Remarks on the Dissertation, concerning the Spirit which came to St. Maur des Fossés

 [This is taken from Augustine Calmet's Phantom World, originally published in 1850, revised and edited by D. J. McAdam, 2010.  Copyright as such.]

Jesus

The following Dissertation on the apparition which happened at St. Maur, near Paris, in 1706, was entirely unknown to me. A friend who took some part in my work on apparitions, had asked me by letter if I should have any objection to its being printed at the end of my work. I readily consented, on his testifying that it was from a worthy hand, and deserved to be saved from the oblivion into which it was fallen. I have since found that it was printed in the fourth volume of the Treatise on Superstitions, by the Reverend Father le Brun, of the Oratoire.

After the impression, a learned monk wrote to me from Amiens, in Picardy, that he had remarked in this dissertation five or six propositions which appeared to him to be false.

1st. That the author says, all the holy doctors agree that no means of deceiving us is left to the demons except suggestion, which has been left them by God to try our virtue.

2d. In respect to all those prodigies and spells which the common people attribute to sorcery and intercourse with the demon, it is proved that they can only be done by means of natural magic; this is the opinion of the greater number of the fathers of the church.

3d. All that demons have to do with the criminal practices of those who are commonly called sorcerers is suggestion, by which he invites them to the abominable research of all those natural causes which can hurt our neighbor.

4th. Although those who have desired to maintain the popular error of the return to earth of souls from purgatory, may have endeavored to support their opinion by different passages, taken from St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Thomas, &c., it is attested that all these fathers speak only of the return of the blessed to manifest the glory of God.

5th. Of what may we not believe the imagination capable after so strong a proof of its power? Can it be doubted that among all the pretended apparitions of which stories are related, the fancy alone works for all those which do not proceed from angels and the spirits of the blessed, and that the rest are the invention of men?

6th. After having sufficiently established the fact, that all apparitions which cannot be attributed to angels, or the spirits of the blessed, are produced only by one of these causes: the writer names them—first, the power of imagination; secondly, the extreme subtlety of the senses; and thirdly, the derangement of the organs, as in madness and high fevers.

The monk who writes to me maintains that the first proposition is false; that the ancient fathers of the church ascribe to the demon the greater number of those extraordinary effects produced by certain sounds of the voice, by figures, and by phantoms; that the exorcists in the primitive church expelled devils, even by the avowal of the heathen; that angels and demons have often appeared to men; that no one has spoken more strongly of apparitions, of hauntings, and the power of the demon, than the ancient fathers; that the church has always employed exorcism on children presented for baptism, and against those who were haunted and possessed by the demon. Add to which, the author of the dissertation cites not one of the fathers to support his general proposition.

The second proposition, again, is false; for if we must attribute to natural magic all that is ascribed to sorcerers, there are then no sorcerers, properly so called, and the church is mistaken in offering up prayers against their power.

The third proposition is false for the same reason.

The fourth is falser still, and absolutely contrary to St. Thomas, who, speaking of the dead in general who appear, says that this occurs either by a miracle, or by the particular permission of God, or by the operation of good or evil angels.

The fifth proposition, again, is false, and contrary to the fathers, to the opinion commonly received among the faithful, and to the customs of the church. If all the apparitions which do not proceed from the angels or the blessed, or the inventive malice of mankind, proceed only from fancy, what becomes of all the apparitions of demons related by the saints, and which occurred to the saints? What becomes, in particular, of all the stories of the holy solitaries, of St. Anthony, St. Hilarion, etc.? What becomes of the prayers and ceremonies of the church against demons, who infest, possess, and haunt, and appear often in these disturbances, possessions, and hauntings?

The sixth proposition is false for the same reasons, and many others which might be added.

"These," adds the reverend father who writes to me, "are the causes of my doubting if the third dissertation was added to the two others with your knowledge. I suspected that the printer, of his own accord, or persuaded by evil intentioned persons, might have added it himself, and without your participation, although under your name. For I said to myself, either the reverend father approves this dissertation, or he does not approve of it. It appears that he approves of it, since he says that it is from a clever writer, and he would wish to preserve it from oblivion.

"Now, how can he approve a dissertation false in itself and contrary to himself? If he approves it not, is it not too much to unite to his work a foolish composition full of falsehoods, disguises, false and weak arguments, opposed to the common belief, the customs, and prayers of the church; consequently dangerous, and quite favorable to the free and incredulous thinkers which this age is so full of? Ought he not rather to combat this writing, and show its weakness, falsehood, and dangerous tendency? There, my reverend father, lies all my difficulty."

