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My Life with the Saintsby James Martin
The Saint of the Sock Drawer
When I was nine, my greatest pleasure was ordering things through the mail. The cereal boxes that filled our kitchen shelves all boasted small order forms on the back, which I would clip out, fill in with my address and send away, along with a dollar bill or two. A few weeks later a brown paper package addressed to me would arrive in our mailbox. Nothing filled me with more excitement.
While the most attractive offers typically appeared in comic books, these advertisements rarely represented what the postman eventually delivered. The “Terrifying Flying Ghost” on the inside back cover of a Spider-Man comic book turned out to be a cheap plastic ball, a rubber band, and a piece of white tissue paper. The “Fake Vomit” looked nothing like the real stuff, and the “Monster Tarantula” was not monstrous at all.
Worst of all were the “Sea Monkeys.” The colorful advertisement depicted smiling aquatic figures (the largest one wearing a golden crown) happily cavorting in a sort of sea city. Unfortunately, my six-week wait for them had a disappointing end: the Sea Monkeys turned out to be a packet of shrimp eggs. And while the Sea Monkeys did eventually hatch in a fishbowl on a chair in my bedroom, they were so small as to be nearly invisible, and none, as far as I could tell, wore a crown. (Sea Monkey City was nearly decimated when I accidentally sneezed on it during my annual winter cold.)
Other purchases were more successful. My Swimming Tony the Tiger toy, whose purchase required eating my way through several boxes of Sugar Frosted Flakes to earn sufficient box tops, amazed even my parents with his swimming skills. The orange and black plastic tiger had arms that rotated and legs that kicked maniacally, and he was able to churn his way through the choppy waters of the stopped-up kitchen sink. One day, Tony, fresh from a dip, slipped from my fingers and fell on the linoleum floor. Both of his arms fell off, marking the end of his short swimming career. I put the armless tiger in the fishbowl with the Sea Monkeys, who seemed not to mind the company.
But even with my predilection for mail-order purchases, I would be hard-pressed to explain what led me to focus my childish desires on a plastic statue of St. Jude that I had spied in a magazine. I can’t imagine what magazine this might have been, since my parents weren’t in the habit of leaving Catholic publications lying around the house, but apparently the photo of the statue was sufficiently appealing to convince me to drop $3.50 into an envelope. That sum represented not only an excess of three weeks’ allowance but also the forgoing of an Archie comic book—a real sacrifice at the time.
It certainly wasn’t any interest on the part of my family, or any knowledge about St. Jude, that drew me to his statue. I knew nothing about him, other than what the magazine ad told me: he was the patron saint of hopeless causes. Even if I had been interested in reading about him, there would have been little to read; for all his current popularity, Jude remains a mysterious figure. Though he is named as one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, there are only three brief mentions of Jude in the entire New Testament. In fact, two lists of the apostles don’t include him at all. Instead they mention a certain “Thaddeus,” giving rise to the name “St. Jude Thaddeus.” To confuse matters more, there is also a Jude listed as the brother of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. And though some ancient legends mention his work in Mesopotamia, the Encyclopedia of Catholicism says candidly, “We have no reliable information about this obscure figure.”
But Jude’s story didn’t concern me. What appealed to me most was that he was patron of hopeless causes. Who knew what help someone like that could give me? A tiger that could swim in the kitchen sink was one thing, but a saint who could help me get what I wanted was quite another. It was worth at least $3.50.
In a few weeks, I received a little package containing a nine-inch beige plastic statue, along with a booklet of prayers to be used for praying to my new patron. St. Jude the Beige, who held a staff and carried a sort of plate emblazoned with the image of a face (which I supposed was Jesus, though this was difficult to discern), was immediately given pride of place on top of the dresser in my bedroom.
At the time, I prayed to God only intermittently, and then mainly to ask for things, such as: “Please let me get an A on my next test.” “Please let me do well in Little League this year.” “Please let my skin clear up for the school picture.” I used to envision God as the Great Problem Solver, the one who would fix everything if I just prayed hard enough, used the correct prayers, and prayed in precisely the right way. But when God couldn’t fix things (which seemed more frequent than I would have liked), I would turn to St. Jude. I figured that if it was beyond the capacity of God to do something, then surely it must be a lost cause, and it was time to call on St. Jude.
