I am always perplexed by St Joan of Arc, whose feast day was on January 6, the date she is thought to have been born in Domremy, Lorraine, in 1412. This has nothing to do with her holiness, her extraordinary gifts or her sanity; it is to do with the mission that she was seemingly entrusted with: why did God, through the agency of Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine – Joan’s “Voices” – give Joan the odd task of fighting the English, raising the siege of Orleans and thus enabling the weak and cowardly king, Charles VII to be crowned King of France at Rheims in July 1429?
Of course, the saints are God’s instruments and are given special tasks in this life to further the kingdom of heaven. That much is obvious. They start new religious orders, reform old ones, care for the poor and the sick, found schools, hospitals and a host of other holy endeavours; some of them even have visions. But to be commanded to directly engage in the dirty business of politics in order to help the perfidious French overthrow the equally perfidious English – I don’t get it. Could someone enlighten me?
This conundrum aside, St Joan is a fascinating and compelling phenomenon. OK, she chose to wear trousers (and I have made a decision not to, as in an earlier blog on this subject); but this was to protect her modesty during her campaigns, when she lived entirely among common soldiers, a species not known for fine manners. And as all those who knew her attest, although her mission was indeed guided by her Voices, she herself had great natural gifts of courage, endurance, seriousness of purpose and military strategy; she was no passive tool in their hands.
She was also immensely sane. I say this because I once knew a psychiatrist whose private hobby was giving lectures on St Joan as an interesting psychiatric example of schizophrenia; naturally her “voices” had to be an aspect of mental illness, he explained. Yet in her demeanour, her behaviour and her language Joan impressed everyone, friends and enemies, as undoubtedly clear-headed and in control of herself.
She has also been exploited by certain Catholic feminists of the St Joan Alliance, who place her as the emblem of their own campaign to join the priesthood. Joan, as a steadfast and loyal Catholic (although aware of the scandal of corrupt churchmen) would have been horrified by such an association.
The best book on St Joan in my view is Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc; all the more surprising as he was not a Catholic and had no particular Catholic sympathies; “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” he once remarked. But her extraordinary story caught his creative imagination and he immersed himself in 12 years of research to produce his book – a fictionalised biography recounted by Joan’s page and secretary. Twain declared that, “Taking into account her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment… she is by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”
Leaving aside the special case of Our Lady, I second that – even though I am still puzzled by Joan’s role in the divine economy.