Meet Joan of Arc…and Mark Twain

By the time Mark Twain died, he was anti-Catholic and anti-French, yet he still referred to “The Recollections of Joan of Arc” as his best and favorite work. It was the work he claimed to have researched the most, using the transcripts from the trial of Joan of Arc and other important French sources. This work introduced Joan into the United States and is for the most part historically accurate with some fictional flourishes that do not contradict history. It is from there we take our understanding.

Her will was made of iron. Like the female saints for whom it seems nothing is impossible, even in Medieval Europe, when the role of woman is degraded and dismissed, there comes a woman full of intelligence, spirit, goodwill and kindness to teach us how to live.

Joan’s story is timely for us today as the hearts of informed Catholics fill with unrest and disgust at the actions of certain clerical officials in commissive and omissive sins. 46,000 women signed a letter to Pope Francis on behalf of Catholic women requesting answers. The voice of the feminine genius cries out for the protection of others, for a vision of the wholeness of those the Church is called to serve, and for justice. We know of a lot beyond the required love of faith. We know of a love of home, of family, of children, of hobbies and it emboldens our desires and shapes our pastimes. Women are not to be ignored.

Twain’s biography of the woman begins with a long treatment of a tree and fairies. I appreciate a work that can fully acknowledge the presence of these little creatures, treating them with civility, respect, and the lightheartedness lacking in too many biographies. Good authors know they must first introduce you to the person, because you can then understand how the following actions were inevitable. Twain does that, and he does it with fairies.

With the full use of her rational powers, the child Joan defended the fairies and argued with the priest over the wrong he had done in banishing them. Her effort amuses him. She succeeds in convincing him she is right and then succeeds all the greater by her willingness to take on his sins and suffer. This is what ultimately moves his heart to contrition for acting as priest according to rules and not according to right.

Twain’s reverence for Joan knows no bounds. She is beautiful, sweet, soft-spoken, can laugh heartedly, find amusement in others foibles, and possesses special powers with animals, taming the wildest of them as friends. Blood makes her weep. Yes, there are visions. The period of visions caused her to turn inward. She is private, reflective and serious until the hope has come. Then on a dime, she becomes fierce and forceful, determined and undeniably a leader of the greatest cause, a commission sent by God. Obedient to God, she will do all she is supposed to do.

This is what we see of her. Twain humanizes her when he explains her willingness to sign at the first sight of fire. “I was scared by the fire,” she admits. He shows her tired, this one time, beleaguered by the scheming of hierarchical officials who wish to rise higher still.

According to all Twain says, Joan is a larger than life saint who fits in the ranks with Catherine of Siena and St. Francis de Sales. Remarkable about her is the willingness of God to use his servant to touch into history. Her role in bringing the Hundred Years War near its conclusion is undeniable and beyond natural reason. God acted miraculously. What must France have done to deserve that?

It is both good to think of God intervening in history without requiring the use of rainbows and to think of a lesson taught to the reader when Joan refuses to submit her mission to the evaluation of the Church. She argues with the prelate. It was given by God. He counters, that is Church Triumphant (the saints, angels and God in Heaven). Will she not submit it to be evaluated by Church Militant (those of us scrambling around this earth)? No, she will not.

I pondered this distinction. These were men of Church Militant, of the Church on earth, of the Church on mission, of the Church made of sinners. How deep were the sins of these men not content with killing her but who must also prove her a heretic and idolater!

Yet, perhaps, as the Church is greater than any number of priests or nuns or laypeople, who all make up “The Church”, so this strain of corruption has always existed among her members, as members who are capable of sin. It does not touch on the Church Triumphant and it will not defeat the suffering Church.

She will endure. She will be vindicated. A short time after Joan’s death her name was restored to its glory and her accomplishments recognized, likely only by the selfish motive of the King who abandoned her.

Her story is timely indeed, for hope, for courage, for the knowledge that God will never abandon the littlest of these.

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