The Devils of Loudun Page 99

In Surin’s case certain of the propositions he had been taught to worship as dogmas drove him out of his mind by creating occasions for terror and despair. But fortunately there were other propositions, more encouraging and equally dogmatic.

On 12th October 1655 one of the fathers at the College of Bordeaux (to which, by this time, Surin had returned) came to his room to hear his confession and prepare him for Communion. The only grave sin of which the sick man could accuse himself was that of not having behaved sufficiently wickedly; for, since God had already damned him, it was only right that he should live up to his damnation by wallowing in all the vices, whereas in fact he always tried to be virtuous. “To say that a Christian ought to feel scruples in regard to doing good will seem ridiculous to the reader, as it now does to me.” These words were written in 1663. In 1655 Surin still felt that it was his duty, as a lost soul, to be wholly bad. But, in spite of this duty, he found it morally impossible to be anything but good. In this, he was convinced, he had committed a sin more enormous than that of premeditated murder. It was this sin which he now confessed, “not as a man living on the earth, for whom there is still hope, but as one of the damned.” The confessor, who was evidently a kindly, sensible man, well acquainted with Surin’s weakness for the extraordinary, assured his penitent that, though not at all prone to this kind of thing, he had often felt a strong impression, call it an inspiration, that all would finally be well. “You will recognize your mistake, you will be able to think and act like other men, you will die in peace.” The words made a profound impression on Surin’s mind, and from that moment the suffocating cloud of fear and misery began to lift. God had not rejected him; there was still hope. Hope for recovery in this world, hope for salvation in the next.

With hope came a slow return to health. One by one the physical inhibitions and paralyses disappeared. The first to go was the inability to write. One day, in 1657, after eighteen years of enforced illiteracy, he picked up a pen and was able to scrawl three pages of thoughts on the spiritual life. The characters were “so confused that they seemed scarcely human”; but that did not matter. What mattered was that his hand had at last been able to co-operate, however inadequately, with his mind.

Three years later he recovered the ability to walk. It happened while he was staying in the country, at the house of a friend. At the beginning of his stay, he had to be carried by two footmen from his bedroom to the dining-room, “for I could not take a step without great pain. These pains were not like the pains of paralytics; they were pains which tended towards a shrinking and contraction of the stomach, and at the same time I used to feel a great violence in my bowels.” On 27th October 1660 one of his relatives called to see him and, when the time came for him to go, Surin painfully dragged himself to the door to say goodbye. Standing there, after the visitor’s departure, he looked out into the garden “and began to study, with a certain distinctness, the objects that were in it, a thing which, on account of an extreme debility of the nerves, I had not been able to do for fifteen years.” Feeling, instead of the familiar pains, “a certain suavity,” he went down the five or six steps into the garden and looked about him for a little while longer. Looked at the black mould and the shiny green of the box hedges, looked at the lawns and the Michaelmas daisies and the alley of pleached hornbeams. Looked at the low hills in the distance with their autumnal woods, fox-brown under the pale sky, in the almost silvery sunlight. There was no wind, and the silence was like an enormous crystal, and everywhere was a living mystery of colours merging, of forms distinct and separate, of the innumerable and the one, of passing time and the presence of eternity.

Next day Surin ventured out again into the universe he had almost forgotten; and, the day after that, his voyage of rediscovery took him as far as the well—and it did not invite him to suicide. He even left the garden and walked, ankle-deep in the dead leaves, through the little wood that lay beyond the walls. He was cured.

Surin accounts for his unawareness of the external world by an “extreme debility of the nerves.” But this debility never prevented him from concentrating his attention on theological notions and the phantasies to which those notions gave rise. Actually it was his obsession with these images and abstractions which so disastrously cut him off from the natural world. Long before the onset of his illness he had forced himself to live, at one remove from the given facts, in a world where words and reactions to words were more important than things and lives. With the sublime insanity of one who carries a faith to its logical conclusions, Lallemant had taught that “we ought not to see or wonder at anything on this earth except the Holy Sacrament. If God were capable of wonder, He would wonder only at this mystery, and that of the Incarnation. . . . After the Incarnation, we ought not to wonder at anything.” In neither seeing nor wondering at anything in the given world, Surin was merely acting on his master’s injunctions. Hoping to deserve the donum, he ignored the datum. But the highest Gift is by means of the given. The Kingdom of God comes on earth and through the perception of earth as it is in itself, and not as it appears to a will distorted by self-centred cravings and revulsions, to an intellect distorted by ready-made beliefs.

As a rigorist theologian, convinced of the total depravity of a fallen world, Surin agreed with Lallemant that there was nothing in nature worth looking or wondering at. But his theories were not in accord with his immediate experience. “Sometimes,” he writes in Le Catéchisme Spirituel, “the Holy Spirit enlightens the soul successively and by degrees; and then He takes advantage of everything that presents itself to consciousness—animals, trees, flowers or anything else in creation—in order to instruct the soul in the great truths and to teach her secretly what she must do for the service of God.” And here is another passage in the same vein. “In a flower, in a tiny insect, God makes manifest to souls all the treasures of His wisdom and goodness; and there needs no more to provoke a new conflagration of love.” Writing directly of himself, Surin records that “on a number of occasions my soul was invested with these states of glory, and the sunlight seemed to grow incomparably brighter than usual, and yet was so soft and bearable that it seemed to be of another kind than natural sunlight. Once when I was in this state, I went out into the garden of our college at Bordeaux; and so great was this light that I seemed to myself to be walking in paradise.” Every colour was more “intense and natural,” every form more exquisitely distinct than at ordinary times. Spontaneously and by a kind of blessed accident, he had entered that infinite and eternal world, which we would all inhabit if only, in Blake’s words, “the doors of perception were cleansed.” But the glory departed and, through all the years of his illness, never returned. “Nothing remains to me but the memory of a very great thing, surpassing in beauty and grandeur all that I have experienced in this world.”

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