Reviewed by Katherine Hanley, CSJ , St. Bernard's Institute, ALBANY, NY 12203.
This book is a lovely combination of careful scholarship and personal devotion. Moved by many visits to Domremy, Vancouleurs, Toul, and other sites where Jeanne d'Arc lived, Tavard sets out to explore the inner life of this enigmatic saint. It is an ambitious undertaking.
Tavard first explores the political and religious landscape of fifteenth-century France, noting that readers familiar with this material might wish to skip. This reviewer found it enormously helpful, if at times overly packed with references and names.
The book then moves to the figure of Jeanne herself. Amazingly, Tavard discovers that we are not even sure of the name of the saint; at her trial in Rouen in 1431 she was asked to give her name and surname. Her reply: "At home I was called Jeanette. Since my coming to France, Jeanne. I do not know my surname." (19) Her father's name was either Tarc or Darc. More important for Tavard is the name given Jeanne by her angels or saints: Jeanne La Pucelle, Daughter of God.
The heart of the book is Tavard's reflection on and exploration of Jeanne's mystical experiences, her "voices," which directed her in the campaign for France, told her to assume masculine clothing (a critical point in the later trials), let her know that she would be captured, tried, tortured, and eventually burnt at the stake, and gave her an inner peace which supported her throughout her ordeals. Although, Tavard notes, Mary the Mother of God and St. John the Baptist were the most widely revered holy persons in the middle ages, Jeanne had visits from neither of these persons. Her most frequent visitors were St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Marguerite of Antioch. These holy women were sometimes visibly present; at other times Jeanne heard their voices but did not see them. On occasion she was aware of light. St. Michael the Archangel also appeared and spoke with Jeanne.
Although Jeanne could not write, her responses during her trial at Rouen have been preserved and these provide rich testimony of Jeanne's spirituality. What emerges, thanks to Tavard's careful work, is an absolutely bedrock trust in God, a willingness to follow God's voice as manifested through the saints and angels, a deep conviction that the Church is to be loved, trusted, and obeyed, even though the authorities of that same church were the ones who conducted the trials, termed her a witch and a heretic, and turned her over to the secular authorities to be burned. It was that same Church, however, which appointed a special commission after Jeanne's death and ultimately declared the trial at Rouen absolutely invalid.
Although Tavard professes deep affection for Jeanne d'Arc, he is candid that we cannot verify Jeanne's experiences. Of her voices he says, "Whatever psychological or other explanations may be suggested for the voices and lights that she heard and saw do not do away with the originality of her view." (169) W hat Tavard presents is a woman of insight and steadfastness, convinced of God's love and God's desires for her. Unlettered and unsophisticated, Jeanne nevertheless carried out God's designs in her life, ultimately giving that life in peace.
This book does not romanticize Jeanne. It does, however, raise rich and helpful questions: what does unconditional trust look like? in what other ways does God continue to use the weak to confound the strong? what voices speak to us and how attentively do we listen? For those interested in Jeanne d'Arc herself or mysticism in general, this book will be richly rewarding.