A reflection on a favourite saint, for All Saints Day

Joan of Arc

Who were your childhood heroes? In honour of tomorrow being the eve of All Saints Day—a Christian celebration remembering those who’ve gone before us in the faith—I thought I’d share a little about one of my own childhood heroes. Although my faith tradition doesn’t celebrate All Saints Day—or venerate saints with a capital “S”, Joan of Arc is definitely one of those.

I first heard of Joan of Arc when I read a book about her. I was 9 or 10.

She was a 15th century, illiterate, French peasant girl.

At the age of about 17, she followed what she believed was God’s leading, and took command of an army. She liberated her country from English occupiers and changed the course of her nation’s history. At 19, she was unjustly condemned following an ecclesiastical trial during which she confounded the greatest theological minds of her day. She was burned at the stake on trumped up charges of heresy; 25 years later, the results of her trial were annulled. In 1920 the Roman Catholic Church declared her a Saint.

The book I read about Joan was one my mother passed on to me. She had read it as a girl and loved it. I loved it too. I remember the musty smell of its yellowed pages and the feel of its hard, red cover, fraying at the edges. I remember pouring over the colourful illustrations depicting “Joan the Maid” in a gleaming suit of armor atop a strutting steed. I remember feeling inspired by her courage and daring in taking on a vocation that was without precedent for a woman. I remember being moved by her ardent love and intense prayer life. I remember thinking that if God could speak to Joan then He could speak to me too. I remember crying at the injustice of her execution.

When I came to the end of the 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 not only possible, but worth pursuing.

So it was an interesting exercise to revisit the life of Joan of Arc recently, more than 40 years after we’d first met, as part of the requirements for a course I took in Christian History and Theology. This time I read biographies, scholarly research, an epic poem and—what was most compelling of all—Joan’s own words translated from letters and trial manuscripts. As I read, she came alive to me once again. I couldn’t get enough of her.

I’ve come to believe her story has lessons for us today.

Lessons about leadership, strength in the midst of suffering, human nature, and injustice.

When she took charge of her army, she gave new hope and courage to her countrymen in the midst of deep despair, reminding me that hope is essential—not only for military battles—but for all of life. It was her vision, devotion to her mission, courage, integrity, honesty, and selflessness that made her an accomplished and trusted leader.

Today, we tend to label as “crazy” those who profess to hear voices from heaven like Joan did. I don’t know what to make of her voices. But I am struck by the thought that her devotional life brought her to a place of knowing her God intimately.

Reading the translated transcripts of her trial, I was amazed at her wisdom—and at the efforts of her judges to trip her up. They were men who represented the greatest theological minds of that time, yet they were vindictive and self-righteous, reminding me that the powerful have always made life difficult for those who threaten them. Their example can serve as a warning for those 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 of us 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 me today, no less than it did more than four decades ago, that remarkable things can happen when we seek God’s direction, step out boldly in faith as He leads us, and trust Him to accomplish all that He promises.

Counting the cost

Is there anything you would give your life for?

I’ve been mulling over my personal response to that question recently. With Remembrance Day fast approaching, it’s a timely one to ponder. Because, of course, I might not have the luxury of being here to ponder it in the freedom that I do, had others not given their lives to preserve that freedom.

Today, there are lots of people who give their lives to things—namely, other people, ideals, or causes—that they think worthy. There are far fewer who give their lives for things.

That is as it should be. Life is a priceless gift and we’re only given one. The relative scarcity of time we are each allotted should alone make us aware of the gift’s inestimable value. You don’t voluntarily give up something so precious.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about some people long ago who determined that they valued truth more than life itself. And when faced with a choice to renounce the truth and live, or testify to the truth and die, they chose the latter. They were martyrs.

While researching stories of Christianity’s earliest martyrs for a course I am taking, I learned that the Greek word for martyr originally meant “witness.”

Today, the word “martyr” connotes everything from a person who pretends to suffer as a strategy to gain sympathy, to a person who commits an act of terrorism—killing them self and others—as a strategy to gain paradise. (Although one expert I read said that to apply the word martyr to terrorists, “is to evacuate the meaning of the term in any Christian way of understanding.”)

But at the dawn of Christianity, a martyr was simply a person who professed that they acknowledged Christ as Lord of life, and therefore refused to offer sacrifices to Roman gods. Because of that refusal, they were seen as atheists and dangerous subversives. Untold numbers of Christians lost their lives when they openly confessed their faith, and were put to death as a result of that confession. It was those innumerable Christian witnesses (many of whom were subjected to the cruelest of tortures and humiliations as they died) who were responsible for giving the word martyr its traditional association with death. They were flayed, beheaded, devoured by wild beasts before stadiums filled with roaring spectators, crucified, and nailed to stakes before being burned alive.

Those same witnesses would also become the first people to be revered as saints, so much so that in the earliest days of the Church, the words martyr and saint were almost synonymous. Admired for their courage and boldness in proclaiming their faith (even when they knew that doing so would mean paying the ultimate price) the martyrs were mere human beings like us who lived, loved and who were loved. But they chose to sacrifice their lives rather than their convictions—even in the midst of grave suffering. As a result, they were held up as examples for others to emulate.

We have writers to thank for much of this state of affairs, because an entire literature developed—beginning in the second century—that was intended to keep the memory of the martyrs and their trials alive. Known as Acta, these written accounts recorded bits of the judicial process to which the martyrs were subjected, bits we can still read today.

Scholars say that these accounts have been edited, dramatized and embellished—although the extent to which they say so differs. Still, it is impossible to read the Acts of the Martyrs and not be moved. Through their stories, we see in these ancient men and women qualities that the early Church valued and wanted to teach, like: courage, integrity, truthfulness, trust in God, forgiveness for their tormentors, and a steadfast belief that death was not the end, nor was it to be feared as if it were. But the stories also reveal a fact that persecuted Christians around the world today know to be true: martyrdom is not something to be sought or wished for. It is an evil, wretched, bloody business.

And so when I read the following headline a couple of weeks ago, it made me pause: “Cairo bishop urges Church to be ready for martyrdom.” It reminded me that the founder of the Christian faith counselled people to “count the cost” before determining whether to follow him.

And it reminded me that for too many people, even today, that cost continues to be very high indeed.