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St. Joan, Foreign Policy, and Nationalism by J.C. Scharl

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St. Joan, Foreign Policy, and Nationalism

Foreign policy analysts routinely forget, or at least neglect to mention, the seventh of the nine levels of angels listed in the Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius. This seventh level is the Principalities; they are the highest of the lowest triad of the angels; and their chief business is to guard and guide nations. 

This is not merely a scrap of arcana. The Celestial Hierarchy was an accepted element of European thought for a thousand years. The idea that human affairs—and foreign affairs—were entwined with celestial ones is bred into the bones of Europe.

Today, Europe is undergoing a double crisis of national identity; first, that brought about by EU attempts to impose homogenous progressivism onto nations with a wide variety of different cultural beliefs; and second, that which is caused by Russia seeks to recreate its Cold War imperial boundaries by attacking Ukraine. As Europeans and those who love Europe wrestle with how to think about nations and the love of nations, we can do no better than to remember how Europeans of old thought about these things. 

For this journey of recollection, we can choose no better guide than St. Joan of Arc, who knew more by the age of 13 about nationhood and about the Celestial Hierarchy than most of us ever will.

Everything in its place…

Joan of Arc’s Death at the Stake (right side of “The Life of Joan of Arc” (1843) triptych by Hermann Stilke (1803-1860), located in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Before we get to St. Joan, however, we must spend a little time in her world. Otherwise, we may fall into some of the common but dreadful errors that have accumulated around her.

Much of Joan’s world, including the Celestial Hierarchy, comes to us from that most fertile, most delightful corner of Christian thought, the Christian Neo-Platonists of antiquity. Imagine it: it is the 4th century AD. The First Great Age of the Martyrs is closed; no longer does the blood of the martyrs’ water the Church in torrents. She seeks other streams, and in the comparative leisure of Rome’s slow collapse, she finds the wellspring of Plato: the wisdom of the ancients, which is the mercy of God dispensed to pagan minds. “All truth is God’s,” says St. Augustine, the father of Latin theology; yet it is the mystically tidy minds of centuries to come that make it so.

Now, it is the fifth century. Rome the State crumbles; barbarians spring from all sides. Theoderic clutches at the Empire, which runs like quicksilver through his fingers. Yet Rome the Lady—the Eternal City—rises, even as the walls that surround her fall. 

Dionysius the Aeropagite, or Pseudo-Dionysius, wrote (probably) in this milieu. Few thinkers are as puzzling to the modern mind as he is. His two best known works seem to stand in opposition; how can one thinker simultaneously complete a meticulous survey of the celestial hierarchy that puts angels neatly into their places in the created order, and develop an entire branch of theology that says we know the most based on what is unknown (apophatic theology)? What epistemological contradictions are these? 

I can imagine a thinker like Jorge Luis Borges accomplishing this level of paradox, but with a significant difference: there is no indication that the Areopagite wrote with even a hint of irony. This is key to understanding the medieval mind—in many ways the mind that made Europe. Irony played a very different role; rather than creating tension between the reader/listener and the author, irony served to create tension within the writing. The word itself was utterly trustworthy; if it proved otherwise, it was cast into the outer darkness. Knowing this context helps us make sense of institutions such as the Index Librorum Prohibitorum; in this world, where the authority of a word was derived from God, a corrupted word could be diabolical. 

This is all a little spurious to our central topic, but it is helpful to understand as much as we can of the world as it was when Christian Europe arose. There is one other particularly useful corrective to apply here: we must recall that medieval Europe had reached a flourishing and fertile maturity prior to the wielding of that nasty weapon: Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor, you will recall, is a scholastic artifact developed by William of Occam. It asserts that when we are confronted by a theoretical or scientific question, we must seek out the explanation with the fewest “entities,” as he says. The rule is rightly called the “law of parsimony,” for by it Europe was robbed of her greatest riches, including the Celestial Hierarchy. If, as Occam argued, we must proceed by finding the explanation that includes no more “entities than are necessary,” we will eventually abandon all the complex and glorious structure of angelic hierarchy, with its various interventions into human history. 

