Grapplin’ with the Grappin, The Anchor, February 19, 2010

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
February 19, 2010

“The first time the devil came to torment me,” St. John Vianney recounted to catechism students many years later, “was one night at 9 pm, just as I was about to go to bed. Three loud knocks resounded on my courtyard door, as if someone wanted to break it in with an enormous sledgehammer. I immediately opened my window and asked, ‘Who is it?,’ but I saw nothing and went quietly to bed, recommending myself to God, to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to the holy angels. I was not yet asleep when three more knocks made me jump. These were more violent than the first, and seemed to strike not against the outside door but against the one at the foot of the stairs leading to my room. I got up and cried a second time, ‘Who is there?’ No one answered.”

His first reaction was that the sounds likely had a nefarious but very natural explanation. “When this noise began, I imagined it was some thieves who wanted the beautiful ornaments [given by] the Viscount of Ars, and I thought it would be wise to take precautions. I asked two courageous men to come to sleep at the rectory, to lend me a strong hand in case of need. They came several nights in a row; they heard the noise but discovered nothing, and were convinced that this uproar had been caused by something other than the malice of men.”

The Curé of Ars went on to detail how he became convinced that the sounds were coming from the father of all malice. “One winter night when it had snowed hard, there were three heavy knocks in the middle of the night. I jumped hurriedly from my bed, seized a lamp and went down into the courtyard, thinking I would surely find the culprits in flight and intending to call for help. But to my great surprise, I saw nothing, I heard nothing, and what is more, I found no footprints in the snow. I then had no further doubt but that it was the devil who wanted to frighten me.”

Those nights in 1824 began 35 years worth of diabolical infestation, when the devil seemed to pull out all the stops to harass the priest whose work in the confessional was freeing so many from the evil one’s grasp. Almost all of the molestations took place at night, during the couple of hours Fr. Vianney would try to get some rest before returning to the Church at midnight to hear confessions. The devil, it seems, wanted to interrupt his sleep so that he might not be able to carry out his heroic work in the confessional the following day, or, if he were not able to thwart him completely, to fatigue him so that he would not be filled with the same amount of charity and burning zeal in carrying out those ministrations. Fr. Vianney refused to let the devil succeed.

Once the priest had discovered that the devil was the one behind the loud banging on the doors and had begun to ignore them as much as he could, the evil one began to change tactics — and he employed an almost infinite variety of vexations.

The devil started to make the noise of a whole army speaking a foreign language with ugly, guttural phonetics right outside his bedroom window. At first, Vianney was distracted out of bed to see what was causing that foreign convention. Upon seeing no one there, however, he realized that it was just another instantiation of the same infernal pestering.

Next, Fr. Vianney began to hear the curtains of his bed being torn in the darkness. He was convinced, at first, that mice and rats had gotten into his room. He began to shake the curtains to frighten away any and all rodents, but when he awoke in the morning, he found the curtains totally undamaged. After a few nights, Fr. Vianney began to recognize that this, too, was just another annoyance from below.
The devil began to up the ante. Each night he began to cover a painting of the Annunciation with dung until Fr. Vianney, out of love for our Lady, reluctantly needed to have it removed. He began to reproduce the sound of a hammer driving nails into the wooden floor of the bedroom, or the din of drumming on metal water jugs or pots and pans, or the cacophony of splitting wood or sawing the wainscoting. He would shake the house for 15 minutes or more like an earthquake. He would topple chairs and convulse the furniture in the room. He would roar like wild animals. He would stampede like cattle and sheep in the bedroom, or the living room below, or the roof above. He would imitate the noise of hundreds of bats flying all over the room.

On some occasions, the devil would get more personal. He would emulate the voice of a sensual vixen and try to seduce the Curé into sexual sins. On others occasions, he would do the opposite, calling out with a hideous voice various threats and insults, like “Vianney! Vianney! Potato eater! You’re not dead yet! I will you get all right!”

After all of this failed to get the priest to quit, the devil started to cross the line from “infestation” or harassment to “obsession” or physical violence. Fr. Vianney would feel the sensation of an unfriendly hand passing over his face to suffocate him, or rats running all over his body, or a swarm of bees buzzing around his ears and entering his mouth, nose and ears. The devil would even get so bold on certain occasions as to grab the priest’s mattress — with him on it — and pull him across the room, or grab him by the ankles and yank him off the bed.

These types of occurrences happened for three and a half decades.

There were many nights in which Fr. Vianney wasn’t able to sleep at all because of these harassments. When he would show up pale in Church at midnight to begin hearing confessions, many of the women would think that he was ill. “The grappin bothered me to such a degree,” he would tell them truthfully, “that I haven’t slept a wink all night.” “Grappin,” the French word for the three-pronged pickaxe — featured in popular imaginary depictions of the devil — was the way he preferred to refer to his molester.

Unlike in other areas of his life where out of humility he would hide the various graces God had given him, Fr. Vianney never ceased to tell people, including his catechism students, about what the devil was doing to him. This was a means by which he could help them to recognize that the devil was real and why they should despise and reject him, his evil works and empty promises.

For many of the residents of Ars, however, they didn’t need these confirmations, because they were able to hear the terrifying noises coming each night their pastor’s bedroom. They were amazed that anyone would try to sleep there. The boys of the village would come to place their ears on the front door and to listen to how the devil would insult their parish priest. The former “bodyguards” from 1824 would tell visitors of what it was like to be in the house in the early days during the “earthquakes.” One night in 1857, when Fr. Vianney was in the sacristy at Church, everyone saw a fire coming from his bedroom. When they got to the room, they discovered the mattress and bedding totally scorched, but noticed that the fire and stopped suddenly, and humanly inexplicably, right before a relic of St. Philomena. This convinced Fr. Vianney that the fire, and its suppression, did not come from natural causes. “Since he could not have the bird,” the priest simply said, “he burned the cage.”

How did Fr. Vianney respond to the decades of harassment? We’ll see next week.