Jean-Joseph Surin

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Jean-Joseph Surin (9 February 1600, Bordeaux – 21 April 1665, Bordeaux) was a French Jesuit mystic, preacher, devotional writer and exorcist. He is remembered for his participation in the exorcisms of Loudun in 1634-37.

Surin was reared in a cloister. At the age of eight he took a vow of chastity, and at ten he was taught to meditate by a Carmelite. He entered the novitiate with the Jesuits in 1616. From 1623 to 1625 and from 1627 to 1629 he studied at the Collège de Clermont in Paris. As a priest he practiced severe self-denial, and cut himself off from nearly all social contact.[1]

Demonic possession at Loudun[edit]

In the early 1630s, a convent of Ursuline nuns said they had been visited and possessed by demons. Suspicion soon fell upon Urbain Grandier, parish priest of Saint-Pierre-du-Marché in the town of Loudun, as the cause of the possessions. Grandier was already a controversial figure in the town because of a longstanding quarrel with the local church authorities. In the following weeks, numerous nuns were supposedly attacked and possessed by evil spirits: the Loudun possessions. This reached a point that exorcism rituals were organized by the local clergy. It was during these rites that the nuns accused Grandier of being in league with the devil and initiating their demonic possession.[2] He was also accused of seducing the nuns.

Following a series of trials, Grandier was convicted. He was executed by burning on 18 August 1634, never having admitted guilt, even under torture. The demons then began leaving the nuns, but the improvement was only temporary. Jeanne des Anges, mother-superior of the convent, remained possessed by seven different demons.[3]

Surin's arrival at Loudun and his work there[edit]

After some missions in Guyenne and Saintonge, Surin was sent to Loudun in December 1634 to help with the exorcism of Jeanne des Anges. He was so horrified at the terrible sacrileges intended for three desecrated hosts that he immediately made an offering of his own spirit to be possessed by demons in expiation for this intended sacrilege.[4] His prayer was granted, and for more than twenty years he was harassed by evil spirits, experiencing hallucinations, seizures and temporary paralysis, and slowly losing his power of speech.[5] He became plunged in suicidal despair over his eternal damnation. At times he was unable to use his hands, his feet, his eyes, his tongue, or was impelled to commit a thousand extravagances, which even the most charitably inclined deemed foolish. The delusions under which he labored at such times caused him the greatest joy.[6]

While he was entering this state, Jeanne des Anges was slowly recovering. "During my ministry, the devil passed from the body of the possessed person and entered into mine" he wrote to a friend, the Jesuit father Achille Doni d'Attichy.[7] Surin believed that the devil particularly hated Carmelites, and that a relic of St. Teresa that he had used at Loudun had miraculously expelled one of the demons.[8]

His continuing possession[edit]

In 1645 he attempted suicide by jumping out of a second-story window, but he survived.[9]

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:[10]

At no time, however, did this state of obsession prevent his devoting himself to preaching. It is true he was unable to prepare himself for this by any reading or study, but on entering the pulpit and making the sign of the cross a wonderful transformation was manifest. His vigorous mind instantly gained the ascendancy; his powerful voice and facile oratory won universal attention and admiration. His physician declared it miraculous. Even in writing or dictating his works he seemed gifted with Divine inspiration. He was healed eight years before his death and was thenceforth absorbed in the abundance of Divine communications.


Surin enjoyed great celebrity for his virtues, his trials, and his talents as a spiritual director. Bossuet declared him "consumed with spirituality". At the suggestion of the fathers of the Province of Aquitaine, assembled in provincial congregation (1755), the father general ordered his name inscribed in the "Ménologe de l'assistance de France".[11]

He was not universally respected, however, as this excerpt from a letter by Père Jacques Nau shows:[12]

Père Surin, whom I myself knew for twenty years or more, led so deranged and shameful a life that one hardly dares speak of it. In the end it reached the point where the most wise attributed it all, quite correctly I believe, to madness … I have often seen [him] blaspheme the name of God and walk about naked in the College, soiled with excrement - I would then take him by the hand into the infirmary. I have seen him lashing out with his fists and for years perform a hundred other insanities, even to the point of trying to trample on the Sacrament of the Eucharist - I did not see this myself but learnt it the next day from witnesses. He lived like this for several years. For the rest of his life, he never fulfilled any function within the Society. When he recovered self-control, he wrote books and letters, visited his neighbor and spoke very well about God, but he never said his prayers, or read his Breviary, said Mass rarely and to his dying day mumped about and gesticulated in a ridiculous and absurd fashion.

