The most disturbing comment about Christianity I’ve ever come across is not from the scientific materialists or the New Atheists – or even the Older Atheists. It’s from a French Catholic, Charles Péguy, a figure not well known here, but of a spiritual stature akin to Dostoyevsky.
Péguy put the comment in a play that’s mostly a dialogue between a nun and the thirteen-year-old Joan of Arc set in 1425, which is to say after Joan has begun to have visions, but before she leaves her little village of Domrémy and, miraculously, goes on – a simple peasant girl – to lead the French king and his army to victory over the English.
The comment is short and simple, and refers to the ages, as she sees them, since Christ: “the greatest physician in the world has passed by, and nothing has changed.”
Every thinking Christian has felt this at times. Compared to this inner sense that we’re still left grappling with our sins, the charges about Christian complicity in the Crusades, the Inquisitions, or the Wars of Religion are just historical abstractions.
And they could be balanced out, anyway, by the cathedrals, the paintings and statues and music, the worldwide relief services, and the hospitals and universities (the last two, both Christian inventions).
And the saints. Christian saints are often thought to be bland, predictable, and boring. Christian outlets that perpetuate these insipid portraits bear some of the blame – but be it said, even the plaster saints attest to something unusual in human nature.
Today, December 26, is the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. The Church calendar places him right after Christmas Day. With good reason: Christ came into the world and redeemed us alright, but the Redemption immediately begins a process that challenges the usual worldly powers, which the world does not like, and reacts violently against, in every age. It’s still going on – in China, Africa, the Middle East, and in lesser forms almost everywhere.
Christians and non-Christians alike have grown too used to the idea of martyrs and saints to see them for what they actually are. In the ancient world, however, they were rightly thought something remarkable.
The Greco-Roman physician Galen (129-199 A.D.) was, like many scientists, a skeptic. But he was stunned at how Christianity produced many people willing to die – peacefully – for what they believe is the truth. It was a commonplace in the ancient world that common people were incapable of such virtue, and only the rarest philosophers – Socrates, most notably – could achieve that self-mastery.
Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1879 [The MET, New York]
But beginning with St. Stephen, the “protomartyr” (Acts 6 & 7), a new relationship to the truth of things emerged even among common people. No one died to attest to the truth of Zeus or Athena, Marduk or Baal. But ordinary Christians will accept martyrdom for the truth that a divine child came into the world.
So what of our poor Joan of Arc, dismayed over general lukewarmness and sin and outright blasphemies in 1425 on a hillside in what is today known as Domrémy-la-Pucelle, in the Vosges region of France, a real village that you can still visit, not a fairytale kingdom?
In the play I’ve quoted from, Péguy’s The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, she reflects on how Jesus was born among simple people, like her neighbors. And she can see how much a person like Jesus, simple himself in many respects, would both win their deep loyalty and also be feared because of the vast disturbances to a familiar life that he would set going.
She sees that the whole sad history of Christianity is precisely this working out of the two reactions. And she comes to two conclusions: that the world needs a war to be carried out “to kill war” and that God needs “a saint, who will succeed.”
The rest of her story is too well known to need much mention here. The swift passage from her village to meeting Charles VII and persuading him to fight for France. Her “voices” and successful battles. The way, at only nineteen, she was tortured and condemned by an ecclesiastical court to be burned alive by the English at Rouen. And her exoneration, only twenty-five years later, by Pope Callixtus III, who declared her a martyr. (Christians martyred by other Christians are a frequent enough occurrence.) She was canonized in 1920.
Péguy doesn’t bother with any of this, though. His subject is the mystery of charity, its strange gestation in a human heart, which, in Joan’s case, expressed itself in acts that changed the history of several nations.
Among those acts are deeds of war. We don’t like to think about it, but what we often regard as merely the same old violent conflicts of human history contain real struggles between good and evil. There can sometimes be heroism, even happy deaths, of a sort, in a just war that seeks to protect and enhance life.
Joan’s charity was born in the heart of an ordinary – indeed, by our modern standards, extraordinarily simple – person with no advanced degrees, no theological training, no foundation grants, none of the elaborate preparation we think needed to do something great in life.
And yet she succeeded. Like Christ succeeded. Not on the strength of arms or brilliance, but through charity, which is to say in reaction to the intolerable situation during her life in which it seemed Christ came “and nothing changed.”
But lots changed. And continues to change. Still, the struggles won’t end until the end of the world and His Second Coming.
Christianity seems weak just now, as it seemed in 1425 to a peasant girl, and might seem in every age. But whether it is really weak and incapable of meeting the challenges of the time depends less on what we think constitutes strength and much more on the strength of real charity.