How St. John Vianney was Persecuted by Demons
The numerous instances recorded in the lives of the saints, of the manner in which those holy men were assailed and tormented by wicked and malignant spirits, appear to have found their counterpart in that marvellous episode in Vianney’s life which now lies before us.
Soon after the Cure d’Ars had opened his house of refuge for the poor orphans of the district, the strangest noises began to disturb his rest at night, and to trouble the quiet of his presbytery. His own account of the origin of these persecutions is as follows: “It was about nine o’clock at night, I was just going to bed, when the demon came to torment me for the first time. Three heavy blows were levelled at the door of my court-yard: you would have thought some one was trying to break it open by force. I opened my window, and asked ‘Who is there?’ but I saw nothing, and commending myself to God, I quietly retired to rest. I had not, however, gone to sleep, before I was again startled by three still louder knocks, not now at the outer door, but at that on the staircase, which led to my chamber. I rose up, and cried out a second time, “Who is there?” No one replied. At the first commencement of these noises at night, I imagined that they were caused by robbers, and fearing lest the beautiful ornaments of the Viscount d’Ars might be in danger of being carried off, I thought it well to take precautions. Accordingly, I had two courageous men to sleep in the house, who were ready to assist me in case of need. They came several nights successively. They heard the noise, but discovering nothing, they were convinced that it proceeded from other causes than the malice of men. I myself soon came to the same conclusion; for one night in the midst of winter, three violent knocks were heard. I rose quickly from my bed, and went down into the court-yard, expecting to see the intruders making their escape, and intending to call for help; but, to my astonishment, I saw nothing, I heard nothing, and, what is more, I discovered no traces of foot-marks upon the snow. I resigned myself to God’s will, praying Him to be my guard and protector, and to surround me with his angels if my enemy should again return to torment me.”
If the object of Vianney’s invisible persecutor was to strike terror into his heart, he succeeded only too well; for the poor Cure confessed that in the early times, before the cause of these mysterious noises, which were renewed every night for hours together, was known, he was often ready to die with fear in his bed. His health, indeed, was so much affected by the strain upon his nerves, caused by the terrible apprehension he endured, that he visibly declined. Kind friends offered to keep watch round the house, and to sleep in the room adjoining his own; and several young men, under arms, stationed themselves near the church, where they could command a view of all the approaches to the presbytery.
Some of these good people were very much terrified, among others, Andre Verchere, the wheelwright of the village, who, when his turn to act as sentinel came round, was installed, his gun by his side, in a room in the presbytery. At midnight he heard a frightful crash close to him. It seemed to him that all the furniture in the room fled to pieces under a storm of invisible blows. The poor man cried out for help, and the Cure came quickly to his assistance. They searched the room and the house, examining every corner, but all in vain.
When Vianney was entirely convinced that these unearthly sounds had no humanly assignable cause, he dismissed his guards. By degrees his alarm was, in some measure, allayed, and in the end he became in a manner accustomed to this terrible visitation.
Before this period poor Vianney had been a prey to a different kind of conflict. He had been tormented by the most despairing thoughts of his future destiny. He seemed continually to see under his feet the lake of fire, and to hear a voice telling him that his place was already marked in it. Day and night he was haunted by the fear of being eternally lost; and, after having combated and overcome this internal temptation, he had less difficulty in resisting his external, though invisible foes. Still, the martyrdom to which he was now subjected was no light one. It lasted, not for days or months, but for thirty-five years, with different phases, and under different forms, but almost without intermission.
At midnight three violent knocks against the door of the presbytery generally warned the Cure d’Ars of the presence of his enemy; these knocks were followed by others more or less heavy, according as his sleep was more or less profound. After having diverted himself by making a frightful uproar on the staircase, the demon entered the room, seized the curtains of the bed, shook them so furiously that the poor inmate never could understand why they were not torn to atoms. Sometimes the malignant spirit knocked like some one who was demanding admittance, and the next moment, without the door being opened, he was in the room, moving about the chairs, deranging the furniture, rummaging everywhere, calling the Cure with a mocking voice, ‘Vianney, Vianney!’ and adding to his name the most outrageous qualifications and menaces. ‘Eater of truffles, we shall have you, we shall have you! We hold you, we hold you!’