This is not merely a metaphysical distinction (there is no such thing as “mere metaphysics,” but you understand). These hierarchies, these mediating structures, are a vital part of reality, and they have clear consequences on human affairs. 

Bear with me a little. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Discarded Image, the medieval view of the world was such that God delighted in adding countless more “entities than are necessary” in giving grace; if God could empower a created being to bear grace into the world, He did. Aquinas expounds on this in the Summa Contra Gentiles, writing that how God uses not only the supernatural order but also the natural order to give grace. He only intervened Himself where there was no way for a created being to do the necessary task: namely in the Passion of Jesus. Thus, throughout Scripture, God sends angelic messengers to humans (sometimes He even sanctifies a beast or a plant that it can become a vessel of very specific grace, as is the case with Balaam’s donkey or the Burning Bush of Moses). We see this no more clearly than in the Annunciation, where God withholds from addressing Mary Himself, instead sending the Archangel Gabriel to mediate. 

Whereas we moderns might see this as cold standoffishness, the medievals had a clearer view. They knew that granting others the power to become a means of grace actually increases grace; God’s decision to send Gabriel to address Mary expanded the scope of grace because Gabriel, who was previously not involved in that particular grace, became integral to it. Gabriel can now offer unique praises to God for all eternity because of his own proximity to the grace of the Annunciation, and any honor Gabriel receives for his role in the Annunciation, he is able to offer back to God as a joyful gift. 

Anyone who has parented young children will understand this. Suppose some good deed has been performed; a room has been tidied, for example, or the table cleared, and Papa wishes to dispense a grace in the form of a small treat. Now, Papa can choose to go around and give each child a treat himself, which would certainly be delightful. Or, he can choose to appoint one child as the giver of the treats. This child will then become an integral part of the grace-giving; he will participate even more fully in the goodness of the treat than if he had merely received it. The other children, seeing their peer involved in this task, will rejoice even more, because their gratitude, which is the wellspring of joy, will have two sources: the Papa who decrees good things, and the sibling who gives them. They will have two thank-yous to offer, one to the Papa who made the gift, and one to the sibling who made the gift possible. What good parent, understanding all this, would not try to involve his children in constant ever-greater participation in the giving of grace? 

“The Annunciation” (1440-1445), a fresco at the Convent of San Marco, Florence by Fra Angelico (ca. 1395-1455).

… and a place for everything 

What, then, does all this have to do with foreign policy? To answer that, let us turn to Joan. It may seem silly to spill yet more ink on the subject of St. Joan of Arc, when countless writers have already delved into that most marvelous life. But one of the many wonders of that life is how, as the historical moment of her life withdraws further from us both in time and in how we think about the world, we can return to her and find not less wisdom for our own time, but more. 

The basic elements of her life are widely known; St. Joan was chosen and summoned—she would say even born—to save France from the English invasions of the Hundred-Years’ War, and to restore the rightful French king, Charles of Valois, to the throne. A peasant girl from a tiny village, St. Joan grew to lead an army, break the English siege at Orléans, enjoy numerous victories elsewhere, crown the king as Dauphin in Rheims, and open the way for him to ride to Paris. St. Joan was captured by the English and burned at the stake as a heretic before she could see Charles seated on the throne in Paris. 

Consider our situation today: a fraught one, to say the least. Europe, long the seat of Christendom, struggles to articulate even a basic sense of who she is. Within her borders, nations twist on the stake of their own self-doubt; cultures, religious practices, and even whole languages are passing away into the dreary “new dawn” of progressive globalization. Meanwhile, in the east, the vast power of Russia seeks to subdue Ukraine by whatever means necessary, ostensibly to protect its own culture; the struggle, far from weakening Ukraine, has served to transform it into an undeniable cultural and national whole, at least for the time being. 

What are we to do, we who long to love and serve a nation and a people yet look around and see little that is worthy of our love? How are we to love a nation when it seems that it is this very love that propels nations into aggression, when the bright sword of our devotion can so quickly turn to reflect not the sun but the fires of war? 

Unlikely as it may seem, St. Joan can help us. Her language and visions may have been heavenly, but her mission was remarkably practical: she was sent to restore the Valois king to the throne in Paris. To accomplish this task, St. Joan had to engage in tactical, practical considerations of such mundane matters as fords and bridges; how many miles a horse can carry an armed knight in a day; how to feed and supply a fast-moving troop; and how to survey battlements held by the enemy. 

