Madam Guyon, not so quiet prisoner

Unlike the anchorites such as Zuster Bertken or Julian of Norwich, Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon, most commonly known as Madame Guyon, was imprisoned involuntarily.  But her works that resulted from her imprisonment still bring comfort and insight to many today. This may be especially so for those of us pent up from pandemic or otherwise.  Her influence was felt throughout Europe.  Many great spiritual leaders said they were indebted to her for the spiritual lessons of her life and writings.

Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte was born in 1648 to a wealthy family south of Paris.  She was of delicate health and spent her time between the convent and the home of religious parents who gave her pious training.  That training included study of St. Francis de Sales, Madame de Chantal and Thomas a Kempis.  These studies, along with the sentiment of espousal with Christ, drove her to become a nun, but her parents forbade it.  In 1664, she was forced into an arranged marriage to a wealthy gentleman, Jacques Guyon, 22 years her senior and in poor health.  The marriage was unhappy, but short.  Guyon died in 1676 when Jeanne Marie was 28.  In the interim, she gave birth to five children of whom three survived to adulthood.   She lived quietly as a rich widow, but in 1679 she resumed her religious studies.  After several mystical experiences she was persuaded by the Bishop of Geneva to use her money to set up a house for “new Catholics” in Savoy, part of plans to convert Protestants.  While there, she clashed with the sisters in the house and the Bishop sent Father La Combe to intervene.  La Combe introduced her to the mysticism of interiority.  Thereafter, she renounced her personal possessions, except for an annuity.  The Bishop asked her to leave and expelled Father La Combe.  She returned to Grenoble France where she spread her doctrine with her book, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer.  This work is not lengthy and can be found easily on the internet.  The local bishop asked her to leave the city. Again, she moved, this time to Paris, where she acquired a following for her mystical theories.  King Louis XIV disliked her mysticism and imprisoned her in a convent in 1688.  She was released seven months later at the urgings of an influential convert in the king’s court, Madame de Maintenon, who agreed with Guyon’s doctrine of pure and disinterested love of God.  Guyon’s opinions were condemned by a commission, but she continued to publish.  She was imprisoned again, and ultimately ended up in the Bastille, staying there from 1698 to 1702.  After release, she spent life in retirement with her daughter until her death in 1717.  Her writings fill 40 volumes.

So what was it that got her in such hot water with the church?  The Quietist Movement.  Quietism is a set of beliefs that were popular in France, Italy and Spain at this time, but condemned as heresy by Pope Innocent XI.  The church claimed quietism wrongly elevated contemplation over meditation and intellectual stillness over vocal prayer. She wrote of absorption of the soul, reduced to nothing, and complete passiveness.  Her life and writings emphasized the Holy Spirit.  It resembled the Quaker movement and the original Friends were sometimes called Quietists.  It refers to quiet submission to God and the Holy Spirit.

She wrote extensively while imprisoned, and this included 900 spiritual songs.  They were composed to ballad tunes.  Today, several are still found in mostly American hymnals.  “Amour que mon ame eat contente” was translated by William Cowper as “My Lord, How Full of Sweet Content” and based on the lyrics, reflects her periods of imprisonment and banishment. 

My Lord, how full of sweet content

I pass my years of banishment.

Where’er I dwell, I dwell with Thee,

In Heaven, in earth or on the sea.

To me remains nor place nor time

My country is in every clime.

I can be calm and free from care

On any shore, since God is there.

While place we seek, or place we shun

The soul fins happiness in none.

But with a God to guide our way,

‘Tis equal joy, to go or stay.

Could I be cast where Thou are not,

That were indeed a dreadful lot.

But regions none remote I call,

Secure of finding God in all.

Ann Griffiths, Welsh Icon

Here’s a thoroughly Welsh hymn-writer, though she never intended to have her poetry published, written into hymns, nor sought anything from writing but the satisfaction of creativity.  Today she is considered to be one of Europe’s leading religious poets based on only 73 verses composed within about five years before her death in 1805.  We certainly could implement the same creativity and spirituality in this time of social distancing and isolation.

