She heard voices when she was twelve years old. She was a peasant girl who demanded audience with feuding French royals. She road into battle in a man's armor. A political casualty, she was imprisoned by the English and continued to wear men's clothing perhaps to avoid rape. At the age of nineteen, she was burned at the stake for heresy, but really, her death was English retribution for her success against them in battle. The Catholic Church sheepishly pardoned her in 1452, and she became a patron saint of France when she was canonized on this day, in 1920, by Pope Benedict XV.
There is a sixteenth Benedict on the throne of Peter today. One who once held the modernized post of Inquisitor in charge of identifying heretics and bending them into either orthodoxy or breakage. I wonder how he will celebrate the anniversary of the canonization of a cross-dressing teenage girl who heard voices in her head and was fearless in her inconvenient convictions. How will Benedict XVI praise a young woman, practically illiterate and forcing powerful men to do the right thing, while making mortal enemies in both church and state along her route to the flames?
Almost six hundred years of Christianity have gone by since Joan, and I fear the Catholic Church has not evolved a bit since then. Still in bed with temporal power. Still dominated by old men. Still refusing to accept - God forbid celebrate - diversity. Still condemning the inconveniently audacious differences of those who are inspired singularly.
If Joan were alive today, and if she managed to avoid her parents' dosing her with Ritalin, she would probably be a loud and activist lesbian. Certainly not a woman acceptable to Benedict XVI who will warble kind words about this saint and about the wisdom of his papal predecessor in canonizing her eighty-nine years ago.
Do you know what this teaches me? It reminds me to trust my instincts and to speak from my heart. It tells me that popularity is its own reward and that heroes are lonely and often meet with bad final chapters. It tells me that big institutions cannot tolerate inspiration and enthusiasm and vision until those energies have had their rough edges worn smooth by the passage of centuries.
I was recently tracking some private group email among activist bloggers in which one black lesbian blogger known to many of you described how she was attacked and vilified because of an inconvenient stance she had put forth with clarity. I kept clear of that conversation and privately hope that she will forsake popularity and continue to speak from her heart. Nothing gets fixed otherwise.
Like Joan of Arc, we are each a little bit nuts, but collectively we are wise. (There were twelve disciples, not just one.) That is why when an entity like the Catholic Church or our Federal Government silences a section of its membership or relegates some of its members to a lower/restricted class, that entity is weakened, like a brain that is lobotomized and made capable only of simpler tasks and mediocrity.
If I had been alive in fifteenth century France, I doubt I'd have ridden into battle next to Joan, but I also doubt I'd have been a courtier in the palace of the bishop who tried her for heresy. I'd have been someone in the crowd as she rode through our town with her legions. I'd have told my neighbor "That girl's crazy, but she's got spunk. She's got chutzpah! She's got balls." I hope I'd have at least cheered as she passed and I hope to God I have the good sense to spot the heroes and saints among us today and to cheer them on wholeheartedly.