Beyond this, however, she had to cope with the character of a people weary and discouraged by nearly a century of war aggravated by treachery among the ranks of the nobles, and with a feeble-spirited young king surrounded by conspiring councillors. She had to cast a vision of why she, alone of all France, believed that this was a fight worth fighting—and why she believed it could be won. 

Many people believe that Joan fought for France and for its king because she loved France. This isn’t wholly correct. First, the object of her love was not primarily France as a nation; and second, the France that she did love (not as the primary object of her love but as a secondary object) was itself not France. 

France as Joan loved it did not exist before she began to love it. France, as Joan knew it, was an arena of war and villainy. France was Valois, Burgundy, Armagnac, Orléans, all at war, all poisoned against each other by decades of spite and wrath. France was a manipulative Queen plotting against her own son’s inheritance, undermining him, publicly (and falsely) denouncing him as a bastard, welcoming the insult against her own virtue if it meant that Charles would not aspire to the throne. This was a France half-ceded already to the English. This was a France wrecked and vile and pitiable, but not lovable—not until Joan appeared to love it. 

Had France been the first object of her love, Joan would have failed. Had Joan ridden out purely for love of France, her star would have burned out, extinguished in the mud of battle and the grime of court intrigue. But she did not love first and foremost France; she loved God, and because God asked her to, she loved France. 

Appearance of Sts, Catherine and Michael to Joan of Arc (left side of “The Life of Joan of Arc” (1843) triptych by Hermann Stilke (1803-1860), located in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Her love of God, and this alone, is what made St. Joan what she was—and by extension, it is what made France into what it became: a nation, a culture, a people. This love of God is what allowed Joan to take her place in the hierarchy of God’s grace and to serve joyfully in the great, complex, multi-layered dispensing of grace.

This, in fact, is the defining motif of St. Joan’s life: her whole-hearted participation in God’s hierarchy. She received word of her mission not from God Himself, but from an angel (St. Michael) and two saints (Sts. Catherine and Margaret). She herself became an instrument of grace when she accepted that mission. When church inquisitors told her that if it were God’s will to save France, He could do so without an army, the saint answered that if she were given a few knights, the whole of France would see God’s will worked out well enough. She submitted to the king; even when, after Orléans, she could have rallied Frenchmen to battle without the consent of the Dauphin, she waited patiently for Charles to command her. And in everything, she sought to do what God had asked of her.

As we, far from Joan in both time and culture, agonize about how to love our nations in our strange new world, there is no lesson from her life more important that this: St. Joan saved France by loving something more than France. 

This is not to say that nations are trivial. The Celestial Hierarchy shows us that there are many little pools and waterfalls in the great outpouring of grace, and one of those pools is the Principalities, or the protectors of nations. Nations matter. But they are not ultimate. A Principality that demands our worship is no angel; it is a demon. 

Nations are gifts; that is all. They are great gifts, yes, but not ultimate ones. They were not here when the world began, and most of them will, in all likelihood, not be here when the world comes to its conclusion (however that great mystery shall unfold). Where are Ur and Sidon? Where Tyre and Cush? All swept away. 

So how are we to think about nations, these passing-yet-powerful things in which we dwell and for which we have such love? In the Great Commission, Christ specifically tells the Twelve that all “nations” must become disciples. From this we learn that God has chosen to use nations as some of those mediating entities through which grace can come to—or be withheld from—the world. 

This way of thinking about our nations frees us to love them properly: not slavishly or blindly, not hiding their deficiencies from ourselves, but freely as St. Joan did. She loved her nation, and heroically so, because she loved not France but the God that made France; she loved France not as grace itself, but as a means of grace given to the people who dwelt in it. 

This is an angelic love, akin to that of the Celestials who love because God loves, and who by their love become channels of goodness and virtue for whatever they love. And this love alone has the power to transform a nation into something worthy to be loved. 

J.C. Scharl is a Senior Editor at The European Conservative. She is a poet and playwright, and her work has appeared in many American and European magazines and journals.