1977 – Normandy, France
I stood staring at the modestly sized statue of a young looking, medieval warrior perched outside the chapel. A small group of us who recently graduated from high school in Guymon, Ok were making a visit to the island fortress of Mont Saint-Michel just off the coast of northwestern France. We were finishing a six week cultural and language studies field trip whereby each of us had been housed with a family living in Brittany, a region in Western France that extends out from mainland France into the Atlantic Ocean just south of the British Isles like a thick thumb sticking out on a large hand. Our group was preparing to take a bus to Paris where we would spend a night before boarding a plane back to the States.
Mont Saint-Michel is a must see for any tourist or cultural studies traveler, and our itinerary did not disappoint. The ancient monastery at the top of the small hill sitting just off the coast looks like a castle floating on the sea. At night the lights give Mont Saint-Michel an almost surreal appeal. It certainly is a spiritual place, and it certainly has a spiritual history to it, one going back to the early middle ages.
Mont Saint-Michel also has a military history behind it. Due to its strategic location in the southern English Channel, it was a fortress from ancient times. During the 14thand 15thcentury Hundred Years War between France and England, the occupants of Mont Saint-Michel used her strategic advantage and never surrendered to the English who otherwise occupied the whole of Normandy and, we should note, northern France in general due to their strategic alliance with the French Burgundians.
In the early 15thcentury, England was pressing hard on France, or what was left of France. The French “Dauphin,” or “heir apparent” to the throne was hiding out south of the Loire River in Chinon. The critical passing-over point for the English army to gain entry into the heart of France was at Orléans, sitting on the north bank of the Loire. The French, or Armagnac sympathizers (those allied with the Dauphin as opposed to the Prince of Burgundy), still held Orléans. If the English could seize control of Orléans, they would pour into the Dauphin’s France in short order. They would seize control of all France and subjugate the French crown to the English. The English would own both crowns. The English put the city under siege in the Fall of 1428. The Dauphin was on the verge of abandoning France and fleeing either to Spain or to France’s longtime ally, Scotland. It was only a matter of time.
The inevitable, however, did not happen. Miraculously, the French defeated the English at Orléans and raised the seige. More miraculously, the French continued by routing the English out of the Loire Valley. Even more miraculously, the trembling Dauphin, Charles VII, shortly thereafter was crowned King of France at the cathedral in Rheims (deep in Anglo-Burgundian territory, northeast of Paris) on July 17, 1429, only nine months after the English enclosed their hands firmly around France’s neck. During this time, and during the entire Hundred Years War, Mont-Saint-Michel, sitting squarely in the thick of English occupation, never surrendered. The island is almost impenetrable with a land bridge only at low tides. The fortress has a colorful and exciting history for sure.
I stood staring at the modestly sized statue. Looking around, I did not sense that others were as interested as I. There was much activity, and our French teacher, Linda Bowling, hustled around doing her typically marvelous job of keeping us organized and doing so with a high degree of enthusiasm and energy. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, I stood still. I stood staring at the statue.
The statue intrigued me. Certainly, it did not intrigue me from a purely denominational, religious perspective. Most of what I had experienced in France was Catholic. I was a Protestant young man, having grown up in the American Bible belt. Our family was staunchly Methodist. My father, an avid fisherman, was among the best friends of the local Methodist minister, also an avid fisherman. In fact, the two of them owned a small fishing boat together. We used to call it the “Louie boat” after the minister’s first name.
Most, though not all, of my hanging around friends were from other denominations. Guymon had about every Protestant denomination I can think of. A couple of independent evangelical churches popped up over time when the evangelical movement started to gain momentum in the 1970’s. The largest church in town was the First Baptist Church, which sat across the corner from our United Methodist Church. Despite the plethora of church groups, we never gave it much thought, really. At least I did not. We would hang out at each other’s church youth groups and occasionally go to each other’s camps or youth retreats.
There was a small Catholic church off on a side street. I never knew much about it. I remember attending services (I did not know it was called Mass) there, probably around the 6thor 7thgrade. To this day vague memories of that visit still are lodged in my head. The most memorable moment was when everyone got up, in what seemed like the middle of the service, and lined up to go to the front. We did not do that in the Methodist Church, other than at the every-so-often communion service. Here, though, at the Catholic Church, it was part of the regular routine. I made neither head nor tails of that, but, again, I really did not give it all much thought.
I was standing and staring at this statue, however. I was, in fact, giving this particular object outside of a “church” some thought. I was not sure why.
“Who is that?” I asked Ms. Bowling who had appeared at my side.
“Ah, c’est Jeanne d’Arc!” (“It is Joan of Arc!”) she exclaimed.
Ms. Bowling quickly ran off to herd some of the others.
I continued to stare at the statue.
“Joan of Arc,” I thought to myself. The name was familiar, for sure. Yet, I really could not recall much that I had learned about her. I remembered something about burning at the stake. Yes. Did she not burn at the stake? The rest was a blank sheet. I would not have done well on a French history exam, even after my six weeks in Brittany.
I turned with a typical “whatever” shrug and walked at a clip to catch up with the group, not realizing that she, Joan of Arc, was the reason that the French defeated England at Orléans. She was the reason the French routed the English from the Loire Valley. She was the reason that the Dauphin, Charles VII, marched to Rheims to be crowned King of France, rather than run away. She was the reason that France kept her independent crown. She was the reason France would remain Catholic after the Protestant revolution. She was the reason France developed into the nation state we know today. That is who Joan of Arc was.
I did not realize the historical, religious, and spiritual significance in Western Civilization of the person whose image that curious statue represented. I also did not realize the historical, religious, and spiritual significance she would have in my personal life.
Joan of Arc had saved France’s life. I had no “earthly” idea at that time that she was going to save mine.