The Devils of Loudun Page 31

With them, at last, came prosperity. Servants were hired to do the dirty work, beef and mutton reappeared on the refectory table and the mattresses were taken off the floor and placed on wooden bedsteads.

In 1627 the Prioress of the new community was transferred to another house of the order and a new Superior was appointed in her place. Her name in religion was Jeanne des Anges; in the world it had been Jeanne de Belciel, daughter of Louis de Belciel, Baron de Coze, and of Charlotte Goumart d’Eschillais, who came of a family hardly less ancient and eminent than his own. Born in 1602, she was now in her middle twenties, her face rather pretty, but her body diminutive almost to dwarfishness and slightly deformed—presumably by some tubercular affection of the bones. Jeanne’s education had been only slightly less rudimentary than that of most young ladies of her time; but she was possessed of considerable native intelligence, combined, however, with a temperament and a character which had made her a trial to others and her own worst enemy. Because of her deformity the child was physically unattractive; and the consciousness of being misshapen, the painful knowledge that she was an object either of repugnance or of pity, aroused in her a chronic resentment, which made it impossible for her either to feel affection or to permit herself to be loved. Disliking and consequently disliked, she lived in a defensive shell, issuing forth only to attack her enemies—and everybody, a priori, was an enemy—with sudden sarcasms or strange outbursts of jeering laughter. “I noticed,” Surin was to write of her, “that the Mother Superior had a certain jocosity of nature which excited her to laugh and crack jokes (bouffonner) and that the demon, Balaam, did his best to cherish and maintain this humour. I saw that this spirit was wholly opposed to the seriousness with which one ought to take the things of God, and that it fostered in her a certain glee which destroys the compunction of heart indispensable to a perfect conversion to God. I saw that a single hour of this kind of jocularity was enough to ruin everything I had built up in the course of many days, and I induced in her a strong desire to rid herself of this enemy.” There is a laughter that is perfectly compatible with “the things of God”—a laughter of humility and self-criticism, a laughter of good-natured tolerance, a laughter in lieu of despair or indignation at the world’s perverse absurdity. Very different from any of these, Jeanne’s laughter was either of derision or of cynicism. Directed against others, never against herself, the first was a symptom of the unreconciled hunchback’s desire to be revenged on destiny by putting other people in their place—and their place, in spite of all appearances, was below her. Motivated by the same craving for compensatory dominance, the second was a more impersonal jeering and joking at all that, by current standards, was most solemn, lofty and grand.

Persons of Jeanne’s character are apt to make a good deal of trouble, both for themselves and for other people. Incapable of coping with a very unpleasant child, her parents packed her off to an elderly aunt, who was the Prioress of a neighbouring abbey. After two or three years she was ignominiously returned; the nuns could do nothing with her. Time passed, and life in the paternal château became so odious to her that even a cloister seemed preferable to home. She entered the Ursuline house at Poitiers, passed through the usual novitiate and took her vows. As might have been expected, Jeanne did not make a very satisfactory nun; but her family was rich and influential, and the Superior deemed it expedient to put up with her. And then, almost overnight, there was a marvellous change for the better. Ever since her coming to Loudun Sœur Jeanne had behaved with exemplary piety and diligence. The young woman who, at Poitiers, had been so insubordinate, so wanting in zeal, so slack in the performance of her duties, was now the perfect religious—obedient, hard-working and devout. Deeply impressed by this conversion, the retiring Prioress recommended Sister Jane as the person best fitted to take her place.

Fifteen years later the convert gave her own version of this episode. “I took good care,” she wrote, “to make myself indispensable to those in authority, and since there were but few nuns, the Superior was obliged to assign me to all the offices of the community. It was not that she could not do without me, for she had other nuns more capable and better than I; it was merely that I imposed upon her by a thousand little compliances and so made myself necessary to her. I knew so well how to adapt myself to her humour and to prevail upon her, that at last she found nothing well done except what was done by me; she even believed that I was good and virtuous. This puffed up my heart to such an extent that I had no difficulty in performing actions which seemed to be worthy of esteem. I knew how to dissimulate and I made use of hypocrisy, so that my Superior might go on thinking well of me and be favourable to my inclinations; and in effect she granted me many privileges which I abused, and since she was herself good and virtuous and believed that I too intended to go to God with Christian perfection, she often invited me to converse with worthy monks, which I did in order to humour her and to pass the time.”

When the worthy monks took their leave, they would push through the grille some newly translated classic of the spiritual life. One day it was a treatise by Blosius; another, the Life of the Blessed Mother Teresa of Avila, written by herself, with St. Augustine’s Confessions and Del Rio on angels thrown in for good measure. As she read these books, as she learned to discuss their contents with the Prioress and the good fathers, Sœur Jeanne found her attitude insensibly changing. These pious talks in the parlour, these studies in the literature of mysticism, ceased to be mere time-killers and became means to a specific end. If she read the mystics, if she talked with the visiting Carmelites of perfection, it was not at all “for the sake of her own advancement in the spiritual life, but solely in order to seem clever and to outshine all the other nuns in every kind of company.” The unreconciled hunchback’s craving for superiority had found another outlet, a new and fascinating field in which to operate. There were still occasional outbursts of sarcasm and cynical buffoonery; but in the graver intervals Sister Jane was now the expert in spirituality, the learned consultant on all matters of mystical theology. Exalted by her new-found knowledge, she could now look down on her sisters with an altogether delightful mingling of contempt and pity. True, they were pious, they were trying, poor things, to be good—but with what a piddling kind of virtue, what an ignorant and, one might say, brutish devotion! What did they know of extraordinary graces? What of spiritual touches, of rapts and inspirations, of aridities and the night of the senses? And the answer, the highly gratifying answer to all these questions was that they knew nothing at all. Whereas she—the little dwarf with one shoulder higher than the other—she knew practically everything.

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