When I was 13, I took the name of the 15th century peasant saint, Joan of Arc, for my confirmation. At that same age, Joan herself began to hear heavenly voices who eventually identified themselves as Saints Michael the Archangel, Catherine of Alexandria, and Margaret.
These voices accompanied her for four years, molding her and teaching her until they gave her a mission: she was to defend her country, then under siege by the Burgundians and their English allies, by leading the French army in a series of battles that would pave the way for her to accompany the prince of France to Reims where he would be crowned king.
Spurred on by her Voices, Joan left home, presented herself to the prince, and after exhibiting a number of miraculous signs, was given the army. She wore armor, rode a horse through the line of battle, and carried a standard with the names of Jesus and Mary. To my 13-year-old mind, the virgin warrior had everything I wanted. She was beautiful, stalwart, and brave. The perfect confirmation saint.
But now, in my middle age, I look at Joan’s legacy and I am aware less of her triumph than her defeat. Yes, she heard the Voices. Yes, she defended the French. Yes, she delivered Prince Charles to Reims to be crowned. But it all seems to have ended badly.
After a series of successful campaigns, the Burgundians captured Joan and sold her to the English. The French refused to rescue her, and the bishop of Beauvais and his English cronies put her through a harrowing trial engineered to confuse and break her. Though she answered bravely and simply throughout her trial, she faltered when she was faced with death by burning and signed a confession recanting her testimony. Soon afterward, though, she regretted this moment of weakness and returned to her original position: that she had been sent on a mission by God.
Her accusers acted swiftly. Suspected of witchcraft (her voices were judged to be “diabolical”) and reviled for dressing in men’s clothing (which she did at the urging of her Voices and to protect her virginal purity), she was finally condemned to death as a heretic. On May 30, 1431, she was burned at the stake.
Now, when I think of Joan’s story, I think less of her heroism than her suffering and confusion, and I find myself infuriated at the learned men that used Joan to further their own political ends.
But that last turn of thought, I think, is a distraction—because it draws me away from the real witness that Joan gives. The fact is, Joan of Arc’s life, and even more so her death, cuts through our wordly categories. Joan’s entire witness pushes us to get clear on what the true work of seeking “to be holy” actually is. And this becomes most clear in the way her life ended.
In her final moments, Joan was led out to be burned, and she asked that an accompanying Dominican friar hold a cross aloft for her to contemplate. She died gazing on that cross, consumed by flame and smoke, all the while calling on the names of Jesus and Mary. One of the onlookers, an English Royal Secretary, could not but help blurt out, “We are lost; we have burned a saint.”
While a posthumous retrial called by Pope Callixtus III declared her innocent, and a martyr, in 1456, such a judgment took over four hundred years to be officially recognized by the pronouncement of the Church, which canonized Joan in 1920. But it was there for all to see in the moment. Joan lived extraordinary circumstances with a razor-sharp focus. She viewed life, and then death, through the lens of the cross, this singular sign of suffering and redemption, this apparent failure that is also triumph.
The fact is that in their darkest moments, saints are not without anguish and even confusion. They seem to be lost, pawns to the worldly machinations of others or victims of their own confusion and mistakes. What matters in the end, though, is the way these things are lived in relation to the cross of Christ
We see this also in the life of Elizabeth Ann Seton in her relationship to her eldest son, William. It seems that such a woman of evident holiness should have had really impressive children. But Elizabeth had a wayward son. She suffered because of it, didn’t always know how to respond, and didn’t always respond well.
After his father’s death, Elizabeth did everything she could to help William. He could find no stable career despite the help of powerful friends, and he fled them to go to work on a ship in the Atlantic. He seemed to reject his mother’s every offer to help and left the Church for a time. Elizabeth felt, no doubt, like a “bad mother,” a failure.
But what is more interesting than Elizabeth’s failure is the way she let the whole drama of her soul play out within the ambit of the cross. Like Joan, she suffers with the cross in front of her. And in that act, she surrenders none of her own intense love for William, none of her maternal desire, poured out in prayer and frequent letters. In one she writes to William,
My head and heart is so full of you, that though letters for you are waiting at both ports, I must write. If I wake in the night, I think it is your angel wakes me to pray for you. And last night I found myself actually dropping asleep, repeating your name over and over, and appealing to Our Lord with the agony of a mother’s love for our long and dear and everlasting reunion.
It is amazing that in the face of her sorrow, Elizabeth does not back down. She does not distract herself. She lets herself be consumed both by her fierce maternal love for her son and the desire to hand him over to Christ. It all has to be offered in the ambit of that one “everlasting” sign, the cross.
It is perhaps in these most human moments that we can begin to see the final and true value of the saints, as their failures and missteps call out to us, giving us unexpected hope. We discover unlikely companions for our lives, patrons even for our middle age and beyond.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, then, is the patron of struggling single parents who have to surrender their children in a torrent of tears and prayer. And St. Joan of Arc is a touchstone for every person who has ever been used by others, every woman who has ever been left at the altar, left at the clinic to deal with her problem alone, left by the side of the road with mouths to feed. To the extent that these sufferings are seen and lived with our eyes on Christ, they become transforming and transformative.
I don’t mean to be glib about suffering. There is no easy fix, and this “work” that we face is the work of an entire lifetime, the work of our life and our death. But the saints hold out for us the hope that we can live suffering in the light of the resurrection, failure in anticipation of redemption. It all resolves, in the end, in the cross of Christ.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.