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Knowing Our ABCs

November 28, 2012 — 12 Comments

Most readers are familiar with the amazing story of Jeanne D’ Arc (Joan of Arc). She was a French peasant who received visions which proved accurate. She foresaw victory for a humbled nation which had not experienced a major military victory for an entire generation.

Jeanne led the army of the Dauphin (the heir to France’s throne who would reign as Charles VII) to unimaginable victories. She was seriously wounded but inspired her troops with her swift return to battle. She counseled, and prayed for mercy, but recognized England could only be repulsed from French shores by force.

Tragically, she was captured and the English, following a sham trial, judged her guilty of heresy. Jeanne was only nineteen when she perished in flames in an English blaze. Just twenty-five years later, a special court convened by the Pope found her “not guilty” of the crime, and proceeded to declare her a martyr. She was canonized in 1920, nearly five centuries after her brief but brilliant life.

Recently, while reading more about her life I was reminded of something startling she said during her first “inquisition.” When she originally presented herself to the Dauphin, no one could believe a modest young farm girl could be France’s rescuer. A commission of inquiry, comprised of a number of senior clergy, offered the Dauphin a “favorable presumption” that she might, indeed, have divine sanction.

During that “trial,” she was vigorously questioned. The following account comes from Medieval History by Israel Smith Clare.

It is very interesting to see how she evaded the difficulties, overcame the objections, and quietly set aside the learned cavils of the doctors by the simplicity and directness of her replies. They first asked her what signs she could show them to prove her mission. She answered: “I have not come to Poitiers to show a sign. Give me some men-at-arms and lead me to Orleans, and I will then show you signs. The sign I am to give is to raise the siege of Orleans.” One of the [theological] doctors responded thus: “But if God wished to deliver the city he could do it without soldiers.” Jeanne replied: “The soldiers will fight, and God will give them the victory.” Brother Seguin of Limousin asked her, in his provincial dialect, in what idiom her angels spoke. She answered: “In a better idiom than yours.” Said he, somewhat angrily: “Do you believe in God?” Jeanne replied: “I have more faith in God than you have.” The sharp man was thus silenced.

Still the doctors proceeded with their examinations, asking repeated questions and suggesting many learned difficulties. Said Jeanne: “Why do you ask me all these things? I do not know even my A, B, C; but I have come, by God’s command, to raise the siege of Orleans and crown the king.” Having nothing more to say, the doctors finally decided in the maiden’s favor, to which they were somewhat influenced by the great reverence which she inspired among the people of Poitiers by her holiness and piety . . .

Jeanne’s final comment which stands out. The fact that she was illiterate was, to her, no disgrace. She was confident God had chosen her to accomplish the historic events which surely followed.

We live in an era where nearly all adults in the industrialized world are literate. Even in less privileged lands, literacy rates hover around fifty percent.

We—especially those of us who love words and write—tend to look down on those who are not as eloquent as we consider ourselves to be. A woman like Jeanne reminds us that one need not be educated to be truly eloquent. She put the ecclesiastical patricians in their proper place. And rubbed their proverbial noses in it, when she emphasized her illiteracy. Devout, courageous, humble . . . and sarcastic toward condescending clerics—I’m eager to one day meet her!

While knowing one’s ABCs bears little correlation to personal virtue or merit, literacy is essentially a good thing. How impoverished our lives would be if books were sealed to us and we could not be transported to novel places and new epiphanies in their pages.

C.S. Lewis shared this awareness that illiteracy was something that could bar some from experiencing life’s most important treasures. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, he draws a wonderful picture of the relationship between the image and the word. In this allegory, the Landlord represents God.

“. . . The Landlord has circulated other things besides the Rules. What use are Rules to people who cannot read?”

“But nearly everyone can.”

“No one is born able to read: so that the starting point for all of us must be a picture and not the Rules. And there are more than you suppose who are illiterate all their lives, or who, at the best, never learn to read well.”

“And for those people the pictures are the right thing?”

“I would not quite say that. The pictures alone are dangerous, and the Rules alone are dangerous. That is why the best thing of all is to find Mother Kirk at the beginning, and to live from infancy with a third thing which is neither the Rules nor the pictures and which was brought into the country by the Landlord’s Son. That, I say, is the best: never to have known the quarrel between the Rules and the pictures. But it very rarely happens. The Enemy’s agents are everywhere at work, spreading illiteracy in one district and blinding men to the pictures in another. . . . As often as men become Pagans again, the Landlord again sends them pictures and stirs up sweet desire and so leads them back to Mother Kirk even as he led the actual Pagans long ago. There is, indeed, no other way.”

“. . . The Landlord succeeded in getting a lot of
messages through.”

“. . . These pictures woke desire.”

“. . . And then the Pagans made mistakes. They would keep on trying to get the same picture again: and if it didn’t come, they would make copies of it for themselves. Or even if it did come they would try to get out of it not desire but satisfaction.”

Elsewhere, in the essay “Some Thoughts” in God in the Dock, Lewis expressly (and correctly) declares literacy itself as one of the things for which Europe should be grateful to the Church.

[One looking at] Christian activities which are, in a sense directed toward this present world . . . would find that this religion had, as a mere matter of historical fact, been the agent which preserved such secular civilisation as survived the fall of the Roman Empire; that to it Europe owes the salvation, in those perilous ages, of civilised agriculture, architecture, laws, and literacy itself. He would find that this same religion has always been healing the sick and caring for the poor; that it has, more than any other, blessed marriage; and that arts and philosophy tend to flourish in its neighbourhood.