Book review: “Joan of Arc and Spirituality,” edited by Ann W. Astell and Bonnie Wheeler

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Book review: “Joan of Arc and Spirituality,” edited by Ann W. Astell and Bonnie Wheeler

Joan of Arc was a mystic and a saint with a sense of humor.

George H. Tavard — the great Catholic theologian and one of the first to take a deeper look into the role of women in the history of the Church — recalls two of her quips in his essay in Joan of Arc and Spirituality, edited by Ann W. Astell and Bonnie Wheeler.

It was just after she’d come to the Dauphin to tell him that she would lead his troops to drive back the English and get a crown on his head at Rheims as Charles VII. Understandably, His Royal Highness wanted to be sure he wasn’t being duped by this teenage girl with all her talk about hearing voices. So he convened a meeting of churchmen, one of whom was a Dominican friar.

The friar, writes Tavard, “reported that la Pucelle had made fun of his provincial pronunciation when she said that her voices spoke French with a better accent than his.”

Three months later, as she and the French army came to Troyes, a Franciscan approached her, made the sign of the cross and splashed her with holy water, to which Joan replied:

Approach boldly; I will not fly away!

The riposte, Tavard writes, was indicative of Joan’s understanding that the Franciscan feared she was a witch. It also denoted “a certain tolerance of the friar’s antics.”

These were two stops on what Tavard describes as Joan’s “final pilgrimage to Calvary [in Rouen], ultimately a more awesome and more inspiring event than any pilgrimage she could have made to the holy shrines in Christendom.” He goes on to add:

No one else [in the 15th century] approaches her conjunction of total devotion to God and the King of Paradise with total self-sacrifice in the cause of justice and of the proper order of society as it was conceived in her time.

 

“Her spiritual autobiography”

Tavard’s essay, written a few years before his death, is one of 15 in this richly textured, scholarly yet accessible collection, looking at Joan’s beliefs in words and actions from a wide range of perspectives, published in 2003.

There is much in Joan’s story that has made her so fascinating to writers and readers of all stripes since her short life and gruesome death in 1431 at the stake as a heretic.

In his essay on Joan and her love of the sacrament of Confession, Henry Ansgar Kelly, an expert on medieval and renaissance studies at UCLA, notes that the perverted trial that led to her execution had been aimed to show that she was an ally of Satan. Instead, by its mean-spiritedness and its abuse of her rights and person, it “confirmed and demonstrated her saintliness.”

Similarly, the ambitious Bishop Pierre Cauchon who saw Joan’s capture as a way to curry favor with (and riches from) the English was so focused on recording every word of her interrogations, questions and answers, that he

provided us, in effect, with her spiritual autobiography in eliciting the responses that he did, and showing how she managed to persevere in her resolve, even though abandoned by her allies…., and in the midst of overt foes, treacherous spies, reluctant collaborators, and sympathizers who were too timid or cowardly to help her…..And, centuries later, [this trial and a second one that exonerated her] provided an inestimably rich dossier for her final trial of canonization.

That canonization in 1920, nearly half a millennium after Joan’s martyrdom, would have been almost impossible to bring about without those trial records.

 

“Fighting for justice”

Writing from exile in England during World War II, Simone Weil, the French philosopher, activist and mystic, noted that, as a means of boosting patriotic feeling in her home nation, leaders had portrayed Joan of Arc as a symbol of France’s military might and glory.

“Weil thinks that Joan of Arc as read by popular French culture does not provide a model of genuine spirituality,” according to philosophy professor Ann Pirruccello, now at the University of San Diego.

That’s because spirituality isn’t about might or glory.

Yet, Pirruccello writes, Weil, in other writings, praised Joan in ways that went to the heart of Weil’s beliefs that love is the only true spirituality.

These tantalizingly short references have been overlooked, but, when presented in the context of Weil’s own faith and philosophy (as Pirruccello does), they point a spotlight to Joan’s deepest spirituality.

One example from Weil: “It was Joan of Arc who used to say she felt pity for the kingdom of France.” Pirruccello notes:

While she does not elaborate on Joan’s pity, it is clear that Weil reads it as a form of compassion for suffering and fragile France….[a love that] embodies a humble, self-emptying love at its heart. For all Joan of Arc’s words about force and victory, Simone Weil reads through them an enduring love, which suggests the presence of something superior to natural impulses.

 

Weil also writes that Joan “herself was uncertain.” Pirruccello suggests that this cryptic remark, in the context of Weil’s other writings, puts Joan in parallel with the Jesus on the cross who said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Joan, when faced with the coming reality of being burned at the stake, renounced all that she has stood for as a messenger of God and as a leader of the French against the oppression of the English.

This, for Weil, is “evidence of [Joan’s] high spiritual condition,” according to Pirruccello. Whereas other martyrs are described as going to their deaths with the certainty of heaven to come — a certainty that Weil sees as an immature faith — Joan, like Jesus, realized that death, despite her faith, could be her utter and final end.

She knew doubt, and the deepest faith, for Weil, is that which doubts but nonetheless stays true to God. That’s what Joan did — she renounced her renunciation and died at the stake.

Her temporary denial of God, in Pirruccello’s reading of Weil’s perspective, was

evidence of Joan’s authentic spirituality because it signifies that she has fully acknowledged the fragility of her life and the possibility that she may cease to exist as an “I” or self.

Weil also described Joan as “pure,” and Pirruccello writes:

It seems that Weil is able to call Joan pure because she has learned how to act without attachment to her own idea of her self. When Weil discusses pure actions, she usually cites examples where one has been willing to give up one’s life rather than see a terrible injustice committed.

Joan is not mesmerized by the idea that force will accomplish anything. She opts for love. Pirruccello writes:

Joan of Arc, as Weil reads her, is not fighting for glory, but for justice, the other face of her compassion for France.