Ann Thomas was born in 1776 near the village of Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa, the daughter of a tenant farmer and churchwarden.  Her devout parents raised her in the Anglican Church. But around 1794 she followed her brothers into the Calvinistic Methodist revival sweeping northern Wales.  Before her conversion, she mocked the Methodist converts she saw going to church and revivals: “Look at the pilgrims on their way to Mecca!”  Then she became one of them.  Her education can be seen in the poems she composed after her conversion.  She generally didn’t write them down but recited them to her maid, Ruth Evans, who memorized them.  As she told Ruth, “I do not wish anyone to have them after me.  I compose them for my own comfort.” The only extant writing of hers is an undated letter and verse to a friend written between 1800 and 1804.   After her parents passed away, she married Thomas Griffiths, an elder of the Calvinistic Methodist church in 1804.  She died within a month after childbirth in August 1805 at the age of 29.  Ruth Evans recited Ann’s poetry to her husband, John Hughes, and he saw that they were published in 1805, a very quick time frame for publication, and apparently contrary to Ann’s plans for her poetry.  Many editions of her work appeared in 19th century Wales.  Her hymns are regarded as one of the highlights of Welsh literature and contain some of the great Christian poetry of Europe.  Her life became the subject of novels, dramas, and films.  Most recently, a biographic musical, Ann! Was performed on stage and later televised and released on CD.

Her hymns were a kind of spiritual diary, a small body of work of 30 hymns.  They show a high degree of Biblical knowledge, including the Old Testament.  One of her most famous hymns, Wele’n Sefyll Rhwang y Myrtwydd (Lo, He Stands Among the Myrtles) illustrates this.   The man standing among the myrtles, a reference to Zechariah 1:8, is Christ.  The reference to Rose of Sharon from Song of Solomon 2:1 in the second stanza is Christ. The last verse uses Hosea 14:8 “what have I to do with idols?”  This particular hymn was set to the tune Cwm Rhondda written by John Hughes and most commonly known as the tune to “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah”.  Think of that tune as you read her translated words:

Lo, He stands among the myrtles

Worthiest object of my love.

Yet in part I know His glory

Towers all earthly things above.

Hail the morning

When I’ll see Him as He is!

He is called the Rose of Sharon,

Sweet and lovely, bright and fair.

He surpasses tens of thousands,

With their earthly glory rare.

Friend of sinners,

He’s their pilot on the sea.


What have I to do henceforward

With vain idols of this earth?

Nothing can I find among them

To compare with His great worth.

I am longing

To abide in His great love.


