The Devils of Loudun Page 79

She threw herself into the new rôle with all her usual energy. From thirty minutes a day, the quota of mental prayer was raised to three or four hours, and to make herself fit for illumination she undertook a course of the harshest physical austerities. She exchanged her feather bed for uncushioned boards; she made decoctions of wormwood to be poured, in lieu of sauce, over her food; she wore a hair shirt and a belt spiked with nails; she beat herself with a whip at least three times a day, and sometimes, so she assures us, for as much as seven hours in a single twenty-four-hour period. Surin, who was a great believer in the discipline, encouraged her to persevere. He had noticed that devils who merely laughed at the rites of the Church were often put to flight in a few minutes by a good whipping. And the whip was as good for natural melancholy as for supernatural possession. St. Teresa had made the same discovery. “I say it again (for I have seen and have had much to do with many persons troubled with this disease of melancholy) that there is no other remedy, but to conquer them by every means in our power. . . . If words be not enough, have recourse to penances, and let them be heavy, if light penances will not do. It seems unjust,” the saint adds, “to punish the sick sister, who cannot help herself, as though she were well.” But, first of all, let it be remembered that these neurotics do enormous harm to the souls of others. Moreover, “I really believe that the mischief comes very often from a spirit undisciplined, wanting in humility and badly trained. . . . Under the pretence of this temper (of melancholy) Satan seeks to gain many souls. It is more common in our day than it used to be; the reason is that all self-will and licence are now called melancholy.” Among persons who took for granted the absolute freedom of the will and the total depravity of nature, this short way with neurotics was apparently very effective. Would it work today? In some cases, perhaps. For the rest, ‘talking it out’ is likely, in the present intellectual climate, to have better results than self-inflicted shock treatment.

What with the exorcisms and the coming and going of the tourists, the convent chapel was becoming too noisy for the whispered colloquies between Sœur Jeanne and her director. In the early summer of 1635 they began to meet more privately in an attic under the tiles. A makeshift grille was set up. Through the bars Surin gave his instructions or expounded mystical theology. And through the bars, the Prioress told him of her temptations, her combats with the demons, her experiences (already marvellous) in the course of mental prayer. Then in silence they would meditate together, and the attic became, in Surin’s words, “a house of angels and a paradise of delights,” in which both were favoured with extraordinary graces. One day, while meditating on the contempt to which Jesus had been exposed during His Passion, Sœur Jeanne went into an ecstasy. When it was over, she reported, through the grating, “that she had come so near to God that she had received, as it were, a kiss from His mouth.”

And meanwhile what did the other exorcists think about all this? What were the opinions of the good folk of Loudun? Surin tells us that he “heard people murmuring: What can this Jesuit be doing every day with a possessed nun? I answered inwardly: You do not know the importance of the affair I am engaged on. I seemed to see heaven and hell all on fire for this soul, the one in love, the other in fury, each of them straining to carry her off.” But what he saw was not seen by anyone else. All that the others knew was that, instead of subjecting his penitent to the full rigour of the exorcisms, Surin was spending hours in private conversation, trying to teach her (in spite of her devils) to lead the life of Christian perfection. To his colleagues, the attempt seemed merely foolish, all the more so as Surin was himself obsessed and in frequent need of exorcism on his own account. (In May, when Gaston d’Orléans, the King’s brother, came to see the devils, he had been publicly possessed by Isacaaron, who passed out of Sœur Jeanne’s body into Surin’s. While the demoniac sat calm, sane and ironically smiling, her exorcist rolled on the floor. The Prince, of course, was delighted; but for Jean-Joseph it had been another in the long series of humiliations to which an inscrutable Providence was subjecting him.) Nobody questioned the purity of Surin’s intentions or actions; but all regarded his conduct as indiscreet, and all deplored the gossip to which, inevitably, it gave rise. By the end of the summer the Provincial was being advised to recall him to Bordeaux.

Meanwhile the Prioress had had her full share of trials. In her new part, as the great contemplative saint, she was giving a performance which ought to have brought the house down. Instead of that, “Our Lord permitted that I should have much to suffer in my conversations with my sisters, through the workings of the devils, who tormented them; for most of them conceived a great aversion for me, on account of the change in my behaviour and way of life, which they recognized in me. The demons persuaded them that it was the devil who had wrought this change, so that I might be in a position to pass judgment on their character and behaviour. Whenever I was with them, the demons induced some of them to jeer at me and make fun of all I said and did, a thing which was most painful to me.” During their exorcisms, the nuns used to refer to their Superior as le diable dévot, the devout devil. Their opinion was shared by the exorcists. Except for Surin, all the attendant fathers were sceptical. It was in vain that Sœur Jeanne assured them that the great St. Joseph had obtained for her the gift of mental prayer, in vain that she modestly claimed to have been “raised by the Divine Majesty to the degree of contemplation, by means of which I received great illuminations, and Our Lord communicated Himself to my soul in a special and private manner.” Instead of prostrating themselves before this walking fount of divine wisdom, the exorcists merely told her that this was the kind of illusion to which the possessed were peculiarly subject. Confronted by so much hardness of heart, the Prioress could only retreat, either into madness, or into the attic, with her dear, good, credulous Father Surin.

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