Miguel De Molinos and Quietism

This essay will place the thought and writings of Miguel de Molinos within the teachings of the Quietist movement and examine the charges of heresy against him from this perspective. A careful review of the development and teachings of the prominent Quietists, all of whom were sanctioned by the Church, leads to the conclusion that these charges are largely unsubstantiated and based on a misinterpretation of Molinos’ ideas.

The Origins of Quietism
Mysticism teaches that it is possible for man to have inner experience of the transcendent. The religious life of a mystic takes place inside himself, in the soul. In Spanish monasteries in the 16th century two ways leading to eternal life were distinguished: an outer way, consisting of religious pietism and an inner path, consisting of mystical contemplation. Quietism had its origin in the teaching of the inner path and its roots lie in Spain.

Pedro de Alcantara.
Pedro de Alcantara wrote a treatise in 1545 entitled “de oratione et meditatione”, which is considered to be the first Quietist manuscript. The actual founders of quietistic mysticism, Teresa de Avila, Juan de la Cruz and Francois de Sales, refer to him.

In this treatise it is explained that prayer is the main instrument to true piety. However, it must be practiced as a deep inwardly concentrated prayer inside the heart (oratio mentalis, oration recollectionis). This prayer consists mainly of surrendering oneself to the guidance and will of God, and the elimination of the personal will. It is essential to abide in God and to continue the prayer in the heart until one feels refreshed through the grace of God. The soul should let this flux of grace flow over itself as long as possible as a blessing. Discursive thinking must be stopped, so that the soul can remain concentrated entirely within itself.

Pedro de Alcantara acknowledges that the soul cannot stay continuously on the peak of contemplation and advises to alternate contemplation with meditation. The essence of living in God, however, is in the contemplative state and in the wordless prayer of the heart, in which the soul surrenders itself to the will of God. The same thoughts had already been expressed by Catherine de Genova, Angela de Foligno, and by Tauler and Suso. Bernard de Clairvaux and Thomas a Kempis would not have raised objections to it.

At that time a book had become known in Spain, which made the development from mysticism to quietism even clearer. It was the “Abecdarium Tertium” written by Francisco de Osuna. His ideas were: 1) the inner prayers of a Christian are the working of the living Christ in the heart; 2) the soul must remain passive with regard to this activity. The pious soul has given ups its personal will, so that feeling continuously God’s presence, it lets itself be led by God only. In this way, the life of the soul consists of love for God. With this development a piety is born deviating from ecclesiastical religiosity. This become evident when Teresa de Jesus (born 28 March 1515) took up the practices of these exercises and became the most famous Spanish saint. Her confessor, the Dominican Vincentius Barenius, advised her to practice the prayer of the heart and gave her the necessary instructions for it.

A wonderful religious life soon began to develop in her soul. When Pedro de Alcantara stayed in Avila in 1560 for some affairs of his Order, he became acquainted with Teresa. She told him of her inner experiences and he called her an especially blessed soul and became her confessor. Led by him and inspired by the book “Subida del monte Sion” of the Franciscan monk Lego, the mystic contemplation developed in her. Teresa’ religious life now became the embodiment of quietistic mysticism.

In 1562 she founded her first convent, the constitution for which she drew up herself. As an outward sign of strict rule sandals were worn instead of shoes. This is the reason why these nuns called themselves the discalced Carmelites. The pope removed this foundation from the Carmelite Order and placed it under the bishop.

Five years later, in 1571, at the command of the apostolic commissioner she returned to the convent in Avila as prioress. Shortly thereafter she met, Juan de la Cruz, whom she kept as confessor for herself and her nuns. From then on she could talk about her inner experiences with him.

By this time she was already well-known as a saint in Spain. However there was resistance from the Carmelites of the old observation and even a trial before the Inquisition threatened. Fortunately the King put an end to it and the persecution stopped. The Pope acknowledged the convents founded by her as a separate congregation in 1580. Her writings were published for the first time in 1588.

The basic idea which dominated her religious consciousness was that religiosity consists of conforming the human will to God’s will. She considers the higher stages of contemplation as a supernatural life. The essence of “quietude” is understood by her in the same way as later on by Molinos.

