Joan of Arc: Why Is She A Saint?

A Sister of Mouth Carmel FAITH Magazine July-August 2004


Joan of Arc is in many ways a difficult saint to understand. To the French, of course, she is a national heroine. But that is part of the difficulty. Is she just a national figure with significance for one country. What universal relevance does she have? And what saintly significance does she have even within her own country? She has been adopted as an icon of Catholic pride in France, it is true, but she could also become a mere symbol xenophobia.

Perhaps she can be accommodated to a very modern theology of liberation; a prophetess of the rights of ethnic groups to self determination; a harbinger of modern struggles for human rights and resistance to unjust oppression. There may be something in this, and it is certainly how she was seen by many even in her own time - so the thought is not actually very modern after all. But it is surely not a fully adequate account of her life and death being held in the highest reverence by the Church. She may have been on the side of good and truth and right, but wasn’t she a little unbalanced?

In fact the idea of her fighting for ethnic rights against an imperial aggressor is not quite accurate. The long running territorial wars between England and France during the Middle Ages were hardly ‘ethnic’ in origin. Most of the English nobility and royalty came originally from Normandy, Provence and Aquitaine and had good title to lands in those regions. If anything it was the French who annexed England to begin with. But by the time of Henry VI there was a growing perception among the French that they were ruled from across the water. And the English army did tend to use France as a practice ground for the atrocities they then wreaked on each other at home in their ongoing civil war – the inappropriately gentle sounding ‘ Wars of the Roses’.

Also one could argue that medieval France was never a single political entity in any case. The sizeable Duchy of Burgundy was an independent territory and fought mostly with the English throughout the period in question, and other parts of modern day ‘France’ (like Brittany) were historically completely separate kingdoms. It is true to say, however, that Joan of Arc appeared on the scene just at the time when a French national consciousness was emerging. And there is no doubt that she made French unity under the Dauphin (the son of the hereditary King of the Franks) her special mission.

But why does this make her a saint? Why is she not just a political hero like William Wallace who did much the same for Scotland, and similarly died a gruesome death at the hands of the Norman/English? The biggest difference is that she claimed that her mission was given to her from God, and that all she did was in obedience to his commands through the voices of various saints.

This, of course, was no less controversial and problematic then than it is now. In fact it was more so for her in her own life-time. Our own age might have met her with cool scepticism, even laughter and put her in a mental home. But she was surrounded by the deepest suspicion both at home then at court. She was feted for a while by her own side as God’s agent of freedom and victory, but she was quickly dumped by her patrons when it was politically expedient to do so. Eventually she was confronted with the murderous outrage of her enemies who interpreted her claims, and especially her success in pursuing them, as having been Satanically inspired.

Yet she was no political firebrand. Comparisons with William Wallace or any other nation-building pioneer fall to the ground as soon as we consider not just her claim to a supernatural calling, but the highly unusual and fragile figure she was to be chosen for such a job. She was an uneducated teenage girl from an obscure and tiny farming community, whose only experience of the world was tending geese and sheep, and whose overriding ambition as a young person had been to make her first communion!

Just looking at these facts, most people are left struggling to fit her into their world view. Joan is an enigma. But then she always was. There are fewer historical figures of whom it is more accurate to say that she ‘marched to a different tune’. The voices she heard in her head led her down strange paths indeed. But they did not lead her into obscurity and madness. There is an overwhelming sense of sanity that comes through reading contemporary accounts of her life and transcripts of her words. She kept a peasant’s directness and simplicity, together with a shrewdness and a devastating honesty in all she said and did. And her voices led her right into the middle of international politics, with all its smoke and thunder.

There is no doubt that once the smoke had cleared - the smoke of war and of her own cruel funeral pyre – Joan emerged as a figure of unique and single minded courage. Whatever spirits it was that drove her on, they communicated to her own spirit a deep sense of urgency and an almost immovable sense of her own destiny. But unlike modern cult leaders or charismatic enthusiasts she did not gather disciples to herself, or even start a religious order. She was driven by a purpose. She had no time for passengers.

It seems doubtful that even she understood why she was asked to do what she did. Her letters to the English - dictated to scribes because she was illiterate - simply assert that it was her duty to “drive the English from France” because “the King of Heaven wills it”. She warns and begs her enemies not to resist God’s will and to go peacefully. She understood that she must act at the command of God and she obeyed Him, against insurmountable odds and all natural expectations.

