Question: What sort of help say you that this voice has brought you for the salvation of your soul?
Joan: It has taught me to conduct myself well, to go habitually to church…
Question: Have you some other sign that these voices are good spirits?
Joan: Saint Michael assured me of it before the voices came.
Question: How did you know it was Saint Michael?
Joan: I knew it by his speech and by the language of the Angels, and I believe firmly that they were Angels.
Question: How did you know that they were Angels?
Joan: I believed it quite quickly, and I had the will to believe it…
(Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses, Regine Pernoud, Scarborough House, pp. 30-31)
Few, if any, historical accounts are as fascinating to read as those of Joan of Arc. Through her own words at her trial as well as by the testimony of those who knew her, we have the rarest of opportunities to listen to a militant, medieval mystic explain in great detail how she came to believe what she believed and how she came to accomplish what she accomplished. Her epic life is astonishingly encapsulated in a mere 19 years; yet, to grasp the meaning of it all takes one a lifetime of contemplation in scripture, history, theology, and philosophy. That she is interpreted in so many lights and loved by those of so many different walks of life and various beliefs is a grand testimony to her life. I compare her to a rare jewel, which, when exposed to the light, shines in a splendid array of colors.
However, when exposed to the light of the Church, this jewel explodes like a new star coming to life in a distant galaxy, or, rather, we might say more appropriately like that of a super-nova in its last gasp. It is this exposure of Joan of Arc to the light of the Church and through her “will to believe” that I wish to discuss in this essay. For it is only through the light shining forth from the Church that one sees her authentic glory. In Joan of Arc is the glory of true self-sacrificing Catholic religious belief over the curse of skeptical materialism or the amorphous, narcissistic self-love of the “spiritual but not religious” wayfarer.
I believe that it was G.K. Chesterton who made the observation that the bane of the skeptical secularist is his removal of romance from the study of history. The core principle involved in this depressing process is that the combined limitation of materialism and modernism is the only reasonable starting point for discerning true history. If there are emotional, romantic, chivalric, or, heaven forbid, religious and spiritual factors involved, they must be subjugated to the modern, material mind; or, they must be eliminated altogether. Nothing is allowed to be larger or to occupy more space than the skeptical modern mind can hold.
One may easily identify the modern day skeptic (though, if one is ever unsure and in a hurry, one can throw a net into almost any crowd and figure that the odds are that nine out of ten so snared are indeed skeptics). The skeptic not only does not believe anything quickly or even at all, the skeptic, in addition, has no will to believe anything in the first place. The skeptic glories in skepticism and the intellectual gyrations it involves. Skepticism is safe and easy, for it requires no action. After all, how can one know? A firm commitment to an end could prove to be drastically fatal, for there are always good intellectual counter-arguments for not committing to that end. Let us think this over.
Yet, moving on, the modern skeptic will be easily identified with statements such as, “In medieval times, people believed that they could have discussions with saints or angels. Joan of Arc can only be understood within the context of these ancient medieval beliefs.” We can know immediately from these remarks that our skeptical story-teller wishes to subjugate medieval thought to modern “rational” (read materialistic) thought.
There is a significant down side to this. Medieval thought was romantic and grand, while modern thought is depressing. Medieval thought opened one’s mind and heart to the reality of the great Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Christ and the Church He founded, and which Church universally ruled both the spiritual and temporal realms of the times. Modern thought is small, material, deterministic, divided down to the smallest atomic particle, and, well, simply skeptical.
Medievals thought that the worst possible crime a person could commit was a crime against God, such as heresy or blasphemy. The modern mind believes the worst possible crime is a crime against man being his own god, in which case God Himself can be tried for heresy if He dares to attempt to regulate man. It is often said that one may tell the goodness of a tree by its fruit. Joan of Arc’s medieval voices from the saints in heaven (that people in medieval times believed in) told her to be good and to go to church on regular basis. The voices of the modern mind tell us to be vulgar, to blaspheme God, to believe no religion, and to kill our children if we do not want them. You tell me. Which tree shall we choose?
