The Devils of Loudun Page 100

That a man for whom the Kingdom had actually manifested itself upon earth should yet subscribe to the rigorist’s wholesale dismissal of all created things, is a melancholy tribute to the obsessive power of mere words and notions. He had had experiences of God in nature; but instead of making a systematic devotional use of these experiences, as Traherne was to do in his Centuries of Meditation, Surin chose to revert, after each theophany, to the old insane refusal to see or wonder at anything in creation. Instead, he concentrated all his attention on the more dismal propositions in his creed and on his own emotional and imaginative reactions to those propositions. No more certain way of shutting out the infinite goodness could possibly have been devised.

Each time Antaeus touched the earth, he received a new accession of strength. That was why Hercules had to lift him up and strangle him in mid-air. Simultaneously the giant and the hero, Surin both experienced the healing which comes from a contact with nature and, by sheer will power, raised himself from the ground and wrung his own neck. He had aspired to liberation; but because he conceived of union with the Son as a systematic denial of the essential divinity of nature, he had realized only the partial enlightenment of union with the Father apart from the manifested world, together with union with the Spirit in all kinds of psychic experiences. In its opening phase, Surin’s cure was not a passage from darkness into that “sober certainty of waking bliss,” which comes when mind permits Mind to know itself, through a finite consciousness, for what it really is; it was rather the exchange of a profoundly abnormal condition for another condition of opposite sign, in which “extraordinary graces” became as ordinary as extraordinary desolations had been before. It should be remarked that, even in the worst times of his malady, Surin had experienced brief flashes of joy, ephemeral convictions that, in spite of his damnation, God was eternally with him. These flashes were now multiplied, these convictions, from being momentary, became lasting. Psychic experience succeeded psychic experience, and every vision was luminous and encouraging, every feeling was one of bliss. But “to honour Our Lord as He deserves to be honoured, you should disentangle your heart from all attachment to spiritual delights and perceptible graces. You should in no wise depend upon these things. Faith alone should be your support. It is faith which raises us to God in purity; for it leaves the soul in emptiness, and it is this emptiness which is filled by God.” So Surin had written, more than twenty years before, to one of the nuns who asked him for advice. And it was in the same vein that Father Bastide—the man to whose charity he owed the first inception of his cure—now spoke to Surin. However elevated they may be, however consoling, psychic experiences are not enlightenment, not even the means to enlightenment. And Bastide did not say these things on his own authority. He had all the accredited mystics of the Church behind him, he could quote St. John of the Cross. For some time Surin did his best to follow Bastide’s advice. But his extraordinary graces came crowding in upon him, incessantly, insistently. And when he rejected them, they changed their sign once more, and turned into aridities and desolations. God seemed now to have withdrawn again and left him on the brink of the old despair. In spite of Bastide, in spite of St. John of the Cross, Surin went back to his visions, his locutions, his ecstasies, his inspirations. In the course of the ensuing controversy the two disputants and their Superior, Father Anginot, appealed to Jeanne des Anges. Would she kindly ask her Good Angel what he thought about extraordinary graces? The Good Angel began by favouring Bastide’s cause. Surin protested, and after the exchange of many letters between Sœur Jeanne and the three Jesuits, the Angel announced that both disputants were in the right, inasmuch as each was doing his best to serve God in his own way. Surin was fully satisfied and so was Anginot. Bastide, however, stuck to his guns and even went so far as to suggest that it was time for Sœur Jeanne to break off communications with the heavenly counterpart of M. de Beaufort. Nor was he the only one to raise objections. In 1659, Surin informed the Prioress that an eminent ecclesiastic had complained “that you have set up a kind of shop for finding out from your Angel all the things people press you to ask of him, that you have a regular information bureau for marriages, lawsuits and other things of the kind.” This sort of thing must be stopped immediately—not, as Father Bastide had suggested, by breaking off relations with the Angel, but by consulting him only for spiritual purposes.

Time passed. Surin was well enough now to visit the sick, to hear confessions, to preach, to write, to direct souls by word of mouth or by letter. His behaviour was still somewhat odd, and his superiors thought it necessary to censor all his letters, incoming and outgoing, for fear that they might contain unorthodoxies or at least embarrassing extravagances. Their suspicions were groundless. The man who had dictated Le Catéchisme Spirituel, while (to all appearances) out of his mind, could be relied on to display an equal prudence now that he was well.

In 1663 he wrote the Science Expérimentale, with its history of the possession and its account of his own subsequent trials. Louis XIV was already well embarked on his disastrous career; but Surin was not interested in “public affairs and the schemes of the great.” He had the sacraments, he had the gospels to read and ruminate, he had his experiences of God; these were enough. In certain respects, indeed, they were more than enough; for he was growing old, he was losing his strength, “and love does not go too well with weakness; for it requires a stout vessel to resist the pressure of its workings.” The almost manic well-being of a few years before had gone; the regular and easy succession of extraordinary graces was a thing of the past. But he had something else, something better. To Sœur Jeanne he writes that “God has recently given me some slight knowledge of His love. But what a difference there is between the depth of the soul and its faculties! For in effect the soul is often rich in its depths and actually glutted with the supernatural treasures of grace, while its faculties are in a state of utter poverty. In her depths, as I say, the soul has a very high, very delicate, very fruitful sense of God, accompanied by a most comforting love and a wondrous dilatation of the heart, without, however, being able to communicate any of these things to other people. Outwardly, persons in this state give the impression of being without any taste (for the things of religion), devoid of all talent and reduced to an extremity of indigence. . . . There is an exceedingly great distress when the soul is unable, if the expression may be permitted, to disgorge herself through her faculties; the overplus within her causes an oppression more painful than can be imagined. What is happening in the soul’s depths is like the banking up of great waters, whose mass, for lack of an issue by which to escape, overwhelms her with an unbearable weight and causes a deathly exhaustion.” In some impossibly paradoxical way, a finite being contains the infinite and is almost annihilated by the experience. But Surin does not complain. It is a blessed anguish, a death devoutly to be desired.

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