by Patricia Paddey
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9
The person who penned these thoughtful words—said to have originated with “the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem”— certainly didn’t have the study of Church history in mind. But if everything old is indeed new again, then this verse hints at the truth that there are benefits to be had from digging into the past to study the lives of saints who have gone before us; lessons to be learned, examples to be followed, pitfalls to be avoided.
Evangelicals tend to be comfortable looking to the lives of biblical figures, reformation heroes and Protestant missionaries. But what about the lives of those saints who came after the Bible, but who predated the Reformation, those who might be venerated as Saints—with a capital “S”—in some quarters? It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that they don’t belong to us, and that their stories therefore have little to offer.
But I was reminded recently of just how powerful such stories can be when I studied the life of Joan of Arc, a fifteenth century peasant girl, who at the age of only about 17 would set out on what she believed was a mission from God to command an army, liberate her country from English occupiers and change the course of her nation’s history. At 19, she was unjustly condemned in an ecclesiastical trial and executed for heresy. Twenty-five years later the results of that trial were annulled, and a few hundred years after that, in 1920, she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.
It is a remarkable story. But then, Joan of Arc was a remarkable person.
I first heard of Joan when I read a book about her while I was still a young girl myself. I remember pouring over the colourful illustrations depicting her in a gleaming suit of armor atop a strutting steed, her banner unfurled. I remember feeling inspired by her courage and daring for following what she believed was God’s leading in taking on a vocation that was without precedent for a woman. I felt moved by her ardent devotion and intense prayer life. I remember thinking that if God could speak to Joan, then He could speak to me too. I remember putting my book down one day, getting on my knees, asking God to lead me and help me like He had led and helped her.
I cried at the injustice of Joan being burned at the stake. And when I came to the end of that book, I mourned her for days. But I never forgot her. Looking back, I realize she helped to shape my life by shaping my belief—early in life—that a relationship with God was something that was possible.
So it was an interesting exercise to revisit the life of Joan of Arc recently, some 40 years after we first met. This time I read biographies, scholarly research, an epic poem and—what was most compelling of all—Joan’s own words preserved in letters and trial manuscripts. I learned from one of her biographers, Régine Pernoud, that “there is scarcely a chronicle or memoir from her time and place that does not mention her,” and that “we know more details of her short life than we do of any other human being before her time (including Plato, or Alexander of Macedon, or Julius Caesar, or Jesus Christ) and for several centuries thereafter….”
As I read, I realized that Joan of Arc’s story, her actions, her words—and those of her doubters, supporters, tormentors and friends—are worthy of study. They have much to teach us about life and the practice of the Christian faith in the fifteenth century. But they also teach us lessons for today—about leadership, strength in the midst of suffering, human nature and injustice.
Hers is a David and Goliath story. Joan’s purity in living, simplicity of faith and obedience to her call inspired those she led, giving new hope and courage to her countrymen in the midst of deep despair. She reminds us that hope is essential—not only for military battles—but for all of life. A mere teenager and a woman, her vision, devotion to her mission, courage, integrity, honesty and selflessness made her an accomplished and trusted leader.
While many consider Joan of Arc something of an enigma—for she was a mystic and we tend to label as “crazy” today those who profess to hear voices from heaven like she did—there is no doubt that her personal devotional life brought her to a place of knowing her God intimately. If she was indeed acting in response to God’s direction, her life is a reminder that being in the will of God does not mean an absence of injustice or suffering. Joan of Arc was the object of injustice, a result of sins of omission and commission by friends and enemies alike.
Reading the translated transcripts of her trial, one is struck by her wisdom (as she responded to her interrogators) and by the efforts her 44 judges went to, to trip her up. They were Christian men who represented the greatest theological minds of that time, yet they were vindictive and self-righteous, reminding us that the powerful have always made life difficult for those who threaten them. Their example can serve as a warning for Christians today who hold positions of authority and influence—that great wrongs can be perpetrated in the desire to do what is right. Joan’s interrogators were also learned men; as such, they offer up a cautionary note to those who pursue academic study or intellectual development at the expense of spiritual maturity—that great learning can lead to arrogance and spiritual blindness.
But above all, Joan’s example bears witness to Christians today that remarkable things can happen when we cultivate a willing heart and an obedient spirit, seek God’s direction, step out boldly in faith as He leads and trust Him to accomplish all that He promises.
Joan of Arc may be the first saint with a capital “S” that I have studied. But she won’t be the last.
Patricia Paddey is a senior writer with Faith Today. Watch for her upcoming article in Jan/Feb 2016 on how Canadian Christian academics give back.