Joan of Arc: A Voice of Conscience

It seems at first glance to be hardly the stuff of which contemporary sanctity is made. The story of Joan of Arc as we have known it is an almost mythical one, a fantasy of divine proportions. She was a peasant, a simple girl from the unsophisticated countryside, who took it upon herself to save the country when its leaders could not. She was impelled by the voices of St. Catherine of Siena, St. Margaret,and the Archangel Michael, she said, to follow the will of God. She was to liberate a city, lead an army, save a king, and free a nation from foreign control. The story seems remote, the model suspect, and voices from heaven not a common way of expressing contemporary spiritual insights or calls from God. At best, the story belongs to another age, hardly to ours.

With the English invading France at the height of the Hundred Years War, the city of Orleans under siege, and the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne, deprived of his rights to the throne, France was without a leader, without a resistance movement, and so without a nation. The fifteenth century was, Twain wrote, “the worst century since the Dark Ages.’’ The country was about to lose its identity. The peasant population of France was being ground under foot by a foreign power, their lands usurped, their villages destroyed, and their crops ruined. For them there was no recourse, no defense, no leadership at all.

Into the midst of this medieval tale comes a seventeen-year-old girl who, in the 1400s, dresses like a man, leads an army, raises the siege of Orleans, and provides France with a king. There, perhaps, the fantasy ends. In the end, Joan is captured by her English enemies and burned at the stake with the help of churchmen who consider her a heretic, label her a witch, and condemn her to death because of her refusal to denounce her voices as the church has commanded her to do.

It is a pathetic situation. The girl who, with the approval of French churchmen, risks her life to follow the voices of God within her is condemned by a different church court, which included another set of bishops, both English and French, and is burned by these judges for failing to be a faithful daughter of the church.

The relation of all that to sanctity in the twenty-first century seems at best obscure until little by little the local history is peeled away and the light is focused on the very human and very universal situation that underlies it. Joan is not remembered because she was a soldier in the service of a king. Joan is to be revered because she is a model of conscience development, a monument to the feminine relationship to God, and a breaker of the stereotypes that block the will of God for people.

Joan’s problem was that she was caught between what clearly had to be done to right oppression in a system and the then present political will of the church. French theologians had found her stable and orthodox. The English bishops who tried her after her capture called her a witch and a heretic.

Joan was tried on seventy-two charges. The most serious ones were two: she dressed like a man, and she refused to put the authority of the church before what her inner voices, her conscience, demanded.

George Bernard Shaw presents the situation clearly in his scene of the church trial before the English episcopal judges and Inquisitor. D’Estivet is the prosecutor; Ladvenu is a Dominican monk who believes in Joan and supports her. The assessors are the churchmen responsible for evaluating the evidence. They are totally hostile to Joan:

Joan: I am a faithful child of the Church. I will obey the Church—
Cauchon (hopefully leaning forward): You will?
Joan:—provided it does not command anything impossible.

The struggles of conscience over authority is a mighty one. All officialdom arrayed, however, cannot sway the young Joan. There are some things in life that belong to God alone, Joan implies—human life, human responsibility, and human will.

The Inquisitor: If the Church Militant tells you that your revelations and visions are sent by the devil to tempt you to your damnation, will you not believe that the Church is wiser than you?
Joan: I believe that God is wiser than I; and it is God’s commands that I will do. . . . If any Churchman says the contrary I shall not mind him: I shall mind God alone, whose command I always follow. . . .
Joan: God must be served first.
D’Estivet: Then your voices command you not to submit yourself to the Church Militant.
Joan: My voices do not tell me to disobey the Church; but God must be served first.
Cauchon: And you, and not the Church, are to be the judge?
Joan: What other judgement can I judge by but my own?

In every age governments tell people what is good for them and cloak the national good in moral terms. Sometimes it is “Kill a Commie for Christ’’ that is preached; sometimes it is saturation bombing of whole regions that is called good in the name of “freedom’’ when what is really freed is oil. Sometimes it is gay bashing that is called godly. In every moment, Joan of Arc hears another voice and says, ”No.’’

Inquisitor: As to this matter of the man’s dress. For the last time, will you put off that impudent attire, and dress as becomes your sex?
Joan: I will not.
Ladvenu: Can you suggest to us one good reason why an angel of God should give you such shameless advice?
Joan: Why, yes: what can be plainer common sense? I was a soldier living among soldiers. I am a prisoner guarded by soldiers. If I were to dress as a woman they would think of me as a woman;
and then what would become of me? If I dress as a soldier they think of me as a soldier, and I can live with them as I do at home with my brothers. . . .

Suddenly, Joan of Arc appears in the plain light of our own lives. She is a woman with a conscience. She is a woman with a mission. She is a woman who has been chosen by God for a man’s job. She is a woman who is bold enough to claim that she has access to God and that God has outrageous plans for her. She is a woman who dares to confront the authorities of the time with a greater question than they are able or willing to handle. She is a woman who threatens the status quo. She is a woman.

She tells an inspired truth and leads a life consecrated to her God.

It is a sad story but a hopeful one. The church that condemned her is also the church that canonized her. She died for her truth, true, but others have lived better for it because of her.

In the life of Joan of Arc we see the God who works at will, outside the norms, despite the mores, in contrast to dying systems.

Joan of Arc is not simply the patron of France in times such as ours. Joan of Arc is patron of all those who hear the voice of God calling them beyond present impossibilities to the fullness of conscience everywhere.

—from A Passion For Life:Fragments of the Face of God (Devotional Edition) by Joan Chittister (Eerdmans)