The Devils of Loudun Page 80

But even Father Surin was a trial to her. He was ready enough to believe all that she said about her extraordinary graces; but his ideals of sanctity were uncomfortably high, and his estimation of Sœur Jeanne’s character uncomfortably low. To confess that one is proud and sensual is one thing; to be told these home truths by someone else is another and very different matter. And Surin was not content with telling Sœur Jeanne what her faults were; he was for ever trying to correct them. He was convinced that the Prioress was possessed by devils; but he was also convinced that the devils derived their power from the victim’s own defects. By getting rid of the defects one would get rid of the demons. It was therefore necessary, in Surin’s words, “to attack the horse in order to overthrow the rider.” But the horse found it most unpleasant to be attacked. For, though Sœur Jeanne had resolved to “go to God with perfection,” though she already saw herself as a saint and was pained when other people saw only the unconscious (or perhaps the all too conscious) comedian, she found the process of sanctification extremely painful and distressing. Surin took her very seriously as an ecstatic—and that was flattering; that was all as it should be. But, unfortunately for the Prioress, he took her still more seriously as a penitent and an ascetic. When she became too uppish, he snubbed her. When she asked for showy penances—public confession of her sin, degradation to the rank of a lay sister—he insisted, instead, on the practice of small, inconspicuous, but unremitting mortifications. When, as sometimes happened, she played the great lady, he treated her as though she were a scullery-maid. Exasperated, she took refuge in Leviathan’s proud anger, in Behemoth’s ravings against God, in Balaam’s buffoonery. Instead of resorting to exorcisms, which, by this time, all the devils thoroughly enjoyed, Surin ordered the infesting entities to whip themselves. And, since the Prioress, always retained enough liberty and enough genuine desire for self-improvement to give her consent, the demons had to obey. “We can stand up to the Church,” they said, “we can defy the priests. But we cannot resist the will of this bitch.” Whining or cursing, according to their various temperaments, they swung the discipline. Leviathan was the hardest hitter; Behemoth, a close second. But Balaam and, above all, Isacaaron had a horror of pain, and could hardly be induced to hurt themselves. “It was an admirable spectacle,” says Surin, “when the demon of sensuality inflicted the punishment.” The blows were light, but the screams were piercing, the tears profuse. The devils could take less punishment than Sœur Jeanne in her normal state. Once it took a whole hour of flagellation to dispel certain psycho-somatic symptoms brought on by Leviathan; but on most occasions a few minutes of self-punishment were enough. The possessor took flight, and Sœur Jeanne was free to resume the march towards perfection.

It was a tedious march and, for Sœur Jeanne at least, perfection had one grave defect: it was as inconspicuous as those nagging little mortifications prescribed by Father Surin. You were raised to the degree of contemplation, you were honoured by private communications from on high. But what was there to show for it? Nothing at all. You had to tell them about the graces you had received, and all they did was to shake their heads or shrug their shoulders. And when you behaved as the blessed Mother Teresa must have behaved, they either roared with laughter or flew into a rage and called you a hypocrite. Something more convincing was needed, something spectacular, something obviously supernatural.

Diabolical miracles were no longer in order; for Sœur Jeanne had ceased to be the queen of the demoniacs and was now aspiring to immediate canonization. The first of her divine miracles took place in February 1635. One day Isacaaron confessed that three anonymous magicians, two from Loudun, one a Parisian, had come into possession of three consecrated wafers, which they intended to burn. Surin immediately ordered Isacaaron to go and fetch the wafers, which were hidden under a mattress in Paris. Isacaaron disappeared and did not return. Balaam was then commanded to go to his assistance, stubbornly refused, but was finally forced, by the help of Surin’s good angel, to obey. The orders were that the wafers should be produced at the after-dinner exorcism on the following day. At the appointed time, Balaam and Isacaaron made their appearance and, after much resistance and many contortions of the Prioress’s body, announced that the wafers were in a niche above the tabernacle. “The demons then caused the Mother Superior’s body, which was very small, to stretch.” At the end of its elongated arm the hand was thrust into the niche and came out with a neatly folded sheet of paper containing three wafers.

To this painfully fishy marvel Surin attached enormous importance. In Sœur Jeanne’s autobiography it is not so much as mentioned. Was she ashamed of the trick she had so successfully played on her trusting director? Or was it that she found the miracle essentially unsatisfactory? True, she had played the principal part in the affair; but the affair was not primarily hers. What she needed was a miracle all her own, and in the autumn of that same year she finally got what she wanted.

Towards the end of October, yielding to the pressure of public opinion within the order, the Provincial of Aquitaine gave orders that Surin should return to Bordeaux and that his place at Loudun should be taken by another, less eccentric exorcist. The news got out. Leviathan exulted; but Sœur Jeanne, when she came to her senses, was greatly distressed. Something, she felt, would have to be done. She prayed to St. Joseph, and had a strong conviction “that God would help us and that this proud demon would be humiliated.” After this, for three or four days, she was ill in bed; then suddenly felt well enough to ask to be exorcized. “It happened that day (it was the 5th of November) that many persons of quality were present in the church to watch the exorcisms; this was not without a special providence of God.” (Special providences were the rule, where very important personages were concerned. It was always in the presence of the nobility that the devils performed their greatest feats.)

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