The Devils of Loudun Page 29

How does it actually feel to be “possessed and governed by the Holy Spirit”? This state of conscious and continuous inspiration was described, with the most delicate precision of self-analysis, by Surin’s younger contemporary, Armelle Nicolas, affectionately known throughout her native Brittany as la bonne Armelle. This uneducated servant girl, who lived the life of a contemplative saint while cooking the dinner, scrubbing floors, and looking after the children, was incapable of writing her own story. But fortunately it was written for her by a very intelligent nun, who succeeded in drawing her out and in recording her confidences almost verbatim.1 “Losing sight of herself and all the workings of her mind, Armelle no longer envisaged herself as acting in anything, but as suffering and passively submitting to the workings which God accomplished in and by her; so that it seemed to her that, while she possessed a body, it was only that she might be moved and governed by the Spirit of God. It was into this state that she entered after God had so peremptorily commanded her to make room for Him. . . . When she thought of her body or her mind, she no longer said ‘my body,’ or ‘my mind’; for the word ‘my’ had been banished, and she used to say that everything belonged to God.

“I remember hearing her say that, from the time that God had made Himself the absolute master of her being, she had been dismissed as effectively as, in the past, she herself had given notice” (Armelle’s metaphors were all drawn from the professional vocabulary of a maid of all work) “to those other things” (her bad habits, her self-regarding impulses). “Once dismissed, her mind was not permitted to see or understand what God was working in the inmost recesses of her soul, nor to interfere with its own workings. It was as though her mind remained, huddled up, outside the door of this central chamber, where God alone might freely enter, waiting there like a lackey for his master’s orders. And the mind did not find itself alone in this situation; but it seemed sometimes that an infinite number of angels kept it company, standing around the dwelling-place of God, so as to prevent anything from crossing the threshold.” This state of things lasted some time. Then God permitted her conscious self to enter the central chamber of the soul—to enter and actually see the divine perfections with which it was now filled, with which, indeed, it had always been filled; but like everyone else, she had not known it. The inner light was intense beyond her capacity to bear it, and for a time her body suffered excruciatingly. In the end, she acquired some measure of tolerance and was able to support the consciousness of her enlightenment without too much distress.

Remarkable in itself, Armelle’s self-analysis is doubly interesting as being yet another piece among the many pieces of evidence all pointing to the same conclusion: namely, that the phenomenal self is underlain by a Pure Ego or Atman, which is of the same nature as the divine Ground of all being. Outside the central chamber where (until the soul has become selfless) “none but God may enter,” between the divine Ground and the conscious self, lies the subliminal mind, almost impersonal at its melting fringe, but crystallizing, as the phenomenal self is approached, into the personal subconscious with its accumulations of septic rubbish, its swarms of rats and black beetles and its occasional scorpions and vipers. This personal subconscious is the haunt of our indwelling criminal lunatic, the locus of Original Sin. But the fact that the ego is associated with a maniac is not incompatible with the fact that it is also associated (all unconsciously) with the divine Ground. We are born with Original Sin; but we are also born with Original Virtue—with a capacity for grace, in the language of Western theology, with a “spark,” a “fine point of the soul,” a fragment of unfallen consciousness, surviving from the state of primal innocence and technically known as the synteresis. Freudian psychologists pay far more attention to Original Sin than to Original Virtue. They pore over the rats and the black beetles, but are reluctant to see the inner light. Jung and his followers have shown themselves to be somewhat more realistic. Overstepping the limits of the personal subconscious, they have begun to explore the realm where the mind, growing more and more impersonal, merges into the psychic medium, out of which individual selves are crystallized. Jungian psychology goes beyond the immanent maniac, but stops short of the immanent God.

And yet, I repeat, there is plenty of evidence for the existence of an Original Virtue underlying Original Sin. Armelle’s experience was not unique. The knowledge that there is a central chamber of the soul, blazing with the light of divine love and wisdom, has come, in the course of history, to multitudes of human beings. It came, among others, to Father Surin—and came, as will be recorded in a later chapter, in conjunction with a knowledge, no less immediate and no less overpowering, of the horrors at large in the psychic medium and the poisonous vermin in the personal subconscious. At one and the same instant he was aware of God and of Satan, he knew beyond all doubt that he was eternally united with the divine Ground of all being, and yet was convinced that he was already and irrevocably damned. In the end, as we shall see, it was the consciousness of God that prevailed. In that tormented mind, Original Sin was finally swallowed up in the infinity of a much more Original, because timeless, Virtue.

Mystical experiences, theophanies, flashes of what has been called cosmic consciousness—these are not to be had for the asking, cannot be repeated uniformly and at will in the laboratory. But if the experience of the central chamber of the soul is not to be commanded, certain experiences of approach to that centre, of being within its field, of standing at the door (in Armelle’s words) among a company of angels, are repeatable, if not uniformly indeed (for only the most elementary psychological experiences can be repeated with anything like uniformity), at least sufficiently often to indicate the nature of the transcendent Limit, towards which they all converge. For example, those who have experimented with hypnosis find that, at a certain depth of trance, it happens not too infrequently that subjects, if they are left alone and not distracted, will become aware of an immanent serenity and goodness that is often associated with a perception of light and of spaces vast but not solitary. Sometimes the entranced person feels impelled to speak about his or her experience. Deleuze, who was one of the best observers in the second generation of Animal Magnetists, records that this state of somnambulism is characterized by a complete detachment from all personal interests, by the absence of passion, by indifference to acquired opinions and prejudices and by “a novel manner of viewing objects, a quick and direct judgment, accompanied with an intimate conviction. . . . Thus the somnambulist possesses at the same time the torch which gives him his light and the compass that points out his way. This torch and this compass,” Deleuze concludes, “are not the product of somnambulism; they are always in us, but the distracting cares of the world, the passions and, above all, pride, and attachment to perishable things prevent us from perceiving the one and consulting the other.”1 (Less dangerously and more effectively than the drugs which sometimes produce “anaesthetic revelations,”2 hypnotism temporarily abolishes distractions and allays the passions, leaving the consciousness free to occupy itself with what lies beyond the haunt of the immanent maniac.) “In this new situation,” Deleuze continues, “the mind is filled with religious ideas, with which, perhaps, it was never before occupied.” Between the somnambulist’s new way of viewing the world and his normal state there is a difference “so prodigious that he sometimes feels as though he were inspired; he regards himself as the organ of a superior intelligence, but this does not excite his vanity.”

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