The last full-length novel that Mark Twain ever published was his book The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. And of all the great stories he ever wrote, he thought this one was his very best. Twain was not Catholic, he grew up in the South at a time when there was much anti-Catholicism there, and he was intensely skeptical about organized religion of all kinds. Yet, the “Maid of Orleans” was someone who had captured his imagination. He spent years researching her story, which was well-documented by contemporary sources. Joan was a simple peasant from a small town in eastern France in the 15th century, a period in the Hundred Years’ War when France was in grave danger of falling to the invading English forces. At the age of 13 she had visions of St. Michael the Archangel and other saints and received a mission that would have her leading the armies of France against the English by the age of 17. Inspired by Joan’s leadership, the French broke the siege of the city of Orleans and retook several other English fortifications, filling the people of France with hope after years of demoralizing defeats. What made Joan so amazing to Twain was that his natural skepticism had no explanation for the seemingly-irrefutable evidence of the supernatural power working through her.
This was not only evident in her amazing success in battle, but also during her trial at the hands of her enemies. She had been captured by English forces during the battle of Compaigne, and put on trial for the charge of heresy. The trial was politically-motivated, the tribunal composed entirely of corrupt Church officials who were sympathetic to England. Twain himself distinguishes between the politicking French clerics and the Church: “Rome had no interest in the destruction of this messenger of God. Rome would have given her a fair trial, and that was all her cause needed. From that trial she would have gone forth free and honored and blest.” Twain marvels at the way the completely uneducated peasant warrior was able to respond to the theological traps set by her sophisticated accusers. Attempting to draw her into the sin of presumption, one of the magistrates asks her if she is in the state of Grace, knowing that one cannot ever know this answer with absolute certainty. The transcript of the trial reveals Joan’s famous answer: “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it; if I be in it, I pray God keep me so.” That Joan could answer in such a simple and perfect way reveals the Gift of Understanding. Somehow, at that moment the Holy Spirit gave her an insight into a deep mystery which she was able to articulate to the amazement of the court. This is how the gift manifests itself, even in the ordinary lives of the faithful. One who has grown sensitive to the movements of the Holy Spirit through a life of fidelity and prayer will somehow find himself able to grasp the deeper meaning of the Scriptures, the life of grace, and the presence of Christ in the sacraments – almost instinctually.
Despite her perfectly orthodox answers, the magistrates nonetheless convicted Joan and condemned her to death in 1431. She was burned at the stake in Rouen at the age of 19. When the war finally ended, the pope ordered an investigation into the trial of Joan of Arc and declared her innocent in 1456. She was eventually beatified in 1909, a year before Mark Twain’s death, and she was canonized in 1920. Many have wondered about Twain’s fascination with St. Joan of Arc. Perhaps she allowed the famously cynical author to leave the door to faith open a crack. If so, it shows that even over the distance of centuries, the spiritual gifts are not intended for the benefit of those who exercise them only, but also for the benefit of those who witness them in others. St. Joan of Arc’s feast day is this Saturday, 5/30.
Come, O Spirit of Understanding, and enlighten our minds, that we may know and believe all the mysteries of salvation, and may merit at last to see the eternal light in Thy light; and in the light of glory to have the clear vision of Thee and the Father and the Son. Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc.