From Soeur Marie Verité:
My eighth-grade class at the parochial Immaculate Heart of Mary grammar school began preparations to receive our Confirmation into the Catholic Church when I was thirteen years old. Confirmation is kind of a big deal in general because it’s the “confirmation” of the vows a Catholic child’s godparents took when that child was baptized, usually as a baby. Confirmation, they told us, was when we stood up in front of God and everybody and said, “Now I’m able to speak for myself and I can wholeheartedly say I’m a soldier for Christ.” Not in those words, exactly, but that was the basic idea. And it was a big deal at that age because we got to dress up in our best Farrah-Fawcett hairdos and our new Candies platform shoes and parade around in front of each other and our families like we were finally somebody. We practiced the prayers and processions for weeks, and the day we received our special red Confirmation gowns was like a holiday – although I will take to my grave the sound of our teacher Miss Paul’s gravelly voice admonishing us with disapproval and disdain to pay attention as to when to sit and when to stand, because “You don’t want to stand out like a sore thumb.” You know, because of the red gowns. God forbid, Miss Paul. God forbid.
We were to choose a sponsor from among our friends and family (well, actually we were to choose a sponsor from among the adults we knew, not from amongst our own personal friends, which would have been hilarious and awesome but hardly conducive to the spiritually solemn tone principal Sister Anne Christine and celebrant Father Kenny were hoping to strike). I have no idea now who my sponsor was: I think my parents roped one of my mother’s friends from her bridge club into doing it for me, or maybe it was one of my mother’s sisters. I can’t recall, because frankly the idea of calling up a grown-up and saying, “Hey, there’s this thing I have to do and I need someone to stand up and promise to Jesus, the Holy Mother Church, the Archbishop of the Diocese, the priests and nuns of the parish, and all my family and friends that I’m not a lunatic truant possessed by Satan. Want the job?” terrifies me even now, forty years later. I can’t imagine how thoroughly I disassociated during that phone call when I was thirteen.
Once we had done that, we got to choose our patron saint. I remember sitting in class and thinking about which saint I wanted to pick. I don’t think I debated long; most of the girls in my class were choosing St. Theresa of Lisieux or St. Bernadette or St. Lucy, all of whom are badasses in their own way, but all I could think of for some reason was my mother’s name: Joan. I looked it up and there she was: La Pucelle, St. Joan of Arc, woman warrior, martyr, wielder of a great and powerful sword, Patron Saint of France, badass. That was it. She wasn’t girly, she wasn’t feminine. She was a warrior for God. She didn’t seem to mess around: she spoke with the angels and got shit done. There was a problem in the fifteenth century with establishing the French monarchy in the wars with the English, so Joan got on that problem and fixed it. She didn’t talk about it, she didn’t whine or wheedle; she got herself a horse and a sword and went to work.
Well, ok. That’s not exactly how it happened. There was a great deal of testing and being rejected by the French authorities and lots and lots of talking and arguing and proving she wasn’t a “sorceress” before she even got near the French Dauphin, and there are some historians who believe that she never actually fought in any battles at all and never killed anyone but merely was present with her banner so as to encourage the French army who could see her and believe that God was with them. But still, I didn’t care. I was thirteen and romantic, and here was a heroine. Not just a saint, but a real-life heroine who saw problems and fixed them, who prayed and got her first vision from the angels when she had been my age. I felt empowered and emboldened by this woman, this fighter. This was somebody I could get behind. I didn’t question for a minute that she heard voices and maybe might have been crazy. I didn’t question that she was a zealot who rallied France into a religious war to get the Dauphin his throne back. Something in me resonates with that, and it’s something I’ve had to keep a careful eye on in all the years since, that willingness to hear God and do whatever needs doing in order to raise the Holy Flag: I question things now, watch out for those who would use my romantic warrior’s passion for their own purposes, and make sure that I never try to convince anybody to do anything in the name of the Divine that they don’t already want to do. I watch people’s ethics carefully, and try to keep a weather eye out for those who wield spiritual power without a moral compass, making sure I don’t fall victim to them like Joan did. My success in this endeavor has been varied, but at least nobody has burned me at the stake.
Her death haunts me. Sixteen years ago I took a summer acting class for fun, and one of the plays we worked with was G.B. Shaw’s “St. Joan.” I performed a few of her monologues, but it wasn’t until the teacher of the class had the idea to have two class members clasp my wrists and arms as if imprisoning me, and then had me speak her final speech as if I were fighting for my life, as St. Joan had been five hundred and sixty-nine years before, that I felt a movement in my soul. It still shakes me, sixteen years after that performance: the howling rage at the Church’s betrayal, the profound and passionate faith in a God beyond the politics of Man, and a love of the natural world not for its own sake but because it was evidence for anyone with eyes to see that God, the Divine, is present and immediately around us all.
My voices were right. … [T]hey told me you were fools, and that I was not to listen to your fine words nor trust to your charity. You promised me my life; but you lied. You think that life is nothing but not being stone dead. It is not the bread and water I fear: I can live on bread: when have I asked for more? It is no hardship to drink water if the water be clean. Bread has no sorrow for me, and water no affliction. But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers; to chain my feet so that I can never again ride with the soldiers nor climb the hills; to make me breathe foul damp darkness, and keep from me everything that brings me back to the love of God when your wickedness and foolishness tempt me to hate Him: all this is worse than the furnace in the Bible that was heated seven times. I could do without my warhorse; I could drag about in a skirt; I could let the banners and the trumpets and the knights and soldiers pass me and leave me behind as they leave the other women, if only I could still hear the wind in the trees, the larks in the sunshine, the young lambs crying through the healthy frost, and the blessed blessed church bells that send my angel voices floating to me on the wind. But without these things I cannot live; and by your wanting to take them away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your counsel is of the devil, and that mine is of God. (“St. Joan,” vi)