Fortunately, the booklet that accompanied the St. Jude statue included plenty of good prayers and even featured one in Latin that began “Tantum ergo sacramentum . . .” I saved the Latin prayer for the most important hopeless causes—final exams and the like. When I really wanted something, I would say the “Tantum ergo sacramentum” prayer three times on my knees.
St. Jude stood patiently atop my dresser until high school. My high school friends, when visiting my house, often asked to see my bedroom (we were all inordinately curious about what each other’s bedroom looked like). And though I was by now fond of St. Jude, I was afraid of what my friends would think if they spotted the strange plastic statue standing on my dresser. So St. Jude was relegated to inside my sock drawer and brought out only on special occasions.
My faith was another thing, you could say, that was relegated to the sock drawer for the next several years. During high school, I made it to Mass more or less weekly; but later, in college, I became just an occasional churchgoer (though I still prayed to the Great Problem Solver). And as my faith grew thinner and thinner, my affinity for St. Jude began to seem a little childish: silly, superstitious, and faintly embarrassing.
That changed for me at age twenty-six. Dissatisfied with my life in the business world, I began to consider doing something else, though at the time I had little idea of what that something else would be. All I knew was that after five years in corporate America, I was miserable and wanted out. From that rather banal sentiment, however, God was able to work. The Great Problem Solver was at work on a problem that I only dimly comprehended. In time, God would give me an answer to a question that I hadn’t even asked.
One evening, after a long day’s work, I came home and flipped on the television set. The local PBS station was airing a documentary about a Catholic priest named Thomas Merton. Though I had never heard of Merton, all sorts of famous talking heads appeared on-screen to testify to his enormous influence on their lives. In just a few minutes of watching the program I got the idea that Thomas Merton was bright, funny, holy, and altogether unique. The documentary was so interesting that it prompted me to track down, purchase, and read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which told the story of his journey from an aimless youth to a Trappist monk. It captivated me as few books ever have.
Over the next two years, whenever I thought seriously about the future, the only thing that seemed to make any sense was entering a religious order. There were, of course, some doubts, some false starts, some hesitations, and some worries about embarrassing myself, but eventually I decided to quit my job and, at age twenty-eight, enter the Society of Jesus, the religious order more commonly known as the Jesuits. It was certainly the best decision I’ve ever made.
Upon entering the Jesuit novitiate, I was surprised to learn that most of my fellow novices had strong “devotions,” as they called them, to one or another saint. They spoke with obvious affection for their favorite saints—almost as if they knew them personally. One novice, for example, was especially fond of Dorothy Day, quoting her liberally during our weekly community meetings. Another talked a great deal about St. Thérèse of Lisieux. But though my brother novices were sincere in their devotions, and they patiently related the lives of their heroes and heroines to me, I now found the idea of praying to the saints wholly superstitious. What was the point? If God hears your prayers, why do you need the saints?
These questions were answered when I discovered the collection of saints’ biographies that filled the creaky wooden bookcases in the novitiate library.
I pulled my first selection from the shelves as a result of some serious prompting from one novice: “You’ve got to read The Story of a Soul,” he kept telling me (badgering me was more like it). “Then you’ll understand why I like Thérèse so much.”
At this point, I knew little about the “Little Flower,” as she is known, and imagined Thérèse of Lisieux as a sort of shrinking violet: timid, skittish, and dull. So I was astonished when her autobiography revealed instead a lively, intelligent, and strong-willed woman, someone I might like to have known. Reading her story led me to track down biographies of other saints—some well known, some obscure—in our library: St. Stanislaus Kostka, who, despite vigorous protests from his family, walked 450 miles to enter the Jesuit novitiate. St. Thomas More, whose fine intellect and love of country did not blind him to the centrality of God in his life. St. Teresa of Ávila, who decided, to the surprise of most and the dismay of many, to overhaul her Carmelite Order. And Pope John XXIII, who, I was happy to discover, was not only compassionate and innovative but also witty.
