I had a big decision to make when I was 12: French or Spanish? Our junior high school language program began in the seventh grade, and the idea was that students would continue with one language until senior year in high school, leaving them if not completely fluent then at least able to move easily from the student council to a job at the United Nations. Today it would be an easier decision, but in the 1970’s Spanish had not yet become a kind of second language in the United States. It was a tough call, my first real adult choice, one that I thought could possibly have drastic, even life-changing, consequences.
I would like to say that I chose French because it seemed more mysterious, or more elegant, or more international, orbetter yetbecause I had an intuition that so many of the saints I would come to love were French, and that even as an adolescent I harbored hopes someday to travel to Lourdes or read about Thérèse of Lisieux in her native language. But that would be a lie. I chose French because I saw one of the French textbooks and it looked skinnier and therefore easier than the Spanish one.
So I spent the next three years at Plymouth Junior High School with Mr. Sherman, our rail-thin, nattily dressed French teacher with a goatee, who insisted on always being called Monsieur Sherman.
Learning a new language was a joy. Screwing up your lips for u and swallowing your tongue for r was new and different, and therefore fun. And at age 12, my young mind was still capable of memorizing footlong columns of vocabulaire and pages of verb conjugations. My classmates and I passed the next three years taking dictation, doing drills to improve our vocabulaire, completing sentences, comprehending essays, putting on playlets, giving speeches and watching ancient filmstrips and movies about France and French culture.
As with many who study a foreign language, I still remember a surprising number of the stilted conversations from our books and films with near perfect recall, as these were the very first ones imprinted on my nearly blank 12-year-old mind.
At the end of our first year, M. Sherman screened his prized collection of slides, which he had taken on his last trip to France. He spent a lot of time around the Louvre and going in and out of the subway in Paris: Voilà le Métro! One slide showed a statue of a young woman astride a gleaming golden horse, in another French town.
"Jeanne d’Arc," he said. But before I could ask who she was - click - we were in Chartres.
After three years with Monsieur Sherman, we graduated to high school, and the same cohort continued to take French classes. A few years later, as an undergraduate at the Wharton School, though there was little room in my schedule for electives, I knew that I wanted to continue with French. So during freshman year, I signed up for a course called Advanced French Conversation, confident that I could more than hold my own in any conversation.
Sadly, I failed to realize that taking conversational French at a large university means that there is a good chance that some of the students will have learned the language not in their suburban Philadelphia high school, like you, but in France, where they grew up. My class was populated entirely by native speakers of French, whose conversation proved indeed advanced.
At the Place des Pyramides
After all this French, I was itching to try it out, at least outside of the classroom. So following graduation from college, I decided to take a trip to Europe. Happily, one of my friends from high school French class, named Jeanne, wanted to join me for a sprint around the continent.
One day, during our stay in Paris, we passed a gilt statue of St. Joan of Arc, mounted on a horse, dazzling in the sunlight at the Place des Pyramides in Paris. Your patron saint, I said to Jeanne.
As we snapped photos of the statue, Jeanne asked what I knew about Joan of Arc. Embarrassed, I admitted that I knew little. I vaguely remembered Monsieur Sherman mentioning her in French class. She was a young girl (how young?), who had heard voices (from whom?), led the French army to victory (against whom?), had been burned at the stake (why?) and had been declared a saint (when?).
As soon as I got home, I decided to return to Europe. There was so much more I wanted to see. Not right away, of courseI had used up all my savingsbut as soon as I could save enough money from a new job.
Three years later and three years richer, I contacted another high school friend, Peggy, about a return trip, this time to somewhere other than Paris: namely, the cathedrals of Chartres and Reims, the Champagne region of France and, most of all, the storied castles of the Loire Valley.
Like the first trip, it was a joyful time. Peggy and I rented a minuscule car in Paris and drove southfrom town to town and castle to castle in a leisurely fashion, stopping where and when we wanted. And though our proficiency in French seemed miraculously to return, there were still some linguistic glitches.
One evening I decided to travel to Chartres on the train, while Peggy stayed behind with our teeny car in Paris. On her way out of the city, Peggy got hopelessly lost and pulled over to ask directions. Unfortunately, she confused the verb to search (chercher) with to find (trouver). She drove around Paris, rolling down her window every few minutes, to say, Je trouve la rue à Chartres (I find the road to Chartres). Needless to say, most Parisians greeted this news of Peggy’s discovery with a mild shrug. One man said, Congratulations.