Zuster Bertken, who really was socially distant


As I write this, we in this country, and in other countries, have been enclosed at home during the COVID19 pandemic.  Most of us think of it as a considerable nuisance or inconvenience.  But our enforced enclosures are nothing compared to those of the anchorites.  Anchorite, a type of religious hermit, is derived from the Greek word meaning “to withdraw” or “to retire”.  They existed as one of the earliest forms of Christian monasticism and today, the Catholic Church says it is one of the “other forms of consecrated life”.  As anchorites, they dedicated their lives to prayer and meditation.  Most anchorites were women who lived during the middle ages. Anchorites would live in a simple, sparsely furnished, small (about 12’ by 15’) cell called an anchorhold built against the wall of a church.  The cell had three windows. One window, called a hagioscope, looked into the church to view and receive mass, and to give spiritual advice to visitors. One on the outside was used to receive food and tend to physical needs, and a third one, covered in cloth, to let in light.  Before committing to this life, the priest would conduct a requiem mass, for the anchorite was considered dead to this world.  They would then be walled in.  If any tried to escape, they were returned by force and their souls damned to Hell.  In my book, Sisters in Song, I included a segment on Julian of Norwich, an English anchorite who lived from 1342 to 1416.  I have come across another anchorite who wrote songs and poetry.  Berta Jacobs, born in 1426 or 1427, in Utrecht, Netherlands, was the illegitimate daughter of Jacob van Lichtenberg, a canon of the Cathedral Chapter and provost of the Chapter of St. Peter, and thus, second in importance to the bishop. Her writings indicated she got a good education.   When she was about 30, she decided to become an anchorite.   She sold her annuity from her father, and from the proceeds, built a cell adjoining the chancel of Buurkerk, the oldest parish church in Utrecht.  After the requiem mass, she became known as Zuster (Sister) Bertken.  She lived there for the next 57 years.  Her life was even more ascetic than most anchorites.  She was bare-footed and wore a rough garment of hair cloth against her bare skin.  She ate a vegan diet.  When she died in 1514 at age 87, the cathedral bell was tolled twice, something generally done only for the higher clergy.  Six guards had to manage the crowd that came to mourn her.  Death certificates were uncommon in those days, but one was made for her.  This shows how highly she was respected by the religious community.    In her 57 years as an anchorite, she wrote in the vernacular, her writings preserved by three printers after her death.  Her Passion book and other writings were printed at least five times between 1516 and 1520, and indication of their popularity.  In addition to her Passion, she wrote a Christmas vision from Mary’s viewpoint, prayers, and eight songs. Her Christmas vision has been set to music and played even today.  But it was her songs that earned her a place in the literary canon.  Her best known song, Die werelt hielt mi in haer gewout (The World Held Me in Its Power) tells of her separation from the world’s transient power to the eternal spirit of Christ.

When We Face An Unknown Future

It’s been a long time since I posted anything on my blog, but now I am holed up at home like so many others in this time of COVID19.  We are lucky that now we have various types of social media that keep us connected, a luxury previous generations didn’t have.  One such connection is through e-mail.  I am on the e-mail list of hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, someone I featured some years ago.  The news won’t stop regarding the virus, its effects on our lives, and how we respond.    One such response came from Ms. Gillette in the form of a new hymn, “When We Face an Unknown Future”, using the melody “Beach Spring” (most commonly heard in “God Whose Giving Knows No Ending”).  She graciously allowed me to reproduce it here.

When We Face an Unknown Future

When we face an unknown future that we can’t imagine yet,

when the closeness we have treasured turns from blessing into threat—

As we miss our friends and loved ones, as we crave community,

may we look, God, in this season, for a whole new way to be.


Jesus faced the lonely desert as a time to look within.

There he met such trial and conflict; there he knew you were with him.

In this time of separation when we miss the life we’ve known,

may we hear your voice proclaiming: “I am here! You’re not alone.”


May we cherish those around us as we never have before.

May we think much less of profit; may we learn what matters more.

May we hear our neighbors’ suffering; may we see our neighbors’ pain.

May we learn new ways of offering life and health and hope again.


God, when illness comes to threaten, and when so much here goes wrong,

may we know this thing for certain— that your love is sure and strong.

You’re beside us in our suffering— and when times are surely tough,

we may face an unknown future, but it’s filled, Lord, with your love.


BEACH SPRING D (“God Whose Giving Knows No Ending”)

Tune: The Sacred Harp, 1844; attributed to Benjamin Franklin White

Text: Copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved. Email: New Hymns:


Mary Baker Eddy, hymn writer?

Recently, as I was looking through the book section of a local thrift shop, I came across something entitled “Christian Science Hymnal” published originally in 1898, then revised and enlarged having the most recent copyright of 1960.  Curiosity compelled me to see if the founder of Christian Science may have had any hymns of her own.  Other founders wrote hymns for their budding denominations.  Charles Wesley wrote for the Methodists.  Eliza Snow wrote for the Mormons and Emma Smith compiled the hymnbook for the Mormons.  Perhaps Mary Baker Eddy had something in the Christian Science Hymnbook.  Indeed, she did.  With the variations in melody, her works made up 34 of the 429 hymns in the compilation. The poems/hymns she wrote in the hymnal were written at various times in her life.  The 1898 edition of the hymnal only had five of her poems, but later editions added two more.  One of the seven hymns is sung each Sunday in Christian Science churches throughout the 76 countries in the world where the Church exists as specified in the Church Manual written by Eddy.  I found it odd that though it contained many women-written hymns, it had absolutely no hymns by her contemporary, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915). Crosby’s hymns were frequently published by other denominations and she was the most popular hymn writer of her day.  I cannot explain this omission. So who is this poet/hymn writer, Mary Baker Eddy?


Mary Morse Baker was born in 1821 in New Hampshire to devout Congregationalist parents.  Her stern and disputatious father firmly believed in the final judgment, predestination and eternal damnation.  She and her siblings apparently inherited his temper which often hurt her ability to get along with others.  Though her mother was kind, the tension from her father’s attitudes affected her.  .Mary often would get sick and often suffered from an eating disorder.  She was a semi invalid until her discovery of Christian Science.  Before that, she sought help from any number of sciences, from allopathy, homeopathy, hydropathy, electricity to“various humbugs” as she recounted it.  When she became a patient of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who used medicine free techniques, she improved.  This made her interested in his healing system and she gave public lectures on the subject. Shortly after Quimby’s death in 1866, she fell on an icy sidewalk, struck her back and was rendered unconscious.  The attending doctor said she would not walk again, but she used Quimby’s method and recovered.  She then more fully embraced and understood his “Science of Christianity” which she named Christian Science. She became well known as a healer.  Some first-hand accounts say she performed healing miracles similar to those of Jesus.  In 1879 she established the Church of Christ, Scientist which became a worldwide movement.  She wrote and published 16 books, including “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures”, a best seller for decades.  The Women’s National Book Association named it as one of the 75 Books by Women Whose Words Have Changed the World”.  She started several magazines, but the most famous was “The Christian Science Monitor” in 1908.  It has become a global newspaper that has won seven Pulitzer Prizes.  In 1995, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.    And during all of this, she was married three times, the last from 1877 to 1882 to Asa Gilbert Eddy, a student of Christian Science and a worker in the movement.  Mary died in 1910 at the age of 87.



Bernadette Farrell, music and social justice crusader

Life has been too busy to maintain a blog.  Among the many things I have done lately is to attend Grandparents’ Day at grandson Keenan’s parochial school.   One of the hymns they sang was “God Has Chosen Me”, music and lyrics by Bernadette Farrell.  The tune is lively and the lyrics are certainly appropriate for any Christian denomination.  When I noticed the composer, I looked her up.  What a life she has had!

Bernadette was born in 1957 and raised in Altofts, West Yorkshire, England.  She studied at King’s College in London and the Guildhall School of Music.  Though quite English, she is well known in Catholic music circles on both sides of the Atlantic. She came to the public scene in the 1970’s as one of the founding members of the St. Thomas More Group where some of her popular songs were first published.    Later, her work has been published by Oregon Catholic Press. OCP publisher, John Limb said “She has a way of communicating the Gospel message that gets under your skin.  Every song is like a mini-homily, calling people to live their lives in such a way that makes God’s Kingdom a reality on earth as it is in heaven.”   This is certainly the message I saw in “God Has Chosen Me” which says: “God has chosen me to bring to birth a new kingdom on earth”.     Her texts are based on scripture, but she also puts to music the words of others, including those of New Zealand writer Shirley Erena Murray who is featured in my book, Sisters in Song. She has been a workshop presenter in both the UK and USA. She served on the Roman Catholic Bishops Liturgical Commission.