At other times, without giving himself the trouble to mount, he hailed Vianney from the court-yard, and, after having vociferated for a long time, he would imitate a charge of cavalry, or the noise of an army in march. Sometimes he drove nails into the floor, with heavy strokes as of a hammer, sometimes he cut wood, sometimes sawed and planed planks like a carpenter actively employed in the interior of a house, or he would play upon the table, the chimneypiece, and especially upon the water-jug, always choosing in preference the most sonorous objects.
Sometimes the Cure’ heard in the hall below him a noise like that of a horse bounding up to the ceiling and again falling down heavily on his four feet. At other times it was the noise of a great flock of sheep grazing above his head. One night when he was more than usually disquieted, he said, ‘My God, I willingly make to Thee the sacrifice of some hours’ sleep for the conversion of sinners. Immediately the infernal troupe disappeared, and all was silent. All these details were given by M. Vianney himself.
For several nights consecutively, he heard such loud and menacing clamours in the court, that he trembled with fear. These voices spoke in an unknown tongue, and in the most confused manner. The tumult they made recalled to Vianney’s mind the recent invasion; he compared it to the noise of an Austrian army. And on another occasion, making a still more characteristic comparison, he said that, ‘Troops of demons had held their parliament in his court.’
Rumours of these marvellous histories were circulated far and wide; they were received in divers manners, and elicited the most contradictory opinions. It appears, however, to have been universally acknowledged by all who knew Vianney that he had not the temperament of a visionary, but was possessed of all the qualifications of a good witness–good eyes, good ears, and a good judgment.
Catherine relates many confidences made to her by the Cure, during the early days of this extraordinary and mysterious persecution. The following extracts are taken from her notes:
M. le Cure often says, “I do not know if they are demons, but they come in great bands; you would say they were a large flock of sheep: I can hardly sleep.” One day he remarked, “I was just falling asleep, when the grappin (The nom de guerre which Vianney gave to the demon whom he supposed to be his chief tormentor) began to make a noise like that of a man hooping a cask with bands of iron.”
“August 18, 1825. M. the Cure told us yesterday that the demon sung in his chimney like a nightingale!
“September 15th. M. the Cure has ordered us to enlarge his mattress, because the demons throw him out of bed. “I have not seen him,” said he, “but he has many times seized me and precipitated me out of my bed.” One night, when M. the Cure had come to the Providence to visit a patient, he said to me, ‘Listen to what happened to me this morning. I had something on my table–you know what it was. (It was his discipline.) Suddenly it rose up and moved along like a serpent. This frightened me a little. You know there is a rope fastened to one end of it; I seized hold of it, it was as stiff as wood. I placed it again on the table; it again began to move, and went round three times.'”
Vianney’s brother-priests were at first little disposed to believe in the reality of these diabolical manifestations; they sought to account for them by natural and physiological causes. “If the Cure d’Ars lived like other men,” said they “if he took a proper quantity of sleep and nourishment his imagination would be calmed, his brain would no longer be peopled with spectres, and all this infernal phantasmagoria would vanish.”
About this time a venerable cure, M. Granger, who had known and loved Vianney since the commencement of his ministry at Ars, anxious to procure for his people the benefit of his presence amongst them, prayed him to join the missionaries who were about to celebrate the approaching jubilee with the usual services. Vianney immediately acceded to his friend’s wishes; he remained three weeks at Saint-Trivier, preached from time to time, and confessed many penitents.
The vexation to which the Cure d’Ars was subjected on the part of his spiritual foes was now everywhere talked about. His clerical companions made it a subject of amusement, “Come, come, dear Cure,” said they, “do as others do, nourish yourself better: that is the way to finish with all their jugglery.”
One night, however, they assumed a more serious tone, the discussion became more animated, and the raillery of Vianney’s companions more bitter and reproachful. It was agreed that all this infernal mystification had no other origin than delirium and hallucination, and the poor Cure was consequently treated as a visionary and an enthusiast. To all this he answered not a word, but retired to his room, apparently insensible to everything but the joy of being persecuted. Soon afterwards his joking companions separated for the night, with the indifference of wise men, who, if they believed in the existence of the devil at all, had at least a very feeble faith in his intervention in the affairs of the Cure d’Ars.