Monsieur Sherman would have been horrified, she said the next day.
Near the middle of our trip, on Nov. 1, the Feast of All Saints, Peggy and I arrived in Orléans. The town sat squarely in the middle of the châteaux towns that interested us: Chenonceaux, Chambord and Chinon. Dog-tired, we arrived late in the afternoon and found ourselves rooms and a hearty supper in a small hotel near the center of town.
In the morning, we opened our Baedeker’s and flipped to the section on Orléans. As I read aloud from the guidebook, my ignorance again came to the fore. I knew almost nothing about the town, except that it had some vague connection with Joan of Arc.
Maid of Orléans
The travel guide laid it out. Born during the Hundred Years War, at the time of conflict between the houses of Orléans and Burgundy, Joan, a young peasant girl, heard the voices of three saints, Michael, Margaret and Catherine, who instructed her to save France. In the beginning, few paid any attention to Joan’s claim about her mission. But after she successfully predicted defeats, met the crown prince (known as the Dauphin) and was vetted by a group of prominent theologians, it was decided that she should be put to use in the fight against the English.
In April 1429, Joan requested and received military assistance to free the captured Orléans, which had been besieged by the English since October 1428. After convincing the dauphin to provide her with troops, she led the army into battle in a suit of white armor, holding aloft a banner that bore an image of the Trinity and the legend Jesus, Maria. Despite being shot in the shoulder with an English arrow, Joan and her army freed the city on May 8. The English troops left and their nearby forts were captured. Since 1430 an annual commemoration of the victory has taken place in Orléans. And so Joan’s title: Maid of Orléans.
After another military campaign, Joan watched proudly as the Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII at the cathedral in Reims. However, Joan was rudely shunted aside by royal courtiers as well as by the increasingly jealous (all-male) army. In a subsequent battle the Maid was captured by Burgundian troops, who then sold her to their allies, the English. The new king, significantly, failed to intervene. Joan was imprisoned for a year and questioned by a church court sympathetic to her enemies, and an English ecclesiastical court sought to convict her on charges of witchcraft and heresy. (Her refusal to wear women’s attire also infuriated the judges.)
On Feb. 21, 1431, Joan appeared before an ecclesiastical court presided over by the bishop of Beauvais, who was in thrall to the English. After a lengthy questioning in Rouen that stretched over six public and nine private sessions, an inaccurate summary of her statements was drawn up and submitted to the judges and to officials at the University of Paris.
Throughout, Joan had firmly adhered to her story of voices and divine guidance. After repeatedly being examined about the source of her visions, she said bluntly: I have told you often enough that they are Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine. Believe me if you like.
But as the Rev. Richard McBrien writes in his Lives of the Saints, her lack of theological sophistication led her into damaging mistakes. She was denounced as a heretic.
Though threatened with torture, Joan refused to retract any of her statements. But later, brought before a huge crowd to be sentenced, she was intimidated into making some sort of retraction (the details of which are still disputed). Back in her jail cell, however, Joan regained her original confidence and reversed her claim. She once again appeared defiantly in male clothing and declared her conviction that it was in fact God who had sent her. On May 29 she was condemned as a relapsed heretic and handed over to secular authorities. Joan was burned at the stake on the following day. Her last words were Jesus, Jesus.
Joan’s ashes, as Butler’s Lives of the Saints says, were contemptuously cast into the Seine.
Reading the spare entry from the guidebook, spending time in the town Joan delivered and seeing the simple bronze statue of her in the plaza before the Hôtel Groslot in the cityshe stands with head bowed, a mournful look on her rust-streaked facemade me eager to find out more about her.
Strong, Healthy, Plain, Sturdy
After returning home, I decided to learn more about Joan. As a result, she was the first saint who would become more for me than just an image in stained glass or a name over a church door. After scouting around, I tracked down a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s 1936 biography, Saint Joan of Arc, which offered a sympathetic look at the saint and the complicated times in which she lived.
Soon after finishing the book, I noticed that Victor Fleming’s film Joan of Arc was airing on television. For a while, then, my mental image of the sad-faced Joan standing in the plaza at Orléans was replaced by Ingrid Bergman: clad in brilliant silver armor, astride her white charger, silhouetted against an impossibly blue, Hollywood backlot sky. This Joan was beautiful, luminous, almost unbearably romantic.