Against this backdrop, we have a most remarkable comment from Joan of Arc during her trial. It is a comment that consistently nagged my mind for a while, for every time I would read it and attempt to pass over it, I would be drawn back as to a marvelous mystery. This mystery is one that would inevitably render me helpless but to sit back and contemplate the marvelous vistas, meadows, rivers, and creeks along the pathway of the Dogmatic Creed of Roman Catholicism by which Joan leads me.
This comment is her last above: “I had the will to believe it.” Just as we might immediately recognize with a mere phrase the cold, unromantic mind of the modern skeptic, here we might conversely recognize with a mere phrase the fiery, romantic mind of a true believer. We might also recognize the true believer by the one noticeable factor that is unknown to the skeptic, that is, by the believer’s valorous action. A true believer is free; she is free to act. If she is guided by the Good, the fruit of her efforts might even be to change the world for the better in defense of the medieval concept of man answering to God as opposed to the modern concept of man demanding that God answer to him. As a side note, that medieval belief was far superior and far more powerful than modern belief, well, rather, I should say than modern unwillingness to believe. “I had the will to believe it.”
A most interesting fact about my spiritual journey along the pathway of the Dogmatic Creed with my saintly sisters Joan of Arc and Thérèse of Lisieux, is that Our Lord God in His Holy Spirit, in order to help me better understand the artistic beauty that He created in the soul and person of Joan of Arc, gave me over to read more than simply the life of Joan or the poems and plays of St. Thérèse about Joan. In particular, I was led to read the seraphic writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. The more that I continue to read St. Thomas the more I understand why this is so and just how the Lord has been grafting a powerful understanding of Faith and Hope throughout my soul by combining the life of Joan with the wisdom of Thomas. As Joan is a gift from Our Lord and Our Lady and as she is a cherished relationship that I am to nurture along with that of Thérèse that I might find my home in the Kingdom, it has been important for me to understand what it means “to will” and what it means “to believe.” In other words, the Lord has blessed with me with a relationship with Joan of Arc, so that I might turn away, or repent, from being a proud skeptic and that I might turn toward being a true believer. Can there be a better influence for this than Joan of Arc?
In these writings of St. Thomas, I noted with keen interest that theologically and philosophically, according to the Western traditions defining reasonable thought, faith and skepticism are substantively different principles. They are not points on a continuum. (See Summa Theologica II-II Q.1 Art.4.) Faith and skepticism are very different things, and so, therefore, are belief and opinion which are each born respectively of those principles. Faith is necessary for true belief. “But without faith it is impossible to please God. For he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) (Douay-Rheims) Skepticism, on the other hand, breeds mere opinion, and it would read Hebrews 11:6 more like “I think we should try to please God, for it seems to me that we should believe in God, but that is just how I think. I would not want to state my own beliefs firmly to anyone else, since who is to say what is really right and wrong?”
There is indeed a world of difference between faith and skepticism, and, therefore, between belief and opinion. Belief grounded in faith is powerful. Belief grounded in the authenticity of Catholic faith can bring the very Kingdom of God down to touch the earth. A seventeen-year-old medieval woman with ardent, believing Catholic faith might just defeat the army of an entire kingdom if you let her. I believe that. The skeptics, however, are not so sure. After all, what if that same young woman is fighting an army that also has Catholic faith? Remember, there are always good intellectual counter-arguments to keep us unsure and, subsequently, skeptical. Once again the skeptic is frozen in inaction. He must merely render an opinion.
The second point on which St. Thomas enlightened me (and, for the record, he was a medieval person as well) was on the former part of Joan’s formula, to wit, that she “willed” to believe. Thomas points out that further to the notion of true belief is that it represents the assent of the intellect to the will, which directs the intellect to accept the belief based on faith in the principle or person involved. (See Summa Theologica II-II Q.2 Art.9.) Our intellect submits to our will in order to board an airplane because we have faith in the principles of aerodynamics. Our intellect submits to our will to accept the truths of Catholic dogma because we have faith in the One who declares them through His Church.