Gradually I found myself growing fonder of these saints and developing a tenderness toward them. I began to see them as models of holiness relevant to contemporary believers, and to understand the remarkable ways that God works in the lives of individuals. Each saint was holy in his or her unique way, revealing how God celebrates individuality. As C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.”
This gave me enormous consolation, for I realized that none of us are meant to be Thérèse of Lisieux or Pope John XXIII or Thomas More. We’re meant to be ourselves, and meant to allow God to work in and through our own individuality, our own humanity. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, grace builds on nature.
Moreover, I found companions among the saints—friends to turn to when I needed a helping hand. My novice director told me that he thought of the saints as older brothers and sisters to whom one could look for advice and counsel. The Catholic theologian Lawrence S. Cunningham, in his book The Meaning of Saints, suggests that the saints also serve as our “prophetic witnesses,” spurring us to live more fully as Christian disciples. Of course some might argue (and some do argue) that all you need is Jesus. And that’s true: Jesus is everything, and the saints understood this more than anyone.
But God in his wisdom has also given us these companions of Jesus to accompany us along the way, so why not accept the gift of their friendship and encouragement? And there’s no reason to feel as if devotion to the saints somehow takes away from your devotion to Jesus: everything the saints say and do is centered on Christ and points us in his direction. One day at Mass in the novitiate chapel, I heard—as if for the first time—a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the saints: “You renew the Church in every age by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of your unchanging love. They inspire us by their heroic lives, and help us by their constant prayers to be the living sign of your saving power.”
And I thought, Yes.
In reading the lives of the saints, I also discovered that I could easily recognize myself, or at least parts of myself, in their stories. This was the aspect of their lives that I most appreciated: they had struggled with the same human foibles that everyone does. Knowing this, in turn, encouraged me to pray to them for help during particular times and for particular needs. I knew that Thomas Merton had struggled greatly with pride and egotism, so when combating the same I would pray for his intercession. When sick I would pray to Thérèse of Lisieux; she understood what it was to battle self-pity and boredom during an illness. For courage, I prayed to Joan of Arc. For compassion, to Aloysius Gonzaga. For a better sense of humor and an appreciation of the absurdities of life, to Pope John XXIII.
Quite by surprise, then, I went from someone embarrassed by my affection for the saints to someone who counted it as one of the joys of my life. Even after the novitiate, as my Jesuit training continued, I read about the saints and took special pleasure in meeting new ones. You can never have too many friends.
Now I find myself introducing others to favorite saints and, likewise, being introduced. It’s funny—the way you discover a new saint is often similar to the way in which you meet a new friend. Maybe you hear an admiring comment about someone and think, I’d like to get to know that person, such as when I started reading about English Catholic history and knew that I wanted to meet Thomas More. Perhaps you’re introduced to a person by someone else who knows you’ll enjoy that person’s company, just as that novice introduced me to Thérèse. Or perhaps you run across someone, totally by accident, during your day-to-day life. It wasn’t until my philosophy studies as a Jesuit that I read St. Augustine’s Confessions and fell in love with his writings and his way of speaking of God.
That’s what this book is: a personal introduction to some of my favorite saints, holy persons, and companions. (Technically, a “saint” is someone who has been canonized, or officially recognized by the church as a person who has lived a holy life, enjoys life in heaven with God, and is worthy of public veneration by the faithful.) Over the past few years, whenever I’ve felt particularly close to a saint, I’ve spent some time writing down what drew me to him or her. Some of these essays reflect a devotion based on the public actions and well-known writings of a saint; others are rooted in a more personal response to a hidden part of a saint’s life—a small, almost unnoticed, piece of his or her story that has affected me in a deep way.
This memoir is organized chronologically, so that the saints are introduced more or less in the sequence in which I first encountered them. In this way, I hope that you might be able to follow the progress of my own spiritual journey as you read about their lives. But a single chapter may range over years and even decades. For example, I first met St. Bernadette when I was a Jesuit novice, but it wasn’t until some fifteen years later that I made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, where I came to know her story more intimately.
