Day 29b Walking into the fifteenth century again. The place where Joan of Arc found her sword in the village church of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois. Spiritual direction, at last. The Hundred Years War seems to go on forever.
The only picture of Saint Joan of Arc known to have been done in her lifetime is a manuscript marginal portrait drawn in the year of the peasant girl’s legendary military victory at Orléans in 1429. Six years after the year the Worcester pilgrim Robert Sutton walked through this region to Compostela; and Sutton was on pilgrimage in France only eight years after Henry V’s 1415 victory at the battle of Azincourt, mispronounced by the English ‘Agincourt’. The Hundred Years War was still in full swing during our pilgrim’s journey to Compostela.
Walking into this village with the Worcester pilgrim’s bourdon is not yet historical re-enactment: he did not walk by this route. In fact his journey from England took him west of here but we will join his route shortly, a little further south. Nevertheless I arrived in the village of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois carrying the replica 1423 bourdon with a heightened sense of the layers of time. The continuing sense of walking out of the world.
George Bernard Shaw was inspired to write his play Saint Joan by her canonisation in 1920, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature as a result. In the epilogue to the play, he also plays with these layers of time. In a scene where Saint Joan returns to earth fifty years after her martyrdom and confronts the King of France and other characters involved in her story and her death, a messenger enters this fifteenth century scene dressed in a 1920s suit to declare that Joan of Arc has now been canonised: she is Saint Joan.
Of his epilogue, Shaw said, “Without it, the play would be only a sensational tale of a girl who was burnt; leaving spectators plunged in horror, despairing of humanity,” but this final scene shows Joan’s real life and meaning did not end with her death but began with it.
On being told that she has been declared innocent and made a saint, Joan asks is she should return to earth, but none of the key characters in the play want her: if she returned she would simply be burnt again because that is her fate. The world is unwilling to accept the prophetic lives of the saints and only after the saint is dead does the world realize what it has rejected. Even then the saint will not be given a second chance! Hence Joan’s final line in the play:
O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?Joan of Arc’s memorable final line in G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan
The church of Sainte-Catherine was deserted and I sat there in front of the altar. On a marble plaque in the wall was the legend, “Here was found the sword of Jeanne d’Arc.” You might suppose, without any further exploration of the subject, that Joan came here in person and withdrew it from some hidden place, like King Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone. She did not come here. A blacksmith came from Tours to find her a sword. Saint Catherine of Alexandria was the patron of military men, so many left their swords here as ex-votos. It was like a scrapyard for old swords!
“I much more like the story of Charles Martel,” said a voice behind me. It was Coronel Pablo Pedalo my guardia ángel. I was surprised to find him here in church, for there was a bar right outside in the square. “To thanking God for his victory over the moros at Poitiers, Martel build this church for Santa Catalina. Here in a bosque, a wild place. ‘Fier bois.’ Then he hid his sword here, the one that give him victory over the moros. Here in the wall. Ready for to find it, a new saviour of the country. Jeanne-d’Arc, she find it.”
“And took into battle again,” I finished his story for him. “A moor-slayer’s sword. That’s what you like to believe, Coronel Pedalo? It fits your Camino spirituality very well, doesn’t it? A history of military power struggles, bloodshed and centuries of rule by force, sanctioned by the power of barons and the Church.”
“That’s what it always been, señor peregrino. What else you walking this Camino del Apostól for? To see pretty colour cristales in windows and sculptures romanicos? The Camino is written in blood and this is the place of the sword of Martel.”
I had gone off this place now. “Let’s go…”
As I stood up and turned to go, a priest appeared from the sacristy with a replacement sanctuary light and put it by the tabernacle, turning around with the old light. He was in traditional priestly garb, wearing a clerical collar and a black cassock. I put down my rucsack and leant the bourdon against the end of a pew, and introducing myself as a pilgrim I said it was difficult to find Mass on the road. Would it be possible to receive communion from the reserved Sacrament? The answer was both swift and traditional, but delivered with a friendly smile: only with an act of contrition and an introductory prayer. And he spoke English.
I saw my guardia ángel Pablo Pedalo slide out down a side aisle, pausing to kiss the tattered end of a hanging blue and white pennant of Joan of Arc. The lure of the café in the square had him in its grip. I once ran several kilometres to a Catholic church in Prades – some years ago – desperate to get away from the Commuauté des Béatitudes for a short time and make confession and speak to a priest. I found one in the abbey there, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. He said I had no need to speak to a priest: I could say whatever was in my heart directly to God. “Are you a Catholic priest, father?” I had asked him, and his response was affirmative but that I should call no man ‘father’, only my Father in heaven.
I returned slowly, walking the kilometres back to Casteil and up the steep mountain to the abbey of Saint Martin du Canigou, to the sect I was unwittingly trapped in, and I continued planning my escape, with no assistance from a man who had abandoned his pastoral responsibilities and didn’t even want to respond to an urgent spiritual need. All that can wait till I get to the Pyrenees. I’ll think about it then, in the mountains. The thing is – ever since that incident – I had always hesitated before seeking any spiritual help from a priest in France.
This was a moment for healing that wound, so many years later. The priest encouraged me to make a short confession, but then turned it into a conversation, and it was sound spiritual direction. What I had recognized yesterday that I needed. We talked about the road, the demons that must be faced on some days, and how to handle them. He too had done a long walking pilgrimage to Rome on the Francigena Way. He knew the spiritual traps and offered advice on the less serious distractions. However, he was clear on one point: if my timetable did not make regular Mass possible, I simply had to adjust my timetable and hang around a bit longer in those places where I might assist at Mass.
So I received communion, here in the place where the sword had been – whatever its origins – that was in the hands of Joan of Arc at Orléans in 1429, six years after the Worcester pilgrim passed through France a little further to the west, with the original bourdon of which mine was a mere 21st century copy. Sure enough, Pedalo was in the café, his Guardia Civil tricorn in the middle of the table, a glass of Pastis in his hand and a Gitanes cigarette dangling from his lower lip. There was still much of the day left and I could make it to Sainte-Maurene-Touraine for the night. The guide said there was a campsite.
“Nice work if you can get it!” I said to Pedalo. “I haven’t much seen the point of a guardia ángel since the emergency gourd repairs!”
“No?” replied Pedalo, blowing blue smoke across the table. “Why you think I stop you arrive too soon in this pueblo? We talking out there in the fields because your priest he still at the bread shop. So you nearly come into Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois and out again, and miss him!”
“Oh. Thank you,” I said. He pointed silently to the Dauphin’s house next to the café. 1415. Year of the battle of Azincourt. It will be good to get further south and away from all this fifteenth century mayhem. Maybe there was some point in Coronel Pablo Pedalo after all. He stayed at the café as I walked out on the road to the south, following the balisage of the Via Turonensis. I did not see him again that day. When I came to a tree with Jesus and Mary in it, I thanked them for my guardian angel.