But behold! at midnight all the inmates of the house are awakened by a horrible fracas. The cure is shaken from the very foundation, the doors bang, the windows clatter, the walls totter, sinister cracks are heard, as if the whole building were just about to fall to the ground.
In a moment everyone was on his feet. They recollected that the Cure d’Ars had said, “You must not be surprised if you should hear a noise this night.” They rushed simultaneously into his room, where they found him in tranquil repose. “Get up,” cried they, “the house is falling to the ground.” “Oh, I know what it is,” replied he, smiling; “return to your rest, there is nothing to fear.” They were reassured, and the clamour ceased.
An hour later in the night a faint bell was heard. The Abbe Vianney rose up and went to the door, where he found a man who had travelled several leagues to confess to him. This, we are told, was no unusual occurrence; it often happened that after the most cruel nights the Cure found at his door in the morning pilgrims who had made long journeys in order to be confessed by him.
Indeed, when the persecution to which he was subjected was more than usually violent, he received it as a sign of some signal mercy, or some special consolation about to be granted to him. One of the missionaries, an ancient soldier of the empire–M. the Abbe Chevalon–was so much struck with the strange adventure we have just recounted, that, when afterwards relating it, he said, “I have made a vow to God never again to joke over these histories of apparitions and nocturnal noises; and as for the Cure d’Ars, I believe him to be a saint.”
In the meantime Vianney’s tormentor appeared to be unceasingly occupied in devising new modes of attack. No longer content with disturbing his unfortunate victim by frightful noises and knocking of doors, he now sometimes hid under his bed; and the whole night long the poor Cure’s repose was interrupted and his ear distracted by piercing cries, or mournful groans, or smothered sighs.
“The demon is very cunning,” said he one day, in his catechism, “but he is not strong; a sign of the cross soon puts him to flight. A few days since he made an uproar, like the driving of all the carriages in Lyons, over my head; only last night troops of demons were shaking my door–their speech was like an army of Austrians, I did not understand a word of their jargon,–I made the sign of the cross, and they departed.”
One night he was suddenly awakened by feeling himself lifted up in the air. “Gradually je perdais mon lit,” said he. “I armed myself with the sign of the cross, and the grappin left me.”
Another time the demon is said to have assumed the form of a soft pillow, and when the poor Cure placed his head upon it, there issued forth a plaintive groan. He confessed that this time he was really terrified; it seemed to him that this new device of his enemy imperilled his soul. He invoked the aid of Heaven, and he was immediately left in peace.
When he was called on one occasion to assist in some missionary labour at Montmerle, his indefatigable foe followed him; and on the first night of his stay, he found himself drawn all round the room in his bed. He arose early the next morning, and went to the confessional. He had hardly sat down before he felt himself lifted up and tossed about, as if he had been on a rough sea in a frail bark.
“I once went on a mission to Montmerle,” he remarked, long afterwards, to the Abbe Toccanier; “et je m’en suis bien vu avec le grappin. He amused himself by carrying me round the room in a bed on rollers.”
When he went to Saint-Trivier, to preach at the jubilee, he set out on foot early in the morning. As he walked along, reciting his chaplet, the air around him became full of sinister light; the whole atmosphere appeared to be on fire, and the trees on either side his path like columns of flaming light. He, however, quietly pursued his way, trusting to the protection of the Virgin and his good angel, and seeing nothing in these manoeuvres of his enemy but a new sign of God’s blessing upon his work.
We believe it was about the same time that the destruction, or, at least, the profanation, of a picture of the Annunciation, which the poor Cure highly valued, took place.
The relation of M. Monnin is as follows: “Seeing that the Cure d’Ars honoured this sacred image with a special worship, what did the wicked grappin? Every day he covered and disfigured it with mud. It was in vain that it was cleansed and washed; the next day it was found blacker and more polluted than ever. These cowardly insults were repeated, till at length M. Vianney, renouncing the consolation which he derived from the contemplation of this picture, determined to have it removed. Several individuals were witnesses of these odious profanations, or have, at least, had the opportunity of observing the traces of them. M. Renard testifies to having seen this picture so contaminated, that the face of the Holy Virgin was hardly discernible.”
Towards the end of Vianney’s life these demoniacal persecutions were less violent and less continuous; during the last six months they ceased altogether; and even before that time his invisible foe ceased to disturb him at night, and confined his attacks to the short interval of rest which the poor Cure allowed himself in the afternoon. Sometimes on these occasions he raised a hue and cry at his door, imitating alternately the growling of a bear, the barking of a dog, and the howling of a wolf.
