The Devils of Loudun Page 78

Surin concluded his letter to Father d’Attichy with a plea for secrecy and discretion. “Except for my confessor and my superiors, you are the only person to whom I have confided these things.” The confidence was sadly misplaced. Father d’Attichy showed the letter to all and sundry. Numerous copies of it were made and circulated, and within a few months it had got into print, as a broadsheet. Along with the condemned murderers and the six-legged calves, Surin took his place as a news item for the amusement of the groundlings.

From now on, Leviathan and Isacaaron were never far away. But between their assaults on his body, and actually during their obsession of his soul, Surin was able to proceed with his mission—the sanctification of Sœur Jeanne. When she ran away he followed. Cornered, she turned and raged at him. He paid no attention. Kneeling at her feet, he prayed for her; sitting beside her, he whispered the spiritual doctrine of Father Lallemant into her unwilling ears. “Interior perfection, docility to the Holy Spirit, purification of the heart, conversion of the will to God. . . .” Her devils writhed and gibbered; but he went on—went on even though, within his own mind, he could hear the sneering of Leviathan, the obscene promptings of Isacaaron, the demon of impurity.

Surin had more than the devils to contend with. Even in her hours of sanity—above all, perhaps, in her hours of sanity—the Prioress still disliked him. She disliked him because she feared him, because she was afraid of being exposed by his perspicacity as what, in her lucid intervals, she knew herself to be—half actress, half unrepentant sinner, wholly hysterical. He begged her to be frank with him. The answer was either a howling of fiends, or a declaration by the nun that there was nothing to confide.

The relations between the energumen and her exorcist were complicated by the fact that, during Easter week, Sœur Jeanne was suddenly overcome by “very evil desires and a sentiment of most lawless affection” for the man she so much feared and detested. She could not bring herself to confess her secret, and it was Surin himself who, after three hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, first referred to these “infamous temptations.” “If anyone,” writes Sœur Jeanne, “was ever dumbfounded, it was I on this occasion.” The hour was late, and he left her to ruminate her astonishment. In the end, she decided, yet once more, to change not merely her behaviour towards Surin, but her whole way of life. It was a resolution of the surface will. Down below, in the subconscious, the demons had other views. She tried to read; her mind became a blank. She tried to think of God, to hold her soul in His presence; at once she developed a splitting headache, together with “strange obfuscations and weaknesses.” For all these symptoms Surin had one sovereign remedy: mental prayer. She agreed to try it. The devils redoubled their fury. At the first mention of interior perfection, they threw her body into convulsions. Surin made her lie on a table and bound her securely with ropes, so that she could not move. Then he kneeled beside her and, whispering in her ear, put into words a model meditation. “I took as my subject the conversion of the heart to God and its desire to consecrate itself completely to Him. I made three separate points, which I explained in an affective manner, making all the acts on behalf of the Mother.” Day after day this ceremony was repeated. Tied down, as though she were to undergo a surgical operation, the Prioress was at God’s mercy. She struggled, she shouted; but through all the noise she could still hear the voice of her implacable well-wisher. Sometimes Leviathan would turn his attention to the exorcist, and suddenly Father Surin would find himself unable to speak. From the Prioress came whoops of fiendish laughter. Then the current was turned on again; the prayers, the whispered teaching continued from the point where they had been interrupted.

When the devils became too violent, Surin would reach for a silver box containing a consecrated wafer and apply it to the Prioress’s heart or forehead. After the first agonized convulsion, “she was moved to great devotion, all the more so as I whispered in her ear all that it pleased God to inspire me with. She became very attentive to what I said, and was plunged in a profound recollectedness. The effect upon her heart was so great . . . that the tears streamed from her eyes.”

It was a conversion—but a conversion in the context of hysteria, a conversion on the stage of an imaginary theatre. Eight years before, as a young nun trying to curry favour with her Superior, Sœur Jeanne had briefly flaunted the ambition to become a second St. Teresa. Except for the old lady, nobody had been impressed. Then she was appointed Prioress, she had the run of the parlour; mysticism began to seem less interesting. After that, almost suddenly, had come her obsession with the erotic dream to which she gave the name of Grandier. Her neurosis deepened. Canon Mignon talked of devils, practised exorcisms, lent her his own copy of Michaelis’s book on the Gauffridy case. She read it and forthwith saw herself as the queen of the demoniacs. Her ambition at this time was to outdo them all in everything—in blasphemy, in grunting, in filthy language, in acrobatics. She knew, of course, that “all the disorders of her soul were founded on her own character” and that “she ought to blame herself for these disorders, without invoking extraneous causes.” Under the influence of Michaelis and Mignon, these native defects had been crystallized into seven devils. And now the devils had their own autonomous life and were her masters. To get rid of them, she would have to get rid of her bad habits and her ugly tendencies. And to do that, as her new director kept telling her, she would have to pray, to expose herself to the divine light. Surin’s ardour was infectious; she was touched by the man’s sincerity, was aware, behind the symptoms of his obsession, that he knew, by profound experience, what he was talking about. After listening to him, she longed to go to God; but she longed to go in the most spectacular way possible, before a large and admiring audience. She had been the queen of the demoniacs; now she desired to be a saint—or, rather, she desired to be known as a saint, to be canonized here and now, to work miracles, to be invoked in prayer. . . .

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