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St Joan of Arc: Holiness beyond comprehension

A statue of Joan of Arc in France (CNS)

Watching the last episode of Wolf Hall last week, one could not help but feel sympathy for the hapless Queen Anne Boleyn. It was clear that she was innocent of the charges of gross sexual misconduct laid against her, that her trial was trumped-up and that she had to die for political reasons: as Cromwell put it baldly, Henry wanted an heir, she hadn’t produced one, he was eyeing up her successor and she wouldn’t go quietly.

This episode put me in mind of that of another innocent young woman, also put to death unjustly for reasons of political expediency, whose trial, which has been recorded for history in all its tragic grandeur, was a mockery – and a disgrace to the Church which held it. I mean, of course, St Joan of Arc, burned at the stake in Rouen on May 30 1431 by the English, with support from their French and allies.

The two women were also accused of witchcraft, a convenient excuse in those days to persecute women who had fallen foul of society’s rules. But there the comparison ends. No-one would pretend that Anne Boleyn was a saintly person; she seems to have conspicuously lacked even the human virtues of her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon. Joan, on the other hand, who was entirely rehabilitated in a re-trial of 1455 and later canonised in 1920, comes across from the records as an extraordinary young woman: chaste, honourable, charitable to her enemies and to the poor – and steadfast in courage and in her piety and faith. Across the centuries her personality leaps from the medieval page in all its simplicity and purity. Interrogated by her judges as to whether she thought she was in a state of grace, she simply replied that if she was, she hoped God would keep her in it and if she was not, that he would put her in it.

I mention her because at the same time as watching Wolf Hall, I was reading The Maid of Orleans: the Life and Mysticism of Joan of Arc by Sven Stolpe, first published in 1949 (the author, a Swede, had converted in 1947) and now reprinted by Ignatius Press. It is well worth reading. Joan’s life has inspired many interpretations, such as George Bernard Shaw’s wordy polemic, Mark Twain’s brilliant historical recreation and Marina Warner’s depiction of her as an early champion of feminism. Stolpe sets himself the task of stripping away the myths and legends to discover the genuine mystic behind them. Perhaps, as someone new to the Church himself, he was staggered by discovering such a mysterious historical episode, dominated by such a heroic and unusual figure.

It is clear, as Stolpe admits in his postscript, that his interpretation of Joan’s life has been heavily influenced by the brief writings of the French writer, Leon Bloy. According to Bloy the sacrifice made by Christ on the Cross is constantly replayed in history by his chosen ones, such as the martyrs. Thus Joan’s mission can be seen as suffering for the sins of mankind in union with Christ. Stolpe grasps the summit of Christian heroism in his remark that “no-one who does not sacrifice himself can serve as a tool of God”.

Completely dismissing the (modern, secular) charges against Joan that her “voices” were the result of a hysterical or schizophrenic-type mental disorder, he compares her to another mystic, Catherine of Siena, remarking insightfully that “the spheres she entered are not accessible to such persons as have allowed their spiritual body to wither away and to make their spiritual poverty into an arrogant omniscience, denying all that in their spiritual blindness they cannot see, in their cowardice do not dare to believe, in their egoism have not the strength to love.” In other words, the holiness of saints such as Joan is beyond the comprehension of ordinary people. The author also remarks, “When the devil cannot prevent the appearance of a noble and pure soul, he revenges himself by distorting the picture of this soul in the minds of others.”

The only aspect of Joan’s life and mission that has always puzzled me slightly is why God should have wanted her to intervene, seemingly in a purely political way, in the fortunes of France at that time. As an article by Anthony Peregrine in the Telegraph last Saturday on a new museum in Rouen dedicated to her life, puts it rather more flippantly: “Why God should be so anti-English is the sort of imponderable that has infuriated us for centuries.” Perhaps the answer lies in the speech made by Bishop Felix Dupanloup of Orleans in 1869, when he was trying to bring alive the saint to his fellow countrymen as a great patriot and Catholic, that “in freeing her country [she] also saved it from the heresy that might have become a danger in the future.”