The quietist idea that contemplation has a purifying effect on the soul and is an activity of God in the soul, has also been expressed by Teresa. The soul can no longer commit mortal sins provided that it does not become disloyal to God. Spanish mysticism in the 16th century was quietism in the first stage of development. In the beginning of the 17th century we find the second stage in the ideas of Francois le Comte de Sales (born 1576, who was the bishop of Geneva and of Jeanne Baronne de Chantal (born in 1522). Francois de Sales had read the writings of Teresa de Jesus and became himself a mystic. When Jean de Chantal wished to take vows in a convent he preferred to found a new order, that of the visitation.

Love of God can only fill the soul if it has been uplifted through meditation, i.e. discursive thinking on the truth and the perfection of God to intuitive contemplation. This inner loving concentration is the foundation for a new, a higher life, according to Francois de Sales. This inner concentration can only succeed through the working of God. It is possible for a person to introvert attention and to concentrate on prayer. However, the concentration that is meant here can only be achieved by the grace of God. The soul feels deeply God’s presence. This feeling overwhelms the soul to such an extent that it does not notice it until it is disturbed or is deprived of it. The soul is filled with a holy sense of sublime peace in which there are various stages. They have in common that the personal will must be sacrificed.

The soul makes this sacrifice through the working of divine Love, which makes it give up all desire and self-love, so that it can devote its life to God. In this way the soul is united with God and receives inspiration and the uplifting influence from God’s spirit. This unity takes place in silent prayer (oraison de quietude). It is immaterial for the soul what God does with it.

Francois de Sales’ mysticism is the same as that of Teresa de Jesus, to whom he refers, and of Juan de la Cruz: it is quietist mysticism. For all three the Catholic faith and surrender to the Church are required for this way of attaining perfection. Francois speaks also of the necessity of having a spiritual guide.

The spreading of Mysticism
More and more people became interested in mysticism through the influence of these saints. The hierarchy agreed with this development and gave its approval to many writings about mysticism. The most influential representative of the quietist mysticism in the Spanish church in the 17th century was Juan Falconi (1596-1638). He also emphasized that every thought however good, only disturbs the soul and hinders God’s work. The point is to lead a life of silent prayer and perfect love as do the perfect souls in heaven.

The most fertile soil for the quietist movement was in France. The Carthusians in Paris had translated the biography of Catherina de Genova and spread it throughout France. Many people tried to attain inner unity with God through prayer of the heart and contemplation. In 1604, the discaleced Carmelite founded their first convent in Paris. The prioress Anna Garcias, the most fervent pupil of Teresa, soon founded convents in other cities. Quietistic mysticism spread all over France and much was written about it. Francois Malaval (1627-1719) was well-known for his book: “Pratique facile pour elever l’ame a la contemplation.” This book was translated into Italian and has contributed much to the spreading of quietism in Italy.

If the soul wishes to be lifted from mediation to contemplation is must desire, above all, to hear God; therefore it is necessary to bring the thinking process to a stop and to place the soul in the hands of an enlightened guide. The soul must come to a point where it hears God’s voice.

The only purpose of meditating on God’s works and revelations is to uplift the soul and inspire love for God. When this takes place the soul must simply remain in God and rejoice in the perfect peace. When the soul has been uplifted to contemplation it must gaze at God within itself.

The faith of a contemplating soul is a loving faith directed only to God. The knowledge which comes therefrom does not consist of thoughts and ideas, but of experience and taste, life and light. Contemplation is not only the shortest but also the safest path to knowledge of God, self-knowledge and perfection.

A well-known representative of the quietist movement is Brother Lawrence, who was a cook in the monastery of the discalced Carmelites in Paris. His name in Germany was originally Nicolaus Hermann. He lived from 1611 until 1691.

A person must place all his faith in God. When he has reached the goal, the Presence of God, then he must retain this state and not go back to the methods by which he reached it.

Four books have been left to us by Jean de Bernieres Louvigny from Normandy (1602-1659). He also said that one must search for and find God in one’s own soul The soul must allow the divine to work in it and through it.