These reflections are not meant to be exhaustive, scholarly biographies of the lives of these spiritual heroes and heroines. Instead, they are meditations on the way that one Christian relates to these holy persons: how I came to know them, what inspires me about their stories, and what they’ve meant to me in my own life.
At the beginning of this essay, I said that I wasn’t sure what led me to my affinity to St. Jude. But as I think about it, I know it was God who did so. God works in some very weird ways, and moving a boy to begin a life of devotion to the saints through a magazine advertisement is just one of them. Yet grace is grace, and when I look back over my life, I give thanks that I’ve met so many wonderful saints—who pray for me, offer me comfort, give me examples of discipleship, and help me along the way.
All of this, I like to think, is thanks to St. Jude. For all those years stuck inside the sock drawer, he prayed for a boy who didn’t even know that he was being prayed for.
Child of God
Joan of Arc
Q. How do you know that it is Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine who speak to you?
A. I have told you often enough that they are Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine—believe me if you like.
Transcript of the trial of Joan of Arc
I had a big decision to make when I was twelve: French or Spanish? Our junior high school language program started in seventh grade; the idea was that students would continue with one language until senior year in high school, leaving them if not completely fluent then at least able to move easily from a seat on the student council to a job at the United Nations. Today it would be an easier decision, but in the 1970s Spanish had not yet become a kind of second language in the United States. It was a tough call, my first real “adult” choice and one that I thought could possibly have drastic, even life-changing consequences.
“It’s up to you,” said my mother, a former French teacher, who used to sing French songs to my sister and me while she was cooking. (I knew where her sympathies lay.) My father, on the other hand, spoke Spanish fluently and around the time of my big decision started dropping references to all the people at his office with whom he could converse en español.
I would like to say that I chose French because it seemed more mysterious, or more elegant, or more international, or—better yet—because I had an intuition that so many of the saints I would come to love would be French, and that even as an adolescent I harbored hopes to travel someday to Lourdes or read the autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux in her native language. But that would be a lie. I chose French because I saw one of the French textbooks, and it looked skinnier and therefore easier than the Spanish one.
So I spent the next three years at Plymouth Junior High School with Mr. Sherman, our rail-thin, nattily dressed French teacher, who had a goatee and who insisted that we always call him “Monsieur Sherman.”
On the first day of class, we seventh graders received our French names. Monsieur Sherman sailed up and down the aisles asking us our names and baptizing us with new ones. Most were direct translations. I became Jacques Martin, and my friend Peggy became Marguerite. My friend Jeanne stayed Jeanne, but with a nicer pronunciation. She was now Zhaann, instead of Jeenee.
Learning a new language was a joy. Screwing up my lips for u and swallowing my tongue for r was new and different, and fun. And at age twelve, my mind was still capable of memorizing foot-long columns of vocabulaire and page after page of verb conjugations. My classmates and I breezed through the next three years with Monsieur Sherman, taking dictation, doing drills to improve our vocabulaire, completing sentences, comprehending essays, putting on playlets, giving speeches, and watching ancient (that is, 1950s) filmstrips and movies about France and French culture.
Our textbooks and movies, however, made me wonder why French people had nothing but conversations like the following:
Le professeur: Hello.
Margot: How are you?
Le professeur: I am fine.
Margot: Where is the book?
Le professeur: The book is in the library.
Margot: Thank you.
Le professeur: You’re welcome.
Le professeur: Good-bye.
France sounded like a dull place. People there had apparently little to talk about. “Where is the book?” was a real conversation stopper. It did not surprise me that Margot decided to take her leave. Margot, by the way, was the star of our textbook, Je Parle Français, and spent the bulk of her days asking for books, commenting at length on the weather, and listing for her friends in numbing detail every item of clothing that she was taking with her on a vacation. “Here is my shirt!” she would exclaim. “And here is my hat!”
