Saturday, April 4, 2015

Why Joan of Arc? Why Me?

I imagine that every Catholic has a favorite saint. The ongoing Crux “Saints Madness 2015” seems to prove it. That competition, modeled on the NCAA basketball tournament, has reached the finals, and it’s neck-and-neck, or halo-and-halo, between Sts. Peter and Francis.

My favorite saint is Joan of Arc who, incidentally, was bounced in the Round of 32 by St. Michael. How is that even fair? An archangel against a peasant girl? But a bigger question dogs me today: Why Joan of Arc? Why me? Why is she my favorite?

I have just finished Helen Castor’s excellent new book on Joan—which I ordered from Blackwell’s in England so that I could read it before it was issued in the USA. Over at Goodreads I gave the book 5 stars and wrote, “If you want a single, short, but comprehensive book on Joan of Arc, this is the gold standard.”

What struck me while reading was nothing that Castor did (more on that at Goodreads) but what I did. A slow reader, I bombed through 250 pages in two days. I couldn’t put it down. And I already know the story. It is the fifth or six book on Joan that I’ve read, not to mention the three movies I’ve seen.

What was that about? Why Joan of Arc? Why me?

It is a worthwhile question, I think, for any Catholic. Recently, I was telling my spiritual director about my upcoming pilgrimage to Montreal and my interest in St. André Bessette, who inspired the Oratory of St. Joseph in that city. She looked at me and said, “You should look at that. What is it about Brother André that speaks to you?”

Now I wonder the same about Joan.

What I’ve always said is that Joan impresses me because her life and trial and fiery death are so well documented. “She is not a myth,” I say. “She lived. We know what Joan did and said, moment to moment, thanks to the hundreds of pages of testimony from two trials, twenty-five years apart.”

And that’s true. For anyone mocking the “cult of saints” as popular mythology, all I can say is, read about Joan of Arc. There are facts in her dossier that can’t be denied or easily explained. She may break through your wall of skepticism, as she did mine twenty years ago, when I first read Vita Sackville West’s biography St. Joan of Arc. 

I realize now that Vita’s was the first book about a saint that I had read. I had seen movies—most notably “A Man for All Seasons” (Thomas More) and “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (Francis and Clare of Assisi)—but surely these had been fictionalized, romanticized treatments. A book was another thing.

But even that’s not enough to explain my intense ongoing interest in a seventeen-year-old girl from a village in eastern France who heard the voices of Sts. Michael, Margaret, and Catherine, and heeded them. Riding across France, she led the dauphin’s army into battle against the English invaders, raised the siege of Orléans, and escorted the dauphin through enemy territory to the holy city of Reims to see him crowned Charles VII. Then, captured by the enemy, she was tried by an ecclesiastical court (headed by a Catholic bishop) and burned at the stake for heresy.

A heretical saint? A strange contradiction. Twenty-five years later in the 1450s, with the English evicted from France and new bishops in power, a new trial was held and Joan was exonerated. And still she was not canonized by the Catholic Church for nearly 500 years (in 1920) and only after a pioneering scholar had published the transcripts of her trials. The historiography of Joan of Arc—how her story has been told differently at different times—would make a fascinating study.

But really, why Joan? Why, first of all, a girl?

I didn’t see this at all clearly twenty years ago, but I have come to see now that my family constellation and even my constellation of close personal friends contains an excessive number of shes. My family today includes one mother (with Dad dead), one wife (for thirty-plus years), two daughters, a granddaughter, and four sisters. Other than nephews and cousins, the only males in my immediate family are a single brother, brother-in-law, and son-in-law.

More significantly, I think, I grew up as the oldest of six, with four younger sisters. I may have given excessive noogies to one and ignored the other three for most of the time we lived together in our parents’ house, but I recognize now that Nancy, Elizabeth, Sarah, and Mary all occupied and continue to occupy a precious place inside me. They helped prepare me to be the father of daughters and a doting grandfather of a little girl today.

I think that as a reader one watches Joan of Arc riding across France toward her terrible and magnificent destiny with the same sort of paternal hope and dread one watches a little girl grow up—whether as an older brother or as a father/granddad. This may sound terribly paternalistic or patronizing to the feminist reader, but I know what I experience as an older brother, dad, and grandfather.

I find it quite easy to sympathize with Blessed Louis Martin, the father of Thérèse of Lisieux and of four other daughters, all of whom entered religious life. Surely, he too deserves canonization.

That may explain the girl part. But why a village child? Why a visionary? Why a soldier? Why a martyr?

These are qualities distinguishing Joan from other saints, which may have brought her to my attention in the first place. They lead my thoughts in a hundred new directions, providing more material than I can stuff into a post like this. But they are active questions for me today after reading (devouring) Castor’s new book about a saint I already knew “everything” about.

Who is your favorite saint? Any idea why?


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