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Joan of Arc - Mont St. Michel a pilgrimage.

In their Atlas of the Christian Church, Henry Chadwick and G. R. Evans write,

The idea of pilgrimage rests on two conceptions which are very ancient as Christian traditions. The first is the idea of the soul of man on earth as an exile, traveling home to God. The whole of life is thus a pilgrimage to heaven. The second is the belief that certain objects and places are in some way a focus of holiness .... To visit a shrine of a saint ... or to go to a place such as Rome or Jerusalem, was to come closer to God. So strong were these two notions that in simple people's minds in the Middle Ages to travel to Jerusalem on earth seemed little different from traveling to Jerusalem above, the heavenly Jerusalem or City of God itself. To go on pilgrimage was a way of getting to heaven.

The eighteenth century literary critic Samuel Johnson would have pooh-poohed such an idea. In his novel Rasselas (1759), he has a character named Imlac point out that pilgrimage, like many other acts of piety, may be either reasonable or superstitious: "That the Supreme Being may be more easily propitiated in one place than in another, is the dream of idle superstition; but that some places may operate upon our own minds in an uncommon manner, is an opinion which hourly experience will justify."

A pamphlet dealing with pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel defines a pilgrim as one who leaves home in search of spiritual renewal. The French dictionary Littre, the pamphlet points out, defines a tourist as one who travels "out of curiosity and idleness." He leaves home in order to indulge his appetite for travel, though he may hope to return from his travels a wiser and a better man. It is undeniable that Marie, my wife and I have often indulged our appetite for travel. At the same time, it would not be true to say that we travel just out of curiosity and idleness. Even if we have not climbed steps on our knees, we hope that we have said enough prayers at the shrines we have visited to qualify us as pilgrims, not merely tourists.

France 1996

In keeping with Chaucer's advice given six hundred years ago, that when April comes people like to go on pilgrimage, we left for France in the middle of that month. Having arrived in Paris on a Saturday, we went to Sunday Mass in Notre Dame. It is hard to imagine hearing Mass in more beautiful surroundings; and the choir was magnificent. Moreover, there was a large congregation; the cathedral was nearly full--very much fuller than it had been when we were last there eleven years before.

From Paris we went south to Fontainebleau, and then to Orleans on the Loire. In front of the beautiful 13th-century Cathedral of the Holy Cross, there are two statues of Joan of Arc. The inscription on one of them describes her as a humble and simple girl, who could often be seen pasturing her father's sheep. The other emphasizes the courage she showed when faced with the sad termination of her short life, when she was burned at the stake in Rouen. A whole series of stained glass windows inside the cathedral recalls the great events of her life. In a chapel near the north transept, there is a statue of her, complete with banner, above an altar, and facing it a statue of a cardinal kneeling in prayer and looking up at her.

Joan of Arc

Joan was a pious girl from Domremy in Lorraine, born about 1412, who from the age of 13 heard the voices of Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret urging her to save France. At the age of 17, she rode south through English territory for eleven days, gained an audience with the Dauphin, the heir to the throne, and persisted with him until he gave her a white horse and a suit of armour and the command of his army. Orleans was then an important city; it was besieged by the English, and its capture would have threatened the well-being of all of France. Joan lifted the siege, and this turned the tide in the Hundred Years' War. She entered it on May 8, 1429, and took part in the first procession of thanks for the deliverance of the town. For over five centuries, every year on the same day a commemorative procession has recalled this action of Joan's.

After several other successes, she was able to stand beside Charles VII at his coronation in the cathedral of Rheims. But a year later she was captured by the Burgundians, who sold her to the English; she was then tried for heresy by a church court packed with supporters of the English side, found guilty, and burned at the stake in Rouen. She was only 19 years old when she died in 1431. Twenty-five years later her case was re-tried, and she was pronounced innocent.

Bernard Shaw's version

She was canonized only in 1920, and this event resulted in the writing of one of Bernard Shaw's best-known and most successful plays. But the opening of the Preface he wrote for the play indicates the peculiar twist he gave to Joan's story:

Joan of Arc, a village girl from the Vosges, was born about 1412; burnt for heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery in 1431; rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456; designated Venerable in 1904; declared Blessed in 1908; and finally canonized in 1920. She is the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar, and the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages. Though a professed and most pious Catholic, and the projector of a crusade against the Hussites, she was in fact one of the first protestant martyrs. She was also one of the first apostles of Nationalism, and the first French practitioner of Napoleonic realism in warfare as distinguished from the sporting ransom-gambling chivalry of her time.

