The Devils of Loudun Page 92

In the course of his life Jean-Joseph Surin thought, wrote and did many foolish, ill-judged and even grotesque things. But for anyone who has read his letters and his memoirs he must always remain an essentially tragic figure, in whose sufferings (however odd and however, in a certain sense, well-deserved) we always participate. We know him as he knew himself—from inside and without disguise. The “I” who does his confessing is always Jean-Joseph, never someone else, more romantic, never, as with the poor Prioress, that other, spectacular personage, who invariably ends by letting the cat out of the bag and so transforming the would-be sublime into the comic, the downright farcical.

The beginnings of Surin’s long tragedy have already been described. An iron will, directed by the highest ideal of spiritual perfection and by erroneous notions as to the relations between Absolute and relative, between God and nature, had overdriven a weak constitution, a temperament in unstable equilibrium. He was a sick man even before he came to Loudun. There, though he tried to mitigate the Manichaean excesses of the other exorcists, he became the victim of a too close and intense preoccupation with the idea and the apparent fact of radical Evil. The devils derived their strength from the very violence of the campaign which was waged against them. Strength in the nuns, and strength in their exorcists. Under the influence of an organized obsession with evil, the normally latent tendencies (tendencies to licence and blasphemy, to which, by induction, a strict religious discipline always gives rise) came rushing to the surface. Lactance and Tranquille died in convulsions, “hand and foot in Belial’s gripe.” Surin underwent the same self-inflicted ordeal, but survived.

While working at Loudun, Surin found time, between the exorcisms and his own seizures, to write many letters. But except to his indiscreet friend, Father d’Attichy, he made no confidences. Meditation, mortification, purity of heart—these are the ordinary themes of his letters. The devils and his own trials are scarcely mentioned.

“In regard to your mental prayer,” he writes to one of his cloistered correspondents, “I do not take it as a bad sign that you should be unable, as you tell me, to keep your mind fixed on some particular subject, which you have prepared in advance. I advise you not to pin yourself down to any specific topic, but to go to your prayers with the same freedom of heart, with which, in the past, you used to go to Mother d’ Arrérac’s room, to talk with her and help her to pass the time. To these meetings you did not bring an agenda of carefully studied subjects for discussion; for that would have put an end to the pleasure of your conversation. You went to her with a general disposition to foment and cultivate your friendship. Go to God in the same way.”

“Love the dear God,” he writes to another of his friends, “and permit Him to do as He likes. Where He works, the soul should give up its own coarse way of acting. Do this, and remain exposed to the will of Love, and to its power. Lay aside your busy practices, which are mingled with many imperfections that need to be purified.”

And what is this divine Love, to whose will and power the soul is required to expose itself? “Love’s work is to ravage, to destroy, to abolish, and then to make new, to set up again, to resuscitate. It is marvellously terrible and marvellously sweet; and the more terrible, the more desirable, the more attractive. To this Love we must resolutely give ourselves. I shall not be happy until I have seen it triumph over you, to the point of consuming and annihilating you.”

In Surin’s case the process of annihilation was only just beginning. During the greater part of 1637 and the first months of 1638 he was a sick man, but a sick man with intervals of health. His malady consisted of a series of departures from a state that was still tolerably normal.

“This obsession,” he wrote twenty-five years later in La Science Expérimentale des choses de I’autre vie,1 “was accompanied by extraordinary mental vigour and cheerfulness, which helped him to bear this burden not merely with patience, but with contentment.” True, sustained concentration was already out of the question; he could not study. But he could make use of the fruits of earlier studies in astonishing improvisations. Inhibited, not knowing what he was going to say, or whether he would be able to open his mouth, he would climb up into the pulpit with the feelings of a condemned criminal mounting the scaffold. Then, suddenly he would feel “a dilatation of the interior sense and the heat of so strong a grace that he would discharge his heart like a trumpet, with a mighty power of voice and thought, as if he had been another man. . . . A pipe had been opened, disgorging into his mind an abundance of strength and knowledge.”

Then came a sudden change. The pipe was stopped; the torrent of inspiration dried up. The sickness took a new form, and was no longer the spasmodic obsession of a relatively normal soul in touch with its God, but a total deprivation of light, accompanied by a diminution and degradation of the whole man into something less than himself. In a series of letters, written for the most part in 1638, and addressed to a nun who had passed through experiences similar to his own, Surin describes the first beginnings of that new phase of his malady.

In part, at least, his sufferings were physical. There were days and weeks when a low, but almost unremitting, fever kept him in a state of extreme weakness. At other times he suffered from a kind of partial paralysis. He still had some control over his limbs; but every movement cost him an enormous effort and was often accompanied by pain. The smallest actions were torturing ordeals, and every task, the most trifling and ordinary, was a labour of Hercules. It would take him two or three hours to unfasten the hooks on his cassock. As for completely undressing, it was a physical impossibility. For nearly twenty years, Surin slept in his clothes. Once a week, however, it was necessary (if he was to remain free of vermin, “for which I had a great aversion”) to change his shirt. “I suffered so enormously from this change of linen that sometimes I would spend almost the whole of the night from Saturday to Sunday in taking off the soiled shirt and putting on the clean one. Such was the pain involved that, if ever I seemed to find some gleam of happiness, it was always before Thursday, whereas from Thursday onward I suffered the greatest anguish, thinking of my change of shirt; for this was a torture from which, if I could have had my choice, I would have ransomed myself by almost any other kind of suffering.”

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