Her interests go beyond music and liturgy, for she worked for decades in London’s East End as advisor to Bishop Guazzelli, a sponsor of the East London Communities Organization and as a community organizer.  She authored a report on immigration, adopted by the government; and led campaigns for safety, sanctuary, housing, wages and health.  She is a community organizer for CitizensUK, an influential organization for social change, and which is composed of schools, churches, mosques, synagogues and trade unions.  As much as I applaud her passion and action for social justice, my interest in her for purposes of my blog relates to music.  Her social justice will have to wait for another blogger.

Mattie Robertson revisited

On June 23, 2014, I wrote about Mattie Robertson, composer/arranger and choir director of Chicago’s First Baptist Congregational Church.  Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting her when the FBCC choir came to my home church, Broadway Christian in Columbia, MO.  Her neice, Rachel Griffin took the picture of Mattie and me.  Thanks Rachel, for the photo and for bringing this treasure to my attention.

Julia Fletcher Carney gets the credit

It occasionally happens that women will use male pseudonyms in order to get recognized in the arts.  Sometimes their works are attributed to men, whether by accident (for example, A.P. Carter getting the credit for Maybelle Carter’s songs) or sometimes the deception is intentional.  The latter situation existed for the work of Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney.  So what’s the story?

Julia Fletcher was born in 1823 in Lancaster Massachusetts.  Though she showed a talent for writing when quite young, her mother discouraged this as she felt it wouldn’t help her as an adult.   But Julia came down with scarlet fever when she was eight and was homebound for several years.  She spent the time writing when not reading.  By 14, she was sending poems to local papers.  At age 19, she worked as a teacher and continued teaching until she married Thomas Carney, a Universalist minister, in 1849.  They moved out west where four of their children died during the western years.   She and the surviving three children went back east to Illinois after Rev. Carney’s death in 1871.  She continued to write prose and poetry as well as short sketches. She wrote for Universalist and other periodicals, and many of her poems were set to music and published as hymns.  By the time she died in 1908, she knew her works were quoted and had inspired hymns.

“Little Drops of Water” was written as a ten minute writing assignment in a teachers’ summer program she attended in Boston.  This was added as filler to a previously written article to be published in a paper “A Letter to Sabbath School Children”.   This poem has been used by many people, but one notable use was at the opening of the British Red Cross in 1845.  It reminded the audience that little things mattered.  It has been cited by world leaders and in a Nobel Prize speech.  In her later years, Carl Sandburg was her next door neighbor.  He said of her, “She loved children and wrote poems she hoped children would love.”

For many years, this poem, set to a French folk song, was attributed to Rev. E. Cobham Brewer (1810-1897).  In addition to his fame as sporting a great beard, he compiled many dictionaries, and as a known writer, he published “Little Drops of Water” as his own.   But since Julia Fletcher had published the poem in 1845, three years before Brewer claimed authorship, she eventually got the credit.

As a side note, I had occasion to deal with “Whispering Hope” in a performance.  It was allegedly written by Alice Hawthorne, but this was a pseudonym for Mr. Septimus Winner.  It’s quite a twist to see the gender switch going the other way around!

A. Irma Cohon – Rebbitzin Hymnist

At my church’s recent annual charity garage sale, I found an oddity, a Jewish hymnal!  When I told a Jewish friend, she was just as perplexed as I.  This had to be explored.  It was titled The Jewish Song Book Third edition, compiled for Synagogue, school and home, covering the complete Jewish religious year.  It was composed, compiled and arranged for unison congregational singing and for solo and choir with organ or piano accompaniment using Israel’s religious folksong: the traditional Synagogue modes and melodies.   It was issued to serve the “remnant” of Jewry after World War II, as a united voice of Israel in traditional sacred song.  The book is unclear, but it apparently originally contained music by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn (1882-1938).  However, this third edition was enlarged and revised in 1951.  Some of the hymns were by A. Irma Cohon and she was the editor. So who is she?

