The Devils of Loudun Page 74

At the fishing-port of Marennes, where he had spent most of the four years following the close of his ‘second novitiate’ at Rouen, Surin acted as director to two remarkable women—Mme. du Verger, the wife of a prosperous and pious merchant, and Madeleine Boinet, the converted daughter of a Protestant tinker. Both were active contemplatives and both (Mme. du Verger especially) had been favoured by ‘extraordinary graces.’ Surin’s interest in their visions and ecstasies was so great that he copied out long extracts from Mme. du Verger’s diary and wrote circumstantial accounts of both women for circulation, in manuscript, among his friends. There was, of course, nothing wrong in all this. But why pay so much attention to a subject so essentially ambiguous, so full of snares and perils? Ordinary graces were the only ones that would bring a soul to heaven; so why bother with the extraordinary—all the more so as one never knew whether such things were from God, from imagination, from deliberate fraud or from the devil? If Father Surin wanted to go to perfection, let him go by that royal road which was good enough for the rank and file of the Society—the road of obedience and active zeal, the road of vocal prayer and discursive meditation.

What made matters worse, so far as his critics were concerned, was the fact that Surin was a sick man, a victim of neurosis or, as it was then called, ‘melancholy.’ For at least two years before his coming to Loudun, he had suffered from incapacitating psycho-somatic disturbances. The slightest physical effort brought on intense muscular pains. When he tried to read, he was soon forced by excruciating headaches to give up. His mind was darkened and confused, and he lived in the midst of “agonies and pressures so extreme that he did not know what would become of him.” Could it be that the singularities of his conduct and his teaching were all the products of a sick mind in an unhealthy body?

Surin records that many of his fellow Jesuits were not convinced, to the very end, that the nuns were genuinely possessed. Even before coming to Loudun, he himself was troubled by no such doubts. He was persuaded that the world is at all times visibly and miraculously interpenetrated by the supernatural. And this conviction was the source, in its turn, of a wholesale credulity. People had merely to say that they had had dealings with saints, or angels, or devils; Surin believed them without question or criticism. Most conspicuously he lacked ‘the discernment of spirits.’ Indeed, he was wanting even in judgment and plain common sense. Surin was that not uncommon paradox—a man of great abilities who is, at the same time, a bit of a fool. He could never have echoed the opening words of Monsieur Teste: La bêtise n’est pas mon fort. Along with intelligence and sanctity, silliness was his strong point.

Surin’s first sight of the demoniacs was at one of the public exorcisms, at which Tranquille, Mignon and the Carmelites were officiating. He had come to Loudun convinced of the reality of the possession; this spectacle raised his conviction to a higher power of certainty. The devils, he now knew, were absolutely genuine, “and God gave him so much compassion for the state of the possessed that he could not restrain his tears.” He was wasting his sympathy—or at least misplacing it. “The devil,” writes Sœur Jeanne, “often beguiled me by a certain pleasure, which I took in my agitations and the other extraordinary things he did to my body. I took an extreme delight in hearing these things spoken about, and was happy that I gave the impression of being more gravely tormented than the others.” Unduly prolonged, every pleasure turns into its opposite; it was only when the exorcists went too far that the good sisters ceased to enjoy their possession. Taken in moderation, the public exorcisms, like any other kind of orgy, were intrinsically agreeable. This was a fact which persons accustomed to self-examination in the light of a strict morality could hardly fail to find disturbing. Despite the fact that souls were held to be guiltless of the sinful acts performed while in the paroxysm of possession, Sœur Jeanne suffered from a chronic remorse of conscience. “And no wonder; for I perceived very clearly that in most instances I was the prime cause of my disorders, and that the devil only acted upon the cues I myself had given him.” She knew that when she behaved outrageously, it was not because she had freely willed the outrage. Nevertheless, “I feel certain, to my great confusion, that I made it possible for the devil to do such things, and that he would not have had the power to do them if I had not allied myself with him. . . . When I made a strong resistance, all these furies would disappear as suddenly as they had come; but, alas, it happened only too frequently that I did not make a great effort to resist them.” Perceiving that they were guilty, not of what they did when they were out of their wits, but of what they had failed to do before their hysteria got the better of them, the nuns suffered excruciatingly from a sense of guilt. From this conviction of sin the debauches of possession and exorcism came as so many happy holidays. Tears were in order, not for these frenzies and indecencies, but for the lucid intervals between them.

To Surin, long before his arrival in Loudun, had been assigned the honour of exorcizing the Mother Superior. When Laubardemont told her that he had called in the Jesuits and that she was to have as her director the ablest and holiest young father in the Province of Aquitaine, Sœur Jeanne had been greatly alarmed. Jesuits were not like these slow-witted Capuchins and Carmelites, whom it had always been so easy to deceive. They were clever, they were well educated; and this Father Surin was holy into the bargain, a man of prayer, a great contemplative. He would see through her at once, would know when she was really possessed and when she was only acting, or at least collaborating with her devils. She pleaded with Laubardemont to be left to her old exorcists—to dear Canon Mignon, to the good Father Tranquille and the worthy Carmelites. But Laubardemont and his master had made up their minds. They needed acceptable evidence for the possession, and only the Jesuits could provide it. With a bad grace, Sœur Jeanne submitted. During the weeks which preceded Surin’s arrival, she did her best to find out everything that could be discovered about her new exorcist. She wrote letters to friends in other convents, asking for information; she pumped the local Jesuits. Her purpose in all this was to “study the humour of the man to whom I had been assigned,” and, having found out all she could, “to behave towards him with as little openness as possible, without giving him any information about the state of my soul. To this resolve I was only too faithful.” When the new exorcist arrived, she knew enough about his life at Marennes to be able to make sarcastic references to ta Boinette (her devils’ derisive name for Madeleine Boinet). Surin held up his hands in amazement. It was a miracle—infernal no doubt, but manifestly genuine.

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