Sometimes he called him, with his rude and insolent voice, ‘Vianney, Vianney, come!’ giving him to understand that numerous penitents were awaiting him.
Vianney often expatiated to his friends upon the vexation he experienced, when one day his malignant enemy seized a vessel containing holy water, which was placed at the head of his bed, and broke it to pieces before his eyes.
But what appears to us to be one of the most extraordinary of these demoniacal manifestations was the burning of Vianney’s bed. We relate the circumstance exactly as it is recorded by the Abbe Monnin, who was at Ars at the time, and all but an eye-witness of the fact:
“One morning, at the time of the first celebration of the quarante heures at Ars, as I was going out very early, in order to assist in the services, I perceived at the threshold of my door a strong and overpowering smell of burning. The mass, the catechism, and some confessions detained me at the church till nine o’clock; on my return, I found all the village congregated round the presbytery ‘What is the matter?’ said I, approaching one of the groups. ‘What! do you not know,’ cried they, ‘that the devil set fire last night to M. Vianney’s bed?’ . . . . . I entered the house, and went straight to the Cure’s sleeping apartment, where I indeed found all the traces of a recent and hardly-extinguished conflagration. The bed, the curtains, and all that surrounded them–including some old paintings on glass, which Vianney greatly valued, and of which he had said only a few days previously that they were the only things in this world that he prized, and that he had refused to sell them, because he wished to leave them to the missionaries–all had been consumed. The fire had stopped before the shrine of Saint-Philomene; and, describing from that point an exact geometrical line, it had destroyed all that was on the one side, and spared all that was on the other side of the holy relique. In the midst of the confusion the Cure arrived; but he hardly appeared to perceive what was going on. He crossed several people who were carrying away the debris without asking them any questions; and it was not till after the mass that, as he was signing some images, he suddenly interrupted himself, and fixing upon me his grave and gentle gaze, he said, ‘I have long besought this grace of God, and now at last He has granted my request: now I am the poorest in the parish; they have all a bed, and I, thanks to God, none have.’ At noon, when he came to see me, we conversed a little more in detail over the event of the night. I told him that everyone was agreed in thinking it a wicked trick of the demon; and asked whether he too thought that the malignant spirit had had to do with it. ‘Oh, my friend,’ replied he, ‘that is very evident; not being able to burn the man, he has burnt his bed . . . . .he is very angry. . . . . It is a good sign'”
In 1829, a young priest, the son of the good widow whose acquaintance we made in the first pages of this book–the Abbe Bibost–came to Ars, in order to make a retreat in the parish of the man he so highly revered. M. Vianney, who had directed his first steps in the priesthood, received him with much kindness, and offered him a room in his house.
“I was intimately acquainted with this priest,” says the Abbe Renard, “and it happened that Providence also led me to my native parish at the time of his stay there. In our first interview the conversation turned upon the extraordinary events which were occurring at Ars, and of which the whole country were talking.
“‘You sleep at the presbytery,’ said I, ‘tell me, is it true that the devil makes all this clamour at night?’
“‘Yes,’ replied he, ‘I hear him every night. He has a rough, harsh voice, like the cry of a wild beast; he seizes the bed-curtains of M. Vianney, and shakes them violently. He calls him by his name; I have distinctly heard these words, Vianney, Vianney, what are you doing there? Go away, go away!’
“‘These frightful cries must have terrified you?’
“‘Not exactly; I am not fearful, and besides, the presence of M. Vianney reassured me; but I sincerely pity the poor Cure. I should not like to live with him.’
“‘Have you questioned M. Vianney upon this subject?’
“‘No; I have frequently thought of it, but the fear of giving him pain has closed my lips. Poor Cure! Poor holy man! How can he live in the midst of this uproar?'”
In 1842, an ancient officer of the French army, who was at that time attached to a brigade of the gendarmes, came to Ars. He had risen, on one occasion, at midnight, and was, with many others, awaiting Vianney at the door of the chapel. Finding the Cure did not immediately appear, he took a turn round the presbytery, in order to keep himself awake. He was sad at heart, having lately been visited by a heavy affliction; but he states that at this moment he was oppressed by a sensation of mingled disquietude and apprehension, for which he was unable to account.
