The Cross and Flag: World War I Experiences – By George Ridout

Chapter 18

Joan of Arc

On a beautiful August afternoon while our Division was out at rest after going through the Marne campaign, I went in a Ford through the Joan of Are country and visited her home, her church, and the beautiful Basilica built on the hill overlooking the charming Valley of the Meuse. The route out from Gondrecourt was charming. We went by splendid roads along the ridge of the valley for many miles. At length we came into the village of Domremy where in 1412 Joan of Arc was born in a humble home of humble parents, her father being a peasant farmer. Joan was brought up to sew and cook, tend sheep, attend mass and pray. She had little or no schooling. As a girl she was like other girls, light-hearted and merry. Around that old majestic beech tree which was known as the “fairy tree” by the village, she used to join other children in summer days in making wreaths of flowers and hanging it on the tree and then gleefully dancing around it. There is a story that when about twelve years of age she was playing with other children and then finished up with a race in which she ran so swiftly that her feet did not seem to touch the ground. It was that day she heard a voice that she thought was her brother’s calling her. It was not her brother’s but the “Voice” that was to be heard by her in later days so often and which was to make known to her, her duty as the Lord’s chosen one.

To walk in the grounds once trod by the pure feet of this wonderful maid was like treading upon sacred soil. We went through the house where she was brought up and through the little church where she delighted to go and pray. As we went up towards the altar to view an old tablet to the memory of Joan’s ancestors a soldier asked me: “Where is Joan’s tomb?” I said to him: “Joan of Arc has no tomb, she was never buried, they burned her to ashes at Rouen.”

Afterwards I thought I had hardly spoken correctly because while Joan has no tomb she has monuments all over France, and shrines innumerable, but above all is she enshrined in the hearts of the people of France. You seldom go into a French church without seeing a Joan of Arc monument, and many an altar is dedicated to her memory, and the Catholic people have prayed very much to Joan of Arc during the war. They still think she helps them. A good old French lady who gave a beautiful statue of the maid to a certain village said to an American visitor who was lecturing to the American soldiers there on Joan of Arc: “Will you tell the American soldiers wherever you go that the good women of France are praying to the good God and to Joan of Arc for the protection of the American soldiers. We cannot talk English and can do little to show how much we appreciate their coming to France to fight with our sons and husbands in the cause of right and liberty. We are praying every day for the safety of the American soldier, for to us he is the answer of the call of France to our own Joan of Arc for help.”

The most magnificent monument to the maid is the Basilique on the hill where, during the tending of the sheep Joan had her wonderful visions and heard her voices most. The Basilique is built on the site once occupied by a little chapel where tradition says Joan used to retire to pray when she became seriously affected by the condition of France and her voices came to her.This building occupies a charming view point. From the steps one looks out upon the wonderful valley of the Meuse where green meadows and lovely gardens and red tiled houses in the villages and the serpentine river and away in the distance the Vosges hills with one very pronounced bluff. The view is transporting in loveliness on a summer evening. It conduced to meditation and devotion. No wonder the maid came here so often; no wonder that it was here she used to hear her voices.

Southey, the poet, depicts the maid ‘mid those scenes in the following lines:

“Here in solitude and peace
My soul was nurst amid the loveliest scenes
Of unpolluted nature. Sweet it was.
As the white mists of morning rolled away,
To see the mountain’s wooded heights appear
Dark in the early dawn, and mark its slope
With gorgeous flowers glowing, as the rising sun
On the golden ripeness pour’d a deepening light
Pleasant at noon beside the vocal brook.”
Going in the Basilique one is met at the outset by a superb bronze statue by Allarn “Joan of Arc hearing the voices.” The edifice is modern having been begun in 1900. One became enamored by the mural paintings of M. Charles Lorin which are executed upon the walls. Each panel depicts some notable scene in Joan’s wonderful career. You see Joan listening to her voices, Joan going forth to the relief of Orleans, Joan attending the coronation of Charles at Rheims, and Joan being burned at Rouen. One more picture is needed if it were possible to paint it, Joan among the glorified because if ever there lived a pure soul, if ever a virgin served God and loved Him and obeyed Him and at death went to God, I am sure Joan of Arc was that one. “She feared no danger for she felt no sin.”

