of my spiritual formation, even a make-shift spiritual discipline, if you will. I come out on the other side as a peacemaker, a jokester, a quiet presence to the people around me. Interruptions don’t jostle my sensibilities so much and irritating people look more like reasons to pray instead of reasons to be annoyed. When an argument breaks out between two clients at the drop-in center for the homeless where I volunteer, I pray, stir soup, and say kind words at a later moment. When my daughter chooses to live with a bunch of friends instead of go to college, I picture us all in the hand of God and stay connected with her even though her choices confuse me. When my aching feet halt my beloved, years-long practice of step aerobics, I avoid viewing it as a catastrophe and start riding my bike instead. It’s now easier put my hand in God’s hand and take the next step.
I’m still a recovering cynic, but the “let’s pretend” game is changing the way I view life. In the mornings when I ride my bike down the hillside of the bowl-shaped valley in which I live, I no longer feel annoyed that the high roofs of the homes obstruct my view of the mountains. Now in my imagination, I blip out the rooflines and I can still see those mountains. The mountains have become for me a sign of the invisible hands of God. With each incline, they re-appear, but in between times, I live by faith and imagine that they’re still there.
To read more about Madame Jeanne Guyon’s life, see Madame Jeanne Guyon: Her Autobiography.
8 Manuscripts identify him as “Father de la Mothe” while her maiden name was “de la Motte.” She refers to him as her “brother,” and Upham cites him as a half-brother, the son of her father regardless of the slight difference in spelling. Upham, 88.
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