Friday, May 29, 2015

Saint Joan of Arc: A Lesson in Vocations

Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong.
—1 Corinthians 1:26-27

In 1896, Mark Twain published his last completed novel. This unexpected work was also his favorite. It was entitled Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte. Twain later recalled, “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best.” Years before, in the 1850s, he had found a leaf from a biography of Joan of Arc, an event which began a lifelong fascination with her story. The book is a huge departure from Twain’s comedic writings, but it’s certainly worth reading.

Mark Twain’s book is just one example of how a nineteen year old French girl, who lived an extraordinary (and extraordinarily unusual) life, and who died a horrific death, has held the imagination of so many for nearly six hundred years.

Jeanne d’Arc was born in the village of Domr√©my in 1412 to a peasant family. As a child, she learned to spin and sew, but received no formal education. Her childhood was lived within the broader turmoil of the Hundred Years War, in which the French and English waged a seemingly endless conflict in which, when Joan was a teenager, the French were losing.

In 1425, when she was 13, Joan experienced the first of a series of visions, in which Saint Michael the Archangel and others (whom Joan identified as Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Margaret of Antioch) instructed her to present herself to the military authorities and to “save France.” In reflecting on Joan’s unique vocation, Pope Benedict XVI reflected: “The young French peasant girl’s compassion and dedication in the face of her people’s suffering were intensified by her mystical relationship with God. One of the most original aspects of this young woman’s holiness was precisely this link between mystical experience and political mission. The years of her hidden life and her interior development were followed by the brief but intense two years of her public life: a year of action and a year of passion” (General Audience, January 26, 2011).  

In 1429, Joan began a work of liberation, giving herself totally to the cause of France and looking forward to that day when Charles VII was crowned as king of France on July 17, 1429. During the coronation, Joan was standing next to the king, carrying her standard—a white banner marked with lilies, a figure of Christ, flanked by angels, and embroidered with the names of Jesus and Mary. The new king’s coronation was only able to take place because of Joan’s successful campaigns to free the city of Rheims (the traditional site of the coronation of the kings of France) from control of the English.

For another year, Joan lived with the soldiers, engaged in the service of her king and country, winning the respect of many, who recalled her goodness, purity, and courage. All seemed to be going well for the French until when, on May 23, 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundian forces, allies of the English, who purchased her on November 21, 1430. A process of trials and humiliations immediately began for Joan. The English wished to have her tried as a heretic and a tribunal was created to discredit her and ensure her condemnation. Over the next several months, her visions, her use of male dress (a means of self-protection for her while in the company of the male soldiers), her willingness to submit to the Church, and her loyalty to her king and cause were all questioned. The transcripts of her trials (which have survived) tell us a great deal about her spirituality, her understanding of her vocation, and her commitment to king and country. Ultimately, these things led the kangaroo court to condemn Joan to death. The king that Joan had struggled so desperately to see on France’s throne made no effort to save her.

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic on May 30, 1431, in the city of Rouen; she was only nineteen years old. Joan died calling on the name of Jesus as she gazed upon a cross being held up for her by a sympathetic priest. More than twenty years later, a formal appeal was presented to Pope Callistus III by members of Joan’s family, asking that her case be re-tried. In 1456, a final summary ruled that Joan was innocent of the charge of heresy and that her ecclesiastical judges had condemned her in support of a secular agenda. Finally, in 1909, Joan was declared "Blessed" and canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920—an important recognition of the faith and sufferings of France during the First World War.

As I mentioned before, Joan of Arc has captured the imagination of people of all walks of life for centuries. Theologians, politicians, writers, story-tellers, and movie makers have expanded on Mark Twain’s novel and made this complicated young woman the object of their work since the time of her execution. Today, she is honored as a patron of France and of soldiers. Her memory is celebrated on May 30.
The death of Saint Joan of Arc
by  Hermann Stike

In his book, The Spirituality of St. Jeanne d’Arc, George Tavard reflected, “It was not what happened to her, good or bad, that mattered. It was that the will of God be done, that she remain faithful to God’s call, that she humbly listen to the heavenly voices that guided her, that God dwell in her virgin soul, that she honor the king who holds the kingdom in the kingdom of heaven.” This, in the end, was Joan’s glory and the reason for her canonization. The historical details her life and mission are complex and hard to reconcile with our contemporary understandings of the peace process. Her life also challenges our concept of vocation. But, through all the twists and turns of her tragic and glorious story, she is an icon of Paul’s observation that God chooses the week and small of the world to overturn the plans of the powerful (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-27).

In all these things—in her prayer, her military campaigns, and in her trials—Joan acted out of love and a overwhelming sense that she was doing God’s will. Pope Benedict XVI also commented on this, when he observed that, “this saint had understood that Love embraces the whole of the reality of God and of the human being, of Heaven and of earth [sic], of the Church and of the world. Jesus always had pride of place in her life, in accordance to her beautiful affirmation: ‘We must serve God first.’ Loving him means always doing his will. She declared with total surrender and trust: ‘I entrust  myself to God my Creator, I love him with my whole heart.’”

The life and witness of Saint Joan challenge us to understand “vocation” as a calling that is not only to a particular work or way of life, but also as calling us out of ourselves and our comfortable lives. Although her visions, soldier’s life, and execution do not easily coalesce with most of the details of our lives today, her lesson to us is clear: God’s call and vision for our lives is something greater than we can ever imagine for ourselves and we can only find true greatness when we surrender to God’s will: “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” (Saint Joan of Arc).

A prayer in honor of Saint Joan of Arc +
Holy God, whose power is made perfect in weakness: we honor you for the calling of Jeanne d’Arc, who, though young, rose up in valor to bear your standard for her country, and endured with grace and fortitude both victory and defeat; and we pray that we, like Jeanne, may bear witness to the truth that is in us to friends and enemies alike, and, encouraged by the companionship of your saints, give ourselves bravely to the struggle for justice in our time; through Christ our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
(from Holy Women and Men)

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