Cherchez Joan of Arc

by Steven Riel
Natick, MA

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What would a 21st century American find compelling about a trip in northern France that traces the life of Joan of Arc from her birthplace to where she was burned at the stake? Why would a gay man who decades ago left the Roman Catholic Church plan such a pilgrimage-like journey?

Although Joan changed history’s course during just one particular era, her story has taken on the timeless quality of myth. During Nazi occupation of France, she became a symbol of the Resistance. Viewed more recently through the lens of feminism, this uneducated 17-year-old peasant’s ability to become a leader in a man’s world, and to stand firm, without defenders, before the immense power of the Church’s inquisitors, refusing to disavow her visions or to remain clothed in female garb, attracted another generation’s interest. At the same time, she has been embraced as a symbol by the right-wing political party Front National.

My itinerary in part tracks an inner journey. Many threads have consistently led me back to this young woman whose steely character emboldened a tottering nation. I am of French-Canadian ancestry and share in how that culture has often been under pressure on both sides of our northern border, as age-old conflicts between English and French echo. My mother was named after Saint Joan. In college, while helping to lead the gay and lesbian students of Georgetown University in a lawsuit against that Jesuit institution, I participated in an excruciating deposition and trial. Also during my undergraduate years, I wrote six poems in response to six paintings by Maurice Boutet de Monvel at the Corcoran Gallery depicting key scenes in Joan of Arc’s life.