 

“A young girl with guts”

Other contributors to Joan of Arc and Spirituality take on other aspects of Joan’s spirituality:

Personal freedom

Jane Marie Pinzino, author of several scholarly books on Joan’s posthumous second trial in which the verdict of heresy against her, looks at how Joan’s conscience — her relationship with God — led her to do many things that were in violation of church rules, such as wearing men’s clothing. Her actions and then her nullification trial were a turning point in Church history because they resulted in the theological endorsement of Lex Privata, the understanding that private conscience, when true and pure, trumps public rules.

“This debate ultimately resulted in a major legal decision that reordered spiritual values in ways that profoundly humbled ecclesiastical authority, a striking chapter from religious history often overlooked.”

Church rulings in Joan’s case “provided Roman Christendom with a thoroughly defended legal precedent in favor of personal freedom from the public law, a freedom that an individual enjoyed not as a release from responsibility but as an empowerment that increased responsibility and obliged personal accountability to a more rigorous moral standard.”

 

The greatest heroism”:

Denise L. Despres, a humanities professor at the University of Puget Sound, examines the impact of Joan’s story on the spiritual development of St. Therese of Lisieux in the late 19th century, noting that “for Therese, the youthful Joan, who had yet to be canonized, provided a personal model of female sanctity, both to emulate and against which to define and measure the efficacy of the hidden life of Carmel in the modern world.”

Despres tells how Therese, like most other French Catholics, was tricked by a cruel hoax that made the nun a laughingstock.

“Deceived by Tasil’s cynical and depraved fiction, even as Joan had been misled by her jurors, Therese finds the greatest heroism in humility.”

 

“Spiritual rebirth”:

Heather M. Arden, an expert in French literature at the University of Cincinnati, gives a close reading to Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc (The Tale of Joan of Arc) by Joan’s contemporary, the writer and proto-feminist Christine de Pizan. Arden notes that, for Christine, “Whether besieging the walls of Orleans or crowning Charles king of France, Joan always has the vision of God before her. And God in return bestows on all women, through Joan, not only honor but love.”

In addition, Joan is “a living emissary [from God], a being through whom Christine can feel herself in touch with the divine. This spiritual joy and wonder at the miracle of Joan of Arc is the underlying motivation of Christine’s hyperbolic praise of Joan, her wonder at the honor bestowed on La Pucelle, and her joyous feelings of release from her cage, of soaring toward the light of God’s presence.”

Christine’s poem is “more than an historical document or a feminist treatise, it is the moving record of a spiritual rebirth.”

 

A young girl with guts”:

Brian Patrick McGuire, an expert on medieval history, looks at the pro-Joan views of Jean Gerson, an important French scholar and churchman of her time. He suggests that, in writing a commentary about the Song of Songs, Gerson had the French teenager, still leading armies into battle, in mind.

“The love that is as strong as death hints at Joan’s dedication to fight to the death for the end of the English domination in France. The many references to the faith of ordinary, uneducated people may have been a reminder that her simple faith was worthy of respect and belief. It is otherwise hard to understand why Gerson would have included this theme in an exposition of a biblical work he otherwise saw as dealing with the contemplative life…”

McGuire adds, “What is important here is to see Gerson making use of the last chapter of the Song in order to describe how a young girl with guts becomes a central figure in bringing peace.”

 

“Later to be sanctified”

Princess Marie

Many painters and sculptors have depicted Joan of Arc in the nearly six hundred years since her death, usually focusing in some way on the contrast between her as a soldier and her as a teenage girl. She’s shown as victorious and pretty, glorious and brave.

In many ways, these artists create an image of her that echoes the traditional images of such angels as St. Michael and St. Gabriel, both of whom were among the saints whose voices Joan heard.

But the image used on the cover of Joan of Arc and Spirituality is Joan of Arc in Prayer, a bronze outside Hotel Groslot in Orleans, completed in 1836 by a member of the French royal family, the ill-starred Princess Marie d’Orleans.

Nora M. Heimann, an art historian at Catholic University of America, describes it in her essay in this collection:

Marie d’Orleans Joan of Arc in Prayer portrays the Maid slightly larger than life size, standing alone in a moment of rapt spiritual devotion, her slender frame clad simply in medieval armor and her boyishly coiffed head bowed humbly in prayer with the hit of her sword held like a cross pressed against her heart….

Devoid of any overt allusions to patriotic pathos, militant nationalism, royalist fealty, or even organized religion, this spare yet compelling image of a young maiden soldier absorbed in solitary prayer expresses Joan of Arc’s mystical faith in a manner at once fervent, introspective, and intimate.

Two years after completing the statue, Marie d’Orleans died at the age of 25 from consumption related to childbirth.

By then, her figure of Joan in prayer was being reproduced at a great rate, and it made a point about the Maid that had often been lost in the previous centuries — that, at the center of her actions, wasn’t the quest for military glory but a deep religious faith. Heimann writes:

Gently pious without seeming too overtly Catholic, historically accurate enough to be recognized in her armor and short hair, yet softened and made feminine in her demeanor and her skirted costume, the princess’s sculpture offered a subtle and brilliant negotiation between the many compelling — and at times competing — royalist, populist, secular, military, and religious elements of Joan of Arc’s remarkable life and legacy.

Today, Joan is recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, but that might never have happened if Marie hadn’t carved this sculpture.

For by commemorating the Maid of Orleans’s faith in God in a new and resonant manner, the princess of Orleans helped to reestablish a conception of the spiritual, rather than merely martial or royalist aspects, of a life that would later be sanctified by canonization in 1920.

Patrick T. Reardon

5.1.17

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