For my first three or four years of elementary school I seemed to catch just about every germ, bacteria, and infection that came down the pike. Daytime TV was mostly geared to housewives who watched soap operas and not to young kids so it was sort of a last resort. Mama couldn’t spend all her time reading me books or telling me stories, so about grade 3 I started reading books myself. I was hooked for life.
When I got a little older I found biographies of famous people, especially women. I read books about Florence Nightingale, Pocahontas, and, perhaps the most interesting, Joan of Arc. Pocahontas was a local girl, one whose story I knew just from people telling me the history of the area in which I lived. Florence Nightingale went to a war zone and worked to save lives of sick and wounded soldiers far from home. Joan, though, was different. There was a religious component to her story that intrigued me, so much so that when Mama went to an antique store where I saw a statue of a woman in armor, I asked for it. It may have been a Valkyrie, for all I knew, but to me, that was Joan and I wanted her to be a sort of guide and a presence.
Joan was a simple girl from a relatively small town, a “shepherdess on the green” as the hymn* calls her. She was basically illiterate although she could sign her name. What she had, though was a strong faith and a belief that God had something big in store for her. From a young age, she heard voices and saw visions of angels and saints, most frequently the Archangel Michael and St. Catherine of Alexandria, who gave her the challenge to save France which was in the grip of war between the houses of Burgundy and Orleans. It was a formidable task, one that would surely daunt anyone, much less a young girl, but she had faith in God and her guides.
Joan broke a lot of the rules of normal behavior of the time. She heard voices and saw bright lights and spoke of them to others. To accomplish her task, she dressed first as a boy, then in armor. She talked with and persuaded princes and theologians, and led troops in battle. She got the Dauphin crowned Charles VII, and was captured in battle. The Burgundians sold her to the English but she was returned to France where she faced charges of heresy and witchcraft and where she was forced to recant her statements about the voices and visions.
She was still in prison when she was tried again a few months later and this time she refused to recant, instead confessing her faith in the messages that she knew came from God and the gathering of saints. She was convicted as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1431. Twenty-five years later, her case was appealed and the Pope declared her to have been falsely accused. Almost 500 years later, she was canonized as a saint.
Today most people think nothing about girls who wear boy’s clothing although boys in girl’s dresses still cause more than a raised eyebrow or two. Nobody thinks anything about people seeming to talk to themselves (or maybe God or someone else) because we’re so used to people talking on Bluetooth or cell phones. We’ve gotten accustomed to hearing stories of saints and mystics who have heard voices or had visions back hundreds of years ago, but we are somewhat skeptical of people who claim the same thing today. We’re much more aware of mental illness than mysticism, and possibly more comfortable with it as well.
But mystics live among us, usually unnoticed because they don’t go around wearing an “I’m a Mystic” button or proclaiming their mysticism. They may not go around wearing armor and riding a white horse with a banner floating over their heads, but neither are they all hiding in dark caves or out in the deserts. What they all have, though, is faith and a desire for union with God. Even non-mystics can have that same faith and desire for union, with or with out the voices and visions.
We may not be called to lead an army, get a prince crowned king, or even something really heroic. Maybe we’re called to march in support of a cause or volunteer to serve meals at a homeless shelter. Maybe we’re called to help children learn to read or remind elders that they are not forgotten. We may not get the lights and voices, but we, like Joan, can find our passion and follow it, with a little guidance from God and a lot of faith that we can have a deep connection and we can find our ministries and missions.
Perhaps we can ask Joan to help us.
*Hymnal 1982, Church Publishing Corp. NY. #293.
Image: “Joan of Arc on horseback”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons