Written by a Swedish convert and first published in 1949, this well-researched and sympathetic study of St Joan of Arc treats her as a mystic, courageous, devout and obedient to the divine destiny to which she was called.
Stolpe makes it clear that Joan was not a hysteric or mentally unbalanced. He says that her behaviour, as described by many witnesses during the two years of her public life – from 1429 to 1431, when she was burnt at the stake in Rouen – was striking in its simplicity, generosity and modesty. Without making a judgment about the “voices” of saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret, which Joan was adamant that she heard and which guided her mission, Stolpe comments that holy people are privy to revelations that are beyond the understanding of ordinary people.
For him, as for history, Joan is extraordinary – but not misguided. As he sees it, her development from her youth in Domrémy until her death was “that of a typical mystic”. He emphasises the balance, strength and candour of Joan’s personality, adding that “a genius must be measured by that which he achieves”. Joan’s achievements over a brief period were incredible by any measure: raising the siege of Orléans, bringing about the coronation of Charles VII at Rheims and fighting other successful minor battles before her final capture by Burgundian troops, who sold her to the English.
Stolpe carefully chronicles the shameful trial that Joan was forced to undergo at the hands of a Church court, itself illegitimate, and the compromised role in it played by Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais. He shows that after her capture there was no way Joan would have been allowed to escape her fate, despite the trumped-up charges against her, to which the historical records show she gave vigorous, poignant and heartfelt responses.
It is clear from the book that the author is entranced by this amazing young woman of such courage and freshness. She was unabashed by the world she was caught up in and never made “a display of her suffering” during the months she was imprisoned, at the mercy of her ribald and uncouth English guards. “The role of Joan of Arc as a national and moral example can hardly be exaggerated,” Stolpe states, concluding with the conviction of the French writer Léon Bloy who believed that Joan’s deeper mission was “to suffer for the sins of mankind”.
The author, a parish priest in Manhattan, has written an account of the 24 parables of Christ “and what they mean for you”. In every parable Rutler finds a striking image to startle the reader out of complacency and remind him or her of where they might stand among the crowds who listened to Jesus.
On the Parable of the Sower he suggests that “the seed that grows up among thorns grows in an illusionist religiosity: the smiley-faced lapel button, the wall-to-wall carpeted church”.
On the Parable of the Mustard Seed he reminds readers, living as they do in a culture of death, that “the first cell of human life is alive, even if a clinician chooses to call it a blastocyst”.
Witty, ironic and original, Fr Rutler’s book makes excellent spiritual reading – for those, as he implies, who have ears to hear the message. He mixes personal anecdotes with general ones, such as, on the Parable of the Marriage of the King’s Son: “My grand-father was a friendly man, but he stopped going to the opera in 1946 when he saw a man there in a brown business suit. My grandfather said it was rude to the singers.”
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (27/3/15).
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