The Devils of Loudun Page 95

Surin’s visions were not of Christ alone. Sometimes he saw the Blessed Virgin, frowning at him with an expression of disgust and indignation. Raising her hand, she would discharge a bolt of avenging lightning, an his whole being, mental and physical, would feel the pain of it. Sometimes other saints rose up before him, each with his “insupportable look” and thunderbolt. Surin would see them in his dreams and wake up with a start and in agony, as the lightning struck him. The most unlikely saints made their appearance. One night, for example, he was transfixed by a bolt from the hand of “St. Edward, King of England.” Was this Edward the Martyr? Or can it have been poor Edward the Confessor? In any case, St. Edward displayed a “horrible anger against me; and I am convinced that this [throwing of thunderbolts by saints] is what happens in hell.”

At the beginning of his long exile from heaven and the world of men, Surin was still capable, at least on his good days, of trying to re-establish contact with his surroundings. “I was always running after my superiors and the other Jesuits in order to pour into their ears an account of what was going on in my soul.” In vain. (One of the chief horrors of mental derangement, as of extreme physical disability, consists in the fact that “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed.” The state of the catatonic, for example, is incommensurable with the state of the normal man or woman. The universe inhabited by the paralysed is radically different from the world known to those who have the full use of their bodies. Love may build a bridge, but cannot abolish the gulf; and where there is no love, there is not even a bridge.) Surin ran after his superiors and his colleagues; but they understood nothing of what he told them; they did not even wish to sympathize. “I recognized the truth of what St. Teresa said: that there is no pain more unbearable than that of falling into the hands of a confessor who is too prudent.” Impatiently, they moved away from him. He caught them by the sleeve and tried, yet again, to explain what was happening to him. It was all so simple, so obvious, so unutterably terrible! They smiled contemptuously and tapped their foreheads. The man was mad and, what was more, he had brought his madness on himself. God, they assured him, was punishing him for his pride and his singularity—for wanting to be more spiritual than other people, for imagining that he could go to perfection by some eccentric, un-Jesuit road of his own choosing. Surin protested against their judgment. “That natural common sense, on which our faith is built, fortifies us so strongly against the objects of the other life that, so soon as a man asserts that he is damned, other people treat the idea as though it were an expression of madness.” But the follies of the melancholy and the hypochondriacal are of quite another kind—to imagine, for example, that “one is a jug, or a cardinal”, or (if one is actually a cardinal, like Alphonse de Richelieu) that one is God the Father. To believe that one is damned, Surin insisted, was never a sign of madness; and to prove his point, he cited the cases of Henry Suso, of St. Ignatius, of Blosius, of St. Teresa, of St. John of the Cross. At one time or another all of these had believed themselves to be damned; and all of them had been both sane and eminently holy. But the prudent ones either refused to listen, or if they did hear him out (with what an undisguised impatience!) were not convinced.

Their attitude deepened Surin’s already enormous misery and drove him yet further along the road to despair. On the 17th of May 1645, at the little Jesuit house at Saint-Macaire, near Bordeaux, he tried to commit suicide. All the preceding night he had wrestled with the temptation to self-murder and most of the morning was spent in prayer before the Holy Sacrament. “A little before dinner time he went up to his room. Entering it, he saw that the window was open, went to it and, after looking down at the precipice which had inspired this mad instinct in his mind [the house was built on a rocky eminence above the river] withdrew into the middle of the room, still facing the window. There he lost all consciousness and suddenly, as if he had been asleep, without any knowledge of what he was doing, he was hurled out of the window.” The body fell, bounced on a projection of the rock and came to rest at the water’s edge. The thigh bone was broken; but there were no internal injuries. Prompted by his inveterate passion for the miraculous, Surin rounds off the account of his tragedy with an almost comic postscript. “At the very moment of this accident, and at the very place where the fall took place, a Huguenot came down to the river, and while being ferried across he made jokes about the occurrence. Once over, he remounted and, in the meadow, on a perfectly smooth road, his horse threw him and he broke his arm, and he himself said that God had punished him because he had laughed at the Father for trying to fly, and he, from a much smaller height, had fallen into the same mishap. Now, the height from which the Father fell is great enough to be fatal; for less than a month since a cat, which was trying to catch a sparrow, fell from the same place, and was killed, though these animals, being light and adroit, ordinarily fall without hurting themselves.”

Surin’s leg was set and, after some months, he was able to walk, though always, thenceforward, with a limp. The mind, however, was not to be cured so easily as the body. The temptation to despair persisted for years. High places continued to hold a fearful fascination. He could not look at a knife or a rope without an intense desire to hang himself or cut his own throat.

And the urge to destruction was directed outward as well as inward. There were times when Surin found himself filled with an almost irresistible desire to set fire to the house in which he was living. The buildings and their human occupants, the library with all its treasures of wisdom and devotion, the chapel, the vestments, the crucifixes, the Blessed Sacrament itself—all should be reduced to ashes. Only a fiend could harbour such malice. But that precisely was what he was—a damned soul, a devil incarnate, hated by God and hating in return. For him, this kind of wickedness would be entirely in order. And yet, lost though he knew himself to be, there was still a part of him that rejected the evil which it was his duty, as one of the damned, to think and feel and do. The temptations to suicide and arson were strong; but he struggled against them. And meanwhile those all too prudent persons who surrounded him were taking no chances. After his first attempt at self-murder he was either watched by a lay brother, or actually tied with ropes to his bed. For the next three years Surin was subjected to that systematic inhumanity which our fathers reserved for the insane.

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