The Devils of Loudun Page 27

For Lallemant, the life of perfection is a life simultaneously active and contemplative, a life lived at the same time in the infinite and the finite, in time and in eternity. This ideal is the highest which a rational being can conceive—the highest and at the same time the most realistic, the most conformable to the given facts of human and divine nature. But when they discussed the practical problems involved in the realization of this ideal, Lallemant and his disciples displayed a narrow and self-stultifying rigorism. The ‘nature’ which is to be united with the divine is not nature in its totality, but a strictly limited segment of human nature—a talent for study or for preaching, for business or for organization. Non-human nature finds no place in Surin’s summary and is only passingly referred to in the longer account of Lallemant’s teaching given by Rigoleuc. And yet Christ told His followers to consider the lilies—and to consider them, be it noted, in an almost Taoist spirit, not as emblems of something all too human, but as blessedly other, as autonomous creatures living according to the law of their own being and in union (perfect except for its unconsciousness) with the Order of Things. The author of Proverbs bids the sluggard consider the ways of the prudent ant. But Christ delights in the lilies precisely because they are not prudent, because they neither toil nor spin and yet are incomparably lovelier than the most gorgeous of Hebrew kings. Like Walt Whitman’s ‘Animals’

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania for owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

Christ’s lilies are worlds apart from the flowers with which St. François de Sales opens his chapter on the purification of the soul. These flowers, he tells Philothea, are the good desires of the heart. The Introduction abounds in references to nature—but to nature as seen through the eyes of Pliny and the authors of the Bestiaries, to nature as emblematic of man, nature as consistently the schoolmarm and the moralist. But the lilies of the field enjoy a glory which has this in common with the Order of the Garter—that “there’s no damned merit about it.” That, precisely, is their point; that is why, for us human beings, they are so refreshing and, on a level much deeper than that of morality, so profoundly instructive. “The Great Way,” says the Third Patriarch of Zen,

The Great Way is no harder than men themselves

Make it by not refusing to prefer;

For where there is no abhorrence, where there is no

Frenzy to have, the Way lies manifest.

As always in real life, we are in the midst of paradoxes and antinomies—bound to choose the good rather than the evil, but bound at the same time, if we wish to realize our union with the divine Ground of all being, to choose without craving and aversion, without imposing upon the universe our own notions of utility or morality.

In so far as they ignore non-human nature, or treat it as merely symbolic of human nature, as merely instrumental and subordinate to man, the teachings of Lallemant and Surin are characteristic of their time and country. French literature of the seventeenth century is astonishingly poor in expressions of any but a strictly utilitarian or symbolic interest in birds, flowers, animals, landscape. In the whole of Tartufe, for example, there is only one reference to non-human nature—a single line, and that most marvellously unpoetical.

La campagne à présent n’est pas beaucoup fleurie.

No truer word was ever spoken. So far as literature was concerned, the French countryside, during those years which led up to and included the Grand Siècle, were almost flowerless. The lilies of the field were there all right; but the poets did not consider them. The rule had its exceptions, of course; but they were few—Théophile de Viau, Tristan l’Hermite and, later, La Fontaine, who occasionally wrote of the brute creation not as men in fur and feathers, but as beings of another, though related, order, to be looked at as they are in themselves and to be loved for their own sake and for God’s. In the Discours à Madame de la Sablière there is a beautiful passage on the then fashionable philosophy, whose exponents proclaim:

Que la beste est une machine;

Qu’en elle tout se fait sans choix et par ressorts:

Nul sentiment, point d’âme, en elle tout est corps . . .

L’animal se sent agité

De mouvements que le vulgaire appelle

Tristesse, joye, amour, plaisir, douleur cruelle,

Ou quelque autre de ces estats.

Mais ce n’est point cela; ne vous y trompez pas.

This summary of the odious Cartesian doctrine—a doctrine, incidentally, not so far removed from the orthodox Catholic view that the brutes are without souls and may therefore be used by human beings as though they were mere things—is followed by a series of examples of animal intelligence, in the stag, the partridge and the beaver. The whole passage is as fine, in its own way, as anything in the whole range of reflective poetry.

It stands, however, almost alone. In the writings of La Fontaine’s great contemporaries, non-human nature plays almost no part whatever. The world in which Corneille’s enormous heroes act out their tragedies is that of a closely organized, hierarchical society. “L’espace cornélien c’est la Cité,” writes M. Octave Nadal. The yet more strictly limited universe of Racine’s heroines and the somewhat featureless males, who serve as pretexts for their anguish, is as windowless as the Cornelian City. The sublimity of these post-Senecan tragedies is stuffy and confined, the pathos without air, without elbow-room, without background. We are far indeed from King Lear and As You Like It, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth. In practically any comedy or tragedy of Shakespeare one cannot read twenty lines without being made aware that, behind the clowns, the criminals, the heroes, behind the flirts and the weeping queens, beyond all that is agonizingly or farcically human, and yet symbiotic with man, immanent in his consciousness and consubstantial with his being, there lie the everlasting data, the given facts of planetary and cosmic existence on every level, animate and inanimate, mindless and purposively conscious. A poetry that represents man in isolation from nature, represents him inadequately. And analogously a spirituality which seeks to know God only within human souls, and not at the same time in the non-human universe with which in fact we are indissolubly related, is a spirituality which cannot know the fullness of divine being. “My deepest conviction,” writes an eminent Catholic philosopher of our time, M. Gabriel Marcel, “my deepest and most unshakable conviction—and if it is heretical, so much the worse for orthodoxy—is that, whatever all the thinkers and doctors have said, it is not God’s will at all to be loved by us against the Creation, but rather glorified through the Creation, and with the Creation as our starting point. That is why I find so many devotional books intolerable.” In this respect, the least intolerable book of seventeenth-century devotion would be Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations. For this English poet and theologian, there is no question of a God set up against the creation. On the contrary, God is to be glorified through the creation, to be realized in the creation—infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in a flower. The man who, in Traherne’s phrase, “attains the World” in disinterested contemplation, thereby attains God, and finds that all the rest has been added. “Is it not a sweet thing to have all covetousness and ambition satisfied, suspicion and infidelity removed, courage and joy infused? Yet is all this in the fruition of the World attained. For thereby is God seen in all His wisdom, power, goodness and glory.” Lallemant speaks of the mingling of seemingly incompatible elements, the natural and the supernatural, in the life of perfection. But, as we have seen, what he calls ‘nature’ is not nature in its fullness, but merely an excerpt. Traherne advocated the same mingling of incompatibles, but accepted nature in its totality and in its smallest details. The lilies and the ravens are to be considered, not quoad nos, but selflessly, an sich—which is the same as saying ‘in God.’ And here is sand and a flower growing from among the grains: contemplate these things lovingly and you will see them transfigured by the immanence of eternity and infinity. It is worth remarking that this experience of a divinity immanent in natural objects came also to Surin. In a few brief notations he records that there were times when he actually perceived the full majesty of God in a tree, a passing animal. But, strangely enough, he never wrote at any length about this beatific vision of the Absolute in the relative. And even to the recipients of his spiritual letters he never suggested that obedience to Christ’s injunction to consider the lilies might help the blindly groping soul to come to a knowledge of God. One can only suppose that the acquired belief in the total depravity of fallen nature was stronger, in his mind, than the givenness of his own experience. The dogmatic words he had learned at Sunday School were opaque enough to eclipse the immediate Fact. “If you wish to see It before your eyes,” writes the Third Patriarch of Zen, “have no fixed notions either for or against It.” But fixing notions is the professional occupation of theologians, and both Surin and his master were theologians before they were seekers for enlightenment.

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