Others have sent me word that they could have wished that I had treated the subject of apparitions in the same way as the author of this dissertation, that is to say, simply as a philosopher, with the aim of destroying the credence and reality, rather than with any design of supporting the belief in apparitions which is so observable in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, in the fathers, and in the customs and prayers of the church. The author of whom we speak has cited the fathers, but in a general manner, and without marking the testimonies, and the express and formal passages. I do not know if he thinks much of them, and if he is well versed in them, but it would hardly appear so from his work.

The grand principle on which this third dissertation turns is, that since the advent and the death of Jesus Christ, all the power of the devil is limited to enticing, inspiring, and persuading to evil; but for the rest, he is tied up like a lion or a dog in his prison. He may bark, he may menace, but he cannot bite unless he is too nearly approached and yielded to, as St. Augustine truly says: "Mordere omnino non potest nisi volentem."

But to pretend that Satan can do no harm, either to the health of mankind, or to the fruits of the earth; can neither attack us by his stratagems, his malice, and his fury against us, nor torment those whom he pursues or possesses; that magicians and wizards can make use of no spells and charms to cause both men and animals dreadful maladies, and even death, is a direct attack on the faith of the church, the Holy Scriptures, the most sacred practices, and the opinions of not only the holy fathers and the best theologians, but also on the laws and ordinances of princes, and the decrees of the most respectable parliaments.

I will not here cite the instances taken from the Old Testament, the author having limited himself to what has passed since the death and resurrection of our Savior; because, he says, Jesus Christ has destroyed the kingdom of Satan, and the prince of this world is already judged.

St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, and the Evangelists, who were well informed of the words of the Son of God, and the sense given to them, teach us that Satan asked to have power over the apostles of Jesus Christ, to sift them like wheat; that is to say, to try them by persecutions and make them renounce the faith. Does not St. Paul complain of the angel of Satan who buffeted him? Did those whom he gave up to Satan for their crimes, suffer nothing bodily? Those who took the communion unworthily, and were struck with sickness, or even with death, did they not undergo these chastisements by the operation of the demon? The apostle warns the Corinthians not to suffer themselves to be surprised by Satan, who sometimes transforms himself into an angel of light. The same apostle, speaking to the Thessalonians, says to them, that before the last day antichrist will appear, according to the working of Satan, with extraordinary power, with wonders and deceitful signs. In the Apocalypse the demon is the instrument made use of by God, to punish mortals and make them drink of the cup of his wrath. Does not St. Peter tell us that "the devil prowls about us like a roaring lion, always ready to devour us?" And St. Paul to the Ephesians, "that we have to fight not against men of flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the princes of this world," that is to say, of this age of darkness, "against the spirits of malice spread about in the air?"

The fathers of the first ages speak often of the power that the Christians exercised against the demons, against those who called themselves diviners, against magicians and other subalterns of the devil; principally against those who were possessed, who were then frequently seen, and are so still from time to time, both in the church and out of the church. Exorcisms and other prayers of the church have always been employed against these, and with success. Emperors and kings have employed their authority and the rigor of the laws against those who have devoted themselves to the service of the demon, and used spells, charms, and other methods which the demon employs, to entice and destroy both men and animals, or the fruits of the country.

We might add to the remarks of the reverend Dominican father divers other propositions drawn from the same work; for instance, when the author says that "the angels know everything here below; for if it is by means of specialties, which God communicates to them every day, as St. Augustine thinks, there is no reason to believe that they do not know all the wants of mankind, and that they cannot console and strengthen them, render themselves visible to them by the permission of God, without always receiving from him an express order so to do."

This proposition is rather rash: it is not certain that the angels know everything that passes here below. Jesus Christ, in St. Matthew xxiv. 36, says that the angels do not know the day of his coming. It is still more doubtful that the angels can appear without an express command from God, and that St. Augustine has so taught.

He says, a little while after—"That demons often appeared before Jesus Christ in fantastic forms, which they assumed as the angels do," that is to say, in aerial bodies which they organized; "whilst at present, and since the coming of Jesus Christ, those wonders and spells have been so common that the people attributed them to sorcery and commerce with the devil, whereas it is attested that they can be operated only by natural magic, which is the knowledge of secret effects from natural causes, and many of them by the subtlety of the air alone. This is the opinion of the greater number of the fathers who have spoken of them."

This proposition is false, and contrary to the doctrine and practice of the church; and it is not true that it is the opinion of the greater number of the fathers; he should have cited some of them.

He says that "the Book of Job and the song of Hezekiah are full of testimonies that the Holy Spirit seems to have taught us, that our souls cannot return to earth after our death, until God has made angels of them."

