December 24, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) – Over the last few days I have been re-reading Mark Twain’s remarkable novel about Joan of Arc – remarkable if only because at the time he wrote it Twain was a confirmed anti-Catholic and agnostic. Twain’s novel, however, is neither of these things. Instead it reads as a gushing paean to the famous Catholic saint, while handling her religion with a tender respect that is far removed from the scoffing irony found in other works such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Indeed, Twain’s near-obsession with the Maid of Orleans has been a source of considerable puzzlement to his biographers and devotees, many of whom admire him precisely because of his impatience with organized religion. Their perplexity, however, only exposes their meanness against the relative clear-sightedness of their idol, who, for all his prejudices, would not allow those prejudices to blind him to an undeniable reality: namely, that Joan of Arc was a remarkable woman. The question isn’t why Twain was fascinated by Joan, but rather how could one not be fascinated by her?
As I said to my wife the other day, if I didn’t know that Joan of Arc was a real person, and her accomplishments real accomplishments, I would have thought Twain was asking far too much of his readers by stretching the believability of his story so far. That a simple peasant girl, completely uneducated, should in the space of a few weeks rise to become the preeminent figure in 15th century France, second only to the king; that she should, at the age of 17 be given sole charge of all the armies of the kingdom; and that she should proceed to lead those armies to spectacular victory after spectacular victory, putting a decisive end to a generation-long military drought under the leadership of France’s famous generals – well, such a tale beggars the imagination!
Except that it is completely, one hundred percent true.
But I do not think that it is primarily her deeds (as great as they are) that captured the reverence of Mark Twain. Rather, I believe what won him over was Joan’s integrity in the midst of those deeds: her total disregard for personal glory, her unswerving singleness of purpose, and her unwillingness to compromise an inch on her principles.
This is a theme that Twain returns to time and again throughout the novel: how Joan strode amidst all the pomp and the adulation that the world had to offer, and was completely untouched and uncorrupted by any of it. Asked by the king what reward she would like for her labors, Joan only asked that he allow her to finish her task and then return to her family farm. When he instead raised Joan and her family to the nobility, the king may as well have offered Joan a bag of ashes: the gift meant nothing to her. She desired one thing only, to do the will of God. All else was shadows and dust.
There is much to be learned from the fact that even a disillusioned agnostic like Mark Twain couldn’t help but respect religion lived as authentically and selflessly as this.
But as I have been reading Twain’s novel I have been pondering my work at LifeSiteNews.com. We, too, are engaged in a kind of war. It is not fought with swords and horses and artillery, but with words and ideas and laws. But the stakes are the same: our freedom and the lives of the innocent.
And much like France in the 15th century, it is easy to lose hope when we see how the odds are stacked against us, how many battles we have lost, how the momentum is moving in the wrong direction. And like the nobles of France it is easy to put our hope in all the wrong things: in our clever and carefully thought-out strategies, our reputation, the size of our budget, the power of our supporters, the brilliance of our leadership.
But all of this means nothing, and less than nothing. Why, after all, was poor, simple, uneducated, youthful Joan of Arc able to accomplish what all of the brilliant, experienced, world-wise generals of France could not? There is really only one possible explanation: God and her own faithfulness to Him. (The English would have said the devil, but that explanation couldn’t stand the test of her spotless moral life.)
That Joan was a peasant from a distant backwater of France may have seemed like an impossible strike against her. In fact it was her greatest strength. While the generals of France wasted time hanging about with princes and kings and armies, Joan wandered through the silence of the hills and forests surrounding Domremy, and knelt in the churches in her town, and listened and prayed. And in 17 short years, she learned more than all those generals learned in a lifetime.
As St. Paul says, “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
So it is with many of the truly great men and women of history. St. Benedict, who many credit with literally saving Western civilization from the barbarians, fled the splendors of Rome where he was studying and spent three years living alone in a cave, before going on to found the monasteries that would transform the face of Europe and beyond. Therese of Lisieux, perhaps the most famous Catholic saint next to St. Francis of Assisi, shut herself up in a convent at the age of 15 where, under obedience, she wrote a tiny little book that was so filled of wisdom that, following her death at the age of 24, it catapulted her to international fame. And St. Francis himself, who is admired even by many non-Catholics and secularists, began his illustrious career by shedding all of his finery and going off to rebuild the tiny, out-of-the-way church of San Damiano.
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All of these men and women accomplished more in a lifetime than most of us could hope to accomplish in ten. And they did it by first of all by renouncing any desire to accomplish anything, but simply to do the will of God, whatever that might be. And in this, of course, each of these individuals was simply imitating their master – Jesus Christ.
Today is Christmas Eve. I find it fitting that I have been reflecting on these things in the days leading up to Christmas. For as great as Joan of Arc was, how can she measure up to Christ? Yes, Joan was born poor, but Christ was born poorer still – in a stable! Yes, she was uneducated, but He was more uneducated still – the son of a simple carpenter! Yes, her victories were unlikely, but what of His victory – death on a cross!
How easy it is to survey the task that lies before us and to lose our peace. And how easy it is to think that if only we work harder, and raise more money, and work our fingers to the bones, and strategize – that then we will start winning.
Perhaps it is true that we must work hard, even to exhaustion. And of course we must strategize. But let us also remember the example of Christ – who spent 30 years in near-total obscurity, and only three short years in his public ministry. It is not that Jesus did nothing those 30 years. He prepared. He prayed. He “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” He listened.
And then He was unleashed upon the world like a blazing comet.
Christmastime is the perfect time to learn to listen as Joan of Arc listened, as Therese of Lisieux listened, as Francis of Assisi listened – as Christ listened. This is part of the reason for why LifeSiteNews always takes the week after Christmas off. We could simply return immediately to work, investigating breaking stories, interviewing important figures, writing crucial opinion pieces. But what does any of this mean? What will it accomplish? Nothing and less than nothing if we do it without first seeking the will of God, and uniting ourselves with His purpose.
Silence and prayer may not look like work, but, in fact, they are the most important work we can do. And so we spend a week with our families, celebrating Christ’s birth, and learning to listen in the midst of the silence of the stable at Bethlehem. The time for work and long days and late nights will come…but not yet. First we must join the shepherds and the angels in their song of “Glory to God in the Highest!”
God bless, and Merry Christmas!