Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Strange Case of St. Joan of Arc: Thoughts on Providence for Election Season

My wife and I are embarked on a project to watch all of Shakespeare's plays, in the fine productions put out in the 1980's by the BBC. We just finished the three parts of Henry VI, which I have seen before, but which certainly bear many re-watchings (and re-readings.) I am always struck by the depiction of Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part One: not the visionary and saint of our now-familiar Catholic tradition, but a lascivious, power-hungry woman who calls on demons to come to her aid, who is willing to sacrifice herself to them for her country:

Cannot my body nor blood-sacrifice
Entreat you to your wonted furtherance?
Then take my soul, my body, soul and all,
Before that England give the French the foil. (Act 5, Scene 3)

This is, of course, what one should expect from an English depiction of the saint. The fact that Shakespeare is writing in Protestant England makes no difference here; had Shakespeare been writing in more Catholic times, surely his depiction of Joan would be the same.

The case of St. Joan of Arc seems at first glance to be one of the strangest and most wonderful events in all the long, strange, wonderful history of Christendom. Many of us are accustomed to think of God as concerned perhaps with the long-range history of the world, with the moral and supernatural state of particular persons' souls, perhaps even with our health or personal happiness. But we balk at the idea that God would intervene on behalf of one side in an actual war--especially when both sides are Catholic, and neither side particularly virtuous! The idea of God taking sides in a battle (much less in smaller conflicts like those among political parties in a national election, or a personal disagreement with a colleague, or a baseball game) seems to many of us out-dated, even gauche, or worse, blasphemous.

Yet if the story of St. Joan of Arc is to believed--and it surely is--this is precisely what God did in the Hundred Years War. God intervened, not through some behind-the-scenes providential guiding of France's leaders thoughts to good strategy, but dramatically and supernaturally, through apparitions and miracles, by raising up the lowly and humbling the proud.

The case of Joan looks like an exception to what we might take to be the normal course of God's providence, as we ordinarily think of it. Many are accustomed to think of God's providence as His guiding the affairs of the world in secret, nearly always through the medium of created causes. We glimpse His providence always after the fact, it would seem, when looking back upon our lives we see how events converged to bring about an end we could not have foreseen or planned, but which was more significant that we could have foreseen or planned. Or we experience His providence in a such a way that it always could have been mere chance coincidence.

This is not the picture of providence that we find, for example, in St. Thomas Aquinas, according to whom all events occur through divine providence. Nothing occurs unless God explicitly wills it to occur or wills to permit it. Not only is this a deeply Scriptural view of God's providence, but a fundamental reason we have to think that there is a God is that all contingent things could only exist and change as they do if there were a first cause. But every contingent thing requires a first cause, that from which its existence directly and intentionally comes. The first cause is not (as it is so often misunderstood to be) something long ago, but something that right now causes each thing. A first cause has causal power over all second causes: the first cause gives to the second causes not only their existence but their causal power and activity as well. All things, without exception, come from the first cause.   

This totally universal causality might lend itself to a view of God as hidden, as we find in St. Augustine. God intends some order to history by His universal providence, but that order is so vast and intricate that we cannot hope to divine it. We cannot be sure of the meaning of any historical event, or of God's purposes in bringing about or permitting that event. On this view, the case of Joan of Arc--that we can be sure that God wanted the French to win that war--looks wildly problematic. On this view, the English had good reason to reject Joan as a blasphemous sorceress.

But this view is incomplete. For God is not just a universal first cause, Being itself bringing into being all beings, but He is also personal, expressing His will not just in actions and permissions, but in commands, counsels, prohibitions, and inspirations, including in apparitions and prophecies. The vast design of providence is difficult to read. But the Catholic tradition on providence includes not only the Augustinian affirmation of this difficulty, but the long tradition of apocalyptic and mystical reading of the book of history, in which God's purposes can be seen and known in history.