Suddenly he was startled by a strange and unearthly sound, which appeared to proceed from the window of the presbytery. He distinctly heard these words several times repeated, in a rough, harsh, and shrill voice: ‘Vianney, Vianney! come, come!’
Seized with horror, he fled from the spot. The church clock at that moment struck one, and soon the Cure appeared–a light in his hand. He found the unfortunate gendarme in the most violent agitation. He endeavoured to reassure him, and conducted him to the church.
Before he had asked a question, or heard one word of his history, he astonished him with these words: “My friend, you are in much affliction; you have just lost your wife, but trust God, and He will come to your aid. First, put your conscience in order, and then will you more easily put your worldly affairs in order.”
“Yielding to the counsel of the holy man,” said the tried penitent, “I began my confession. In my trouble I could hardly put two words together, but the good Cure assisted me. He penetrated the very depths of my soul, and he revealed to me many things of which he could not have been informed, and which astonished me beyond expression. I did not know that it was possible to read men’s hearts in this manner.”
It is attested by Catherine, and the other directresses, that at the Providence strange noises were heard on the stairs and in the dormitories, which never could be accounted for, and the cause of which could never be discovered.
Many other instances of these mysterious and terrible manifestations are attested by the Abbe Monnin, but we think that those which we have stated may suffice.
We cannot, however, close this chapter without recording one or two facts, too closely connected with the subject which has now been engaging our attention, to be omitted. It is affirmed that several persons came to Ars from different places, and at divers periods, bearing marks, more or less positive, of demoniacal possession.
Two of these unhappy beings–a man and a woman–constantly appeared at Ars, and were known by all the inhabitants. Vianney did not profess to practise exorcism, but, in the instance before us, he treated one of these afflicted individuals as if his body only, and the other as if body and soul were possessed. It is affirmed that when, in the midst of the most fearful and violent attacks, he pronounced his blessing over them, they instantly became calm.
The following dialogue is declared to have been found in a narrative of undoubted authenticity, and bearing every mark of incontestable truth. It is entitled, “Dialogue between a Possessed, from the neighbourhood of Puy, in Velay, and the Cure d’Ars.” This colloquy took place in the afternoon of January 23, 1840, in the chapel of Saint-John Baptist, and in the presence of eight witnesses:
The Possessed–‘I am immortal.’
Cure– ‘Are you then the only person who will not die?’
The Possessed–‘I have never committed but one sin in my life, and the fruit of that sin I am ready to share with all who will. . . .’
The Cure– ‘In quis es?’
The Possessed– ‘Magister caput.’ Then continuing in French, ‘Vilain crapaud noir! How you torment me! It is a mutual warfare between us, which shall overcome the other; but, do what you will, you are often doing my work. You think your people well disposed; they are not. Why do you examine the consciences of your penitents? What is the use of so much investigation? Is not my examination sufficient?’
The Cure–‘You say you examine the conscience of my penitents? Have they not recourse to God before all?’
The Possessed–‘Yes, with their lips. I tell you it is I who examine them. I am oftener in your chapel than you think. My body goes out, but my spirit remains . . . . . I like to hear plenty of talking . . . . All who come to you are not saved. You are a miser.’
The Cure–‘It would be difficult for me to be a miser. I have but little, and that little I give with all my heart.’
The Possessed–‘It is not of that kind of avarice that I speak. You are a miser of souls. You rob me of all you can, but I shall endeavour to get them back again. You are a liar! You said, a long while ago, that you wished to depart from this place, and here you still remain. What do you mean by that? Why do you not retire and rest, as others do? you have worked long enough. You wished to go to Lyons.’ [This was true. M. Vianney thought much, at that time, of Fourvieres.] ‘ At Lyons you would have been as avaricious as you are here. You talked of retiring into solitude.’ [This was also true. He was anxious to make a retreat to Fourvieres, or to La Trappe.] ‘Why do you not do so? ‘
The Cure–‘Have you anything else to reproach me with?’
The Possessed–‘ I sifted you well last Sunday, during the mass, you remember?’ [The Cure confessed that he had, at that precise time, experienced extraordinary trouble and embarrassment.] ‘Your violet robe has just written to you, but I so managed it that he forgot what should have formed an essential part of his letter, and he is greatly vexed thereby.’ [M. Vianney had that day received a letter from his Bishop.]
