When I was in grade school, for some now-forgotten reason, all the girls in my class had a sort of competition going around our patron saints. We had long discussions about which one was “better” than the others. A totally silly endeavor, but one at which I excelled because, after all, who can beat Joan of Arc? (Joan is known in France as Jeanne d’Arc, but as she explained at her trial, “in my country [the region of Lorraine], people called me Jeannette.”)
As I grew older, though, I wasn’t so sure I liked my warrior-saint all that much. First of all, there was the whole warrior thing; aren’t Christians called to eschew war? Why would God have a preference as to who wins any particular war? God doesn’t take sides; he loves all his children. It didn’t make sense. And then, of course, there was the whole burning-at-the-stake thing, too: I’ve pretty much decided that fire is the most painful death of all, not something to which I aspire.
On the other hand, she is France’s patron saint, beloved by even non-Catholics because of her bravery in leading a timid and somewhat dissolute dauphin to victory over the occupying English; and then there’s the odd fact that for all my childhood and adolescence, my family lived on the Avenue Jeanne d’Arc, with a statue of the saint on horseback at the very end of the street. I never felt that to be a coincidence. All this to say that even if I hadn’t chosen it, my life was well entwined with hers.
The agent of God’s will, an enigmatic saint, Joan entered our collective imagination as a living myth. Centuries after her death, she’s been embraced by Christians, feminists, French nationalists, Mexican revolutionaries, and even hairdressers. (Her crude haircut inspired the bob flappers wore as a symbol of independence.) It seems in some ways she won’t ever be laid to rest. Is that because the stories we understand are the stories we forget? Are we enthralled with Joan because she is so enigmatic?
But that’s all history, isn’t it? Does Joan’s story, brave and frightening as it is, have anything to teach us in our century?
The more I think about it, the more the answer has to be yes. To start with, Joan’s Church was in complete disarray. This was during the Great Schism, when two popes each claimed control—one in Rome, the other in Avignon. When she tried to appeal to the pope, one of the trick questions at her trial was... to which pope she was appealing. (And they never forwarded her appeal to anyone, anyway.)
Is that Church so very different from our own? Our Church, too, is in turmoil. Change is always difficult, no matter whether it's perceived as good or not-so-good. Reaction to the Second Vatican Council brought its own divisions. There have been five popes in the last 50 years—and while they have all been powerful men of God, that many changes in leadership can be difficult to assimilate. The Church is struggling to regain its credibility and the trust of its people in the wake of the clergy sex-abuse scandals.
Like us, Joan faced tensions within the Church, flawed bishops, and imperfect practices. Yet despite the Church’s problems, she never wavered in her faith. Even when the Church itself persecuted her, she didn’t give up on it.
“She challenges us in fundamental ways,” writes Barbara Beckwith in Joan of Arc, God’s Warrior. “Despite the fact that more than 500 years have passed since she lived, her issues of mysticism, calling, identity, trust and betrayal, conflict and focus are our issues still.”
Even the warrior angle that always disturbed me so much was more complex than history would have us believe. In the aftermath of combat, she didn’t celebrate victory, but mourned the casualties; her men remembered her on her knees weeping as she held the head of a dying enemy soldier, urging him to confess his sins. Her courage outstripped that of seasoned men at arms; her tears flowed as readily as any other teenage girl’s.
Leading an army into war may be a peculiar form of activism, but it was rooted in her experience, her earliest communication with God through two saints and an angel, joining action to her earlier contemplative existence. As George Tavard points out in The Spiritual Way of St. Jeanne d’Arc, “Her life offers a perfect example of the conjunction of contemplation and action,” because her spiritual insight is of a “unity of heaven and earth.”
Joan has inspired people who have, in turn, inspired me. James Martin, SJ, attributes his interest in Joan to what he calls the “marvelous illogic of her story. And like my introduction to French in high school, Joan’s story also introduced me to a new language: the special language of saints, made up of verbs like believe, pray, witness and the nouns of their actions, humility, charity, ardor.”
Still, Martin shares my ambivalence about the saint. “Yet Joan confuses me as much as she attracts me. She acts like a crazy young girl, hearing voices, leaving her family, going to war and dying for an unseen person. Her story is more profoundly other than those of almost any other saint… Even Saint Francis of Assisi would seem more at home in our world than Joan.”
Joan helped Martin discover his vocation as a Jesuit. He writes in My Friends the Saints that "Joan found her way to God by learning a language that no one else could hear, and so is the perfect model for someone on the beginning of a faith journey. She has no idea what path to take to reach her destination, and neither did I.”
St. Joan, your courage and your faith in God accomplished great things. I ask your aid in fighting the good fight. Let my purpose be clear, my motives right. Let me not waiver in the face of difficulties. With your support I am unafraid and willing to do my utmost.
In the face of your enemies, in the face of harassment, ridicule, and doubt, you held firm in your faith. Even in your abandonment, alone and without friends, you held firm in your faith. Even as you faced your own mortality, you held firm in your faith. I pray I may be as bold in my beliefs as you, Saint Joan. I ask that you ride alongside me in my own battles. Help me be mindful that what is worthwhile can be won when I persist. Help me hold firm in my faith. Help me to act well and wisely. Amen.
Barbara Beckwith has called Joan a “shooting star,” and that may be the closest we’ll come to understanding her. For such a brief time she illuminated the Church and the world; and yet her light somehow endures. Because of Joan, I’m taking more time to listen to God, instead of talking at him. Because of Joan, I am not despairing of the state of the Church, but trusting that God will right the ship and keep it on its journey. Because of Joan, I believe that one person truly can make a difference.
She might not be the “best” patron saint from my childhood school contests, but I’m grateful she’s mine.
Image: Albert Lynch, "Jeanne d'Arc," 1903.