Affirming that we know God's purposes in some historical moment is fraught with danger. The English soldier who fought to defeat Joan's armies surely did right--at least, he did his duty to his king and country, which was right for him to do--though clearly we can now see that he, Catholic though he was, was fighting against God. There are strange cases in the moral life when we do what is commanded of us, but this very act, it turns out, unbeknownst to us, is contrary to what God has willed in that particular situation.

And yet for all this the apocalyptic and prophetic reading of history is a crucial part of the Catholic tradition. It is well, I think, though many be false prophets, that many claim to be able to see the purpose of God in some event or other; better that there be false prophets along with the true than none at all! To deny that God could dramatically intervene out of fear of false prophets is to fail to recognize Who God is and how He relates to this world, guiding all things. To refuse to pray for the outcome of a war, an election, even a baseball game, out of a sense that these things are not of ultimate concern, is to lose sight of how God actually operates in history. (Consider not only Joan, but the whole pantheon of saints, with their particular concerns and patronages, such as the Fourteen Holy Helpers whose feast we recently celebrated: divine providence is utterly particular, and utterly elective, choosing what and whom it will, and rejecting whom and what it will.)

In an election year, we should not jump from this apocalyptic sense of providence to the claim that God is on one party's side or another. (Surely in this election year it is clear that He is on neither major party's side!) Yet we should not thereby think that God is uninterested or uninvolved in the history of our nation. To say this is not to claim some special status for our country, but it is to say that it is not just God's general providence over all things that guides our nation, but that the special mystery of divine election, which chose France over England, is operative even now. The God Who is the "setter up and plucker down of kings" (Henry VI Part 3, Act 2, Scene 3) is still the source of all political authority.

Part of what I want to get across here is that the mystery of Joan of Arc shows us in a particularly dramatic way that there are ways that God is present that we moderns tend to overlook. In Joan of Arc's life (and in the Henry VI plays at large), war becomes a place where God appears, as does the king. The transcendent God does not just appear in the sacramental glories of nature or married love or the mysteries of the Church or acts of kindness. For He is also the "God of battles," and the king is also a theophany.

We need to remember that too, especially in an election year. The Catholic tradition gives us ample reason to see our political and even military lives as places where God appears. If we were to keep in mind this sacred character to our political enterprise, it might help alleviate the excesses of banality to which we daily subject. This is not, of course, to say that we should come to see politics as on a par with our properly religious lives; politics belongs to the order of nature, not of grace. But God appears in nature too, and grace imbues nature with new meaning. Politics is of course a messy, makeshift business, and we can at best do what is merely possible in a fallen world. Politics cannot be redemptive, though it is a place where the eternal moral order can break into the world. But Joan shows us that even for matters that are not of ultimate concern, God still has a genuine concern; even in what is not of everlasting value, God has still placed real value, and we should recognize that and respond to it accordingly.


  1. I'm not sure why we should conclude that God is on neither major party's side in this year's election if He took France's side against England when, as you say, neither side was particularly virtuous.

    1. That was just a throwaway line indicating my own displeasure with both sides :) You're of course absolutely right that nothing I say here entails that God is on neither side. Had I lived at Joan's time, I probably would have said that God was on neither side of the Hundred Years War. But I would have been wrong. I may well be wrong now. But I hope not!

    2. Understandable!

      I was pleased to see someone refute Chaput's statement that it would be blasphemous to think that God is on one side or the other in any election (though I have nothing but love and respect for the Archbishop!). Perhaps he was also carried away while trying to stress his disappointment with both of the presidential candidates.

  2. I have often thought recently that the triumvirate of Pope St. John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher was an instance of providence operating to bring an end to the Soviet empire. Only the Pope was a saint, but the three together helped to do God's work in this instance.

  3. Personally, I tend to think that the purpose of this election in which the major parties have both chosen dreadful candidates is to push people to look at the alternatives. I would never have discovered the American Solidarity Party if I could willingly have voted for either of the big 2 candidates.