This alone would make her holy and beloved in the eyes of God. For even if she were mistaken or deluded about her mission, her intention was to do God’s will with no thought for her self, for her reputation or for her personal safety. We can perhaps catch an echo of Our Lady’s supreme holiness and courage in this. And yet how different her life and her chosen task! It is the very strangeness of her path that puzzles us, and yet the very same strangeness – that incredible leap from unlettered shepherd girl to national war leader at the age of seventeen –speaks of some higher purpose that may be beyond our understanding.

The fact is, despite all the perplexity, the Church did eventually canonize the Maid of Orleans in 1926. So we know with certainty that she was indeed inspired by God and achieved her remarkable mission through grace. But we may still ask what was the eternal nature of that mission. How does it fit into the pattern of salvation history? Why was it God’s will that St. Joan drive the English from France? To answer this we have to pull back a bit from the details of the hundred years war between France and England and take a wider view. From our historical vantage point we can look ahead a little to the times following the martyrdom of St. Joan and see something of what the Wisdom of God already knew, so to speak.

St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. The early forms of Lollardy and proto-Protestantism were already around, and barely a hundred years later the reformation swept across Europe, tearing the Church apart. Then as every schoolboy knows Henry VIII of England went into schism with the Universal Church, allowing Protestantism to envelop the whole island. Catholics were proscribed and persecuted here for three hundred years, with many priests and lay people being brutally martyred in the earlier years of that time. France however kept the faith and became a refuge for many, a place for seminaries in exile and a base from which to rebuild the Church in northern Europe.

France also became a place of many saints during the counter-Reformation, saints like St. Vincent de Paul and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Countless new religious orders were also founded there, some of which became the bedrock of England’s Catholic revival centuries later. For France was given no divine guarantee that she would always be faithful. The French revolution swept away much of the good done by earlier times, and further persecutions drove the French religious, by an ironic reversal of roles, to find a home in Edwardian England. But for a significant period of history, precisely the age that followed on from the time of Joan of Arc, we can see how God might not want France to be under the sway of the English kings.

It is somehow typical of God’s ways that he chose the most unlikely of people to achieve this purpose. Joan of Arc could not possibly have known the fuller significance of what she was doing. She was a simple soul that was totally open to God’s will. Naturally determined and uncomplicated, she had given her heart, mind and body to the King of Heaven while still very young. So it was she who was open to the message and to the task, and she gave herself to it without question or cavil.

We might ask ourselves how the people of the time could be expected to be sure that Joan was genuine and that she was indeed sent by God. And we could answer that the more unlikely the vessel that contains the treasure, the more clear it becomes that it is God’s work, and not any human power. How could a little girl from the sticks lead a demoralised French army to victory against the tide of history? Either she was of God or she was indeed bewitched - which is what Shakespeare dutifully portrayed her as in Henry VI Part I.

It is rather like the question that confronted the Pharisees about Jesus: how could the carpenter from Nazareth perform these signs? Either he was of God or he was possessed, which is what they claimed at his illegal trial, just like they did with Joan. Like Jesus Himself, you simply cannot dismiss Joan of Arc of ordinary. But if she was of the Devil, then we must confront the truth that she achieved what she did through much prayer and penance, calling her men to return to the sacraments and to goodness of life as the only guarantee of victory? Notice too that it was only possible for her enemies to attribute her actions to demons if they believed in their heart of hearts that God was in fact on their side – an all too common English trait – despite the brutality and sinfulness of theirlives, which Joan often pointed out to them.

She certainly acted like someone sent by God, and her death bore witness to her trust in God’s promises to her, even though she had nothing left to gain in this life and was under the worst mental coercion to deny what she knew in her heart. But her soul had already been purified of all attachment to self in the purgatorial fires of spiritual death before her poor body was likewise consumed as a burnt offering.

The cause for her canonisation made it clear that Joan of Arc’s sanctity lay not in her political and military achievements, which were incomplete anyway due to the vacillation and duplicity of others, but in her purity of heart. That she was perfectly chaste there is no doubt. That she was innocent in other ways too, and demanded high standards of others is also well attested. She was a young woman of intense prayer, who abhorred the slightest sin among her soldiers – lying, swearing, coarseness - and pleaded with them to fight in a state of grace by going to confession before any battle.

