Against the Odds
Considers the life of St Joan of Arc, whose feast day is 30 May
by Brian Radcliffe (revised, originally published in 2011)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To consider the life of Joan of Arc, a teenager who did not allow others’ prejudices to divert her from her purpose in life.
Preparation and materials
You will need a leader and two readers.
Leader: Joan of Arc was born in 1412, during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Her childhood was characterized by uncertainty. Her home village of Domrémy lay on the border between English-controlled northern France and the French-controlled regions to the south. The warring monarchs, Henry V of England and Charles VI of France, both died within a year of each other, in 1422. Charles’s son, also called Charles, wanted to take the French throne, but was unable to do so because Reims, the traditional French coronation site, was in the hands of the English. A power vacuum existed, which the English began to exploit.
Reader 1: Joan was a spiritual person, open to the voice of God directing her life. She believed, in particular, that she was regularly visited by three saints: St Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret. The message that they gave her was that she must go to Charles and offer her help in recapturing Reims, enabling him to be crowned king.
Reader 2: In May 1428, aged only 16 but full of self-confidence, Joan travelled to Vaucouleurs and offered her services to the captain of Charles’s garrison, explaining the details of her visions. Unsurprisingly, her offer was turned down – probably rather patronizingly – and she was sent home. Undeterred, she returned six months later and, because her persistence impressed the captain, she was given permission to see Charles.
Reader 1: At this point, both Joan and Charles began to play role-playing games with each other. Realizing that her gender was an issue, Joan dressed as a man. For his part, Charles hid himself among his courtiers, waiting for Joan to identify him. Nevertheless, she was able to pick him out immediately and told him of the mission that she believed God had given her.
Reader 2: Within a few weeks, Joan had been placed in command of a small army and began her military career, pushing the English army back, recapturing Reims and enabling Charles to be crowned King of France.
Leader: It’s easy to listen to Joan of Arc’s story and allow its significance to go over our heads. Yet the facts at the heart of the story are these: at the time of her success as a military commander, Joan of Arc was between 16 and 17 years of age (pause to allow time for thought) and she was a girl. In the male-dominated society of those times, it appears presumptuous, to say the least, for Joan to have expected that her views would be heard by the older, more experienced men of the French court and army. However, she refused to deny her mission. Joan’s self-assurance and persistence were rewarded and, when she was given the chance, she was justified by her results.
There was, however, one more test of faith that she needed to face. Captured eventually by the English, Joan was charged with heresy because she placed more importance on her personal spiritual vision than she did on the authority of the Church. She believed that God spoke directly to her, through the voices of the three saints, rather than in the official manner through priests and bishops. To the power-conscious Church leaders of the time, this was seen as gross arrogance and a challenge to their authority. Despite wavering in her faith for a while, in the end, Joan refused to submit to the Church authorities and was burned as a heretic on 30 May 1431. She was just 19 years old.
Was Joan of Arc simply a stubborn and deluded teenager who eventually overstepped the mark and paid the price? In France, she is certainly not regarded as such. Her charismatic leadership during a critical time in the history of the country is widely recognized. Young and female she may have been, but she is regarded as an iconic leader. There was something about her that provided the catalyst for a successful military campaign that broke the stalemate in the war between England and France. Maybe that’s a good argument for listening to youthful exuberance and inspiration when things have become staid and mundane.
It can be easy for teenagers to become resentful, to feel that their ideas, energy and optimism are overlooked by those who claim to be more experienced, more capable and more important. Although it is always important to listen to the wisdom of people who have had many experiences, it is also important to keep our dreams alive. Sometimes, we need to learn a lesson from Joan of Arc by being persistent and, when given the opportunity, seizing it with both hands.
Time for reflection
In school, we believe that prejudice is wrong. Many schools have forums where they encourage students to put forward suggestions so that their voices can be heard. (At this point, you may like to remind students of the forums and other means of communication available within your school.) Despite these opportunities to put forward our ideas, it is easy to become frustrated with the slow process of change. However, the example of Joan of Arc encourages us to be true to what we believe and to be persistent in pursuing it.
Spend some time considering the following thoughts. You may wish to turn them into a prayer.
- Be thankful for inspiration, imagination and bright ideas, especially those you have yourself.
- Be sorry for the times when you may have compromised your beliefs because of peer pressure, frustration or rebuke.
- Make a plan to take some action that arises out of today’s assembly.