The Devils of Loudun Page 93

Eating was almost as bad as dressing and undressing. Shirts were changed only once a week. But these Sisyphean cuttings of meat, these raisings of forks to mouth, these laborious graspings and tiltings of the glass, were daily ordeals, all the more unbearable because of a total lack of appetite and the diner’s knowledge that he would probably throw up everything he had eaten or, if he did not, would suffer from excruciating indigestion.

The doctors did their best for him. He was bled, he was purged, he was made to take warm baths. Nothing did any good. The symptoms were physical, no doubt; but their cause was to be sought, not in the patient’s corrupted blood and peccant humours, but in his mind.

That mind had ceased to be possessed. The struggle was no longer between Leviathan and a soul that, in spite of him, was tranquilly conscious of the presence of God. It was between a certain notion of God and a certain notion of nature, with Surin’s divided spirit fighting on both sides and getting the worst of every encounter.

That the infinite must include the finite and must therefore be totally present at every point of space, every instant of time, seems sufficiently evident. To avoid this obvious conclusion and to escape its practical consequences, the older and more rigorous Christian thinkers expended all their ingenuity, the severer Christian moralists all their persuasions and coercions.

This is a fallen world, proclaimed the thinkers, and nature, human and subhuman, is radically corrupt. Therefore, said the moralists, nature must be fought on every front—suppressed within, ignored and depreciated without.

But it is only through the datum of nature that we can hope to receive the donum of Grace. It is only by accepting the given, as it is given, that we may qualify for the Gift. It is only through the facts that we can come to the primordial Fact. “Do not hunt after the truth,” advises one of the Zen masters, “only cease to cherish opinions.” And the Christian mystics say substantially the same thing—with this difference, however, that they have to make an exception in favour of the opinions known as dogmas, articles of faith, pious traditions and the like. But at best these are but signposts; and if we “take the pointing finger for the Moon,” we shall certainly go astray. The Fact must be approached through the facts; it cannot be known by means of words, or by means of phantasies inspired by words. The heavenly kingdom can be made to come on earth; it cannot be made to come in our imagination or in our discursive reasonings. And it cannot come even on earth, so long as we persist in living, not on the earth as it is actually given, but as it appears to an ego obsessed by the idea of separateness, by cravings and abhorrences, by compensatory phantasies and by ready-made propositions about the nature of things. Our kingdom must go before God’s can come. There must be a mortification, not of nature, but of our fatal tendency to set up something of our own contriving in the place of nature. We have to get rid of our catalogue of likes and dislikes, of the verbal patterns to which we expect reality to conform, of the fancies into which we retire, when the facts do not come up to our expectation. This is the “holy indifference” of St. François de Sales; this is de Caussade’s “abandonment,” the conscious willing, moment by moment, of what actually happens; this is that “refusal to prefer” which, in Zen phraseology, is the mark of the Perfect Way.

On authority and because of certain experiences of his own, Surin believed that God could be known directly, in a transfiguring union of the soul with the divine Ground of its own and the world’s being. But he also cherished the opinion that, because of our first parents’ sin, nature is totally depraved, and that this depravity sets a great gulf between the Creator and the creature. Given these notions about God and the universe (notions idolatrously regarded as interchangeable with facts and the primordial Fact), Surin felt that it was only logical to attempt the eradication from his mind-body of every element of nature that could be uprooted without actually causing death. In his old age he recognized that he had made a mistake. “For it must be remarked that, several years before he went to Loudun, the Father” (Surin is writing of himself in the third person) “had held himself exceedingly tight (s’était extrêmement serré) for reasons of mortification, and in an effort to remain unceasingly in the presence of God; and though there was in this some commendable zeal, there were also great excesses in the reserve and constraint of his mind. For this reason he was in a condition of cramped contraction (rétrécissement), which was assuredly blameworthy, though well meant.” Because he cherished the opinion that the infinite is somehow outside the finite, that God is in some way opposed to His creation, Surin had tried to mortify, not his egotistic attitude towards nature, not the fancies and notions which he had set up in the place of nature, but nature itself, the given facts of embodied existence among human beings on this particular planet.

“Hate nature,” is his advice, “and let it suffer the humiliations God wills for it.” Nature has been “condemned and sentenced to death,” and the sentence is just; that is why we must “allow God to flay and crucify us at His pleasure.” That it was His pleasure, Surin knew by the bitterest experience. Cherishing the opinion of nature’s total depravity, he had transformed the world-weariness, which is so common a symptom of neurosis, into a loathing for his own humanity, an abhorrence for his environment—a loathing and an abhorrence all the more intense because he still had cravings, because creatures, though disgusting, were still a source of temptation. In one of his letters he states that, for some days past, he has had some business to transact. To his sick nature the occupation brings a certain relief. He feels a little less miserable, until the moment comes when he realizes that the improvement was due to the fact that “every moment had been filled with infidelities.” His misery returns, aggravated by a sense of guilt, a conviction of sin. He feels a chronic remorse. But it is a remorse which does not spur him to action; for he finds himself incapable of action, incapable even of confession, so that he has to “swallow his sins like water, to feed on them as though on bread.” He lives in a paralysis of the will and the faculties, but not of the sensibilities. For though he cannot do anything, he can still suffer. “The more one is stripped, the more acutely does one feel the blows.” He is in “the void of death.” But this void is more than a mere absence; it is nothingness with a vengeance, “hideous and horrible, it is an abyss, where there can be no help or relief from any creature,” and where the Creator is a tormentor, for whom the victim can feel only hatred. The new Master demands to reign alone; that is why He is making His servant’s life utterly unlivable; that is why nature has been hunted down to its last retreat and is being slowly tortured to death. Nothing remains of the personality but its most repulsive elements. Surin can no longer think, or study, or pray, or do good works, or lift up his heart to his Maker in love and gratitude; but “the sensual and animal side of his nature” is still alive and “plunged in crime and abomination.” And so are the criminally frivolous cravings for diversion, so are pride and self-love and ambition. Annihilated from within by neurosis and his rigorist opinions, he resolves to accelerate the destruction of nature by mortifying himself from without. There are still certain occupations that bring him a little relief from his miseries. He gives them up; for it is necessary, he feels, to “join outward emptiness to inward emptiness.” By this means the very hope of external support will be removed, and nature will be left, utterly defenceless, to the mercy of God. Meanwhile the doctors have ordered him to eat plenty of meat; but he cannot bring himself to obey. God has sent him this sickness as a means of purgation. If he tries to get well prematurely, he will be thwarting the divine will.

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