These are only a few names of the many who practiced the quietist mysticism. All wished to lead the soul to heavenly perfection, while still here on earth. They also teach that mysticism is a shorter path than that of the religiosity of the church. Meditation only gives an outer knowledge of God and a superficial improvement in one’s life. Contemplation, on the contrary, renews one and leads one to unity with God.

Miguel do Molinos
Many were reading this literature, because they considered mysticism as the way towards the perfect Christian Life. Among them was Miguel de Molinos a pious priest with a deep inner life, mild and friendly, well versed not only in the writings of the mystics, but also in those of the church fathers and in scholasticism. He was born in Muniesa, South of Zaragoza, on June 29, 1628 and studied theology in Valencia. He went to Rome in 1669 and was there soon the most searched after and honored father confessor. He was highly respected in spiritual and worldly circles. Among his followers were cardinals, Jesuits and other clerics. Cardinal Benedikt Odeschalchi, who became Pope in 1676 with the name Innocentius XI saw in him an instrument for the renewal of the devotion in the Catholic Church and accorded him many favors.

His Guia Espiritual (Spiritual Guide) appeared in 1675 and was at once a much read and praised book in Italy as well as in Spain. It was not meant as a learned theological handbook, but as a friendly help for those who were working on their spiritual welfare. In the forward the author writes that the book is not meant for everyone, but only for those who need encouragement and assistance with the clearing away of obstacles which hinder the attainment of contemplation.

The book consists of three parts. The first part is about the darkness, dryness and temptations with which God purifies the souls and about inner concentration. In the second part Molinos points out that the way towards perfection one needs a spiritual guide who must be obeyed. In the third part follows a description of the state of contemplation.

We must know, writes Molinos, that the soul is the center and the kingdom of God. If we want the highest king to sit on the throne of the soul, then it has to be pure and quiet, free from sins and deficiencies and free from desire and thoughts. There are two paths towards God, meditation and contemplation. Therefore there are two kinds of spiritual life, outwardly and inwardly. Those who go the outer way try to know God by penance and imaginations. This is the path for beginners. Those who go the inner path which leads to unity with God have turned their attention inward. They live there free from thoughts in peace and quiet in the Presence of God. We have to learn to be in that presence with a loving attention and without imaginations. When we stop our prayers then we must take care not to lose the orientation on God. While being active in the world we should obey the will of God.

The heart is a strong castle and a safe fortress where we can retire and triumph over all tribulations, because in it resides the Divine Aid. To enter into it by means of recollection and prayer means protection and to experience tranquillity and serenity. By means of inner recollection and heavenly grace we may look for light in darkness, courage in fear. In prayer we must believe that we are in Divine presence and stay there with perfect resignation, silence and tranquillity.

There is no reason to be disconsolate when the thoughts are distracted, because it is not necessary to think of God during the whole time of the recollection. The prayer still continues provided that one has been attentive in the beginning and does not change the intention of being with God.

Our daily occupations are not contrary to His Will, so by performing them we do not depart out of His Presence. Only when we are willingly diverted it will be good to revert to God and to renew the pure act of faith and resignation. The soul accustomed to daily prayer with faith and resignation walks continually in the presence of God.

By not speaking, desiring or thinking one arrives at the perfect mystical silence, wherein God speaks with the soul, communicates with it and teaches it wisdom. The perfection of the soul consists not in speaking much of God, but in loving Him sufficiently. In the inward way, the loving entertainment in the Divine Presence, virtue is established, interests are rooted up and passions removed, which makes the soul free. The exercise is to enter into yourself, in God, in the quiet and silence, because there is His center and habitation.

The Lord has his repose in souls where quietness reigns and self love is banished. The spiritual man who lives by God and in Him is inwardly content in the midst of adversities. The truly humble man finds God in all things, so whatever contempt, injury or affront comes to him, he receives it with great peace and quiet.

In this way it is possible to stay in the presence of God and in prayer in the midst of busy activities. Moreover continuous self-denial and mortification are necessary to live in God. Contemplation is at first active and acquired because the human will must cooperate. Later God elevates the soul in deep inner quietude and this is called infused contemplation.