It is true that the Holy Scriptures speak of the resurrection and return of souls into their bodies as of a thing that is impossible in the natural course. Man cannot raise up himself from the dead, neither can he raise up his fellow-man without an effort of the supreme might of God. Neither can the spirits of the deceased appear to the living without the command or permission of God. But it is false to say, "that God makes angels of our souls, and that then they can appear to the living."

Our souls will never become angels; but Jesus Christ tells us that after our death our souls will be as the angels of God, (Matt. xxii. 30); that is to say, spiritual, incorporeal, immortal, and exempt from all the wants and weaknesses of this present life; but he does not say that our souls must become angels.

He affirms "that what Jesus Christ said, 'that spirits have neither flesh nor bones,' far from leading us to believe that spirits can return to earth, proves, on the contrary, evidently that they cannot without a miracle render themselves visible to mankind; since it requires absolutely a corporeal substance and organs of speech to make ourselves heard, which does not agree with the spirits, who naturally cannot be subject to our senses."

This is no more impossible than what he said beforehand of the apparitions of angels, since our souls, after the death of the body, are "like unto the angels," according to the Gospel. He acknowledges himself, with St. Jerome against Vigilantius, that the saints who are in heaven appear sometimes visibly to men. "Whence comes it that animals have, as well as ourselves, the faculty of memory, but not the reflection which accompanies it, which proceeds only from the soul, which they have not?"

Is not memory itself the reflection of what we have seen, done, or heard; and in animals is not memory followed by reflection, since they avenge themselves on those who hurt them, avoid that which has incommoded them, foreseeing what might happen to themselves from it if they fell again into the same mistake?

After having spoken of natural palingenesis, he concludes—"And thus we see how little cause there is to attribute these appearances to the return of souls to earth, or to demons, as do some ignorant persons."

If those who work the wonders of natural palingenesis, and admit the natural return of phantoms in the cemeteries, and fields of battle, which I do not think happens naturally, could show that these phantoms speak, act, move, foretell the future, and do what is related of returned souls or other apparitions, whether good angels or bad ones, we might conclude that there is no reason to attribute them to souls, angels, and demons; but, 1, they have never been able to cause the appearance of the phantom of a dead man, by any secret of art. 2. If it had been possible to raise his shade, they could never have inspired it with thought or reasoning powers, as we see in the angels and demons, who appear, reason, and act, as intelligent beings, and gifted with the knowledge of the past, the present, and sometimes of the future.

He denies that the souls in purgatory return to earth; for if they could come back, "everybody would receive similar visits from their relations and friends, since all the souls would feel disposed to do the same. Apparently," says he, "God would grant them this permission, and if they had this permission, every person of good sense would be at a loss to comprehend why they should accompany all their appearances with all the follies so circumstantially related."

We may reply, that the return of souls to earth may depend neither on their inclination nor their will, but on the will of God, who grants this permission to whom he pleases, when he will, and as he will.

The wicked rich man asked that Lazarus might be sent to this world to warn his brothers not to fall into the same misfortune as himself, but he could not obtain it. There are an infinity of souls in the same case and disposition, who cannot obtain leave to return themselves or to send others in their place.

If certain narratives of the return of spirits to earth have been accompanied by circumstances somewhat comic, it does not militate against the truth of the thing; since for one recital imprudently embellished by uncertain circumstances, there are a thousand written sensibly and seriously, and in a manner very conformable to truth.

He maintains that all the apparitions which cannot be attributed to angels or to blessed spirits, are produced only by one of these three causes:—the power of imagination; the extreme subtlety of the senses; and the derangement of the organs, as in cases of madness and in high fevers.

This proposition is rash, and has before been refuted by the Reverend Father Richard.

The author recounts all that he has said of the spirit of St. Maur, in causing the motion of the bed in the presence of three persons who were wide awake, the repeated shrieks of a person whom they did not see, of a door well-bolted, of repeated blows upon the walls, of panes of glass struck with violence in the presence of three persons, without their being able to see the author of all this movement;—he reduces all this to a derangement of the imagination, the subtlety of the air, or the vapors casually arising in the brain of an invalid. Why did he not deny all these facts? Why did he give himself the trouble to compose so carefully a dissertation to explain a phenomenon, which, according to him, can boast neither truth nor reality? For my part, I am very glad to give the public notice that I neither adopt nor approve this anonymous dissertation, which I never saw before it was printed; that I know nothing of the author, take no part in it, and have no interest in defending him. If the subject of apparitions be purely philosophical, and it can without injury to religion be reduced to a problem, I should have taken a different method to destroy it, and I should have suffered my reasoning and my imagination to act more freely.


 



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