Walking with the Saints
Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1431)
“Joan of Arc, mystic and soldier”. This is the summary title description from A Great Cloud of Witnesses. Mystic and Soldier. Which of these draws your attention? What is your image of this fifteenth century young French woman? Mine is from the classic 1948 film starring Ingrid Bergman as the ill-fated national heroine. She is pictured in full medieval armor, gallantly riding a majestic horse into battle. Joan’s story, with both her unexpected rise to fame and her sudden fall from favor, has been a dramatic favorite for movie directors.
In the fifteenth century the King of England claimed the crown of France by the laws of inheritance and invaded France. He also had support from the French Duke of Burgundy. The Duke of Orleans supported the French-born heir to the throne. The result was an extended civil war. Joan was born to peasant parents during this embattled time.
This was also a time of great spiritual fervor. Joan was a religious child. At age thirteen, she began experiencing visions in the form of voices from a powerful flash of light. She identified the voices as St. Michael the Archangel and two early Christian martyrs. Their message was that she was called to save France from the civil war between the Houses of Burgundy and Orleans. At first, her visions were looked upon skeptically, but she eventually convinced King Charles VII, the not yet consecrated King of France, of the genuineness of her visions.
Charles allowed seventeen-year-old Joan to lead an expedition to the city of Orleans which was under English siege. Her presence rallied the French soldiers loyal to Charles and the English army was defeated. She convinced Charles to go to Rheims for his coronation and she stood at his side throughout the ceremony.
When Joan attempted to recapture Paris from the English, Charles denied her adequate military support and the attempt failed. In May 1430, she was captured by Burgundy troops. Charles refused to pay ransom for her or rescue her. In 1431, at the age of nineteen, she was convicted of sorcery and heresy by a tribunal of pro-English clergy and burned at the stake.
Eventually soldiers loyal to Charles evicted the English army from France. King Charles, concerned that his coronation was associated with a convicted witch and heretic, pressured Church courts for a review of the verdict against Joan. Her condemnation was annulled in 1456. She came to be regarded as a French national hero, and was eventually canonized by the Pope in May, 1920. She is one of the patron saints of France and her feast day is a national holiday.
What do we make of Joan’s story? She understood the voices to be of divine origin and their message to be true. But does God take sides in civil conflicts? This can lead to the opinion that divine will supports nationalistic endeavors even in our time. This is a basic problem with the substance of Joan’s claim.
What her life does illustrate is the cost of faithfulness to her mystical experiences. This is shown in her statements during her trial. For example, even though she was an illiterate peasant, when she was asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she humbly answered, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”
The Collect for this day provides a fitting summary of the meaning of her life for us: “We pray that we, like Joan, may bear witness to the truth that is in us….and give ourselves bravely to the struggle for justice in our time. Amen.”