Compared to earlier writers on mysticism Molinos brings nothing new. His Guia Espiritual records what was known in all Catholic countries as mysticism and he refers repeatedly to authorities as Teresa de Avila, Juan de la Cruz, Gregor Lopez and Jeanne de Chantal. He writes on passive contemplation as this has been done before the 16th century. He recognizes that contemplation is only possible through the grace of God and wants that he who has reached this goal of all religious development stays there.

The book expressed what lived in the hearts of thousands. In addition it appeared with the approval of five prominent Catholic clerics, four of whom were members of the Inquisition. They not only approved of it, but added that they considered it a precious jewel and as a guide to piety and perfection. Few books could be compared to its clear and penetrating explanations. Finally the pious Pope Innocentius XI expressed his great appreciation of the book.

Through the widespread interest in mysticism in the 17th century and the powerful support of the church the book had more than twenty editions within six years in Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch and Latin. Molinos was consulted and asked for help in the confessional chair and at home. Many clerics, even cardinals, came to Rome to ask him how to guide the souls entrusted to their care. Perhaps there has never been a cleric not belonging to the higher ranks of the hierarchy who had such a vast correspondence. On his arrest in 1685 more than 12000 letters were found among his papers. Everywhere societies were formed to practice the teachings of the Guia Espiritual.

The critics
Cardinal Caraccioli, archbishop of Naples, wrote a letter to the Pope in which he expressed his concern. He wrote that people practiced the passive prayer of quietude without any preparation. The great teachers from the past advised beginners to purify themselves first from deficiencies, imperfections and sins. The quietists made a mistake when they thought they could leave out purifications and start the practice of contemplation at once. The prayer of quietude can only be practiced by those who are advanced in piety and the extermination of desires.

This message, in which the word quietist was used for the first time, was not the only one used directed against the religious movement set in motion with much success by Molinos. Earlier the Jesuits and the Dominicans had already issued a warning against quietism. A public warning was no necessary in their opinion.

Paul Segneri, the famous preacher of penitence and a Jesuit wrote a book without mentioning the name of Molinos. It was moderate like the letter of Caraccoli and only directed against the abuses. He denied that meditation was superfluous and that the Christian had to strive for contemplation because this is a special gift. He also denied that the Christian could not arrive at perfection through meditation. In his opinion a combination of meditation and contemplation was more fruitful than one of the two alone. Although participation in the ceremonial life of the church is not the real piety it is still beneficial. The best thing is a combination of contemplation and activity.

Serneri showed much understanding and appreciation for quietism, but he ventured to defy the unassailable authority of Molinos and that made him lose his reputation. The man who had been honored as a saint was now receiving threatening letters and was ridiculed. His life was even in danger. His book was placed in the Index in 1681.

Molinos was not without powerful friends, among them the Oratorion Pietro Matteo Petrucci, a convinced adherent and propagandist for the new mysticism. He wrote a book under the title La Contemplatazione Mistica Acquisitata in which he tried to bring mysticism in agreement with the dogma and teachings of the church. He also warned against the occurring exaggerations of mysticism among the people, against the removal of crucifixes and statues and against the omitting of vocal prayer. With much competence he opposed wrong ideas and referred not only to Francois de Sales, Juan de la Cruz and Teresa de Avila, but also to the mysticism of the Middle Ages up to Dionysus the Aeropagite. Petrucci was well-read in the scholastic writings of the church as well as in mysticism. In this way the contemporaries could see that the teachings of Molinos were in harmony with the teachings of the church. Pope Innocentius XI was highly pleased with this book that had been written with so much learning and piety. He appointed Petrucci to be the bishop of Jesi and later made him a cardinal.

The Inquisition set up a committee to investigate the writings of both parties. The publications of Molinos and Petrucci were found to be in accordance with the teachings of the church and with Christian morality, but the criticism of Segneri was declared without foundation.

The trial
Quietist mysticism had spread so much in all Catholic countries that it seemed as if it would dominate the Church. Moreover, there were among those who honored Molinos who spoke slightly of the ecclesiastical ceremonies and sacraments.

