If I were not so intellectually honest, I’d admit that Joan of Arc would still fascinate me even if, after having lead a successful revolution, she retired from war duties and went on to live a conventional life, dying peacefully at home at an old age. But that’s not the complete truth. Most of us know Joan of Arc by her death at the stake before learning else about her, and with good reason: how many of us would face such an end with as much courage and composure as she did?
I collected books about her for a decade before finally traveling to her homeland of France. I was studying abroad in Italy at the time, and when spring break came around, I went ahead and booked that trip (and somehow convinced my mother to join me). It felt like more of a pilgrimage than going to Israel – oddly enough, at one point in time I wanted to be BFFs with this woman. Mom and I combined our limited memories of French to figure out the manual of the GPS in the dashboard of a rental car, and traipsed across the countryside to Rouen, the sight of two significant landmarks: the tower where Joan was imprisoned, and the memorial where she died.
As is often the case, visiting the sights of places I’ve read about, knowing I was walking the footsteps of this woman I so admired, changed things for me. I was older than the age Joan was when she was executed – nineteen – and wondered if I, then twenty-one, could endure the trials she faced. I lack the quick wit to answer the question “Are you in God’s grace?” with this golden quip: “If I am not, may God so place me in it; and if I am, may God so keep me.” Damn. I might have said whatever I assumed would keep me alive.
It’s easy to see her as this warrior etched in stained glass; not as a frightened young girl I’d have anything in common with. When I think of what enabled her to have the confidence to proceed with her mission, I know that I want it. I want to know if I’ll ever be that certain about anything in life, and my place in it.When I wonder how solid my convictions actually are, I want (hopefully figurative) fires to show me what I hope I already know.
I may doubt what I believe right now, but I never doubted that Joan is the kind of leader I want to be. I wear my pendant from the museum in Rouen to remind me.