In 1952 Aldous Huxley published his nonfiction account of the exorcisms at Loudun, entitled "The Devils of Loudun". Playwright John Whiting adapted Huxley's book as the play The Devils (1960). Ken Russell directed a feature film adaptation, The Devils (1971), starring Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed. Krzysztof Penderecki wrote an opera, The Devils of Loudun (Die Teufel von Loudun) in 1969.


Surin's French prose was widely admired and his hundreds of letters, copied and recopied by the faithful, circulated throughout France.[13]

His principal published works include:

  • Le Triomphe de l'amour divin sur les puissances de l'enfer en la possession de la Mère supérieure des Ursulines de Loudun (1636)
  • Catéchisme spirituel (1654), published by the Prince de Conti, anonymously
  • Dialogues spirituels (1655)
  • Cantiques spirituels (1657)
  • Science expérimentale des choses de l'autre vie acquise en la possession des Ursulines de Loudun (1663)
  • Fondements de la vie spirituelle (Paris, 1667)
  • Lettres spirituelles (Paris, 1695).
  • Correspondance, published in 1966 by Michel de Certeau
  • The Foundations of the Spiritual Life (London, 1844)[14]

His Catéchisme spirituel was placed on the Index in 1695. It was retained in the revision of 1900, and again in 1929.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Article "Exorcism" at the web site
  2. ^ Sluhovsky, Moshe, "The Devil in the Convent" Archived 2007-05-17 at the Wayback Machine, The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 5, December 2002
  3. ^ Sluhovsky, op. cit.
  4. ^ Poulain, A., "Jean-Joseph Surin", Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company (1912).
  5. ^ Sluhovsky, op. cit.
  6. ^ Poulain, op. cit.
  7. ^ Surin, Jean-Joseph, Correspondance, Michel de Certeau, ed. (Paris, 1966), letter 52, May 3, 1635, p. 263.
  8. ^ Surin, op. cit., letter 48, March 14, 1635, pp. 253–56: "L'un des diables que j'éxorcise est ennemi particulier des Carmélites et travaille contre elles tant qu'il peut" (quote 255).
  9. ^ Marin, Juan M., "A Jesuit Mystic’s Feminine Melancholia: Jean-Joseph Surin SJ (1600-1665)"
  10. ^ Poulain, op. cit.
  11. ^ Poulain, A., op. cit.
  12. ^ Quoted in Kobets, Svitlana, "Fools in Christ: East vs. West", Canadian-American Slavic Studies, vol. 34, no. 3, Fall 2000, pp. 337-363. Kobets says that his mental condition has been diagnosed post factum as "catatonic schizophrenia".
  13. ^ Biography of French Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau
  14. ^
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainPoulain, A. (1913). "Jean-Joseph Surin" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.

Further reading[edit]

  • (in French) Barral, Guy, La nomination de Dieu dans la correspondance de Jean-Joseph Surin, Montpellier, UPV, 1972
  • (in French) Bouix, Marcel, Vie du Père Surin, Paris, 1876, an abridgment of the life published by Boudon, Paris, 1689
  • (in French) Breton, S., Deux mystiques de l'excès J-J. Surin et maître Eckhart, Paris, Cerf, 1985
  • (in French) Certeau, Michel de, Correspondance de Jean-Joseph Surin, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1966
  • (in French) —, La Possession de Loudun, Paris, Julliard, 1970 (collection Archives). English translation, The Possession at Loudun, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000
  • (in French) —, La Fable mystique, Paris, Gallimard, 1982 (collection Bibliothèque des Idées). English translation, The Mystic Fable, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992
  • (in French) Guilhermy, François Elesban de, Ménologe de la Compagnie de Jésus, Assistance de France, Paris, 1892