Molinos was suddenly arrested on the 18th of July 1685 and spent two years in prison without being sentenced. The documents of the investigation made of him by the Inquisition were never published; therefore the motives which led to his trial are unknown.

On 9th February 1687 seventy people were thrown into prison, among them Count Vespiniani and his wife and a number of priests. The were accused of negligence of church attendance and making derogatory remarks about it. Everyone in Rome was shocked and no one could understand why the very people who were known for their piety should be persecuted.

Pope Innocentius XI was too old and weak to offer resistance and let the Inquisition have its way. The Inquisition sent a circular to all the bishops of Italy to inform them that everywhere groups had been formed where all kinds of heresy was taught under the cloak of silent prayer. The bishops were advised to be vigilant and to repress these groups if need be with the assistance of a tribunal.

Convents and monasteries found to their dismay that the heresy was much more widespread than expected. Many nuns and monks had put aside rosaries, crucifixes and statues and devoted themselves to inner prayer. When asked why they neglected church prayer and ceremonies, they replied that their father confessor that such a practice was only meant for beginners on the spiritual path.

Proficients must avoid these exercises and the use of statues and ceremonies because their inner prayers were disturbed by them. This is also the reason why they must not visualize God in any way, as it would only be a product of human imagination. The invocation of God in vocal prayer disturbs the inner attention.

By prescribing certain prayer formulas for proficients the divine Love was limited. However, this form of piety was not new; it was taught by all mystics.

The Inquisition was appalled when it received this news as it was clear that the future of the Church was endangered by this sect. Word was sent quickly to all clergy to seize and suppress all heretical writings and to encourage the sectarians to go to church services, and to fulfill their religious duties. The instructions of the Inquisition became known, and the public opinion saw in this an attack on real piety.

There were many bishops who were in sympathy with quietist mysticism, and therefore were not much disposed to carry out the orders of the Inquisition. In addition, there were even adherents of the quietist teaching among the Jesuits. One of them, Appiani, who was known in Rome as a learned and pious man, was imprisoned as a heretic. No one knows what became of him.

The Inquisition was also embittered over the Pope who, although he left them free to do what they wanted, criticized the course of events. He appointed Petrucci and two other friends of Molinos to be cardinals.

In the meantime the Inquisition spread malicious rumors about Molinos, so that public opinion of the once so highly revered priest began to change. No one knows how they succeeded in bringing him to the point where he declared himself guilty of heresy, repented, and prepared to abjure his errors.

By decree of 20th August 1687 Molinos was declared guilty of spreading and practicing an impious doctrine. His books and manuscripts had to be handed in to be burned. The Inquisition realized that herewith a turning-point was reached and wanted therefore Molinos public abjuration to be presented with much display.

A few days before the date in question, 3rd September 1687, it was announced in various parts of Rome that those who attended the ceremony would be granted an indulgence of 15 years. Therefore early in the morning of September 3rd many people resorted to Minerva church. In the church tribunes were reserved for cardinals, bishops, the Inquisition, monarchs, ministers and for the condemned person, Molinos.

When he appeared the expression on his face showed the inner quiet and peace of a person with a clear conscience. The documents bearing on the case and the sentence were read alternately by several Dominicans. Molinos was condemned to lifelong solitary imprisonment in a monastery. After the reading of the documents, which lasted several hours, Molinos kneeled down and swore an oath whereby he renounced all heresy. A notary drew up a document which Molinos signed after a commissioner of the Pope granted him absolution. At the end of the day Molinos was brought to the Dominican monastery of San Petro Montorio.

Ten years later rumors were current that Molinos had died on December 29th 1697.

You may ask why did Molinos issue his recantation? Why did this man, so obviously a noble character, contradict all his previous life and teachings? Was it because he feared the pain of torture–which was the alternative. Hardly! From what we know of Molinos he would have agreed with Socrates’ deathbed statement, “You may catch me if you can find me!” No, the obvious explanation is that Molinos wished to protect his dearest followers who otherwise would have had to share his tortures and possible death at the stake. This way they too were spared–and were able to continue their association with him under the house arrest sentence at the monastery for the remaining nine years of his life.

© Copyright Arthur Broekhuysen