The Devils of Loudun Page 26

It is interesting, in this context, to read what Lallemant’s other contemporary, John Donne, the Romanist turned Anglican, the repentant poet turned preacher and theologian, has to say on this matter of self-punishment. “Foreign crosses, other men’s merits are not mine; spontaneous and voluntary crosses, contracted by mine own sin, are not mine; neither are devious, and remote, and unnecessary crosses, my crosses. Since I am bound to take up my cross, there must be a cross that is mine to take up, a cross prepared by God, and laid in my way, which is temptations or tribulations in my calling; and I must not go out of my way to seek a cross; for so it is not mine, nor laid for my taking up. I am not bound to hunt after a persecution, nor to stand it and not fly, nor to affront a plague and not remove, nor to open myself to an injury and not defend. I am not bound to starve myself by inordinate fasting, nor to tear my flesh by inhuman whipping and flagellations. I am bound to take up my cross; and that is only mine, which the hand of God hath laid for me, that is, in the way of my calling, temptations and tribulations incident to that.”

These views are by no means exclusively Protestant. At one time or another they have been expressed by many of the greatest Catholic saints and theologians. And yet physical penance, carried often to extreme lengths, remained a common practice in the Roman Church for long centuries. There were two reasons for this, one doctrinal and the other psycho-physiological. For many, self-punishment was a substitute for purgatory. The alternative was between torture now and much worse torture in the posthumous future. But there were also other and obscurer reasons for bodily austerities. For those whose goal is self-transcendence, fasting, insomnia and physical pain are “alternatives” (to borrow a word from the older pharmacology); they bring about a change of state, they cause the patient to be other than he was. On the physical level these alternatives, if administered to excess, may result in a downward self-transcendence, ending in disease and even, as in Lallemant’s case, in premature death. But on the way to this undesirable consummation, or in cases where they are used with moderation, physical austerities may be made the instruments of horizontal and even of upward self-transcendence. When the body goes hungry, there is often a period of unusual mental lucidity. A lack of sleep tends to lower the thres hold between the conscious and the subconscious. Pain, when not too extreme, is a tonic shock to organisms deeply and complacently sunk in the ruts of habit. Practised by men of prayer, these self-punishments may actually facilitate the process of upward self-transcendence. More frequently, however, they give access, not to the divine Ground of all being, but to that queer ‘psychic’ world which lies, so to say, between the Ground and the upper, the more personal levels of the subconscious and conscious mind. Those who gain access to this psychic world—and the practice of physical austerities would seem to be a royal road to the occult—often acquire powers of the kind which our ancestors called “supernatural” or “miraculous.” Such powers and the psychic states accompanying them were often confused with spiritual enlightenment. In fact, of course, this kind of self-transcendence is merely horizontal, and not upward. But psychic experiences are so strangely fascinating that many men and women have been willing and even eager to undergo the self-tortures which make them possible. Consciously and as theologians, Lallemant and his disciples never believed that “extraordinary graces” were the same as union with God, or indeed that they had any necessary connection with it. (Many “extraordinary graces,” as we shall see, are indistinguishable in their manifestations from the workings of “evil spirits.”) But conscious belief is not the sole determinant of conduct and it seems possible that Lallemant and probable that Surin felt themselves strongly drawn towards the austerities which did in fact help them to obtain “extraordinary graces,” 1 and that they rationalized this attraction in terms of such orthodox beliefs as that the natural man is intrinsically evil and must be got rid of at any cost and by any means, however violent.

Lallemant’s hostility to nature was directed outwards as well as inwards. For him, the fallen world was full of snares and riddled with pitfalls. To take pleasure in creatures, to love their beauty, to inquire overmuch into the mysteries of mind and life and matter—these, to him, were dangerous distractions from the proper study of mankind, which is not man, not nature, but God and the way to a knowledge of God. For a Jesuit the problem of achieving Christian perfection was peculiarly difficult. The Society was not a contemplative order, whose members lived in seclusion and devoted their lives only to prayer. It was an active order, an order of apostles, dedicated to the saving of souls and pledged to fight the battles of the Church in the world. Lallemant’s conception of the ideal Jesuit is summed up in the notes in which Surin recorded his master’s teaching. The essence, the whole point of the Society, consists in this: that it “joins together things which in appearance are contrary, such as learning and humility, youth and chastity, diversity of nations and a perfect charity. . . . In our life we must mingle a deep love of heavenly things with scientific studies and other natural occupations. Now, it is very easy to rush to one extreme or the other. One may have too great a passion for the sciences and neglect prayer and spiritual things. Or, if one aspires to become a spiritual man, one may neglect to cultivate, as one should, such natural talents as doctrinal knowledge, eloquence and prudence.” The excellence of the Jesuit spirit consists in this, “that it honours and imitates the manner in which the divine was united with all that was human in Jesus Christ, with the faculties of his soul, with the members of his body, with his blood, and it deified all. . . . But this alliance is difficult. That is why those among us who do not realize the perfection of our spirit, tend to cling to natural and human advantages, being destitute of the supernatural and the divine.” The Jesuit who fails to live up to the spirit of the Society turns into the Jesuit of popular imagination, and not infrequently of historical fact—worldly, ambitious, intriguing. “The man who fails to apply himself wholeheartedly to the inner life falls inevitably into these defects; for the poverty-stricken and starving soul must needs cling to something in the hope of satisfying its hunger.”1

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