Jean-Joseph Surin (1600–1665) was a French priest and mystic who became involved in the Loudun Possessions of Ursuline nuns during 1630–34. Father Jean-Joseph Surin became possessed himself, and his health was adversely affected for the rest of his life. Surin was unsuited to deal with Demoniacs because of a neurotic temperament brought on by years of ascetic practices. He probably should have avoided the case, but he felt compelled, even obsessed, to do battle with Demons. He spent his entire life as a virgin.
Surin was drawn to the religious life at an early age. He was reared in a cloister and attended the College of Bordeaux, where he was a contemporary of Father URBAIN GRANDIER, who left the school in 1617. Grandier was burned at the stake during the Loudun Possessions. Surin practiced self-denial during his early years as a priest, denying himself food, sleep, and social contact. He served in Rouen and then spent four years in the fishing village of Marennes, where he was director to two women who had remarkable visions and ecstasies that captured his attention.
By the time he arrived in Loudun on December 15, 1634, Grandier had been executed. Surin, at age 34, was in poor health, suffering severe headaches, muscle pain, melancholy, and attacks of depression and confusion. He had numerous psychosomatic complaints, and the slightest physical activity brought on severe pain. He constantly perceived himself as beset by all sorts of spiritual agonies and pressures. Perhaps most problematic was his credulity: He believed everything he was told, especially about people’s spiritual experiences. Thus, he was inclined never to doubt the claims of the possessed nuns at Loudun.
Unlike many of his fellow Jesuits, Surin was indeed convinced that JEANNE DES ANGES and other nuns were genuinely possessed. He wrote that he had engaged in combat with “four of the most potent and malicious devils in hell” and that God “permitted the struggles to be so fierce and the onslaughts so frequent that exorcism was the least of the battlefields, for the enemies declared themselves in private both day and night in a thousand different ways.”
Surin wrote candidly of the sexual temptations he himself felt working closely with Demoniacs who convulsed in suggestive ways and spoke frankly of their Demonic copulations.
At first, Jeanne did her best to avoid him and his attempts at Exorcism. Surin was convinced he could help Jeanne and tried to force spiritual instruction upon her. Day after day, he tolerated the most wretched and insulting behavior from her.
Finally, he made a fatal mistake: he prayed to suffer in Jeanne’s stead and to take on her Possession. His prayers were answered, and on January 19, 1635, he began to feel the effects of Obsession. By Good Friday, April 6, he was exhibiting signs of possession. He felt that the Demons had passed from Jeanne and into him. He was both elated at his success and plunged into the deepest despair over his fate.
In May 1635, Father Surin wrote of his torments to Father D’Attichy, a Jesuit in Rome, saying:
Things have gone so far that God has permitted, for my sins, I think, something never seen, perhaps, in the Church: that during the exercise of my ministry, the Devil passes from the body of the possessed person, and coming into mine, assaults me and overturns me, shakes me, and visibly travels through me, possessing me for several hours like an energumen. . . . Some say that it is a chastisement from God upon me, as punishment for some illusion; others say something quite different; as for me, I hold fast where I am, and would not exchange my fate for anyone’s, being firmly convinced that there is nothing better than to be reduced to great extremities.
Surin asked D’Attichy to pray for him and to keep his letter confidential, but the priest had it copied and widely circulated.
Jeanne continued to exhibit signs of possession until October 1635, when Surin succeeded in expelling Leviathan, followed by BALAAM on November 29 and ISACAARON on January 7, 1636. Next, he struggled with Behemoth, but after 10 months of failure, he broke down. Behemoth said he would leave if Jeanne made a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis de Sales, and Surin went with her.
He accompanied her on part of the trip. He was by then struck dumb by the devils, and he prayed for deliverance at the tomb, without success. He was given a dried clot of the saint’s blood to eat, but it enabled him to speak only for a moment. Surin left to return to Bordeaux and, along the way, regained enough speaking ability to give strained sermons.
Surin said usually there were two Demons in him, Isacaaron and Leviathan. The Devil told him that he would be deprived of everything, and the Devil had made a Pact with a witch in order to prevent Surin from speaking of God.
The Demons tortured the priest. Surin said his possession felt as if he had two different souls within him, fighting over his body. He was subjected to extremes of emotion and action, ranging from great peace at God’s good pleasure to rage, aversion to God, and intense and violent desire to cut himself off from God. His attempts at spiritual practice, such as making the sign of the cross, were immediately thwarted by the warring Demons within him. Any thoughts of goodness were countered by rage. He was plagued by thoughts of suicide.
Others told Surin that he was being punished by God for some sin. If so, he said, he accepted his fate and was glad to be reduced to extremities and was content to die. Surin continued ill and tormented throughout 1637 and 1638. He had periods of lucidity and normalcy. By 1639, his afflictions worsened, and he lost the ability to move and speak. He could not converse or preach and was struck completely dumb for seven months. He could not read or write, dress and undress himself, walk, or stand upright. He slept in his clothes. He suffered fever and partial paralysis and fell into a mysterious sickness that defied the diagnosis of doctors and that no medical treatments remedied. He vomited almost everything he ate. From 1639 to 1657, Surin stopped writing letters and communicating and lived in near-total isolation. He had wild swings of mood, thought, and emotion. He was seized with repeated temptation to burn down the house. Others considered him insane and avoided him. He believed he was a sorcerer who had the power to send Demons into others.
Visions of angry saints and an angry Christ tormented him; he believed he was damned to Hell. Visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary scowled at him in disapproval and threw punishing thunderbolts that he felt throughout his body.
On May 17, 1645, Surin attempted suicide at a Jesuit house in Saint-Macaire, near Bordeaux, where he lived. The house was built above a river. Surin threw himself out of his window and landed on the rocks below. He survived with a broken thighbone.
After a few months, Surin was able to walk again, but with a limp, and to read and write. He even attained enough inner strength to preach and hear confession. But for the next three years, he was watched by a brother or was tied to his bed to prevent more suicide attempts. In 1648, a sympathetic brother, Father Bastide, was appointed rector of the College of Saintes and took Surin with him. Bastide nursed him back to a functioning level of health. Surin felt better mentally if he was in pain physically. He still considered himself damned, completely evil.
He returned to Bordeaux. From 1651 to 1655, he managed to dictate his greatest work, The Spiritual Catechism. In 1657, he recovered a limited ability to scrawl words on paper, and, in 1660, he regained an ability to walk. He had profound psychic experiences, and, through his good angel, began dispensing personal advice. He was ordered to stop. (Jeanne did the same thing later in her life but was allowed to continue.)
Surin began functioning as a priest again, visiting the sick, and writing letters. His behavior was odd, however, and his superiors censored most of his letters. In 1663, he wrote his account of the Loudun affair, Experimental Science. He died peacefully in 1665. Modern commentators have opined that Surin was never really possessed, because he retained his own intelligence, and that he was instead in the grip of a longlasting obsession.
- Huxley, Aldous. The Devils of Loudun. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952.