Angie Irma Reinhart was born in Portland Oregon in 1890, educated at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and got her degree in 1912 from the University of Cincinnati.  Immediately thereafter, she married Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon who also attended the Hebrew Union College while studying for a degree at the University of Cincinnati.  They had one son, Baruch Joseph.  Irma’s brother, Harold Reinhart, was a prominent liberal rabbi in London, England.  Irma was known as a Rebbetzin (wife of a Rabbi or a female religious teacher – she was both) and as a publisher.  Her book, Introduction to Jewish Music, the first book on this subject in English, came out in 1923, much sooner than A.Z. Idelsohn’s 1929 book, which sometimes gets credit for being first.  She collaborated with Idelsohn, a Hebrew Union College music professor, on various projects.  Obviously, she respected him.  The Jewish Song Book I found expanded Idelsohn’s work, and added the works of others, primarily Cohon’s translations, adaptations, and original works.  She not only outlived Idelsohn, but did so in a big way.  She died at age 100 in 1991.

In looking into the hymns and songs in the book, I found several of interest.   “Purim Song”, as you would guess, is to celebrate Purim, which was March 12-13 this year (2017), “Sabbath’s Balm” has a more spiritual theme, the healing balm and living waters of Sabbath.  “In His Unfathomed Ways” renders praise and prayer to the Rock of Israel, the Lord of Hosts.  Her metaphors, similes and language sound quite familiar to this Christian’s ears.  The most endearing song to me is “Yesterday’s Bubble” noted to be for Purim, but which sounds very current and for any day:  “If I should assume importance  . . .  and by posing, should convince you that I am a handsome man, don’t believe me. . . If I play the man of riches . . .  Don’t believe me.  If I seem to shower money and acquire a mighty name, and by reason of my greatness, seem to set the world aflame, don’t believe me.  If I pose as mighty learned and my wisdom I confess, if I am forever prating of my great broadmindedness, Don’t believe my airs and boasting, do not trust a word I say.”    Somehow, I wasn’t thinking of Haman when reading this

Light Dawns for Lent

At a recent retreat for women at my church, I heard “Light Dawns on a Weary World” for the first time.  Unlike so many soul numbing repetitive hymn texts today, it had content.  I had to look up more information on it.  But first, the text writer:  Mary Louise Bringle has a PhD in from Emory University and has taught philosophy, religious studies and French and has chaired the humanities division at Brevard College in Brevard NC.  On Sundays, she teaches an adult class at her local Presbyterian Church.   She has several publications on pastoral theology to her credit, and has translated Spanish language hymns into English.  She began to write hymn texts as a supposed heretic would write, in order to challenge her students.  But one day a former student asked her to write a text for a tune he wrote for his wedding.  Now she had to get serious about writing actual hymn texts. Apparently God meant for her to do this.  Just like solid modern text writers Ruth Duck and Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, she wrote the text for tunes composed by others that challenge and illuminate.  And this is from what can only be a feminist point of view for like them, she is seeks to be gender inclusive. She has won many hymn writing contests and the Hymn Society in the US and Canada named her an “emerging text writer”.

“Light Dawns on a Weary World” was written in 2001.  She wrote out its story in an article in The Hymn in Autumn, 2006.   You can read the story in her own words at,%20Light%20Dawns%20on%20a%20Weary%20World.pdf . For a quick version, here goes:  When the Hymn Society met in 2001, composer William Rowan wrote and played a new melody for her and as she said, “It was love at first listen.”  The words came to her that evening.  One of the bars has a sixteenth note run that reminded her of water in a fountain.  She found the chapters from Isaiah written when Cyrus of Persia released the Jewish captives to return to Judah.  “. . . you will be like a well-watered garden. . “ (Is. 58:11).  Before that she found Isaiah 55:12:  “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace”.  The words fell into place with the melody.  The words reflect Isaiah’s vision of a beloved community for all peoples.  After publication, she got feedback from several music directors that the hymn was particularly appropriate for Lent, a season of waiting for new hope in a weary life.  And so I write this article at the beginning of Lent.