As do many who study foreign languages, I still remember a surprising number of the stilted conversations from our books and films with near-perfect recall, as these were the very first ones imprinted on my twelve-year-old mind.
At the end of the first year, M. Sherman screened for us his prized collection of slides, which he had taken on his last trip to his beloved France. As I recall, he spent a lot of time around the Louvre and going in and out of the subway in Paris. One slide showed a statue of a young woman astride a gleaming golden horse in another French town.
“Jeanne d’Arc,” he said. But before I could ask who she was—click—we were in Chartres.
After three years of Monsieur Sherman, my classmates and I graduated to high school, and the same cohort took classes with Madame Paulos and Madame Ramsey. Madame Paulos had a particular interest in French philosophy, so her tenth-grade charges read plenty of Jean-Paul Sartre, and we became probably the only fifteen-year-old existentialists in the area. Thanks to her efforts, when I arrived in college not only could I conjugate the plus-que-parfait (which I was unable to do in English), but I could also, when my freshman-year roommate told me proudly that he was reading Sartre, say haughtily but quite truthfully, “Yeah, I read that in tenth grade. In the original!”
As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, I studied business at the Wharton School. And though there was little room on our schedules for electives, I knew that I wanted to continue my French. During freshman year, I signed up for a course entitled “Intermediate French Grammar.” But the class included things I had already mastered in high school, and I decided I wanted more of a challenge. So instead I took “Advanced French Conversation,” confident that I could more than hold my own in any conversation about books, libraries, or items of clothing.
Unfortunately, I failed to realize that in a conversational French class at a large university, there is a good chance that people will have learned the language not in their suburban Philadelphia high school, like you, but in France, where they grew up. My class was entirely populated with French natives, whose conversation proved indeed advanced.
After all this French, I was itching to try it out beyond the classroom. So following graduation from college, I decided to take a trip to Europe.
Even in the wake of my college expenses, I had saved up some cash. To clinch the deal, my parents had given me a perfect graduation gift: enough money to buy a one-month Eurailpass. And, happily, one of my high school friends, Jeanne, or Zhaann, wanted to join me for a sprint around the continent.
It was a freewheeling trip—the first time I had ever been overseas—that took us from London to Paris to Rome to Florence to Venice to Vienna and back to London. We visited all the must-see sites, including a great number of cathedrals. Jeanne had been raised a Philadelphia Quaker, so I could act as if I knew everything about Catholic churches (which I certainly didn’t). During our stay in Florence I was furious when we were turned out of the city’s gorgeous Renaissance cathedral for wearing inappropriate attire: cutoff denim shorts and T-shirts. Filled with unrighteous indignation, I said to Jeanne (in words I recall with embarrassment): “Look, I give the church a dollar every time I go to Mass. I deserve to be let in!”
Despite our years of French, Jeanne and I had a tough time making ourselves understood in Paris. In one café, we mustered up our best pronunciation, with r’s and u’s that would make Monsieur Sherman proud, and asked for a plate of fruits, ending up instead with a steaming plate of greasy frites. Still, we were able to negotiate the city and take in most of the important sights. At Notre Dame, I spent as much time in the gift shop as I did in the cathedral itself, purchasing an expensive set of black rosary beads.
At one point, we passed a gilt statue of St. Joan of Arc, mounted on a horse, dazzling in the morning sunlight at the Place des Pyramides. “Your patron saint,” I said to Jeanne. Ironically, it reminded us of home: there is a copy of the statue in Philadelphia, not far from the city’s art museum. There the proud and resolute Joan sits astride her golden charger, defiantly holding a banner aloft as cars and buses rush past on their way into the city.
As we snapped photos of the statue, Jeanne asked what I knew about Joan of Arc. Embarrassed, I admitted that I knew little. I vaguely remembered Monsieur Sherman mentioning her in French class. She was a young girl (how young?) who heard voices (from whom?), led the French army to victory (against whom?), was burned at the stake (why, exactly?), and was declared a saint (when?).
As soon as I got home from Europe, I decided to return. There was so much more I wanted to see. I had used up all my savings, but I wanted to go back as soon as I could save enough money from my new job at General Electric.
