Four Lessons from Mark Twain’s Little-Known Book on St. Joan of Arc

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.

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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.
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Joan at the coronation of Charles VII, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in 1854; Wikimedia Commons
Joan at the coronation of Charles VII, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in 1854; Wikimedia Commons

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.

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7 GIFs to Show the Apostles Were People Too

It’s often difficult to picture people from the age before cameras laughing, crying, or generally showing any emotion at all, especially considering that first real photographs of people tended to look like this:

Andrew-JacksonPresident Andrew Jackson smiling.

But nevertheless, just like the world wasn’t actually in black and white before color TV, people who lived before the age of the photograph and semi-realistic art did indeed have emotions. Heck, I’ll bet they weren’t much different than you and me, and pondering that reality can be a pretty cool thing.

Why?

Because reflecting, for example, on the fact that the 12 Apostles were real guys who lived lives remarkably similar to ours — things like learning to walk, growing up with weird family members, having insecurities, not being perfect, or earning a living — can help us relate to what they went through as followers of Christ, and can thus give us some key inspiration in our own walk with the Lord.

So, since there’s (for some reason) a shortage of animated photographs of the Apostles themselves, I found some suitable alternatives, along with Scripture for context, below:

1. St. Peter, freaking out a bit, after seeing Elijah and Moses chatting it up with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.kerm

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. (Mark 9:2-6)

2. The disciples, a little incredulous when Jesus wanted them to feed the 5,000.awkward laugh

When [Jesus] disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.”

But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” (Mark 6:34-37)

3. St. Paul, when he heard about all the crazy, debaucherous things the Corinthians were doing.mssdp

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

4. James and John, earning their nickname the “Sons of Thunder”, when a Samaritan village turned Jesus away.angry-eyes

On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his reception there, but they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this they asked,

“Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” (Luke 9:52-54)

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(if you’re wondering, here was Jesus’ answer)bruce lee

Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village. (Luke 9:55-56)

5. Each apostle, fighting over the title of “Best Disciple”.want

An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. (Luke 9:46)  Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child and placed it by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.” (Luke 9:47-48)

6. James, John, Peter & Andrew, reacting to Jesus asking them to be disciples.yes

As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20)

7. (My personal favorite) St. Peter, in a boat, realizing it’s Jesus who’s on the beach waiting for them.forrest gump

“When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.”

When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.” (John 21:4;7)

Next time you’re sitting in Church or reading your Bible, pay attention to the humanity of the individuals you’re hearing about, especially the Apostles. These were real men with real human imperfection who were made new by their faith and by following Christ. If we choose, we can make ourselves new in the same way.

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Want to Meet Jesus? Come to Confession

This post originally appeared at Crisis Magazine. It has been reposted with permission.

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We humans can be a bit fickle sometimes. What we choose to do with our time often depends directly on how the people and places with which we associate ourselves make us feel. If we don’t feel welcome in a place, we probably don’t stay long.

If we try a place or organization out on the suggestion of other people, but never really learn or understand what it’s all about, we’re also likely out the door before long. Likewise, if we devote ourselves fully to a place or organization, only to experience betrayal at the hands of that organization, surely it won’t take long for us to find a new home.

As a result, many who see the place that was left behind from a distance, and perhaps hear horror stories from others who’ve been there, will look with hostility upon it and never go near it if they can help it.

This phenomenon occurs in a lot of places, but none as much as the Catholic Church. For tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of people today, the instances above are, sadly, more often than not very real and very legitimate beefs.

We could talk for days about who did what to whom, ranging from petty to incredibly serious, but I’m writing this post instead as a plea to those who no longer come to Mass as a result of those experiences, to those who no longer identify as Catholic, and even those who aren’t Catholic and are skeptical about the Church, to come back, to come and see one more time.

We all have people in our lives who have left the Church — who aren’t attending Mass for one reason or another, and there’s one thing we all should encourage those people in our lives to come back and do more than anything: Come to confession.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Now, I’m not saying this because those people are heathens in need of repentance before you can re-enter or anything — heck, we’re all unworthy all the time. We’re all sinners, and we all could stand to attend confession more often.

I’m suggesting confession, because the Catholic Church is about Jesus, and confession lets us meet Him face to face.

We believe that priests, when acting in their capacity as priests (saying Mass, anointing the sick and dying, hearing confessions), are acting in persona Christi — literally “In the person of Christ”. In his priestly capacity, that’s no longer Fr. Bill on the altar or in the confessional. That’s Jesus.

To boot, the seal of confession is what makes this such a powerful sacrament. That means the priest will never, ever (ever!) tell anyone. Seriously, never. Because if he did, he’d be removed from priesthood immediately and would excommunicate himself from the Church. For real.

No one else is offering that. Especially in a culture that insists on broadcasting every little detail of one’s lives.

Even so, the thought of going to Confession usually brings the response, “I don’t want/need to go,” especially among people who haven’t gone in years.

But dig deeper and I’d bet it’s more one of two things:

  • “I don’t want the priest to judge me for things I’ve done wrong.” OR
  • “I experienced hurt at the hands of a priest, and I’ll never trust one again.” 

Not going to Confession is typically rooted, on some level, either in fear of being exposed, or a fear of being hurt again

Read the rest here.

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NOTE: The post’s image is a detail from “The Confessional” by David Wilkie painted in 1827.