If this biographical summary does not establish Shaw as one of the queerest fishes among playwrights, it at least makes him seem very eccentric himself. He writes that the Catholic Church "does not defer to Joanesque private judgment as such, the supremacy of private judgment for the individual being the quintessence of Protestanism ...." But many other saints besides Joan have heard voices and seen visions, and they are not commonly referred to as Protestants. Joan was a faithful daughter of the Church. Shaw seized on her story because he could interpret it in terms of his evolutionary philosophy, a system of ideas, Anthony West once wrote, which has far less positive evidence to support it than witchcraft has. He posited the existence of a Life-force working within matter to drive it on to higher and higher forms. As Shaw explains in another play, Man and Superman, the saint or superman is the agent of change, the driving force in society, always in conflict with reactionary conservatism. In the last words in the play, Joan says,

Oh God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?

The real Joan

The real Joan, however, wrote a letter to the Pope asking for him to consider her case (or rather had a soldier write it for her, because she could not read or write), and gave it to Bishop Cauchon of Beauvais to send it to Rome. But Cauchon was in league with the English; he burned the letter, and later told Joan that the Pope said that her voices were from the devil and not God, so that she would have to go to the stake. Before her execution she was denied confession and communion and her crucifix was taken away from her; Cauchon said that witches were not allowed crucifixes. But a priest brought her the sacraments, and when the fire was burning, a soldier took two sticks and held them in front of her in the shape of a cross. She died saying the name of Jesus.

Mont St. Michel

We became tourists without question, as we visited the old city of Dinan, not far from St. Malo on the English Channel; Dinan's upper town contains a great many half-timbered houses, many of them dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Driving through flat alluvial country a little to the east, we were soon in sight of the rock of Mont St. Michel rising from the sea, with the abbey on its pinnacle.

The Mont used to be an island. Travellers approached it in peril of their lives, for there are quicksands around it and the tides on the coast of Britanny are very high. Today's traveller can come to it in comfort, because there is a causeway going right to it. The parking lot into which we drove, however, had a sign advising us to clear out before high tide at 8 o'clock, since the lot would then be under water.

In the Middle Ages, this was one of the four holiest shrines of Chistendom; pilgims flocked to it from all over Europe. St. Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, built a small sanctuary here in 709 A. D. After the Norman invasion in 966, the Benedictines arrived at the Mont. But as time went on pilgrimages became very frequent, and the existing church became too small. There was one slight difficulty about building a bigger one: there wasn't any room on the top of the island. The answer to that problem was to build on crypts which would support the new abbey, and it is still supported that way.

There are ramparts around the island; it was fortified during the Hundred Years' War. So we entered through a portcullis. Inside we found ourselves in a narrow street crowded with visitors and lined with shops; at the height of the tourist season it would be hard to move. When we had finished our arduous climb up to the abbey--about a thousand steps--we were in luck: an English tour was about to begin. The French girl who conducted it proved very knowledgeable; she kept referring to the marvellous building, "la Merveille" in French, the large halls which are set one above the other. On the bottom are an almshouse and a storeroom; above are the Guests' Hall and the Knights' Hall; and above them the monks' refectory and a cloister. These date from the 13th century. The abbey church is an interesting example of Romanesque mingled with very fine Gothic. The reason for the mixture is that the choir of the old church fell down in 1421, after standing for four hundred years, and it was rebuilt in the newer fashion.

Henry Adams

Henry Adams' book Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1913), a classic of its kind, explains why this shrine had a special significance in the Middle Ages. Adams came from a famous Boston family; he was the great-grandson of the second President of the United States, and grandson of the 6th. He himself gained a considerable reputation as a historian. But after the suicide of his beloved wife in 1885, he became very despondent, and embarked on travels, both physical and intellectual, in search of a perspective on the world. Out of this quest came two important books, the one on Mont St. Michel and The Education of Henry Adams. As the earlier book showed, he was fascinated with the contrast between the Middle Ages, especially the 13th century, and his own time. What was the central motivating force of the 13th century? The cult of the Virgin. What was the central feature of the 20th? The dynamo. Visiting the St. Louis Fair of 1904, he concluded that the dynamo made his world go round. (Today he would probably say it is the computer).

After a brief preface, his book on Mont Saint Michel begins as follows:

"The Archangel loved heights. Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth which seems, in the eleventh century, to leave hardly room for the Virgin of the Crypt at Chartres, still less for the Beau Christ of the thirteenth century at Amiens. The Archangel stands for Church and State, and both militant. He is the conqueror of Satan, the mightiest of all created spirits, the nearest to God. His place was where the danger was greatest; therefore you find him here. So the Normans, when they were converted to Christianity, put themselves under his powerful protection."

