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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Joan of Arc 1412-2012

‘One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.’  Those words were spoken by a young woman whose destiny it was to be put to death at the age of just 19.  Her birth was remembered in her village as having taken place on Epiphany night, 6 January. Later on, when she had become famous, that Epiphany birthday was spoken about as a sign that had brought ‘inconceivable joy’, as if the magi had come visiting once more with a new gift to bear.  We are as near as we can get to the 600th anniversary of her birth in 1412 at Domremy in north-eastern France, and of her baptism there by the name of Jehanne.  We know her better as Joan, Saint Joan of Arc.  
For years, I knew only the textbook version of her life, adorned by a sixth form reading of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan.  The story was of La Pucelle, the cross-dressing Maid of Orléans and heroine-soldier who had voices, delivered a city, crowned a king, was captured, sold to the English, tried for heresy and burned.  I knew that soon after her death she was vindicated and beatified.  When I started going to France I discovered the extraordinary hold she has there.  We English, so ambivalent about the French, cannot quite comprehend this.  She is honoured in thousands of churches and public squares.  The civic version has her in armour, often on horseback, her head high in triumph.  In churches she is the obedient, prayerful maiden: like Blessed Mary in fact.  She was canonised only in 1920, just after the Great War, petitioned by a battle-weary people in gratitude for having once again been brought through conflict.  Intellectuals began to study her, poets and painters depicted her, politicians harnessed her to their causes.  She was spoken of as the soul of France, the embodiment of the nation’s ideals, her second patron saint.  For some this was a quest for a more enlightened patriotism, for some, a nostalgic return to a lost age.  Some harnessed her to radical political causes; others made her a symbol of political conservatism. The elusiveness of Joan is part of her mystery: there are so many readings of her that it is hard to know who the real woman was.  

Today we celebrate the baptism of Christ.  St Joan, born at Epiphany, is a child of this season, baptised at this time.  And if Jesus’ baptism is the first symbol of his obedience to his Father’s will, for Joan obedience was also the central theme of her life.  In the cruel era of the Hundred Years’ War, her obedience took a shape that was hardly straightforward.  Yet the transcripts of her trial and her posthumous re-trial two decades later show a woman who understood her whole life to be an act of obedience to God and to her baptismal vocation.  This was the source of her bravery in relieving the siege of Orléans and (what took even more courage) in confronting the Dauphin in person and urging him to go with her to Reims to be crowned.  Her love for her country and her belief that her destiny was bound up with that of France did not come from self-importance (she was always at heart the humble country girl), nor from a lack of self-doubt, but from an intense conviction that would not go away.  She spoke of these voices as a call to self-offering and service.  That, she said, is how the spirits should be tested – by their fruits.  It cost her not less than everything as she already intuited as a young girl. 

This insight was hard-won; it did not come except through a long and arduous journey of discernment.  Many princes in state and church asked her, roughly at times, how she could know what God wanted of her, how she could be so sure she was not deluded.  But before others asked her those questions, she had asked them of herself and of God a hundred times.  It was as if the conflicted soul of France was reflected in her complex inner life.  If she had not been so attentive to the voices that spoke to her, life would have been infinitely easier and no doubt longer.  So it is in the biblical stories we listen to in the Christmas cycle.  What if Mary had not responded to the archangel’s annunciation, if Joseph had not heeded the dream warning him to take the holy family into Egypt out of danger, if Jesus had not been obedient to the voice that spoke at the river Jordan and addressed him as God’s son….  so much in God’s purposes hangs by tiny, fragile threads of recognition and assent.  And like Jesus at his baptism, the vision and the voice would thrust her out into the world of power and conflict where she would be exposed to merciless public scrutiny which would end only with the sacrifice of her life.  Charles Péguy, the great 20th century catholic thinker and poet who was so inspired by Joan, once said that everything begins with mysticism and ends in politics; that is, the path of sanctity leads from inward conviction to outward transforming action in the world, as it did for Joan, as it did for Jesus.  

Our choir has visited Versailles several times and sung at the Church of Sainte Jeanne d’Arc.  In the apse there is a huge painting of St Joan, upright in her armour, her sword pointing downwards at rest.  But she is not standing in her own strength.  She is propped up by the three saints whose voices she had heard since childhood: St Catherine, St Margaret of Antioch and St Michael the Archangel.  Joan took time to identify her saints, could not say why these and not others came to her in a blaze of light as regular, if not always welcome, companions.  But in the two woman martyrs, perhaps she saw how her life was being shaped for service, renunciation and a willing death; and in the archangel, how she was called to bring help and protection to the weak and powerless; and all this in the name of God.  Behind and around her are angels with trumpets and thuribles, perhaps celebrating Joan’s canonisation and reception into heaven.  Or, as I prefer, showing her in her earthly ordeals, so weakened that she can no longer stand upright, but helped to stand and persevere by her heavenly fellow-travellers. 

Shaw’s play is not perfect either as history or as drama; but he does capture Joan’s spirit.  Here she is, facing her accusers.  ‘Do not think you can frighten me by telling me that I am alone.  France is alone; and God is alone; and what is my loneliness before the loneliness of my country and my God?  I see now that the loneliness of God is his strength: what would he be if he listened to your jealous little counsels?  Well, my loneliness shall be my strength too: it is better to be alone with God: his friendship will not fail me, nor his counsel, nor his love.  In his strength I will dare, and dare, and dare, until I die.  I will go out now to the common people, and let the love in their eyes comfort me… if I go through the fire I shall go through it to their hearts for ever and ever.  And so, God be with me!’  This Joan feels closer to the spiritual truth than either the heroic or the sentimentalised versions. 

And we should learn from her what we learn from all God’s saints, that in life’s complexities and stresses, we need to recall who and what we are: the baptised who follow the Lamb wherever he goes, even when it is into life’s cruel or dark or dangerous places.  The cup that he drinks and the baptism he is baptised with are for us too, says the gospel.  The play ends with a poignant plea on Joan’s part for the world she has left behind in death: ‘O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?’  How we pray and think, by what vision and truth we speak and live before others in the world, with what single-mindedness and purity of motive we set our hearts and minds on God and his kingdom, all this is our lived response to that question. It comes down to baptism, Christ’s, and ours: his obedience to save us and our obedience in following him; his yes and ours, his grace and truth, our only hope in life and death. 

Durham, 8 January 2011(Epiphany 1)

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