No, not Charles de Gaulle. Go back about 600 years. I'm talking about Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of Orléans.
About a year ago, a dear Holy Cross priest and friend, Fr. Nicholas Ayo, csc, made an interesting suggestion to me by way of something to read. It was entitled "Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc." Evidently, there was another person who was fascinated with this woman, himself being an accomplished writer. Father Ayo heartily recommended this as a great read.
The author's name? Mark Twain.
From the outset, the facts behind Joan's ascent to military leadership are nothing short of astounding. Consider the following:
She inherited a war. Not one of a few years' duration, but one that had been going on for almost a hundred years. That war, fought between France and England, had just about broken the backs of the French.
She had no military experience – including the fact that, when she assumed leadership, she did not know how to ride a horse.
She was illiterate. Which meant that in addition to not knowing how to read and write, she was also at the mercy of others in terms of written, diplomatic documents and lettered articles of military engagement.
She was a woman. In the twelfth century. Enough said.
And finally – here is one of the most striking things – when she became commander of the national armies of France, she was seventeen years old.
Seventeen years old.
In order to comprehend the magnitude of such a thing, I'd invite you, when you have a moment, to spend a few minutes with a seventeen year old. And then, using that experience as a filter, think about giving the reins of your nation's army to this youngster.
I took Fr. Ayo's advice, and read both volumes of Mark Twain's narrative, about seven hundred pages of magnificent writing. And I just fell in love with this single-minded, courageous, brilliant and faith-filled woman.
Twain had done his homework, checking on all the official court transcripts of Joan's ecclesial trial from the fifteenth century. Joan had successfully orchestrated huge military campaigns, campaigns that ultimately brought the throne securely back to France. And yet, when she was captured during an ill-advised sortie outside of Rouen, that same monarchy turned its back upon her, leaving her at the mercy of clerics from the aggressor nation.
And if her military genius wasn't enough, her own self-defense before the most cunning (and deceitful) ecclesial minds of her time was nothing short of breathtaking. Her answers to impossible, rigged questions brought her judges to stalemates, over and over again.
Bearing all these stories in mind, and now finally walking down the Rue de Gros Horlage, in Rouen, I was anxiously waiting to come across a very sacred place.
It was the place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
I sat in this square for a very long time, thinking of the young woman, what she had done, what she had risked, how incredible – how very much beyond credible – was her story. I tried to push my mind past the cheap souvenir stores and the sidewalk cafés, the old lady playing the concertina in the alleyway, the street vendors. I tried to push my mind back six hundred years, to that day in May when a brave, young woman – a woman who, simply through faith, broke the power of five generations of English aggression – was led like a common criminal to a brutal public punishment, tied to a stake and burned alive. The only thing the ecclesial court could pin on her was the wearing of men's attire – they were attempting to try her on charges of heresy, but she outflanked their arguments every time.
I sat there, and looked carefully at the ground that had once received her ashes.
Saints have always been cut from different cloth. They see the world in utterly Other and uncompromised ways. And in just about every case, they embrace their deaths clinging to the love of God and the vision they were given.
I am in awe of this woman.
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