Read: The meek shall inherit the earth | Mark Twain's inspiring recollections of Joan of Arc by Maria Servold

In 1896, American novelist Mark Twain published a book so unlike most of his other work, it’s hard to believe it came from the man who wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, writes Maria Servold, Assistant Director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College and parishioner at Saint Anthony in Hillsdale. Maria continues:

About it, Twain once said, “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books, and it is the best.”

Initially published serially - and anonymously - in Harper’s magazine a year earlier, the story brims with admiration and enthusiasm for the Maid of Orleans, which may be surprising to many Catholics, as Twain himself was not Catholic.

While Twain’s story is fictionalized, he researched historical records, particularly those about Joan of Arc’s 1431 trial, to produce a profoundly moving work.

I picked up a Lighthouse Catholic Media edition of the book close to a decade ago at my church, shelved it, and promptly forgot about it. Several years later, I read it as part of a book club. The novel - particularly the third section, which depicts her trial - is inspirational. How could such a young, unworldly woman have withstood such tribulation? How could she remain obedient to God’s will when it led to such difficulty? Twain’s portrait shows us that it is through trust and God’s grace that the maid’s humility, meekness, and quiet courage blossomed.

Joan is my confirmation saint, but it was only after I read Joan of Arc that I felt I knew why the Holy Spirit led me to her more than 20 years ago. When I chose her as my confirmation saint at age 14, I simply thought of her as brave and therefore worth emulating. But the passages from the novel that depict her trial awoke in me a true respect for Joan - not because of any brash courage, but because of her steady trust in God and his plan for her.

A well-known passage from the book depicts Joan’s resolve when the dozens of men that made up the inquisitorial committee tried to trap her, often with her own words:

“...Cauchon spoke from his throne and commanded Joan to lay her hands upon the Gospels and swear to tell the truth concerning everything asked her!

Joan’s eyes kindled, and she rose; rose and stood, fine and noble, and faced toward the Bishop and said -

‘Take care what you do, my Lord, you who are my judge, for you take a terrible responsibility on yourself and you presume too far.’” Joan of Arc, Book Three: Trial and Martyrdom, Chapter VII.

Shortly after, Joan states that without the grace of God, she could do nothing. The inquisitors see a chance to catch her, and ask if she is in a state of grace. The narrator, Joan’s fictionalized best friend and scribe, Sieur Louis de Conte, writes:

“There was no hope, no way out of the dilemma; for whether she said yes or whether she said no, it would be all the same - a disastrous answer, for, the Scriptures had said one cannot know this thing. Think what hard hearts they were to set this fatal snare for that ignorant young girl and be proud of such work and happy in it. It was a miserable moment for me while we waited; it seemed a year…Joan looked out upon these hungering faces with innocent untroubled eyes, and then humbly and gently she brought out that immortal answer which brushed the formidable snare away as it had been but a cobweb:

‘If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it; if I be in it; I pray God keep me so.’”  (italics in original) 

It is in moments like this that we see the true meekness of Joan - a virtue that may seem contradictory to the woman known for dressing in men’s clothes, fighting in battle, and courageously defending the messages she received from God.

But what is meekness, truly? It does not mean to be weak or without courage. As Christians understand it, meekness is submitting freely to the will of God. Joan did not fight battles, withstand an unfair trial, and die at the stake because she failed to prevent any of these things - she did it because God asked her to.

Like many saints, Joan teaches us how to love God in ways we may not expect. First, she shows us that we are often called to do things that, at first, seem impossible or scary. Second, she shows us that we should be persistent in following his call. Between the visions she received in her hometown of Domremy and the trial, she dealt with naysayers, led an army, and was wounded in battle, yet she never quit her mission. Third, her trial and martyrdom show us that we can and should defend the faith, even if it leads to suffering. Most of us will not be burned at the stake for our beliefs, but we can - and do - face daily condemnation from those who wish to disprove the truth of the Gospel.

Legend tells us that when she was dying, Joan asked for a crucifix to be held aloft so she might gaze upon it as she burned. Let us be guided by her words about the cross, as Twain wrote them: “Now keep it always in my sight until the end.”

Saint Joan of Arc, pray for us!