The Devils of Loudun Page 25

The Jesuits who played a part, directly or at one remove, in our strange drama were singularly unlike the good fathers of the Provincial Letters. They had nothing to do with politics; they had hardly any contacts with ‘the world’ and its denizens; the austerity of their lives was heroic almost to madness, and they preached the same austerity to their friends and disciples, who were all, as were they themselves, contemplatives dedicated to the achievement of Christian perfection. They were mystics in that school of Jesuit mysticism, whose most eminent representative had been Father Alvarez, the director of St. Teresa. Alvarez was censured by one General of the Society for practising and teaching contemplation, as opposed to discursive meditation along the lines of the Ignatian exercises. A later General, Aquaviva, exonerated him and, in so doing, laid down what may be called the official Jesuit policy in regard to contemplative prayer. “Those persons are to be blamed who attempt prematurely and temerariously to launch out into high contemplation. However, we must not go to the lengths of flying in the face of the constant experience of the holy fathers by despising contemplation and forbidding it to our members. For it is well established by the experience and authority of many fathers that true and profound contemplation possesses more force and efficacity than all other methods of prayer, both for subduing and casting down human pride and for exciting lukewarm souls to execute their Superiors’ commands and work with ardour for the salvation of souls.” During the first half of the seventeenth century those members of the Society who showed a marked vocation for the mystical life were permitted, and indeed encouraged, to devote themselves to contemplation within the framework of their essentially active order. At a later period, after the condemnation of Molinos and during the bitter controversy over Quietism, passive contemplation came to be regarded by the majority of Jesuits with considerable suspicion.

In the last two volumes of his Histoire Littéraire du Sentiment Religieux en France, Brémond picturesquely dramatizes the conflict between the ‘asceticist’ majority within the order and a minority of frustrated contemplatives. Pottier, the learned Jesuit historian of Lallemant and his disciples, has subjected Brémond’s thesis to severe and destructive criticism. Contemplation, he insists, was never officially condemned and individual contemplatives continued, even in the worst days of the anti-Quietist movement, to flourish within the Society.

In the sixteen-thirties Quietism was still half a century in the future, and the debate over contemplation had not yet been envenomed by accusations of heresy. For Vitelleschi, the General, and his hierarchy of Superiors, the problem was purely practical. Did the practice of contemplation produce better Jesuits than the practice of discursive meditation, or did it not?

From 1628 until his retirement, for reasons of health, in 1632, a great Jesuit contemplative, Father Louis Lallemant, held the post of Instructor at the College of Rouen. Surin was sent to Rouen in the autumn of 1629 and remained there, with a group of twelve or fifteen other young priests, who had come for their ‘second novitiate,’ until the late spring of 1630. Throughout that memorable semester he listened to daily lectures by the Instructor and prepared himself, by prayer and penance, for a life of Christian perfection within the framework of the Ignatian rule.

The outlines of Lallemant’s teaching as recorded briefly by Surin and, at greater length, by his fellow pupil, Father Rigoleuc, were worked up from the original notes by a later Jesuit, Father Champion, and issued, in the last years of the seventeenth century, under the title of La Doctrine Spirituelle du Père Louis Lallemant.

In Lallemant’s doctrine there was nothing basically novel. How could there be? The end pursued was that unitive knowledge of God which is the goal of all who aspire to upward self-transcendence. And the means to that end were strictly orthodox—frequent communion, a scrupulous fulfilment of the Jesuit vow of obedience, systematic mortification of the ‘natural man,’ self-examination and a constant “guard of the heart,” daily meditations on the Passion and, for those who were ready for it, the passive prayer of “simple regard,” the alert waiting on God in the hope of an infusion of the grace of contemplation. The themes were ancient; but the manner in which Lallemant first experienced and then expressed them was personal and original. The Doctrine, as formulated by the master and his pupils, has its own special character, its tone and peculiar flavour.

In Lallemant’s teaching special emphasis was laid on purification of the heart and docility to the leadings of the Holy Ghost. In other words, he taught that conscious union with the Father can only be hoped for where there has been union with the Son through works and devotion, and union with the Spirit in the alert passivity of contemplation.

Purification of the heart is to be achieved by intense devotion, by frequent communion and by an unsleeping self-awareness, aimed at the detection and mortification of every impulse to sensuality, pride and self-love. Of devotional feelings and imaginings, and of their relations to enlightenment, there will be occasion to speak in a later chapter. In this place our themes are the processes of mortification and the ‘natural man,’ who has to be mortified. The corollary of “Thy kingdom come” is “our kingdom go.” On that matter all are agreed. But all are not agreed as to the best way of making our kingdom go. Should it be conquered by force of arms? Or should it be converted? Lallemant was a rigorist, who took a very gloomy and Augustinian view of the total depravity of fallen nature. As a good Jesuit, he advocated leniency towards sinners and the worldly. But the tone of his theological thought was deeply pessimistic, and towards himself and all those who aspired to perfection he was implacable. For them, as for him, no course was open but that of a mortification pushed to the limits of human endurance. “It is certain,” writes Champion in his brief biography of Father Lallemant, “that his bodily austerities exceeded his strength and that their excess, in the judgment of his most intimate friends, greatly shortened his life.”

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies