The Devils of Loudun Page 88

Sœur Jeanne and her companions left Paris on the 20th of June and found the usual crowds, prelates and very important persons awaiting them at every halt. At Lyon, which they reached fourteen days after their departure from Paris, they were visited by the Archbishop, Cardinal Alphonse de Richelieu, the Prime Minister’s elder brother. It had been intended by his parents that Alphonse should become a Knight of Malta. But all Knights of Malta had to be able to swim, and since Alphonse could never learn to swim, he had to be content with the family bishopric of Luçon, which he soon resigned in order to become a Carthusian monk. After his brother’s accession to power, he was taken out of the Grande Chartreuse, made Archbishop first of Aix, then of Lyon, and given a Cardinal’s hat. He had the reputation of an excellent prelate, but was subject to occasional fits of mental derangement. During these fits he would put on a crimson robe embroidered with gold thread and affirm that he was God the Father.

(This kind of thing seems to have run in the family; for there is a tradition, which may or may not be true. that his younger brother sometimes imagined himself to be a horse.)

Cardinal Alphonse’s interest in the sacred names was intense to the point of being surgical. Could they be erased by natural means? He took a pair of scissors and began the experiment. “I took the liberty,” writes Sœur Jeanne, “of saying, ‘My lord, you are hurting me.’” The Cardinal then sent for his doctor and ordered him to shave the names off. “I objected and said, ‘My lord, I have no orders from my superiors to undergo these trials.’ My lord Cardinal asked me who these superiors might be.” The Prioress’s answer was a master stroke. Her superior of superiors was the Cardinal-Duke, Cardinal Alphonse’s brother. The experiment was promptly called off.

Next morning, who should turn up but Father Surin. He had already been to Annecy and was on his way home. Afflicted by hysterical dumbness, which he attributed to the operations of the devil, Surin prayed for deliverance at the tomb of St. François de Sales—in vain. The Visitandines of Annecy possessed a large supply of dried blood, which the saint’s valet had collected over a long period of years, adding to his stock every time his master was bled by the barber-surgeon. The Abbess, Jeanne de Chantal, was so much distressed by Surin’s affliction that she gave him a clot of this dried blood to eat. For a moment he was able to speak, “Jesu Maria,” he cried; but that was all, and he could say no more.

After some discussion and a consultation with the Jesuit fathers of Lyon, it was decided that Surin and his companion, Father Thomas, should turn back and accompany the Prioress to the goal of her pilgrimage. On the road to Grenoble something which Sœur Jeanne qualifies merely as “somewhat extraordinary” took place. Father Thomas intoned the Veni Creator, and immediately Father Surin responded. From that moment he was able (at least for some time) to speak without impediment.

At Grenoble Surin made use of his new-found voice to preach a number of eloquent sermons on the unction of St. Joseph and the sacred names. There is something at once lamentable and sublime in the spectacle of this great lover of God passionately maintaining that evil had been good and falsehood, truth. Shouting from the pulpit, he spends the last resources of a sick body, a mind tottering on the brink of disintegration, in an effort to persuade his hearers of the rightness of a judicial murder, the otherworldliness of hysteria and the miraculousness of fraud. It was all done, of course, for the greater glory of God. But the subjective morality of intentions requires to be supplemented by the objective and utilitarian morality of results. One may mean well; but if one acts in an unrealistic and inappropriate manner, the consequences can only be disastrous. By their credulity and their reluctance to think of human psychology in any but the old, dogmatic terms, men like Surin made it certain that the breach between traditional religion and developing science should come to seem unbridgeable. Surin was a man of great ability, and therefore had no right to be as silly as, in this instance, he proved himself to be. That he made himself a martyr to his zeal cannot excuse the fact that this zeal was misdirected.1

At Annecy, which they reached a day or two after leaving Grenoble, they found that the fame of St. Joseph’s unction had preceded them. People came from as much as eight leagues away to see and smell. From morning till night Surin and Thomas were kept busy at the task of bringing the sacred chemise into contact with the objects brought for that purpose by the faithful faithful—rosaries, crosses, medals, even bits of cotton and paper.

The Prioress, meanwhile, was lodged in the Visitandine convent, whose Abbess was Mme. de Chantal. We turn to her autobiography, expecting to find that she has devoted at least as many pages to this saintly friend and disciple of St. François as she had given to Anne of Austria or the unspeakable Gaston d’Orléans. But we are disappointed. The only reference to St. Jeanne Chantal occurs in the following paragraph.

“The places, where the unction was, became dirty. Madame de Chantal and her nuns laundered the linen on which the unction was, and the unctions retained their ordinary colour.”

What were the reasons for this strange silence in regard to a person so remarkable as the founder of the Visitation? One can only speculate. Can it be that Mme. de Chantal was too perspicacious and that, when Sœur Jeanne embarked upon her celebrated impersonation of St. Teresa, she was not impressed? Saints tend to acquire a most embarrassing gift for looking through the persona at the real self behind the mask, and it may be that poor Sister Jane suddenly found herself spiritually naked before this formidably gentle old woman—naked and, all of a sudden, overpoweringly ashamed.

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