Blog Template Theology of the Body: Saint Joan of Arc, 1412-1431

Monday, September 15, 2008

Saint Joan of Arc, 1412-1431

I wrote this monologue a few years ago for Elie Wiesel, based on accounts of St. Joan's own words at her trials. The words of St. Joan, the maiden appointed to lead the armies of France, seem apropos while the American culture wonders whether it can countenance a woman at the fore of secular matters. Today, St. Joan's intercession is invoked by those who advance the culture of life from the basic principle that as rational and free beings invested with intrinsic dignity and consequent responsibilities, man and woman alike are called to transform the face of the earth.

Gentle Saints and Soldiers,

I have written many letters in my lifetime to call upon those who would listen. I am called Joan the Maid. I place trust in God, my Creator; I love Him with all my heart. You say that you are my judges; take care not to judge wrongly, lest you place yourself in grave danger; and I notify you of this, so that if our Lord punished you for it, I will have done my duty in telling you. There is a saying among children, that “sometimes one is hanged for speaking the truth."

Pope Callixtus has ordered a full inquiry into the circumstances of my conviction, my relapse into heresy after a semblance of contrition when I cowered for fear of the fire. Heresy is treason against the polity of Christian Europe. They build the pyres very high in these days, to prolong death, to make my slow death visible to those who watch, to show the heretic what hell looks like, to cremate my body so that there will be nothing left to bury in consecrated ground. At the end, I will hear my own war cry repeated to me from beyond the flames: “It is God who commands it.”

I impressed my neighbors, my priest and my family as industrious, generous, healthy, overly pious. I was faithful in my father’s house; I was quiet and satisfied; my life was pure. It was my fair country which was not so wholesome. I sometimes went to play with the young girls around the Fairy Tree, to make garlands for Our Lady of Domremy near the oak wood from which Merlin had foretold the coming of a maiden, like the maiden of an older prophecy still, which decreed that having been lost by a woman, France would be saved by a maid. In the east, the people had whispered that deliverance should come from a maid of the marches of Lorraine. Mine is a time of portents and prophecies, a time of miracles. Many women march to war. Under the feudal law, mothers and daughters are expected to don their armor and to lead their armies when fathers and sons cannot. For we have been cast asunder.

Mine is a time of misfortune and sorrow. Domestic wars and factions make combined national action impossible. My own countryside of Lorraine could bring forth no good thing, for we had ever been branded as false to God and false to man. While the English armies flock around their king with immediate allegiance, the armies of France only fitfully follow the royal arms, pledging their first promises to local noblemen. I assumed that when my own agony began, the cause of France might well gather more strength from my suffering than from her own futile struggle against cowardice and treason.

I was sent here by God, the King of Heaven; I was born for this. I fear nothing, for God is with me. Even if I had a hundred fathers and mothers, and were the daughter of a great king, still would I go into battle. I have refused the work of women; there are plenty of other women to do it (oh my mother; her gentle words taught me to love her Savior, her kind smile promised His gentleness and protection, and now He has driven me far from her; the voices which spoke to me argued with her gracious smile and silenced her promise of the gentle Jesus). The voices began kindly enough, though they were terrible; they instructed as any careful priest might, to be good, to attend church often, that God would help me. I hated this voice, outside of myself, uninvited, intrusive, interrupting. I wandered, hiding from it, fascinated by it, telling no one. Surely it could not be true; and if it was true, what else could it require of me? This gentle Jesus had become dangerous. And yet I loved and longed for Him.

My own obedience sealed my fate. What I had feared came to pass, for other voices followed, when I was eighteen. The Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret the Virgin joined the calmer, terrible voice of the archangel Michael. I consented to hear them. I was an unlettered child; how was I to know that I had bowed my ear to the angel whose name was the war cry of the good angels in Heavenly battles, the warring defender of God’s people? How was I to know that the great Margaret had entered the flames before me, had become the patroness of women pregnant with children, with dreams and with voices? How was I to know that the noble Catherine had presented herself to the Emperor of Rome at the age of eighteen, like me, to plead for justice in a war-torn land, the patroness of those who would remain maidens and those who would persuade for the impossible, who lent eloquence to their words.

What is it like to hear voices- voices which compel and urge me to impose the will of God upon captains and courtiers, thought they will not listen? It is utter joy and utter fear. I never fully understand them. You do not hear such voices- you feel them in the pit of your stomach, driving you to obey: “Daughter of God, go on!” I begged them to stop. I begged the universe to prove them wrong, for if they were right, they would go on, driving me further into dark mysteries into which I am not prepared to go, not in body, not in mind, not in spirit. But I have found them never to give two contrary opinions. They send me forward without any regard for my safety. It seems, in these dark times, that the Good Shepherd needs recklessness in His creatures. The fear haunts you: What more will they tell me to do? What more can they ask (for they may ask anything). I would run to my confessor for his affirmation, I would run to my caring mother for some guidance, but there is none who can offer it. The voices wake me from sleep, bringing with them blinding light, and the stern understanding that the gentle Lord and Savior has come to life in my life, and has willed that I follow His impossible will, alone. There is nothing to do but obey. It is as simple as that, and as dangerous. And when the voices speak, I am won over. The voices and the passion with them become mine. After their urgent, threatening summons, no one drags or pushes or persuades. There is no further questioning when it is God who has commanded it. In the end, I feel such great joy when I hear this voice that I wish I could always hear it. In God’s name- the counsel of our Lord is far wiser and safer than ours. You have been to your counsel and I have been to mine. But what, in the end, will be left of me?

I shall last a year and a little more. Everything I have said or done is in the hands of God. I commit myself to Him. In my faith, the Son of God once said the same. Alas! Am I to be so horribly and cruelly treated? That my body, clean and whole, which has never been corrupted, should this day be consumed and burned to ashes! I would far rather have my head cut off seven times over than to be burned. In my faith, both the Son of God, and I, relying upon the justice of God, are condemned to die. It has been said in my tradition that the only thing left to say is “God forgive God.” If my faith be true, God did not forgive God; He crucified Him. Hold the crucifix up before my eyes so that may see it until I die.