Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A book review on St. Joan of Arc

The following is a book review from the washingtonpost.com. This books sounds interesting and is written by a man of faith. However, the headline of the review makes me a little nervous ("On Her Own Terms"). We Americans seem to love the story of saints who buck ecclesiastical authorities (we saw this in the coverage of the newly canonized St. Theodore Guerin). Of course, in this, and many other cases, the Church leaders were in the wrong, but journalists fail to note that saints practice obedience first to God--and not prideful disobedience to authority just for its own sake (the ole' "I did it MY way"). Shea's review also mentions that St. Joan was targeted because she was a woman of power in a world dominated by "male clergy" and because she received revelations from God without the mediation of a priest. That may be the case, but I wonder if there is a little bit of radical feminism in the back of Shea's (or Spoto's) mind. The point about private revelations independent of the clery is perfectly vaild. Throughout history God has given private revelations directly to men, women, and children. Priests exist primarily to give Christians the sacraments--most especially the Eucharist--and not to be the sole source for truth from God. God gave private revelations to St. Joan, but He gave her the Eucharist (without which she would admit she would be nothing) through the ministry of priests. While St. Joan unfortunately was persecuted by churchmen, she never would have considered herself as independent of the Church or outside of the Church. This book sounds like an interesting read. Now, for the review:

On Her Own Terms
By Rachel Hartigan Shea, a contributing editor of Book WorldTuesday, March 20, 2007; Page C03

The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint
By Donald Spoto
HarperSanFrancisco. 222 pp. $24.95

What is a modern reader to make of the story of Joan of Arc? A country girl hears voices she says are from God, persuades an uncrowned king to put her at the head of his army, wins a crucial battle and changes the course of history. She seems pure myth and yet is a historical fact. Modern minds shy away from the myth and try to explain away the fact by casting her as "a cunning charlatan, a deluded patriot, a sexually confused peasant . . . or a pitiable psychotic," writes Donald Spoto in "Joan," his slim but compelling paean to the virgin who saved France.

But Joan must be understood on her own terms, argues Spoto, a theologian whose books include biographies of Jesus, Saint Francis of Assisi, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Tennessee Williams. Born in 1411 or 1412 in the tiny French village of Domr?my in the midst of the Hundred Years' War, Joan lived at a time when "the language of faith was like a common country in which all people lived." That God would choose to speak to a young girl in her father's garden would surprise her contemporaries, perhaps, but not shock them.

Nor does it shock Spoto, who approaches his subject with the sophistication of a historian and the admiration of a true believer. "I believe that her spiritual experiences were profoundly valid," writes Spoto, "and that they convey something of the truth." According to him, any theory that strips religion away from Joan's visions in favor of some psychological or medical root cause -- an ear infection producing strange sounds, say, or an eye condition causing light sensitivity -- must ignore her demonstrated sanity and physical health. If the visions "came from the mind of a religious fanatic," he argues, "or a romantic, neurasthenic adolescent, or if they were the specters of an inflamed mind or the deliberately concocted tales of a self-deluded egotist, then we would expect to find -- would have to find -- an accompanying pattern of delusion in her life."

Instead, Spoto discovers that she was "energetic, witty, courageous, and intelligent beyond all expectation." Uncowed by authority, she declared upon meeting Charles VII, "my most eminent lord Dauphin, I have come, sent by God to bring help to you and to the kingdom." The demoralized dauphin, whose kingdom was so racked with civil war and English invaders that he had not yet been crowned king, glowed "radiant" at her words and sent her to lift the English siege of Orl?ans.

Joan's strength was not her military might -- her sword remained unblooded -- but her piousness, which heartened the French soldiers. She had persuaded them of the "grander purpose of their battle: to save France, which was sacred to them and, they believed, to God." When the French prevailed at Orl?ans, after a horrific battle in which hundreds of English drowned in the Loire River from the weight of their armor, "British hegemony in France had been broken, and the survival of France was no longer a dim hope but a distinct probability."

But Joan's moment of great victory led, inexorably, to her downfall. She had succeeded where French military men had not, and she based that success upon direct contact with God, no priestly intercession required. She was a "transforming presence in a world of male warriors, male royalty, and male clergy," writes Spoto. Naturally, men, both French and English, moved to be rid of her. The king, guided by jealous advisers, stopped providing her with sufficient troops. The English set aside special forces to capture her with the aim of trying her for heresy. And captured she was, by a French noble who sold her off to the English.

The trial, held on French soil with a French judge but very much under English control, had only one possible outcome: to burn Joan as a heretic. What else to do with a woman who "is schismatic, sacrilegious, idolatrous, apostate, evil-speaking and evil-doing, blasphemous, scandalous, seditious, a destroyer of peace, a warmonger who thirsts for human blood and urges others to spill it," as one of the charging documents spluttered. Twenty-five years later, when French officials acquitted Joan in a posthumous retrial, it was clear that evidence had been falsified and that she had been tricked into wearing men's clothing one last time, the charge that ultimately sent her to the stake at the age of 19. A minor infraction, it would seem, but, Spoto explains, "to claim male prerogatives was . . . abominable."

As archaic as Joan's life and terrible end appear, Spoto argues for her relevance today: "If Joan was right in her insistence that the unwarranted takeover of one country by another is repugnant, then she is more than a historical curiosity: she remains a prophetic witness for every generation." Yet he goes no further with this political claim, leaving the reader to wonder whether this is an oblique criticism of U.S. foreign adventures or something else entirely. More convincing, even to a nonbeliever, is his contention that Joan saw, or truly believed she saw, visions from God. "The entire Jewish-Christian faith tradition," writes Spoto, "is based on the belief that God once summoned ordinary people and through them worked extraordinary deeds for His own purpose."

On the morning before Joan died, she asked a priest, "Where shall I be tonight?" Spoto, for one, believes he knows the answer.

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