Three years later and three years richer, I contacted another high school friend, Peggy, or Marguerite, about a return trip. At the time, Peggy and I were engrossed in literature from the First World War. We were fans of a fascinating book called The Great War and Modern Memory, written by Paul Fussell, one of our professors at Penn. His book, a study of how that war had influenced a generation of writers, launched me on a reading tour that included Robert Graves’s autobiographical Good-bye to All That, Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of George Sherston, and poetry by Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, and Wilfred Owen. Admittedly, it was not an interest Peggy and I could easily share with many others: World War I literature is not the sort of thing that pops up at cocktail gatherings or tailgate parties.
In any event, Peggy suggested we take a two-week trip to visit the major World War I battlefields in western Belgium and northern France: Ypres, Passendale, and Verdun.
One night, at my parents’ house, with a crinkly Michelin map spread out on the kitchen table, Peggy and I discussed our plans. Yet the more we thought about the trip, the more morbid our little odyssey seemed. And the longer we considered our tour through the ghostly battlefields (and, after all, cemeteries) the more our attention was drawn to some very different sights nearby, namely, the cathedrals of Chartres and Reims, the Champagne region of France, and, most of all, the storied castles of the Loire Valley.
Which is where we ended up. We set aside our interest in learning more about the horrors of the First World War for another, equally ardent desire, to see the beauties of the ancient vineyards, medieval cathedrals, and Renaissance châteaux of France.
Like the first trip, it was a joyful few weeks. Peggy and I rented a teeny car in Paris and drove south—from town to town and castle to castle in a leisurely fashion, stopping where and when we wanted. Our proficiency in French seemed miraculously to return, and the residents of the Loire Valley were more forgiving of our high school pronunciation than had been the Parisians.
Still, there were linguistic glitches. One evening I decided to travel to Chartres on the train, while Peggy stayed behind with our car in Paris. On her way out of the city, Peggy got hopelessly lost and pulled over to ask directions.
Unfortunately, she confused the verb chercher (to seek) with trouver (to find). She drove around Paris, rolling down her window every few minutes to say, “Je trouve la rue à Chartres”: “I find the road to Chartres.” Needless to say, many Parisians greeted this news of Peggy’s discovery with a mild shrug. One man said, “Congratulations.”
“Monsieur Sherman would have been horrified,” she said the next day.
Near the middle of our trip, on November 1, the Feast of All Saints, Peggy and I arrived in Orléans. The town sat squarely in the middle of the château towns that interested us: Chenonceaux, Chambord, and Chinon. Dog-tired, we arrived late in the afternoon and found ourselves rooms and a hearty supper in a small pension called Hôtel de Berry, close to the center of town. We would spend the next day touring the nearby châteaux before moving on to Reims.
In the morning, we opened our Baedeker’s and flipped to the section on Orléans. I knew almost nothing about the town, except for some vague connection to Joan of Arc. The travel guide laid out Joan’s story.
Born during the Hundred Years’ War, at the time of the conflict between the houses of Orléans and Burgundy, Joan, a young peasant girl, heard the voices of three saints—Michael, Margaret, and Catherine—who instructed her to save France. In the beginning, few people paid attention to Joan’s claims about her mission. But after she successfully predicted defeats, met the crown prince (known as the dauphin), and was vetted by a group of prominent theologians, it was decided that she should be put to use in the fight against the English.
In April 1429, Joan requested and received military assistance to free the captured Orléans, which had been besieged by the English since October 1428. After convincing the dauphin to provide her with troops, she led the army into battle in a suit of white armor, holding aloft a banner that bore an image of the Trinity and the legend “Jesus, Maria.” Despite being shot in the shoulder with an English arrow, Joan and her army freed the city on May 8. The English troops left the city, and the nearby English forts were captured. Since 1430 an annual commemoration of the victory has taken place in Orléans. And so Joan’s title: “Maid of Orléans.”