It is a myth invented by the English, and perpetuated by George Bernard Shaw, that it was against Canon Law for a woman to wear man’s clothing. Nonetheless she took no pleasure in warfare, fighting and the footgear of battle. She merely did what she had to, with a practical common sense. But she was only a young girl after all, one who sacrificed all her natural expectations and sensitivities to the task in hand. God alone knows how many other souls he had tried to approach to do this task for him and found only arrogance, invincible spiritual ignorance or cowardice, before he went to this fragile but open vessel and filled her with such extraordinary power.

And that powerful grace, so intense and concentrated in her short life and her frail form, was opposed by spiritual powers in the ether too. Once you grasp the fuller historic meaning of St. Joan’s life, you can better understand the terrible hatred that was stirred up against her by the powers of Hell. She was protected in her battles under the banner of her saints until her job was done, but then, like Jesus in Gethsemane, she was betrayed by men and handed over to trial and death on trumped up charges. This was her hour of darkness.

The way she was treated amounted not only to political but spiritual vengeance. She was subjected to repeated, humiliating, and wholly unnecessary physical examinations; she was quizzed endlessly by theological experts about her ‘voices’, who used all manner of trick questions to entrap her. Her answers, unsupported and terrified, were often manifestly inspired. One has even made its way into the new Catechism. She was asked whether she was in a state of grace. If she had answered ‘yes’, she would have been convicted of heresy because of spiritual presumption. But if she had said ‘no’, she would have been admitting to being in league with the devil. None of this was actually fair or in accord with the Church’s procedural norms, but her answer was perfect in wisdom and innocence. She said:“If I am, may God preserve me so, and if I am not may God remedy it as soon as He may.” (CCC )

Despite her answers, or maybe because of them, she was convicted of heresy and witchcraft anyway, and condemned to be burned. From childhood Joan was terrified of fire, and it was in prison, alone and under threat of rape and torture that she showed a rare sign of weakness, denying that her beloved voices were genuine. If this was a sin in any way, it was one she repented of immediately and in bitter tears. She took back her denial and embraced the martyrdom that must now come her way, with her characteristic courage. Reviled and alone until the end, apparently excommunicated at the pronouncement of the English hierarchy, (although this was irregular and groundless in canon Law), she was even denied the sight a crucifix, which she begged for as she burned. A terrible dark night of thesoul must have been visited upon her, so like our Lord’s inner devastation as he died on the cross.

It was actually recognised very quickly by Rome – twenty years later – that the her trial was un-Canonical and scandalously unjust. But it took another five hundred years for her to be formally canonised. St. Joan finally arose from the ashes to become a figurehead to the French in fighting off another and more tyrannical enemy in the form of Hitler’s Germany. But her meaning and example as a saint stretch beyond the borders of France and far beyond her historical situation.

She is a saint of simplicity, obedience and single-minded devotion to duty. She is a saint of singular inner faith and trust in God’s providence. She is a curiously Old Testament like figure in her military service of God and his plans – a mixture of Samson and Deborah. And yet she is uncannily modern in her strong and powerful femininity. She was docile to God’s will, but no pushover to the men of power who surrounded her. She demanded spiritual standards from all who kept her company. She insisted on being listened to when she knew she was speaking the truth. She put mettle into weak hearts and doubting minds, chiding men for their double dealing and moral cowardice.

And yet she never lost or suppressed her womanly nature. She was passionate in her devotion, not only to God but to her Dauphin. She knew his weakness well, but was ever patient and tender, renewing her efforts to hold him together and steer him in the right direction, even when he exasperated her beyond endurance with his worldliness and self indulgence. She remained modest, sensitive and caring in the midst of battle-hardened men at arms. But above all she cared for souls, even those of her bitterest enemies. She begged them to repent of their arrogance, impurities, cruelties and injustices. She prayed that they would heed the voice of God speaking through his handmaid before it was too late.

Perhaps it is no accident that St. Joan was canonized only recently, not quite a hundred years ago. The issues of our day are very different from hers. It is not schism in the Church in Europe that now threatens, but a battle for hearts and minds across the globe. But we still need her virtues, her cry for innocence and justice, her bold stance for doing the will of God and listening to his Word, more than ever. We need her generosity of heart which puts aside its own ambitions, forgoing the quiet and comfortable life and throwing itself into the fray, fighting for the truth as a matter of life and death.

Now that she has joined her beloved guardians – St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret – in heaven, she may perhaps return to whisper in our ears what God requires of us in this troubled age. If so, let us hope that some of us, at least, are listening.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2004