A Short and Easy Method of Prayer By Madame Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de La Motte-Guyon
Reviewed by John Cowan
First I read the autobiography of Madame Guyon. Born in the mid-Seventeenth Century in France this noblewoman in mid-life found herself in prison for seven years for the ideas in this book, The Short and Easy Method of Prayer. Her central crime was the idea that prayer was meeting God in the heart. The method was this: “They should first learn that The Kingdom of God is within Them, (Luke xvii, v.21.) and it is there, only, that it must be sought.” Obviously far from the party line. Doesn’t fill cathedrals.
Given for punishment seven years in a room with a bed, desk, chair, she felt “What else could a mystic ask?” She prayed and wrote and this insidious idea spread, sort of like the mustard seed and its weed of Gospel fame. She had no reason to think that her book would be circulated across national boundaries, translated to other languages, and change the prayer methods of millions of people for the good, but thanks to some friends in power that is what happened.
Initially in my reading I found two problems for me. First, the book seemed to be simply promoting rational thought. Second the language was the language of dualism. There is a God separate from me that I can dialogue with.
The first problem was solved for me by continuing to read. By the time I was part way through the book I recognized the silent depth to which the discursive thought led and by the end I was being left behind by a practice I had never considered that she related from first hand knowledge. Obviously she was someone who had tread those paths often herself. And had discussed them with other seekers. My initial reading that she favored words was incorrect. She used words to encourage a simple sitting before the presence.
As to the second problem, for quite a while I would jam up as she spoke of talking to God. I have learned to sit in the presence of God, more of an absorption than a dialogue. (Even that way of speaking sounds more dualistic than the reality) I do not separate myself from God and talk to him. Listening to her was driving me a little nutty so I decided to jump into the deep end of the pool. I asked Alexa to play “In the Garden.” For you from non-evangelical backgrounds, (me too except for my evangelical grandmother,) it begins “He walks with me, and He talks with me.” To my surprise I found I could still live that, find meaning in it. I realized I had been short-changing myself by not allowing myself this relaxation. And then I realized that once I allowed myself some words, Jeanne directed me back to wordlessness.
I remember fifty-some years ago when I was a Roman Catholic priest on the East Side of St.Paul , and I would often receive mail meant for a Methodist minister who shared my name and lived in the vicinity. We got together and he told me that in the seminary that he attended their lives were so choked up with psychology, modern scripture studies, the philosophy of the day, intellectual challenges to their childhood world-view that on Friday night they would gather at the piano and sing such as “The Old Rugged Cross.” Enthusiastically! Prayerfully! Ecstatically!
I told him that the Roman Catholic seminary unfortunately spared me a modern perspective. Indeed once a year I took an oath against having it, so I was still in stage one of this process. But now I am afraid I have worked my way through stage two and time has come to from time to time follow some simple words, pointing to the deeper truth.
While I find the simple words useful, and avoiding them an act of the ego, (I am too remarkable to follow my Grandmother ) at the same time Jeanne reminds me they are pathway not a finish line.
“Now all of the exercises of discursive prayer, and even of active contemplation…are still living exercises by which we cannot see God; that is to say, be united with him; for all that is of man’s own power or exertion must first die, be it ever so noble, so exalted.” A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, p145.
All stories of illumination begin with the death of the ego. More on this some other time.
“It is impossible to love God, without loving the cross.” Ibid. p50