After another military campaign, Joan watched proudly as the dauphin was crowned King Charles VII at the cathedral in Reims. However, Joan was rudely shunted aside by royal courtiers as well as by the increasingly jealous (all-male) army. In a subsequent battle the Maid was captured by Burgundian troops, who then sold her to their allies, the English. The new king, significantly, failed to intervene. Joan was imprisoned for a year and questioned by a church court sympathetic to her enemies, and an English ecclesiastical court sought to convict her on charges of witchcraft and heresy. (Her refusal to wear women’s attire also infuriated the judges.)
On February 21, 1431, Joan appeared before an ecclesiastical court presided over by the bishop of Beauvais, a man named Cauchon, who was in thrall to the English. After a lengthy questioning in Rouen that stretched over six public and nine private sessions, an inaccurate summary of Joan’s statements was drawn up and submitted to the judges and to officials at the University of Paris. Joan had firmly adhered to her story of voices and divine guidance, but, as Richard McBrien writes in his Lives of the Saints, “her lack of theological sophistication led her into damaging mistakes.” She was denounced as a heretic.
Though threatened with torture, Joan refused to retract any of her statements. But later, brought before a huge crowd to be sentenced, she was intimidated into making some sort of retraction (the details of which are still disputed). Back in her jail cell, however, she regained her confidence and reversed her claim: she once again appeared in male clothing and declared her conviction that it was in fact God who had sent her. On May 29, she was condemned as a relapsed heretic and handed over to secular authorities. Joan was burned at the stake on the following day. Her last words were “Jesus, Jesus.”
Joan’s ashes, as Butler’s Lives of the Saints puts it, “were contemptuously cast into the Seine.”
Reading the spare entry from the guidebook, spending time in the town she delivered, and seeing the simple bronze statue of Joan in the plaza before the Hôtel Groslot in Orléans—she stands with head bowed, a mournful look on her rust-streaked face—made me anxious to find out more about her.
Once I returned home, I decided to learn more about Joan’s life. As a result, she would become the first saint to be more for me than an image in stained glass or a name over a church door. After scouting around, I tracked down a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s beautifully written 1936 biography, Saint Joan of Arc, which offered a sympathetic look at the saint and the complicated times in which she lived.
Soon after finishing the book, I noticed that Victor Fleming’s film Joan of Arc was airing on TV. For a while, then, my mental image of the sad-faced Joan standing in the plaza in Orléans was replaced by Ingrid Bergman: clad in brilliant silver armor, astride her white charger, silhouetted against an impossibly blue, Hollywood backlot sky. Or kneeling before the dauphin, played by José Ferrer, who peers haughtily at the star over his prodigious nose. Or bound with rope to the stake, a slim wooden cross raised to her lips for a last kiss. This Joan was beautiful, luminous, romantic.
It is likely an idealized picture. She was, after all, only sixteen when she presented herself to the dauphin. After surveying the evidence, Vita Sackville-West says, “We can presume her, then, to be a strong, healthy, plain, sturdy girl.” Sackville-West implies a plainness that may have enabled Joan to avoid the sexual desire of her fellow soldiers during their campaigns. Yet Donald Spoto’s scholarly biography, Joan, quotes several companions-at-arms who describe her as beautiful. Not long ago, the discovery of Joan’s suit of armor (pierced in all the correct places, corresponding to her wounds) showed her to be a small woman. In any event, she was probably no Ingrid Bergman. Perhaps in stature more like another movie actress, Saint Joan’s Jean Seberg.
There is a late-nineteenth-century painting of Joan by Jules Bastien-Lepage hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The Met was only a few blocks away from my new apartment in Manhattan, and after my trip to Orléans I began to visit it frequently.
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 heretic. (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.
Twenty years after my discovery of Joan, I found myself leading a monthly book club for young adults at a Jesuit parish in New York City. The group consisted of twenty or so twentysomethings, men and women, who gathered to discuss books of interest to Catholic adults. One evening each month we would meet for a simple meal of pizza and soda, followed by an hour’s conversation about a book we had read over the past four weeks.