In other words, skeptics have no will to believe for they have no faith in the principles in question. Religious skeptics have no will to believe because they have no faith in religion. They are either chained in intellectual pride that prefers the easy erudition of “point, counter-point” or are bound by self-imprisoning cowardice for fear of the unknown. Joan in her humility and in her fearlessness of faith “had the will to believe” and acted accordingly to the astonishment of the world.
Joan of Arc, that simple and uneducated peasant girl who spent her youth in and around the fields and pastures of the small village of Domrémy, spoke to her Inquisitors in equally and appropriately simple language. They asked her how she knew that she was speaking with Angels. She replied simply, “I had the will to believe it.” In other words, she was grounded in faith.
The skeptic might say simply that this response reveals that the young girl lived in a fantasy world whereby she believed what she wanted to believe. However, as I sat back in contemplation one of those times after reading her response, the Lord and Our Lady brought me to one of those mystical, metaphorical hilltops. As I pondered in skepticism myself about this very point, Our Lady in her maternal care pointed to the magnificent panorama in the distance that is the Kingdom of God which is the Principle End toward which the Church is moving through time and space. Looking across the meadows, creeks, lakes, wooded fields and upward to the mountain peaks in the distance, the words of St. Thomas came to mind. I realized at that moment that my saintly sister was not simply believing what she wanted to believe. She had assented in her intellect to the desire of her will to believe because she had faith in Our Lord. This was most pleasing to God, as it is “impossible to please God” without this faith that believes “he is and is a rewarder to them that seek him.”
It was St. Thérèse, our newest Doctor of the Universal Church, who taught me then that as God is a “rewarder to them that seek Him,” Joan therefore appropriately received her most glorious reward, that of martyrdom. According to Thérèse, Joan’s crown of fire will “far outweigh the scepter of a king” in heaven. Now that is Joan in the splendid light of Catholic Dogma. It is in this profound simplicity as seen through the spiritual eyes of St. Thérèse that I make the bold statement above that only through the Church does Joan’s glory shine in authentic splendor.
Joan of Arc believed. She had the will to believe and faithfully surrendered the faculty of her intellect in the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) to Our Lord. Through the cold eyes of the skeptics, I could still see a beautiful light in Joan. However, through the eyes of the Church, looking outwardly in expectant joy toward the Kingdom, I saw Joan’s life burst forth in brilliant colors that ennobled that same Kingdom.
With that, I turned to Our Lady to tell her that I, too, believe now. I came to believe because Joan believed. Though I have been using metaphorical images, I can nevertheless say that the last two sentences are literally true. I will close this essay with an explanation of why.
My thesis here and the metaphorical language above referring to Our Lady both speak to the reality of what happened to me on July 17, 2006, the story I relate in my essay, “On my devotion to Joan of Arc.” My most startling memory from the day before that evening whereby I received complete healing of body, mind, and soul while at the feet of the statue of the Blessed Virgin was that I made the willful commitment to assent to Our Lord’s will that I be totally consecrated to her. After more than 20 years of feeling the Holy Spirit tug at my heart through Mary, of desiring to surrender to Mary’s maternal care yet remaining skeptical, I finally “had the will to believe it” as I approached her symbolic feet. It was that belief, bearing Joan’s character of faith, that healed me and that brought me into sanctifying grace after all those years of suffering. It was through St. Joan of Arc’s intercession and sharing with me of her own faith that I received the “will to believe it.” Through St. Joan of Arc’s intercession, my life was saved. This was Our Lord’s will and the desire of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is that true belief in Jesus Christ through consecration to Mary that has born Hope in me. It is that true belief that gives me the strength each day to pick up my staff, put on my sandals, throw-on my single coat, and to keep walking down the path. It is that true belief that is the reason that I am so devoted to Joan of Arc.
When I get tired, I look ahead and see that light that is the glory of Our Lord in His Church shining through Joan of Arc. I then have the strength to keep moving. For, I now have “the will to believe it.”