It is almost certainly an idealized picture. After surveying the evidence, Vita Sackville-West says in her biography: We can presume her, then, to be a strong, healthy, plain, sturdy girl. This plainness, one might guess reading between the lines, may have been one trait that enabled her to avoid the inevitable sexual desire of her fellow soldiers during their long campaigns. Not long ago, the discovery of Joan’s suit of armor (pierced in all the right places, corresponding to her battle wounds) showed her to be, while perhaps sturdy, a small woman. She was, after all, just 16 when she presented herself to the dauphin. Certainly no Ingrid Bergmanperhaps in stature more like another movie actress, Jean Seberg of Saint Joan.
But it was not these potent visual images that beguiled me so much as the marvelous illogic of her story. A young peasant (who could not read and, later, could not sign her own name to her confessionshe signs instead with a cross) hears the voices of not one but three saints who command her to lead the French army to victory over the English. They instruct her to dress as a man, a soldier. She does. She travels to meet the dauphin and, confronting an annoying demonstration of royal persiflage, promptly picks him out of the crowd at court, kneels at his feet and tells him a certain secret, a secret that is so profound (and still unknown) that it immediately convinces the young, weak prince of the righteousness of Joan’s cause.
Thenadded as an afterthought in some blasé accounts of her lifeshe does in fact lead the army to victory. She prays to St. Catherine for the wind to change during the battle at Orléans. It does. The dauphin is crowned King Charles VII in Reims.
All as Joan had said.
But the wind changed again. The new king proved fickle, and decided not to lengthen Joan’s incredible string of military victories. For her accomplishments, she was excommunicated by the church, always suspicious of her reliance on voices. The English burned the Maid as a witch. Legend has it, though, that her strong heart was not consumed by the flames.
Each saint holds a particular appeal for believers. What is Joan’s? Her youth? Her military valor? Her courage? For many, it is her willingness to be, in the words of St. Paul, a fool for Christ. The audacity of her plan, based on directives from heavenly voices, is still, centuries later, no matter how many times we have heard the story, breathtaking.
Seeking and Finding
There are some obvious reasons why this warrior is considered a saint. Joan was devoted to Jesus Christ, to prayer, to the sacraments, to the church and to its saints. She believed in God even when God asked her to accomplish the seemingly impossible. She persevered during the direst circumstances and eventually did achieve the impossible. She inspired the confidence of princes, soldiers and peasants alike. She suffered physical deprivations in the name of her cause: to set captives free. She continued to love the church even as she was persecuted by it. She was human enough to falter before her judges, but strong (and humble) enough to recant. And she died a martyr’s death with the name of Jesus on her lips.
Joan was holy because she trusted.
But for me, Joan is a saint whose mysterious appeal goes beyond even her remarkable trust. Indeed, I often wonder over her attraction for me. Part of it is that she is the first saint I really met, and her story imprinted itself as indelibly on my soul as those French vocabulary words did onto my seventh-grade memory. And like my introduction to French in high school, Joan’s story also introduced me to a new language: the special language of the saints, made up of verbs like to believe, to pray, to witness and the nouns of their actions, which include words like sacrifice, humility, charity, ardor. So Joan of Arc holds a unique place in my spiritual life as the first saint I came to know. And often what you remember best is what you learned first.
Yet Joan confuses me as much as she attracts me, because, basically, she acts like a crazy young girl, hearing voices, leaving her family, going to war and dying for an unseen person. Her story is more profoundly other than those of almost any other popular saint. Even St. Francis of Assisi would seem more at home in our world than Joan. To many people today, Francis would seem attractive and compelling, as Mother Teresa did. Joan would probably just seem crazy.
But at the beginning of my desire to follow Godwhen, as a young adult, I was starting to go to church regularly and pay attention to the Gospel storieswhich was beginning to take root when I saw the statue of Joan in Orléans, things did seem a little nuts, and I felt a little like Joannot hearing voices, of course, but feeling that my attraction to religion was a crazy thing that had to be trusted anyway. Something that seemed sensible and nonsensical at the same time. Joan found her way to God by learning a language that no one else could hear, and so is the perfect model for someone on the beginning of a faith journey. She has no idea what path to take to reach her destination, but then again, neither did I.
But as my friend Peggy discovered, lost on the road to Chartres, the road that we seek is very often the road that we have already found.