The Cure–‘Will my lord allow me to depart?’
The Possessed–‘He loves you too much. . . Your violet robe is as great a miser as you are, and he equally embarrasses me; but, no matter, we have lulled him to sleep with respect to an abuse in his diocese. . . . Come, lift up your hand over me, as you do over so many others who come here every day. You imagine that you convert them all. You are mistaken. It is very well for a moment, but I find them again. I have some of your parishioners on my list.’
The Cure–‘What do you think of . . . ?’ naming a priest of great piety.
The Possessed–‘I do not like him.’ [These words were pronounced in a tone of concentrated rage, accompanied by frightful grinding of the teeth.]
The Cure–‘And of . . . ?’ naming another.
The Possessed–‘Very well. He lets me do what I like; there are crapauds noirs, who do not embarass me as you do. I perform their mass; they say mine.’
The Cure–‘Do you perform mine?’
The Possessed–‘You weary me. Ah, if the Virgin did not protect you; but, patience, we have brought greater than you to ruin; you are not dead yet. Why do you rise so early? You disobey your violet robe, who has ordered you to take more care of yourself. Why do you preach so simply? You will pass for an ignorant man. Oh, how I like those grand sermons which disturb no one, and which allow people to live in their own way, and do as they like! Many sleep at your catechisms, but there are others who are touched to the heart by your simple words.’
The Cure–‘What yo you think of the dance?’
The Possessed–‘I surround a dance as a wall surrounds a garden.’
On one occasion an unhappy woman, who gave proof of possession, said to Vianney: ‘Why do you make me suffer so much? If there were three upon earth like you, my kingdom would be destroyed. You have robbed me of eighty thousand souls.’ The Cure addressed himself to the daughter of this unfortunate woman. ‘You will commence,’ said he, ‘this day a neuvaine to Sainte-Philomene, and you will bring her to me to-morrow in the sacristy. I will hear her confession after I have performed the mass. In the meantime, let her kneel down, and I will give her my blessing.’
The poor child implored him to deliver her mother, but he refused, saying he was not authorised.
This poor woman passed ten days at Ars, made a general confession, and left in a much more tranquil state. She exclaimed before several people, at a moment when she was much agitated: ‘Ah, if all the lost could come to Ars, they would profit by it more than you all.’
Some one asked her what made the tables turn. She answered, ‘It is I; magnetism, somnambulism–all that is my affair.’
Prayer To Obtain The Conversion Of Sinners.
St. John’s Manual, 1856
O God, have mercy on me a sinner, and permit me to offer Thee my earnest supplications on behalf of all souls in sin; for Thou willest not the death of a sinner, but his conversion. When Moses besought Thee to pardon a rebellious nation, Thou couldst not resist his entreaties. It grieves Thee, when none interpose to appease Thine anger; Thou commandest us to pray for one another, assuring us that; by causing a sinner to be converted from the error of his ways, we deliver our own souls from death, and cover a multitude of iniquities. Relying on thy merciful promises, I come before Thee with great confidence, to implore for others the pity I so much need myself. Forgive them, O Lord! for they know not what they do; open their eyes, that entering into themselves, they may see the extent of their crimes, and feel how sad a misfortune it is to have forsaken Thee.
Open their ears to the sound of that Almighty voice, which can raise the dead to life; soften the obduracy of their hearts, that they may no longer resist Thy grace. Remember Thy tender mercies; remember the precious blood of Jesus Christ; save the souls which have been purchased at so great a price. Hear our prayers, inspired by the Spirit of thine own charity, and offered from the sole motive of pleasing and glorifying Thee. Amen.
Prayer to Obtain a Firm Purpose of Amendment
My God, I desire to do all that Thou hast asked of me. Permit me, prostrate at Thy feet, to declare my devotion to Thy service. Too long, O Lord, have I served the devil and the world! I will now, in Thy presence, renew with true sincerity the promises I made at Baptism:
“I renounce the devil with all his works, the world with all its pomps, the flesh with all its temptations, and I will cling to Jesus alone forever and ever.”
Repeat this several times, and say a decade of the Rosary to obtain strength to keep your good resolution.