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Thursday, May 29, 2008

A fool for Christ

- Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-LePage

Tomorrow is Joan of Arc's feast day. Here's a little of what James Marin SJ wrote about her in his book, My Life With The Saints ......


There is a late-nineteenth-century painting of Joan by Jules Bastien-LePage hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City .... Increasingly I found myself drawn to this great painting. Joan listens attentively to the voices of the saints, who are depicted as twining through a dense green thicket of trees in her parents' garden at Domrémy. St. Michael, in armor, floats in a tree, holding a sword. St. Catherine, with a garland of white blossoms woven through her hair, prays. St. Margaret is barely visible. Joan stands on the right side of the painting, her wide gray eyes glowing, her left arm held out before her as if awaiting directions. This dark-haired Joan is statuesque, earthy, magnificent.

But it was not these potent visual images as much as the marvelous illogic of her story that beguiled me. Jehanne la Pucelle, a young peasant (who could not read and, later, could not sign her name to her confession - she instead scrawled a cross), hears the voices of not one but three saints, who command her to lead the French army to victory over the English. The saints 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 so profound ( and still unknown) that it immediately convinces the young, weak prince of the righteousness of Joan's cause. Then - added as an afterthought in some blasé accounts of her life - she does 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 has said.

But the wind changes again. The new king proves fickle and decides not to lengthen Joan's incredible string of military victories. For her accomplishments, she is excommunicated by the church, which has always been suspicious of her reliance on "voices". The English burn 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 in facing her critics and her executioners? 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, centuries later, still breathtaking, no matter how many times we have heard the story.



Blogger Liam said...

I never know what to think about Joan of Arc. I do like Martin's take on her in his book -- focusing on her devotion and unwavering faith. Her story is very romantic. At the same time, I can't get my head around why God would inspire a saint to fight on one side of a war in a nationalist cause.

5:11 AM  
Blogger Garpu said...

I have to admit that I've never felt a particular pull towards Joan of Arc. Have you seen "The Messenger?" I saw a preview of it with the filmmaker present. I'd say save your money and rent something else.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

I kind of like the 'fool for Christ idea'.

10:46 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


Yes, I feel the same way - that God wouldn't take sides in a war.

And I'm always skeptical of other peoples' religious experience. I rend to be like James in his Varieties of Religious Experience, who lists all the people who had experiences and then gives medical reasons for them - like Paul being an epileptic.

But there is something about her that I find attractive, though.

10:51 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Jen,

I did see The Messenger. It was kind of disturbing but I thought it was not so bad. It seemed to leave open the possibility that she was mistaken in her visions. I've never seen the version with Ingrid Bergman .... I bet that one was much more romanticized than The Messenger.

10:54 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


Yeah. There's actually a Wikipedia page on the subject - Foolishness for Christ

10:57 AM  
Blogger Garpu said...

Huh, to be fair, I was seeing a preview, so it wasn't the theatrical release.

11:34 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

It was weird though - lots of violence in the battle scenes. And it showed her having visions of Jesus, if I remember correctly, not those three saints, and that seemed weird too, that Jesus was encouraging her to fight, although the visions were open to interpretation, I guess. Hmmm - I wonder what Ebert said of it or if he even reviewed it.

11:39 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Ouch! :) He gave it only 2 stars and didn't like it at all. He mentions a book by a French historian, too, that basically says much of what we believe about Joan is wrong .... interesting.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Garpu said...

Ouch...Yeah the vision thing *was* weird in the cut I saw. It was almost as if she were suffering from some psychosis.

12:42 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Yes :) Religious experience is so strange a subject. I want to believe it is valid but there's a part of me that thinks what Agent Mulder of the X-Files said once .... "When you talk to God, it's called prayer. When God talks to you, it's called schizophrenia."

11:30 AM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

The actresses who played Joan of Arc in two of the most famous cinematic versions of the story - Maria Falconetti, who starred in Dreyer's silent version in 1929, and Jean Seberg, who starred in Otto Preminger's 1956 version - both wound up killing themselves. I always thought that was kind of weird. And they almost roasted Seberg alive when filming the scene where she's burned at the stake. The special effects went awry and she actually caught on fire.

While it's hard to think that God takes sides in "a war in a nationalist cause," isn't She doing that all of the time in the Old Testament? Is there a difference between siding with a tribe or Chosen People and siding with a "nation"?

I always liked Dylan's "With God on our Side." That pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject.

Still don't understand why God isn't on the side of my football team. She seem to like Jeff's more.

4:39 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

While it's hard to think that God takes sides in "a war in a nationalist cause," isn't She doing that all of the time in the Old Testament? Is there a difference between siding with a tribe or Chosen People and siding with a "nation"?

Good point, which is one of the reasons I'm almost a heretical Marcion-bot :)

I like those lyrics, especially at the very end.

9:09 PM  

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