Joan of Arc symbolized the spiritual and the prophetic. She was brought up in tumultuous times when France was torn asunder by discordant parties. The Burgundians controlled a portion of it. The English other parts. The French, as represented by their weak and uncrowned King Charles VII, were at the end of their resources and were powerless to drive out the enemy, unite the contending forces and to put an end to ceaseless strife and warfare. Joan had a burning pity for poor France and the King. She pondered much upon the sufferings and distresses of her country. A legend has it that France would be saved some day by a woman of Lorraine.

In her twelfth year her first vision appeared and her first voice was heard. She tells about it: “About midday in summer in my father’s garden I heard the voice from the right side toward the church and when it came I usually saw a great light on the side from which it spoke. The voice told me to be a good girl and go to church and to save France. I said, I am only a poor peasant girl who could not ride or lead armies in the wars. The voice said, ‘Saint Michael and Saint Catharine will help thee.'”

For four years nearly the voices continued to speak to her, and she became at last convinced that God was calling her to save France. At last she feels commanded to present herself to the King. This she seeks to do, first by way of Sir Robert Bandricourt at Vaucouleurs. She is presented to him only to be rebuked. He laughs at the story of her visions and voices and advises that she be spanked and sent home to her mother, but she perseveres and gives a sign to Sir Robert that she is no impostor. The sign comes true and he consents to send her to the King at Chinon. She meets the King engaged with gay company. This was how he spent his time usually flitting it away with frivolous courtiers while his country was fast going to ruin. The King in order to deceive the man was dressed up in common attire — nothing to denote royalty, but Joan picked him out immediately she went into the room. She went up to him and told him God had sent her to him to lead his army to victory and to lead him to his crowning at Rheims. The King at first was unwilling to give her a place at the head of his army. He first subjected her to a close examination before the Church Council of Poitiers. They reported in Joan’s favor and gave the maid the blessing of the church saying: “To doubt the maid would be to resist the Holy Spirit.”

Joan now sets out to the relief of Orleans which was in the hands of the English. Their strongholds were the towers of the city. Joan boldly announced that she would take the towers. She said: “My voices have spoken, they promise us the victory. We shall take the fort when my standard touches the walls.” She carried with her a wonderful banner of white which had embroidered upon it “Maria Jesus.” There seemed to be something magical about that banner. Where that banner went the troops followed with daring and courage. The banner touched the walls of the towers, the soldiers pressed on to the final struggle, the victory was won. Orleans was relieved, the foe was driven out. The great city was made to rejoice as it has ever since on the 8th day of May of every year when the victory of the Maid or Orleans is celebrated mid great rejoicing.

The next great triumph in Joan’s career was at Rheims Cathedral, July 17, when Charles VII was crowned King of France. Remember that this wonderful Cathedral has been the pride of France all down the centuries because it was here her Kings were crowned. No wonder that the brutal struction of this splendid edifice by the Germans has aroused such feelings of grief and bitterness among the French. Today it lies in ruins — a Cathedral of magnificence and beauty and a shrine of priceless memories to the French.

With the crowning of the King Joan felt her work was finished and she wished to go back to peaceful Domremy and again tend the sheep and worship in the little chapel and live the simple life of the peasant girl, but the King would not listen to it. He urged her on to other ampaigns, which resulted eventually in Joan’s death and martyrdom. It was in her Champagne Picardy campaign that she was taken prisoner by the Burgundians and by them sold to the English for 10,000 livres. The English, of course, reckoned that she had a bewitching effect upon the French army, that if her spell were broken the soldiers would lose their spirit, so they proceeded next to try her, and to do that they had to engage the services of the church. They charged her with uttering blasphemy, with presumption, with witchery, and through the efforts of the unspeakable Cauchon — Bishop of Beauvais — she was tried. Her trial lasted many months during which she was subjected to the most searching examinations by the doctors of the church. To all of their questions she answered with matchless wisdom. She, a young, untrained, unschooled girl of seventeen, matched the learned doctors in one of the most unusual trials history records.

