Desperately Seeking Joan

Woman behind the hype
Capture of Joan of Arc, Adolphe Alexandre Dillens


A favorite of Charles de Gaulle and Charles Péguy, not to mention Bernard Shaw, Joan of Arc has long been a historical figure whose popularity tells us perhaps more about those who revere her than about the martryed saint herself. Joan’s curiously malleable legend has been championed by secular French republicans and Catholic monarchists, Dreyfusites and anti-Dreyfusites, Nazi collaborators and resistance figures alike. The popular imagination seems never to tire of her, and the story of the maid of Orléans has been the subject of at least twenty films, most effectively in Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, most recently in last year’s thoroughly contemporary The Messenger (see Richard Alleva,"Dames at War," December 17, 1999). There is something about the story of the teen-age girl who led an army against English invaders and helped to crown a French king, only to be betrayed and condemned for heresy and witchcraft, that never fails to fascinate. It is a story that clearly has captivated novelist Mary Gordon, and below she writes on how the multifarious nature of Joan’s legend and the elusiveness of her personality can expand our ideas about sainthood.


Even centuries as the angel of men’s imagination did not make it easy for Joan of Arc (1412-31) to be named a saint by the Roman Catholic church. It was in 1869, nearly three hundred and fifty years after her excommunication and death at the stake, that the process of formal canonization was begun, and she was not declared a saint for another fifty years. In truth, Joan’s remarkable personality did not conform to the traditional categories the church used to judge individual sanctity. At the same time that Joan’s cause was being discussed in the Vatican, the question of Christopher Columbus’s sanctity was also up for debate. But his case was dropped in 1892 on the ground that he had an illegitimate son. This seemed to be an insurmountable problem, overcoming the glory that he earned because, as the records of the Congregation of Rites (now the Congregation for the Causes of Saints) tell us, "He did not hesitate to conquer the dark sea and to thrust himself into every kind of vicissitude in order to acquire new shores for the gospel and enter into their possession in the name of Jesus Christ."

This transformation of Columbus’s career as an explorer into one of evangelization indicates the problems for someone like Joan or Columbus, someone whose fame was achieved by exploits not specifically religious in nature. In order to be named a saint, the candidate has to be understood to have been acting for the greater good of the church and in ways that conformed to the gospel. As with Columbus, it required a certain amount of quickstepping to interpret Joan’s goal of uniting France under the scepter of Charles VII as a sacred mission. That this was done for Joan and not for Columbus points to an aspect of the church’s canonization process that is always present, if not dominant. At any historical moment, the church canonizes people whom it needs to canonize to make a point about what it considers, at that period, an exemplary life. A saint is made a saint not because canonization does anything for him or her; presumably, he or she has already achieved eternal salvation. A saint is canonized to help the living, and the nature of the help that the living need is often determined by the contemporary pressures of the world upon the church.

Although the first and most natural of questions regarding Joan’s canonization is "Why did it take so long?" the more fruitful and interesting ones are "Why did it happen when it did?" or "Why did it happen at all?" The process that resulted in Joan’s canonization began in 1859. The France of that period was at the center of the intellectual and social phenomenon that the church, beginning with Pope Pius IX and continuing to the present papacy, considered one of the greatest-ever threats to its power. This was a series of impulses over which the church spread the linguistic tarpaulin of the word "modernism," a habit of mind that was secular, rationalist, and anti-hierarchical. Joan’s canonization in 1920 can be seen as the church’s attempt to recapture the larger public imagination for itself. It was one response to the powerful tide of socialist, anticlerical thought, particularly powerful at the end of the First World War. Many in the church believed that this tide, whose source was clearly in France, could potentially capsize the boat piloted by Peter’s heirs to the papacy. What was needed was the ballast of Joan’s image: the popular, and unmistakably loyal, daughter of the church. There is a certain irony that this loyal daughter of the church was sentenced to death by an ecclesiastical court, but this irony was passed over for the greater good of a clearly legible symbolic truth. The greater irony is that this woman, who insisted upon the primacy of her individual experience, who has been called by some, the first Protestant, would be seen as the curb by which the faithful could be brought to obedient, communal heel.

It was an irony not unregarded by the devil’s advocates charged with disproving Joan’s qualifications for sanctity. This was only one of the problems with Joan as a saint that they addressed, and it is difficult not to sympathize with their reservations. In examining Joan’s history of resistance to her clerical judges, they raised the question of whether this constituted a model of faithful obedience, whether, in presenting her for emulation by the faithful, the church was backing the wrong horse, or filly. It is important to understand what is in the mind of the church when it names someone a saint and in this context to explore the differences between a saint and a hero.

The church’s criteria for sainthood are based on a person’s having lived an exceptional, in fact unimpeachable, life of virtue. The emphasis is placed upon the three theological and four moral virtues; it is assumed that the candidate would have kept the Ten Commandments of Moses and the six commandments of the church-the latter having to do with questions of fidelity to worship. Keeping the commandments is only paying membership dues in the club of potential salvation; it implies only the minimum compliance (however rare that might be in reality), not the distinction that sainthood implies. The three theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity; the four moral are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Whereas none of her devil’s advocates questioned whether Joan was an admirable person, they asserted again and again that she was imperfect in the practice of the virtues. One of the devil’s advocates, Jean Baptist Lugari, said of her: "Even though she was a most noble heroine, even though she was pious and endowed with the most impeccable morals, still her virtues do not seem to be such as to make her worthy of being proposed by a decree of the Holy See an exemplar to be imitated by the Christian faithful." 

It is only the devil’s advocates who have focused in a concerted way on Joan’s inconsistencies and erratic behavior.

Of all those who have tried to understand Joan’s life and career, it is only the devil’s advocates who have focused in a concerted way on Joan’s inconsistencies and erratic behavior. None of them suggests that she is not remarkable, but they note her radical shifts. They bring up several events in her life which they determine to be less than saintly. Some of their objections are easy to dismiss. They accuse her of disobedience to her parents in not telling them about her voices; they fault the perfection of her chastity because of her boasting about it and her willingness to undergo physical examinations to verify it. They are worried that so many different men seem to have mentioned, and therefore seen, her breasts. They charge her with intractableness in refusing to answer the judges at her trial, ignoring the fact that this was her judicial right.

More serious for Joan’s admirers, they insist, that her throwing herself out of a seven-story tower was an act either of attempted suicide, or presumption, or at best, a lack of submission to her unjust judges, thereby refusing the example of Jesus. They note that she lied by her own admission about the details of an angel bringing the king’s crown. They suggest that her voices might have been the result of a hysterical delusion, and remark that even correct prophecy isn’t indicative of the holiness of the visions: They cite the case of Savonarola. They question her faith and her fortitude, saying that these were present only when things were going well for her. They understand that she was badly treated by those who condemned her (some of the consultors use this as an argument against proceeding with Joan’s case, since it will only air the church’s historical dirty laundry), but they contend that her desire to escape from prison, the complaints with which she received her sentence of death, her tears and dread when she was brought to the stake, although understandable and even poignant in human terms, are evidence that she did not possess saintly fortitude.

They repeatedly assert that because of her stubborn refusal to submit the question of her voices’ validity to the church fathers who were judging her, she is not a model for the faithful. They question whether she isn’t just a military or a nationalist hero. One consultor wonders that, since France has been such a source of poisonous ideas and so much trouble to the church, maybe her cause wasn’t a good one. Wouldn’t the church, he suggests, have been better off if France had ceased to exist? They say that she is different from the Old Testament heroines-Judith and Esther-with whom she was compared, because their works were a direct preparation for the coming of Christ whereas hers were only rooted in the fate of one country. Most important, they say that she is not a martyr. They repeat the evidence that she did not want to die, that she in fact tried to prevent her death, particularly by her abjuration. They compare her to the earlier Christian martyrs, who embraced death and wouldn’t have lifted a finger to keep it back. They suggest that, had those saints behaved like Joan, we would have no models of perfect martyrdom.

But Pope Pius X and the College of Cardinals wanted Joan; they dismissed any negative evidence. Perhaps the true miracle of Joan’s canonization is that the church, in its desire to create a saint who would bring the wandering sheep back into the fold, who would provide a simple and unassailable enough force to counteract the lure of modern pleasure seeking and free thought, put aside their narrow standards. They forgot their devotion to obedience and conformity and created a saint who is full of the contradictions and imperfections that make, if not a saint, then a great and lovable human being. The devil’s advocates, unlike the admiring artists who did their part to insure for Joan a different kind of immortality, understood her changeability and its implications. In this they honored her complexity with a clear gaze, clearer than many of those who loved her for their own reasons. Their understanding was silenced, and the church, like everyone else who was to use Joan for his or her own needs, presented us with another oversimplification. But a look at her in the clear light of her words and actions creates an image not of singleness, but of fascinating complexity. She was a virgin and she died for what she believed, but she does not fit the type of the virgin martyr. Ardent, impatient, boastful, resistant, implacable, she is like all great saints, a personality of genius.

But what is marked by the word saint, and of what use is such a word to those of us who are skeptical about, or may have ceased to believe in, the certifying power of a group of men, appointed in the name of the Roman Catholic church? What category of human activity does the word "saint" still meaningfully describe? Perhaps we should look first at what associations come with the word, both to those for whom it is a living term, and those for whom it is a merely recognizable one, denoting something to which they have no access and in which they may have no interest. "Saint" connects immediately to "goodness." But what does goodness mean to us now? Which are the virtues that we prize? Is it possible for us now to prize any virtue, believing, (all of us necessarily post-Darwinian if not post-Freudian) that we act as we do from self-interest? Is our willingness to still keep the word "saint" in our lexicon a crack in the matte wall of one of our important understandings of the world? Does the word "saint" create the possibility, glimpsed, and urging a quick discard, of action beyond self-interest? A passionate economy of sheer spending, where what needs to be done, what is compelling and desirable, all come together for more than isolated moments in a human life? A way of life lived in a radical present tense, in which cost is uncalculated and the future someone else’s to regard?

Those who have treasured saints have done so because they provide a dream of accompaniment, a hope of advocacy, a special connection based on something particular: shared traits, a profession, a name, a date of birth. In return for devotion, there is the sense of being singled out by the saint, or being part of the saint’s small elect. The saint is simultaneously folded into the life of the devoted and worn as a cloak and talisman. She provides inspiration. Above all, she is someone to whom the votary bows. With all these considerations in mind, what kind of saint could Joan be? Not, perhaps the patroness of France, but rather the patroness of the vivid life, prized not for military victories but for the gift of passionate action taken against ridiculous odds, for the grace of holding nothing back. She was canonized for the wrong reasons, but her words and actions are stronger than the seal set on her by Rome. She leaves behind her a record which if we look at it closely, hops and leaps, moves not in a smooth glissade, but in a series of fits and starts. Perhaps the most fitting tribute we can give her is to acknowledge that any understanding of her will be partial, and that so compelling a figure will constantly demand new visions, new revisions. For she inspires in those whom she compels a response which the word "hero" is too distant properly to serve. She asks to be made our own; she speaks to our need, passionate, beyond or prior perhaps to reason, to feel that we are hers. But she will not stand still for us.

Published in the 2000-03-10 issue: 

Mary Gordon is the author of eighteen books, including Final Payments, Joan of Arc: A Life, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, and most recently the novel Payback.

Also by this author
This Pregnancy

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads