I have a stack of them. People whose lives I’ve admired. People whose words have inspired me. People whose memory makes me want to be a better person, a holier person. Most of these heroes are people I’ve chosen through my encounters with them in various ways, through my readings, through my prayer, through observing their lives and accomplishments. The list is disparate: Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Lillian Hellman, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Jimmy Carter, Pope Francis…and, in fact, many, many more.
I have one hero, however, who was chosen for me: my patron saint. The name Jeannette is in fact a diminutive of the French name Jeanne, and I was named for Jeanne d’Arc, known in English as Joan of Arc. As a child I thought she was pretty cool, though distant (we didn’t really have that much in common, after all). Orléans, where she died, is in the Loire Valley, not far from my hometown, and my family often went to the annual Jeanne d’Arc festival there. And if that wasn’t enough, my family home in Angers was located—on the Avenue Jeanne d’Arc!
As a young adult, though, I distrusted her: I was loathe to believe that God had a preference for one army over another in humanity’s endless wars for possession of land and power and riches. And then of course there was that whole burned-at-the-stake thing…
But as time passed, this saint has in fact become a real hero for me. God chooses many different ways to speak to us, and Joan’s voices—conveyed through familiar figures whose statues surrounded her in her village church—are no less real than when God spoke from a burning bush or a chariot in the sky, or through a dream, examples we take for granted in scripture.
And while I still believe that God loved the English just as much as he loved the French in the wars of Joan’s time, with hindsight it’s clear that God was working through this tumultuous time to prepare for one even more tumultuous. The nationalism that I disdained had a purpose: to pave the way for dealing with the chaos of the Reformation.
But for a significant period of history, precisely the age that followed on from the time of Joan of Arc, we can see how God might not want France to be under the sway of the English kings. Catholics were proscribed and persecuted here for three hundred years, with many priests and lay people being brutally martyred in the earlier years of that time. France however kept the faith and became a refuge for many, a place for seminaries in exile and a base from which to rebuild the Church in northern Europe. France also became a place of many saints during the counter-Reformation, saints like St. Vincent de Paul and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Countless new religious orders were also founded there, some of which became the bedrock of England’s Catholic revival centuries later. (A Sister of Mount Carmel, writing in Faith magazine, 2004)
And really, while all of that satisfies my brain’s constant questioning, there’s something even more important that I take from the story of Joan’s military prowess: she did what God asked of her. It was that simple. She didn’t ask why. She didn’t say she couldn’t. She didn’t let anyone stand in her way. She said yes. In that sense, she was echoing Our Lady’s total acceptance of God’s will. And I pray every day that through her, I too can learn to always say yes.
So…let me ask you again: who are your heroes? And, more importantly, what can you learn from them?
Pauline Books & Media has a new book called How to Be a Hero: Train with the Saints. It’s intended for pre-teenagers, but there’s a lot of wisdom for adult readers in there as well. Saints can teach us cardinal virtues (such as prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), theological virtues (faith, hope, and love), and “little” virtues (humility, obedience, patience, and gentleness), and this book offers a saint by way of example for each one of these virtues. Each story is accompanied by a prayer and suggestions for how to practice the virtue in question—in effect “training” with that particular saint just as an athlete trains for a big event.
And when the “big event” is life, who doesn’t need some help and guidance?
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Want a how-to book for adults? Grab a copy of either Saints Alive: The Faith Proclaimed or Saints Alive! The Gospel Witnessed