Hearing Voices

Hearing Voices May 30, 2012

On every thirtieth day of May, being the anniversary of the death of the said most blessed daughter of God, there shall in every Catholic church to the end of time be celebrated a special office in commemoration of her; and it shall be lawful to dedicate a special chapel to her, and to place her image on its altar in every such church. And it shall be lawful and laudable for the faithful to kneel and address their prayers through her to the Mercy Seat.
~ George Bernard Shaw, St Joan

In a passage from his book My Life with the Saints, Fr James Martin SJ admits to some ambivalence about Joan of Arc, whose feast we celebrate today. There’s a deep strangeness about her, an otherness that made her stick out like un pouce irrité in her own time and would render her instantly certifiable in ours:

Joan confuses me as much as she attracts me.  Because, basically, she acts like a crazy young girl, hearing voices, leaving her family, going to war, and dying for an unseen person. . . . Even St. Francis of Assisi would seem more at home than our world than Joan.  To many people today Francis would seem attractive and compelling, much like Mother Teresa.  Joan would probably just seem crazy.

Ambivalence is Joan all over. There’s no better example of the parallax view that is human reputation than the Maid. In life, was she saint or heretic? Witch or visionary? Patriot or insurrectionist? Sexual transgressor or humble shepherdess? Sword of divine will or tool of earthly powers? In death, is she a liberating feminist role model or the pinup girl for ultra-rightist French nationalism? The answer, which depends entirely on your angle of sight, is always yes.

I have loved Joan since learning, in first grade, that through some linguistic alchemy we bear the same name, rooted in John, and so she is my patron saint. What young Catholic girl of the 1950s wouldn’t choose Joan–with her horse, her courage, her muddiness, her cussing, her chic cropped hair and kickass armor–over that only other role model we were offered, the simpering quiescence (pace, Max Lindenman) of the perpetually pure Maria Goretti? But of course I only loved the Joan and despised the Marietta of my own perspective.

Joan herself, according to the transcripts of her trial, never quite knew who she was either. She first asserted, then renounced, then re-asserted the authenticity of the heavenly voices she heard–St Michael, St Catherine, and St Margaret. This is the side of Joan I love and identify with today, that struggle to determine whether I am conforming myself to God’s will for me. It’s a process on which a chorus as loud as Joan’s ecclesiastical jurors seeks daily to weigh in. And that’s not counting the voices in my head.

For, crazy as Joan still sounds to so many, don’t we all hear voices? We hear the voice of our culture, chivying us along with ads and music videos and tweets and Facebook posts. We hear, if we are honest, the voice of our own ego, our pride and rebelliousness, chanting over and over “You’re not the boss of me!” We hear, if we are not entirely numbed, the voice of our conscience, what Joyce called “the agenbite of inwit,” the pricking of our thumbs, the chirping of Juminy Cricket, the noise like a great wind or a still, small voice. If we are lucky (or cursed, or crazy, as other angles might have it), we may hear otherworldly voices the way Joan said she did, and we will be faced, as she was, with the terrible task of discerning whether they are angelic or demonic.

On this my name day I want to pledge myself more faithfully to that discernment, that listening out of what God calls me to do, and less to worrying about how the rest of the world sees me. With God’s grace, in the life of each us, the parallax view of discipleship resolves all ambivalences, all perspectives, into the beatific vision Joan enjoys forever from her place in the great golden rose surrounding the Mercy Seat. St Joan of Arc, pray for us, that we may join you there.

More on the Maid
You can read Fr Jim Martin’s excerpt, “The Mystery of Joan of Arc,” here. I am particularly grateful for the introduction to what is now one of my favorite images of Joan.

Frank Weathers invokes Joan as a model of discipleship for lay Catholics in this time of spiritual warfare.

And this is horribly sentimental and jingoistic, but I adore Henry Van Dyke’s The Broken Soldier and the Maid of France, which you can read online in a charming old edition. Merci beaucoup to Max Lindenman for the H/T.

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