So he stood for centuries on his Mount in peril of the sea. So soldiers, nobles, and monarchs went on pilgrimage to his shrine; so the common people followed, and still follow, like ourselves. Perched on the extreme point of this abrupt rock, Adams continues, the Church Militant with its aspirant Archangel stands high above the world, and seems to threaten heaven itself. Church and State, Soul and Body, God and Man, are all one at Mont-Saint-Michel, and the business of all is to fight, each in his own way, or to stand guard for each other. We have little logic here, and simple faith, but we have energy: "Our church on the Mount is ambitious, restless, striving for effect; our conquest of England, with which the Duke is infatuated, is more ambitious still; but all this is a trifle to the outburst which is coming in the next generation; and Saint Michael on his mount expresses it all."

Blessed Virgin 1170-1270

The outburst in the next generation to which he refers had nothing to do with archangels and a great deal to do with the Blessed Virgin. She was the great mediator: "In the eyes of a culpable humanity, Christ was too sublime, too terrible, too just, but not even the weakest human frailty could fear to approach his Mother." Devotion to her resulted in an architectural endeavour the like of which the world has perhaps never seen: in the single century between 1170 and 1270, Adams states, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral class. And "The palaces of earthly queens were hovels compared with these palaces of the Queen of Heaven at Chartres, Paris, Laon, Noyon, Rheims, Amiens, Rouen, Bayeux, Coutances--a list that might be stretched into a volume."

As Adams points out, the Virgin had good taste: she demanded the best of everything. For her churches she required four things especially: space, light, convenience, and colour decoration to unite and harmonize the whole. Colour, and instruction as well, was provided by the stained glass windows; when the faithful could neither read nor write, as one guide book puts it, the windows and statuary "formed a vast compendium of edifying knowledge." As to space, Notre Dame de Paris is 420 feet long, and can hold 9,000 people; Chartres can hold a thousand more. As to light, Adams declares that the necessity for it was the motive of the Gothic architects: they converted their walls into windows, as far as possible. And so they had to use flying buttresses to keep the walls from falling down. These became a source of singular beauty. It is difficult to decide whether the finest view of Notre Dame in Paris is of the twin towers in front or of the apse at the back. Concerning the latter, the Michelin guide says, "We ought to spend some time admiring the detailed decoration, the balustrades, the gables, the pinnacles, and the gargoyles. But the eyes are inevitably drawn to the striking coronet of flying buttresses which, with their span of nearly 50 feet, are the boldest medieval structures of this kind."

All of this cost money. In fact Adams thinks that the scale of expenditure involved "expressed an intensity of conviction never again reached by any passion, whether of religion, of loyalty, of patriotism, or of wealth; perhaps never even paralleled by any single economic effort except in war." Testimonials to the devotion behind this extraordinary effort are possible to find. In the year 1145, Abbot Haimon of Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives in Normandy wrote a famous letter to the monks of Tutbury Abbey in England to tell them of the great work which the Virgin was doing in France and which began at the church of Chartres. As Adams notes, the Abbot told with more surprise than pride of the spirit which went into the building of the cathedral:

Who has ever seen!--Who has ever

heard tell, in times past, that power

ful princes of the world, that men

brought up in honour and in wealth, that nobles, men and women, have bent their proud and haughty necks to the harness of carts, and that, like beasts of burden, they have dragged to the abode of Christ these wag gons, loaded with wines, grains, oil, stone, wood, and all that is necessary for the wants of life, or for the construction of the church?

Yet they march in such silence that not a murmur is heard, he continues, and when they halt on the road "nothing is heard but the confession of sins, and pure and suppliant prayer to God to obtain pardon."

A pilgrimage can remind us of the extraordinary devotion to the faith which whole communities have sometimes manifested in the past. They lead us to wonder as well whether the march of progress, putting the dynamo or the computer at the centre of our so-called civilization, has meant a real gain or only an illusory one: men and women ought still to testify to the existence of realities transcending material ones. Henry Adams could admire the way in which 13th-century France expressed its devotion to Mary; he could admire, but he could not imitate. With less knowledge than he possessed, but more faith, we seek to go further. As the Atlas of the Christian Church points out, Christians think of themselves as exiles traveling home to God, and when they visit the ancient or modern shrines of Christendom they most often seek to enlist the aid of holy men and women who have gone before them to help them on their way. The desire to go on pilgrimage, which Chaucer wrote of at the end of the 14th century, still persists at the end of the 20th.
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Author:David Dooley
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Dec 1, 1996
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