She was asked: “Do you know you are in a state of grace?”

She replied, “If I am not in a state of grace may God bring me thither; if I am may God keep me there.”

“Have you assurance of salvation?”

She replied without a moment’s hesitation, “I believe in my salvation as firmly as if I were in heaven already.”

They replied: “Your answer is very weighty.”

“I hold it for a great treasure,” she says.

“Do you believe you have wrought no mortal sin?” they ask.

She replied: “I do not believe I am in mortal sin, and if I have sinned it is for God to know it and for confession to God and the priest.”

[I do not like the following comparison of Joan of Arc’s martyrdom with the sacrificial death of Christ. Paul warned in 1 Corinthians 13:3 “And though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” The fact that Joan of Arc mystically, and successfully followed her so-called “Voices” and that fact that she was burned at the stake do not in and of themselves qualify her for true sainthood. — DVM]

At length they condemned her to be burned at the stake. Oh, the horror of it, the inhumanity of it! But so it seems every holy cause and every human Savior as well as the Divine One, has got to have a Good Friday when the soul cries out in agony: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me.” Joan forsaken by the King whom she led to his crowning, forsaken by the army whom she had led on to victory, forsaken and condemned by the church in which she had been brought up, is led out of her prison on that May morning in the city of Rouen to mount a high scaffold to listen to a sermon by one of the learned doctors, in which she is denounced as a liar, impostor, heretic, blasphemer, witch, and then to be burned alive.

She cries for a cross and it is given her. She is heard to say as the smoke envelops her beautiful pure form, “My voices have not deceived me,” and then in her last expiring gasp she is heard to cry “Jesus!”

[Her stated last cry: — “Jesus!” — suggests to me that her heart was right in His sight, but even that does not mean that Christ approved of perhaps many superstitious elements of her Catholic beliefs. “The Lord knoweth them that are his,” and she could have been “His,” accepted in triumph at her final agony because she was walking in all of the dim light that she had — none of which, wonderful as it may have been, of necessity made her an exemplary “saint of God.” — DVM]

So awful was the sight that one of the men responsible for her being burned said, “We have burned a saint.” The man who lit the fires was seized with remorse and spent the rest of his life in penitence for his crime. The English who were guilty of it were driven out of France the next year.

But well for France that Joan burned. That fire has lit a thousand, yea, ten thousand fires of devotion in France since that day. That pure maid burning there has been the patron saint of thousands of pure French women since that day, and has demonstrated to the maidenhood of France, that in the midst of the most ignoble and distressful and wicked conditions, God is able to raise up a maiden fair, with heart pure and hands clean and spirit undefiled in the temple of whose soul He has a dwelling place.

God’s greatest gift to France was Joan of Arc. Her pure spirit has come down the ages as a rebuke to the carelessness of her people. Her godlikeness has been a lasting reminder to France in her wanderings ‘mid the morasses of infidelity and atheism that God still lives and sitteth in the heavens. Her inspired soul lit up by holy vision and spoken to by voices divine announces to France that God hath yet His prophets and seers.

And what message has Joan of Arc to us all-American, French and otherwise? This. The maid teaches us again that there is a Spirit above and behind all things, and that Spirit is God — that He communicates Himself to those who will listen and hear; that this God is the same God who spoke to Abraham and told him to go unto a land that he knew not of but which the Lord would show him — the same God who spoke to the prophets sending them forth to say: “Thus saith the Lord;” the same God who wrought in John the Baptist, in Paul, in Peter and John.

I would put Joan of Arc among the prophets of God. I would put her among the saints of all the ages, and God on that May morning in Rouen chose to elect her to the noble army of martyrs where she has won the undying affection and adoration of all who loved sweet innocence, spotless purity and beautiful sanctity.