The Devils of Loudun Page 56

Professor Oesterreich, in his richly documented study of the subject,1 has pointed out that, while belief in diabolic possession sharply declined during the nineteenth century, belief in possession by departed spirits became, during the same period, much more common. Thus, neurotics who, at an earlier epoch, would have attributed their malady to devils, were inclined, after the rise of the Fox Sisters, to lay the blame on the discarnate souls of evil men or women. With the recent advances in technology, the notion of possession has taken a new form. Neurotic patients often complain that they are being influenced, against their will, by some kind of radio messages transmitted by their enemies. The Malicious Animal Magnetism which haunted poor Mrs. Eddy’s imagination for so many years has now been transformed into Malicious Electronics.

In the sixteen hundreds there was no radio and very little belief in possession by discarnate spirits. Burton cites the opinion that devils are merely the souls of the malevolent dead, but cites it only to remark that it is an ‘absurd tenet.’ For him, possession was a fact, and was exclusively by devils. (For Myers, two and a half centuries later, possession was also a fact, but exclusively by the spirits of the dead.)

Do devils exist? And, if so, were they present in the bodies of Sœur Jeanne and her fellow nuns? As with the notion of possession, I can see nothing intrinsically absurd or self-contradictory in the notion that there may be non-human spirits, good, bad and indifferent. Nothing compels us to believe that the only intelligences in the universe are those connected with the bodies of human beings and the lower animals. If the evidence for clairvoyance, telepathy and prevision is accepted (and it is becoming increasingly difficult to reject it), then we must allow that there are mental processes which are largely independent of space, time and matter. And if this is so, there seems to be no reason for denying a priori that there may be non-human intelligences, either completely discarnate, or else associated with cosmic energy in some way of which we are still ignorant. (We are still ignorant, incidentally, of the way in which human minds are associated with that highly organized vortex of cosmic energy known as a body. That some association exists is evident; but how energy gets transformed into mental processes, and how mental processes affect energy, we still have no idea.1)

In the Christian religion devils have, until very recent times, played an exceedingly important part—and this from the very beginning. For, as Fr. A. Lefévre, S.J., has remarked, “the devil has but a small place in the Old Testament; his empire is not yet revealed. The New Testament discloses him as chief of the leagued forces of evil.”2 In the current translations of the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be delivered from evil. But is it certain that apo tou ponerou is neuter rather than masculine? Does not the very structure of the prayer imply that the word refers to a person? “Lead us not into temptation, but (on the contrary) deliver us from the Evil One, the Tempter.”

In theory and by theological definition Christianity is not Manichaeism. For Christians, evil is not a substance, not a real and elementary principle. It is merely a privation of good, a diminution of being in creatures who derive their essential being from God. Satan is not Ahriman under another name, is not an eternal principle of Darkness over against the divine principle of Light. Satan is merely the most considerable among a vast number of individual angels who, at a given moment of time, chose to separate themselves from God. It is only by courtesy that we call him the Evil One. There are many evil ones, of whom Satan is the Chief Executive. Devils are persons, and each one has his character, his temperament, his humours, crotchets and idiosyncrasies. There are power-loving devils, lustful devils, covetous devils, proud and conceited devils. Moreover, some devils are much more important than others; for they retain, even in hell, the positions they occupied in the heavenly hierarchy before their fall. Those who in heaven were merely angels or archangels are lower-class devils of small account. Those who were once Dominions or Principalities or Powers, now constitute the haute bourgeoisie of hell. The quondam Cherubim and Seraphim are an aristocracy, whose power is very great and whose physical presence (according to the information supplied to Father Surin by Asmodeus) can make itself felt within a circle thirty leagues in diameter. At least one seventeenth-century theologian, Father Ludovico Sinistrari, maintained that human beings could be possessed, or at least obsessed, not merely by devils, but also, and more frequently, by non-malignant spiritual entities—the fauns, nymphs and satyrs of the ancients, the hobgoblins of the European peasantry, the poltergeists of modern psychical researchers.1 According to Sinistrari, most incubi and succubi were merely natural phenomena, no worse and no better than buttercups, say, or grasshoppers. At Loudun, unfortunately, this kindly theory was never broached. The insanely libidinous imaginings of the nuns were all attributed to Satan and his messengers.

Theologians, I repeat, have carefully guarded against Manichaean dualism; but, at all times, all too many Christians have behaved as though the devil were a First Principle, on the same footing as God. They have paid more attention to evil and the problem of its eradications than to good and the methods by which individual goodness may be deepened, and the sum of goodness increased. The effects which follow too constant and intense a concentration upon evil are always disastrous. Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes even perceptibly worse than it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself.

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