I quickly grew fond of these gatherings. They served as an easy way for the young adults in the parish to be introduced to all kinds of books and writers. We read works of spirituality, theology, fiction, biography, history, and autobiography and—every year at Christmas—one of the four Gospels. Over the years we read Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day, Andre Dubus, Ron Hansen, and Kathleen Norris, as well as writers lesser known but no less talented. The meetings were also a natural place for people to find a sense of community in an often lonely city. As for me, it was fun just being with the group, occasionally offering my own perspectives on the books but more often listening to the group discuss what being Catholic meant in their own lives.
The meetings also provided some unintentional humor. After a long discussion on the Gospel of Mark, I noticed that one woman, usually chatty, had remained silent. When I asked how she had liked Mark’s Gospel, she said that she would rather not say anything, for fear of offending me.
Though I assured her that there was little she could say that would offend me, she still demurred. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m sure I’ve heard it all by now. What did you think of the Gospel?”
“Well,” she said. “I didn’t like Jesus very much!”
Everyone laughed (some out of shock). But after I assured her that it was natural to have strong reactions to Jesus (she had found him overly harsh in places), her blunt comments led to an honest discussion about the responses that Jesus’ contemporaries may have had to him.
One month I assigned the short biography Joan of Arc by the Catholic novelist Mary Gordon. Her book portrayed Joan as a kind of feminist saint. For many participants it was their first serious introduction to Joan. I sensed that they knew as little about her as I had when I spied her statue in Paris.
During the discussion the same young woman seemed fidgety. Finally she spoke.
“Let me get this straight,” she said. “Joan of Arc was a soldier who led people into battle. So why is she a saint?”
Her question deserved a careful reply. I wanted to explain that Joan was devoted to Jesus Christ, to prayer, to the sacraments, to the church, and to its saints. That she believed in God even when God asked her to accomplish the seemingly impossible. That she persevered during the direst of circumstances and eventually did achieve the impossible. That she inspired the confidence of princes, soldiers, and peasants alike. That she suffered physical deprivations in the name of her cause: to set captives free. That she continued to love the church even as she was persecuted by it. That she was human enough to falter before her judges, but strong (and humble) enough to recant. That she died a martyr’s death with the name of Jesus on her lips.
Before I could offer my explanation, one young man offered a different answer—at once simpler and wiser. It satisfied the questioner and quieted me in a way that I imagine Joan might have silenced her judges five centuries ago.
“Joan was holy,” he said, “because she trusted.”
An excellent answer. But for me, Joan is a saint whose mysterious appeal goes beyond even her remarkable trust. I often wonder why I have been so drawn to her. One reason might be that she is the first saint I really “met,” and her story imprinted itself as indelibly on my soul as those French vocabulary words did on my seventh-grade mind. And like my introduction to French in junior high school, Joan’s story also introduced me to a new language: the special language of the saints, made up of verbs like believe, pray, witness and the nouns of their actions, humility, charity, ardor. So Joan of Arc holds a unique place in my spiritual life as the first saint I came to know. Often what you remember best is what you learned first.
Yet Joan confuses me as much as she attracts me. She acts like a crazy young girl, hearing voices, leaving her family, going to war, and dying for an unseen person. Her story is more profoundly other than the story of almost any other saint in this book. (And that’s saying a lot, as you’ll see.) Even St. Francis of Assisi would seem more at home in our world than Joan. To many people today Francis would seem attractive and compelling, much like Mother Teresa. Joan, however, would probably just seem crazy.
But my desire to follow God was just starting to take root when I saw the statue of Joan in Orléans. At that time, I was going to church more regularly and paying more attention to the Gospel stories. My life seemed a little nuts, and I felt a little like Joan—not hearing voices, of course, but feeling that my attraction to religion was a crazy thing that had to be trusted anyway. Faith was something that seemed sensible and nonsensical at the same time. Joan found her way to God by learning a language that no one else could hear, and so she is the perfect model for someone on the beginning of a faith journey. She had no idea what path to take to reach her destination, and neither did I.
But, as my friend Peggy discovered, lost on the road to Chartres, the road that we seek is often the road we have already found.
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