The Devils of Loudun Page 90

At Loudun, in the meantime, the devils had been tolerably quiet. On one memorable occasion, it is true, “I saw before me the forms of two exceedingly horrible men, and smelt a great stink. Each of these men carried rods; they seized me, took off my clothes, tied me to the bed post and birched me for the space of half an hour or more.” Fortunately, as her chemise had been pulled up over her head, the Prioress did not see herself naked. And when the two stinking personages pulled it down again and untied her, she “did not notice that anything occurred which was contrary to modesty.” There were some subsequent assaults from the same quarter; but in the main the miracles recorded by Sœur Jeanne during the next twenty years were celestial in origin. For example, her heart was split in two and marked, inwardly and invisibly, with the instruments of the Passion. On several occasions the souls of departed sisters appeared and spoke of purgatory. And at the time, of course, the sacred names were being exhibited through the parlour grating to visitors of quality, some devout, others merely curious or downright sceptical. At every renewal of the names, and frequently betweenwhiles, the Angel appeared and gave a prodigious amount of good advice, which was passed on, in interminable letters, to her director. He also gave advice to third parties—to gentlemen involved in lawsuits, to anxious mothers who wanted to know whether it would be better to marry off their daughters, rather disadvantageously, now, or to hang on in the hope of a better match presenting itself before it was too late for anything but the convent.

In 1648 the Thirty Years’ War came to an end. The power of the Habsburgs was broken and a third of the inhabitants of Germany had been liquidated. Europe was now ready for the antics of the Grand Monarque and French hegemony. It was a triumph. But meanwhile there was an interlude of anarchy, Fronde succeeded Fronde. Mazarin exiled himself and returned to power; retired once more and reappeared; then vanished for ever from the scene.

At about the same time, obscure and out of favour, Laubardemont died. His only son had turned highwayman and been killed. His last surviving daughter had been obliged to take the veil and was now an Ursuline at Loudun, under her father’s old protégée.

In January 1656 the first of the Provincial Letters was published, and four months later occurred the great Jansenist miracle—the healing of Pascal’s niece’s eye by the Holy Thorn preserved at Port-Royal.

A year later Saint-Jure died, and the Prioress had nobody to write to except other nuns and poor Father Surin, who was still too ill to reply. What was her joy when, at the beginning of 1658, she received a letter in Surin’s hand—the first in more than twenty years. “How admirable,” she wrote to her friend Mme. du Houx, now a nun of the Visitation at Rennes, “how admirable is the leading of God, who having deprived me of Father Saint-Jure, now brings the dear Father of my soul into the condition of being able to write to me! Only a few days before receiving his letter, I had written to him at length about the state of my soul.”

She went on writing about the state of her soul—to Surin, to Mme. du Houx, to anyone who was ready to read and reply. If they were ever published, the Prioress’s surviving letters would fill several volumes. And how many more must have been lost! Sœur Jeanne, it is evident, was still under the impression that the “inner life” is a life of constant self-analysis in public. But in fact, of course, the inner life begins where the analysable self leaves off. The soul that goes on talking about its states thereby prevents itself from knowing its divine Ground. “It was not from want of will that I have refrained from writing to you, for truly I wish you all good; but because it seemed to me that enough has been said to effect all that is needed, and that what is wanting (if anything be wanting) is not writing or speaking—whereof ordinarily there is more than enough—but silence and work.” These words were addressed by St. John of the Cross to a group of nuns, who had complained that he did not answer the letters in which they had so minutely catalogued their mental states. But “speaking distracts; silence and work collect the thoughts and strengthen the spirit.” Nothing, alas, could silence the Prioress. She was as copious as Mme. de Sévigné; but the gossip was exclusively about herself.

In 1660, with the Restoration, the two British tourists, who had seen Sœur Jeanne in all her diabolic glory, at last came into their own. Tom Killigrew was made a Groom of the Bedchamber and licensed to build a theatre, where he might put on plays without submitting them to censorship. As for John Maitland, who had been taken prisoner at Worcester and had spent nine years in confinement—he now became Secretary of State and the new King’s prime favourite.

The Prioress, meanwhile, was feeling her age. She was ailing, and her double rôle of walking relic and verger, of sacred object and loquacious guide, fatigued her now beyond endurance. In 1662 the sacred names were renewed for the last time; thenceforward there was nothing for the devout or the curious to see. But though the miracles had ceased, the spiritual pretension remained as great as ever. “I propose,” Surin wrote to her in one of his letters, “to speak to you of the prime necessity, of the very basis of grace—I mean humility. Let me beg you, then, to act in such a way that this holy humility may become the true and solid foundation of your soul. These things of which we speak in our letters—things, very often, of a sublime and lofty nature—must in no wise be permitted to compromise that virtue.” In spite of his credulity, in spite of his overestimation of the merely miraculous, Surin understood his correspondent only too well, Sœur Jeanne belonged to what, at that particular moment of history, was evidently a very common subspecies of bovarists. Just how common, we may infer from a note in Pascal’s Pensées. In St. Teresa, he writes, “what pleases God is her profound humility in revelations; what pleases men is the knowledge revealed to her. And so we work ourselves to death trying to imitate her words, imagining that thereby we are imitating her state of being. We neither love the virtue which God loves, nor do we try to bring ourselves into the state of being which God loves.”

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