Few people today know that Mark Twain, one of the greatest American authors in history and hardly a man with healthy respect for organized religion, wrote a book on the great 14th-Century saint, Joan of Arc.
Even fewer, I imagine, realize that Twain regarded it as his best and most important work, devoting 12 years to researching the project and enduring six failed attempts at writing the book in order to produce his great masterpiece.
Many of Twain’s contemporaries knew the high esteem he had for St. Joan, as well. In a later essay on Joan of Arc, Twain called her “the Wonder of the Ages” and proudly declared that she was “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”
As you might imagine, Twain ensured that the book itself was exceedingly accurate, historically speaking, despite telling the story itself through the eyes of a fictional friend of Joan’s. Twain’s passion, mixed with the personality and artistic flourishes of the fictional narrator, make for a truly marvelous reading experience, and I’d recommend the book to anyone.
For those unaware, Joan of Arc was a peasant girl born in a small village in northeastern France during the mid 1400s, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War when the English were fighting to claim the French crown. Joan was a mere teenage girl when she experienced several visions of certain saints and angels instructing her to take command of the armies of France and drive out the invading English. This, inexplicably, is exactly what she did. Not only that, many times she predicted her victories and the eventual crowning of the rightful king, Charles VII of France.
Joan, however, was inevitably captured by other enemies of France and sold to the English. The Brits sought not only to convict her of heresy and witchcraft but also to execute her, thus tarnishing her legacy and deflating the nation of France, who had come to regard Joan (rightfully so) as a national hero. As we now know, the English forces succeeded, but only through incredibly dubious and dishonest means. The findings of the trial were reversed and Joan’s good name restored by a papal investigation some 25 years after her death.
You can read the book for details, but below you’ll find five key lessons we can glean from Twain’s story and the life lived by one of history’s greatest saints, Joan of Arc:
1. Lay people can (and should) live lives of heroic virtue.
Although arguably more responsibility is placed upon the shoulders of the ordained, we laymen and laywomen have a call no different than that of our brothers and sisters in the religious life. A ticket to heaven is not part of the “swag” given to a priest at his ordination. Priests and bishops – even the Pope himself – only keep their faith and achieve sanctity by upholding their pursuit of the Truth through prayer and faithfulness to Christ.
Joan of Arc showed that radical holiness and faithfulness is a call of every person by virtue of the sacrament of baptism, not the sacrament of Holy Orders. Her witness is also a prime example that the path to holiness contains elements we may not suspect. Just as daily prayer and loving one’s enemies are essential to a healthy spiritual life, so too are things like love of country and a zeal for justice.
2. The Church will always survive the damage done by bad churchmen.
The story’s chief villain, Pierre Cauchon, was presiding bishop of the Diocese of Beauvais (France) and a sympathizer of the English cause. Cauchon was the chief persecutor of Joan during her imprisonment and trial, stooping to abominable lows — at one point eavesdropping on Joan in a Confession he manipulatively set up — in his multiple attempts to entrap her. Those who have read the book can attest that he was, in a word, a monster.
Cauchon was, however, still a legitimately appointed bishop and successor to the Apostles, despite his corrupt actions. How do we reconcile this if we say at the same time that the Catholic Church is protected by God?
Well, when Jesus instituted Peter as head of the Church in Matthew 16:18, he promised that evil would never prevail over the Church. He didn’t say anything about evil never giving the Church a run for its money. Every man who follows a calling to the priesthood is able to choose the kind of man he will be.
After all, it was Jesus who called Judas to be an Apostle, but Judas who chose to betray Christ.
3. This world isn’t the end.
Joan’s earthly life ended with her being burned at the stake, deemed a heretic (however unjustly), and denounced as a fraud. It seemed to be a resounding and permanent defeat, a success for her persecutors, and a death blow for the French.
But even Joan, despite having withstood weeks of unrelenting punishment at the hands of her captors, never despaired. Her hope for heaven never wavered, even in her darkest moments, because she knew the life she was living on earth was a means to an ultimate end: heaven and eternal happiness with God.
At one point in her trial, Joan related a portion of what she heard in one of her visions (from St. Catherine):
“Take everything peacefully; have no care for thy martyrdom; in the end thou shalt come to the Kingdom of Paradise”
Throughout her trial, Joan was constantly at peace and rarely afraid of the punishment she was receiving on earth. She was angry about the injustices being wrought against her, sure. But even that anger wasn’t because of wrongs being done to her — rather, it was because the actions of her persecutors were putting their own souls in danger of damnation. In a particularly epic line, Joan admonished Cauchon himself, the chief organizer of Joan’s trial:
“You say that you are my judge; I do not know if you are: but take good heed not to judge me ill, because you would put yourself in great peril. And I warn you so that if God punish you for it, I shall have done my duty in telling you.”
Joan, more than anyone, knew that living for heaven was the only reason to live, while striving for earthly treasures as an end in themselves was nothing but a fool’s errand.
4. St. Joan of Arc was living proof that God exists.
I wondered many times throughout the book what Mark Twain himself ended up thinking of Catholicism and belief in God in general after so thoroughly researching St. Joan’s life. How Twain — who may have thought God to exist, but wasn’t sure God cared much for mankind — remained unconverted after witnessing two particular aspects of Joan’s story is beyond me.
First, Joan correctly prophesied future events no less than 11 times. Some came to fruition during her life — crowning the King of France in Rheims Cathedral, or finding Charles Martel’s buried sword behind the altar at the Church of St. Catherine de Fierbois, for example — while others weren’t realized until long after her death, like predicting the English defeat at Parish within seven years of her death (November 12, 1437, six years and eight months after Joan’s death, Henry VI was defeated in Parish by French forces). The list of all 11, with verified source material, can be found here.
Second, the circumstances of Joan’s trial — known to this day as “The Great Trial” — are enough to affirm the presence of a divine Hand. At trial, Joan was refused defense counsel — her right as a minor under the age of 21 — and was forced to defend herself against Bishop Cauchon and 50 (fifty!) highly educated churchmen.
Joan, who could neither read nor write, nevertheless chewed up and spit out every sorry effort by her judges to trick her into incriminating herself, causing the trial to last not a few minutes and one session, as her judges had hoped, but instead nearly a month and fifteen sessions. One of Joan’s judges testified (a matter of historic record) at the rehabilitation trial years later:
They asked her profound questions, but she extricated herself quite well. Sometimes the questioners changed suddenly and passed to another subject to see if she would not contradict herself. They burdened her with long interrogatories of two or three hours, from which the judges themselves went forth fatigued. From the snares with which she was beset the expertest man in the world could not have extricated himself but with difficulty. She gave her responses with great prudence; indeed to such a degree that during three weeks I believe she was Inspired.
And so, we can learn a lot from the life of St. Joan of Arc, and I for one am eternally grateful that Mark Twain devoted 12 years of his life so that generations afterward could learn her story.
We can only hope that upon his death, Twain was welcomed into the heavenly kingdom by the heroine herself, St. Joan of Arc.