The Devils of Loudun Page 82

To the name of St. Joseph were added, in due course, those of Jesus, of Mary and of Francois de Sales. Bright red at their first appearance, these names tended to fade after a week or two, but were then renewed by Sister Jane’s good angel. The process was repeated at irregular intervals from the winter of 1635 to St. John’s Day, 1662. After that date the names disappeared completely, “for no known reason,” writes Surin, “except that, to be rid of the continual importunity of those whose desire to see them distracted her from Our Lord, the Mother Superior had insistently prayed to be released from this affliction.”

Surin, together with some of his colleagues and a majority of the general public, believed that this novel form of stigmatization was an extraordinary grace from God. Among his educated contemporaries there was a general scepticism. These people had not believed in the reality of the possession, and they did not now believe in the divine origin of the names. Some, like John Maitland, were of the opinion that they had been etched into the skin with an acid; others that they might have been traced on the surface with coloured starch. Many remarked on the fact that, instead of being distributed on both hands, all the names were crowded on to the left left—where it would be easier for a right-handed person to write them.

In their edition of Sœur Jeanne’s autobiography Drs. Gabriel Legué and Gilles de la Tourette, both of them pupils of Charcot, incline to the belief that the writing on the hand was produced by auto-suggestion, and support this view by citing several modern examples of hysterical stigmatization. It should be added that in most cases of hysteria the skin becomes peculiarly sensitive. A fingernail lightly drawn over its surface raises a red welt that may last for several hours.

Auto-suggestion, deliberate fraud, or a mixture of both—we are at liberty to take our choice of explanations. For myself, I incline to the third hypothesis. The stigmata were probably spontaneous enough to seem to Jeanne herself genuinely miraculous. And if they were genuinely miraculous, there could be no harm in improving on the phenomenon so as to make it more edifying to the public and more creditable to herself. Her sacred names were like Sir Walter Scott’s novels—founded on fact, but considerably beholden to imagination and art.

Sœur Jeanne had now had her own, her private miracle. And it was not merely private, it was chronic. Renewed by her good angel, the sacred names were ever present, and could be shown at any time to distinguished visitors or the crowds of common sightseers. She was now a walking relic.

Isacaaron took flight on 7th January 1636. Only Behemoth remained; but this demon of blasphemy was tougher than all the rest put together. Exorcisms, penances, mental prayer—nothing availed. Religion had been forced upon an unwilling and undisciplined mind, and the inductive reaction of that mind had been an irreligion so violent and so shocking that the normal personality had felt obliged to dissociate itself from this negation of everything it reverenced. The negation became a Someone-Else, an evil spirit leading an autonomous existence in the mind, causing confusion within and scandal without. Surin wrestled with Be-hemoth for ten more months; then, in October, broke down completely. The Provincial recalled him to Bordeaux, and another Jesuit took over the direction of the Prioress.

Father Ressès was a great believer in what may be called ‘straight’ exorcism. He was persuaded, says Sœur Jeanne, that those who watched the exorcisms were greatly benefited by the sight of demons adoring the Sacrament. Surin had tried to “overthrow the rider by attacking the horse.” Ressés attacked the rider directly and in public—and attacked him regardless of the horse’s feelings and without any attempt to modify its behaviour.

“One day,” writes the Prioress, “a celebrated company being assembled, the good Father planned to perform some exorcisms for their spiritual good.” The Prioress told her director that she was feeling ill and that the exorcisms would do her harm. “But the good Father, who was most anxious to perform the exorcisms, told me to take courage and trust in God; after which he began the exorcism.” Sœur Jeanne was put through all her tricks, with the result that she took to her bed with a high fever and a pain in her side. Dr. Fanton, a Huguenot, but the best physician in the town, was called in. She was bled three times and given medicine. It was so effective that there was “an evacuation and flux of blood lasting seven or eight days.” She felt better; then, after a few more days, fell ill again. “Father Ressès thought fit to recommence the exorcisms; after which I was troubled by violent nausea and vomiting.” This was followed by fever, pain in the side and spitting of blood. Fanton was recalled, pronounced that she had pleurisy, bled her seven times in as many days and administered four clysters. After which he informed her that her malady was mortal. That night Sœur Jeanne heard an inward voice. It told her that she would not die, but that God would bring her into the last extremity of danger in order, the more gloriously, to manifest His power by healing her when she was at the very doors of death. For two days she seemed to grow steadily worse and weaker, so much so that, on the 7th of February, Extreme Unction was administered. The doctor was then sent for, and while she was awaiting his arrival Sœur Jeanne uttered the following prayer: “Lord, I have always thought that You wished to display some extraordinary mark of Your power in healing me of this sickness; if this be the case, reduce me to such a state that, when he sees me, the doctor will judge that I am past help.” Dr. Fanton came and pronounced that she had only one or two hours to live. Hurrying home he penned a report to Laubardemont, who was then in Paris. The pulse, he wrote, was convulsive, the stomach distended; the state of weakness was such that no remedies, not even a clyster, could have any effect. However, she was being given a small suppository in the hope that it might relieve an “oppression, so great that it cannot be described.” Not that this palliative would make any real difference; for the patient was in extremis. At half-past six Sœur Jeanne fell into a lethargy and had a vision of her good angel in the form of a wonderfully beautiful youth of eighteen, with long fair curls. The angel, we are told by Surin, was the living image of the duc de Beaufort, son of César de Vendôme, and grandson of Henri IV and Gabrielle d’Estrées. This prince had recently been in Loudun to see the devils, and his shoulder-length bob of golden hair had made a profound impression on the Prioress. After the angel came St. Joseph, who laid his hand on Sœur Jeanne’s right side, at the spot where she felt the greatest pain, and anointed her with some kind of oil. “After which I came to my senses and found myself completely cured.”

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