By Bo Karen Lee
University of Notre Dame Press, November 2014, 208 pp.
Both Anna Maria van Schurman and Madame Jeanne Guyon, despite different religious formations, came to see self-denial as a source of power, leadership, creativity, and union with God. In her compelling study of these two seventeenth-century female mystics, Bo Karen Lee explores the themes of self-denial and self-annihilation prevalent in their work.
Self-denial can ruin a person. During my doctoral program in theology, I read account after account of women abused in the name of Christianity. Annie Imbens’ book Christianity and Incest, was particularly painful to read. Imbens demonstrated how fathers, appealing to Jesus’ self-denial as a model for “good Christians,” forced their daughters into unspeakable acts. Her case studies came from the Dutch Reformed Church but can extend to other contexts; my own friend from the midwestern United States was abused by her father, a prominent church elder who forced her into submission with all the weight of the church’s teachings. The theology of self-denial was tragically manipulated. It seemed obvious that a stronger sense of self was needed to bolster the defenses of female victims.
When I encountered Madame Jeanne Guyon’s seventeenth-century writings, her biblical commentaries seemed to contain an unhealthy preoccupation with the notion of self-annihilation, which furthered my misgivings about the church’s teaching on self-denial. However, as I continued to read more deeply, a strange beauty emerged. Guyon drew power from her particular theology; indeed, it allowed her to overcome cruel hardships, including persecution from the church and royal court, and inhumane imprisonments. Her theological and spiritual framework provided resources with which she could confront the ecclesial and political structures of her day. Guyon’s writings have inspired many notable thinkers across multiple continents. Her enduring influence is astonishing given that she was a condemned figure in the Catholic Church.
I was surprised to find a similar pattern in Anna Maria van Schurman’s theology in seventeenth-century Holland: her reflections on self-denial promised a deep inner strength, peace, and even joy. According to van Schurman, self-denial, when understood and practiced properly, enlarges rather than diminishes the individual. Indeed, we see a gradual transformation of tone in van Schurman’s own writings—from that of acquiescent female to self-possessed leader in her circle and beyond.
These women and their texts, oddly enough, resonated in my mind with an emerging movement within feminism today. This generation of scholars promotes a feminism that does not seek to mimic that which it resists. In other words, this brand of feminism does not seek power as the primary good, necessary to redress previous imbalances of power. Rather, it embraces counterintuitive avenues by which an individual might be strengthened and made whole.
In many ways, these two women of seventeenth-century Europe promoted a similarly counterintuitive journey. But they were even more radical in their formulation of how one may find true freedom. They argued that self-denial or, more appropriately, self-surrender toward God was not only the path to finding one’s true self but also the secret to the deepest enjoyment possible in God. This coupling of self-denial with enjoyment is surprising and deserves to be explored. Both van Schurman and Guyon claim that they experienced self-denial as the source of an “unspeakable joy which the world does not know.” Their bold writings, theologies, and lives have shaped many people and movements, making them significant figures in the history of the church. They have become so precisely through this curious theology—a theology that promotes the deepest enjoyment of God, even through sacrificial surrender.
Self-Denial as Self-Giving
Van Schurman and Guyon argue that the surrender of self, in addition to creating greater freedom in the individual’s life, creates space for the divine to dwell as one becomes radically hospitable to God’s presence. From this perspective, self-denial might be called “self-giving,” the offering of the self in love to another. Indeed, the reverse of self-denial is not healthy self-affirmation but rather a destructive form of self-interested egotism. This kind of egotism is closed off, unable to love or give freely. It may be argued, then, that a self-interested posture (i.e., the opposite of self-denial) is that which precisely destroys life and deeply loving relationships. For van Schurman and Guyon, “following after Jesus” indeed requires “picking up [one’s] cross” and “denying [oneself]” for the sake of an Other. Yet denying oneself for God never entails the ultimate repression of one’s gifts. A joyful surrender of the self to God rather offers deep spiritual nourishment and strength, and it results, ultimately, in a greater intimacy with and enjoyment of the summum bonum.
What does this theology look like in practice? Might the reader of van Schurman’s and Guyon’s texts find something life-giving in their approach to the theological task and also in their coupling of self-denial with the joyful pursuit of God? The purpose of self-denial or self-annihilation for van Schurman and Guyon is to create more room for God’s presence in one’s life. Letting go of one’s own agenda opens up space for God’s Spirit to work, to lead, and to create the individual anew. This surrender is at times painful, as one clutches the things that one cherishes. Releasing one’s loves, however, only allows the Divine Lover to offer new graces in the place of lesser loves previously grasped.
In fact, self-denial is made possible only because of God’s self-giving toward the individual. The offering of the self to God is simply a response to God’s tremendous sacrifice on behalf of humanity. In her Commentary, Guyon keeps her eye on this crucified lover, seeped in blood, because this self-pouring death was the highest expression of God’s love for humanity. Van Schurman, likewise, focused on this theme. Her life motto, “My love has been crucified,” had double meaning for her in that, as Christ’s life had been poured out for her, so too lesser loves in her life would be crucified for Christ, her single love.
In this place of surrender, van Schurman and Guyon claim that the soul comes to find the deepest enjoyment of God possible on this earth. A series of difficult “renunciations” precedes this delight, but with the apostle Paul they count these losses as nothing, for they are in pursuit of “the better thing” (Eukleria). Guyon writes of this immeasurable gain: “Oh, unutterable happiness! Who could have ever thought that a soul, which seemed to be in the utmost misery, should ever find a happiness equal to this? Oh, happy poverty, happy loss, happy nothingness, which gives nothing less than God himself in his own immensity. . . . Oh, happy dying of the grain of wheat, which makes it produce a hundred-fold! (John 12:24).” Van Schurman and Guyon exclaim that they have found an inexpressible happiness, and they invite their readers to risk, to trust, and to offer themselves with abandon for the sake of this greater joy.
These excerpts from Sacrifice and Delight in the Mystical Theologies of Anna Maria von Schurman and Madade Jeanne Guyon appear on pages xiii-xiv, 127-128, and 128-129, respectively.