The Devils of Loudun Page 97

The patient’s first responses to this new treatment were physical. For years, chronic anxiety had kept his breathing so shallow that he seemed to be living always on the brink of asphyxiation. Now, almost suddenly, his diaphragm started to move; he breathed deeply, he was able to fill his lungs with life-giving air. “All my muscles had been locked tight, as though with clasps, and now one clasp was opened, then another, with extraordinary relief.” He was experiencing in his body an analogue of spiritual liberation. Those who have suffered from asthma or hay fever know the horror of being physically cut off from the cosmic environment, and the bliss, when they recover, of being restored to it. On the spiritual level most human beings suffer from the equivalent of asthma, but are only very obscurely and fitfully aware that they are living in a state of chronic asphyxiation. A few, however, know themselves for what they are—non-breathers. Desperately they pant for air; and if at last they contrive to fill their lungs, what an unspeakable blessedness!

In the course of his strange career, Surin was alternately strangled and released, locked up in stifling darkness and transported to a mountain top in the sun. And his lungs reflected the state of his soul—cramped and rigid when the soul was stifled, dilated when it drew breath. The words serré, bandé, rétréci, and their antithesis, dilaté, recur again and again in Surin’s writings. They express the cardinal fact of his experience—a violent oscillation between the extremes of tension and release, of a contraction into less than self and a letting go into more abundant Life. It was an experience of the same kind as that which is so minutely described in Maine de Biran’s diary, as that which finds its most powerfully beautiful expression in certain poems of George Herbert and Henry Vaughan—an experience made up of a succession of incommensurables.

In Surin’s case psychological release was sometimes accompanied by an altogether extraordinary degree of thoracic dilatation. During one period of ecstatic self-abandonment he found that his leather waistcoat, which was laced up the front, like a boot, had to be let out five or six inches. (As a young man, St. Philip Neri experienced an ecstatic dilatation so extreme that his heart became permanently enlarged and he broke two ribs. In spite, or because, of which, he lived to a ripe old age, working prodigiously to the very end.)

Surin was always conscious that there was an actual, as well as a merely etymological connection between breath and spirit. He lists four types of breathing—a breath of the devil, of nature, of grace and of glory—and assures us that he has had experience of each. Unfortunately he does not elaborate on his statement and we are left in ignorance of what he actually discovered in the field of pranayana.

Thanks to Father Bastide’s kindness, Surin had recovered the sense of being a member of the human race. But Bastide could speak only for men and not for God—or, to be more accurate, for Surin’s cherished notion of God. The invalid could breathe again; but it was still impossible for him to read or write or say Mass, to walk, or eat, or undress without discomfort or even acute pain. These disabilities were all related to Surin’s enduring conviction that he was damned. It was a source of terror and despair, from which the only effective distractions were pain and acute illness. To feel better mentally he had to feel worse physically.1

The strangest feature of Surin’s malady is the fact that there was a part of his mind which was never ill. Unable to read or write, unable to perform the simplest actions without excruciating and disabling pain, convinced of his own damnation, haunted by compulsions to suicide, to blasphemy, to impurity, to heresy (at one moment he was a convinced Calvinist, at another a believing and practising Manichee), Surin retained, during the whole of his long ordeal, an unimpaired capacity for literary composition. During the first ten years of his madness, he composed mainly in verse. Setting new words to popular tunes, he converted innumerable ballads and drinking songs into Christian canticles. Here are some lines about St. Teresa and St. Catherine of Genoa, from a ballad entitled Les Saints enivrés d’Amour to the tune of J’ai rencontré un Allemand.

J’aperçus d’un autre côté,

Une vierge rare en beauté,

Qu’on appelle Thérèse;

Son visage tout allumé

Montrait bien qu’elle avait humé

De ce vin à son aise.

Elle me dit: “Prends-en pour toi,

Bois-en et chantes avec moi:

Dieu, Dieu, Dieu, je ne veux que Dieu:

Tout le reste me pèse.”

Une Génoise, dont le cœur

Etait plein de cette liqueur,

Semblait lui faire escorte:

Elle aussi rouge qu’un charbon

S’écriait: “Que ce vin est bon. . . .”

That the verses are feeble and the taste atrocious was due to a want, not of health, but of talent. Surin’s poetry was as poor when he was sane as when he was out of his wits. His gift (and it was considerable) was for the clear and exhaustive exposition of a subject in prose. And this precisely was what, during the second half of his illness, he actually undertook. Composing in his head and dictating every evening to an amanuensis, he produced, between 1651 and 1655, his greatest work, Le Catéchisme Spirituel. This is a treatise comparable in scope and in intrinsic merit to the Holy Wisdom of its author’s English contemporary, Augustine Baker. In spite of its great length of more than a thousand duodecimo pages, the Catechism remains a very readable book. True, the surface texture of the writing is somewhat uninteresting; but this is not the fault of Surin, whose pleasantly old-fashioned style has been corrected, in the modern editions of the book, by what his nineteenth-century editor calls, with unconscious irony, “a friendly hand.” Luckily, the friendly hand could not spoil the book’s essential qualities of simplicity even in the subtlest analyses, of matter-of-factness even when it deals with the sublime.

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