The Sisterhood of St. Joan
It is difficult to balance contemplation and action in life. Society greatly values action, lifting high the Type A sorts who are bundles of energy and constantly hustle to get things done. Those who are slow to act and slow to speak are seen in a lesser light, due to their thoughtful, calculated approach. These differing types are portrayed as such on the silver screen, often depicting the charismatic do-ers as the true leaders and the contemplative thinkers as the followers. Interestingly enough, in the real-life person of St. Joan of Arc, we find someone who is both thinking and doing. Here we see a balance of these seeming opposites: a warrior who led military battles and a mystic who saw visions and heard God’s voice. While popular culture is fascinated with St. Joan of Arc—more than most other saints—it has failed to capture this tension of action and contemplation at the heart of her character. To manage this tension, popular culture has created a sisterhood of characters based on shared concerns of saving the world. Some characters lean more toward the mystic and others lean more toward the warrior. Three films in particular—The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Resurrection, and Alien/s/3—give us powerful examples of this sisterhood of St. Joan of Arc.
Historical Retelling of Joan of Arc
According to tradition, Joan of Arc was born in 1412 in the village of Domrémy in northeastern France. Her father was a peasant farmer and a minor official in the village, her mother raised the family in the Catholic faith. In her early teens, Joan began to hear voices and see visions of St. Michael, St. Margaret, and St. Catherine. These voices told her to free the city of Orléans from the English in order to enable the Dauphin Charles to be crowned King of France in Reims.
After she passed examinations by distinguished clergy and theologians, the Dauphin gave Joan a small force to travel to Orléans in order to join the embattled French army. In May 1429, she led a series of military offenses against the British army and reclaimed Orléans, which allowed the Dauphin to be crowned King of France in 1429. After he was crowned king, he disbanded the French army, but Joan continued fighting with a small rag-tag group of soldiers, until she was captured and imprisoned by the English. She went on trial a year and a half later.In the real-life person of St. Joan of Arc, we find someone who is both thinking and doing.
Joan was charged with heresy but was held in a civil prison (with male guards rather than an ecclesiastical prison with female guards, as was the norm) for the duration of her trial. As the trial proceeded, the primary charges against Joan became her refusal to submit to the authority of the church and her wearing of men’s clothes. For Joan to submit to the authority of the church required Joan to acknowledge she was deceived by her voices and her mission was false. Yet, when she was threatened with death, she renounced her “crimes and errors” and was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, soon after her sentencing, Joan began dressing in men’s clothes again to protect herself from her male guards. She was thus declared a lapsed heretic and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431.
Pope Callistus III declared her trial null and void in 1456 because the trial was tainted with fraud and error. Joan of Arc was canonized in 1920.
Contemporary Cinematic Retelling of Joan of Arc
In The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) starring Milla Jovavich as Joan, she is portrayed as a happy young girl who skips to and from her church daily to offer confession. As part of her confession she proclaims, “Everything is wonderful!” The priest, weary from her daily confessions asks, “Why must you come every day?” Joan replies that the church feels safe and “this is where I talk with him.”
The priest asks, “Who is ‘him’?” As Joan describes “him,” the film quickly cuts to a pre-adolescent boy sitting on a concrete throne looking grim. The film cuts to wind, spooky music, clouds, and a ringing bell, all of which are used to indicate Joan’s mystical experiences throughout the rest of the movie.
After one of her childhood confessions, Joan returns to her village, which is in the midst of an invasion by the English army. She hides in her home and witnesses the murder and rape (in that order) of her beloved older sister. (There is no historical record of this event.) From this point through to the end of the film, it is suggested that Joan’s voices and visions are interpreted through the prism of that violent event rather than a divine voice. In the conclusion of the movie, Joan realizes everything she has done was to seek bloody revenge against the English rather than in obedience to God’s will. Before her death, she requests one last confession—but is denied.
The Mystic Sister
The Joan of Arc mystic sister appears in the 1980 film Resurrections, starring Ellen Burstyn as Edna McCaulley. Edna dies in a car accident, but a few minutes later, she returns to life. And a few months after her resurrection, Edna discovers she has the ability to physically heal people. Edna is uncertain where this power comes from except from Love. According to Edna, when she heals another person, she focuses on the other person’s pain and tries to absorb it as her own, and the person is healed.
She begins holding healing tent meetings on the family farm in Kansas. The only townspeople who object to her healing services are the fundamentalist parents of her boyfriend, who is considered the town rebel. He watches her carefully, becoming convinced that she is the second Christ—a notion she rejects. Edna’s denial enrages him, and he denounces her as the anti-Christ and attempts to kill her. Edna escapes this assassination attempt and settles in California to become a desert monastic. Like the ancient desert mothers and fathers, she is sought out by people in need of healing.
In contrast to the real Joan of Arc, Edna does not lead armies or persuade national leaders, rather, she just does what she needs to do—she acts without a lot of contemplation and a lot of explanation. Indeed, when questioned about the source of her healing abilities, Edna responds: “I don’t know.” Her lack of contemplation leaves her without any spiritual comprehension of her actions. While Joan could point to the voices she heard as her source of authority, Edna is unable to point to anything. She simply believes she has been given a gift that she must use in the here and now.
The Sisterhood of Warriors
The consummate woman warrior first appeared in the 1979 science-fiction film Alien starring Sigourney Weaver, and she returns in Aliens (1986) and Alien3 (1992). The first installment of this film series is about a commercial crew aboard a deep-space towing ship, which picks up an SOS signal from a distant, unknown planet. The crew is obligated to respond to the distress signal. After a rough landing, teams of crewmembers disembark to explore the planet. An unknown creature then attacks one of the exploratory teams, and a wounded man is brought back onto the vessel. That’s when the Alien appears.
Ellen Ripley (Weaver) is a thinker. When the crew wanted to explore the planet, she cited various rules and wanted to abide by protocol. After the attack, when the wounded crewmember was being tended to, she wanted to stick to the rules. But she was alone. Others were reactionary, doing what they thought best in the moment without thinking through the consequences. If everyone else had followed the rules, the Alien never would have threatened the crew. But no one listened to Ripley until it was too late. (This theme was carried forward in the first three films.)
Like Joan, Ellen wears what we think of as masculine clothes. In all the films, she wears the plain crewmember uniform while on the ship. But even in Aliens, when she is at home recuperating from her ordeal in Alien, she is dressed in a man’s T‑shirt or undershirt and sweat pants. By the time we see her again in Aliens 3, she is completely outfitted in fatigues, right down to company‑issued boxer shorts. The final de-feminization is shaving her head because of a severe lice problem.
She is distinct from Joan however, as Ellen always stopped to think through her next move rather than just doing it. Joan is portrayed as impulsively entering into battle without concern for strategy, simply believing that God would take care of her and the soldiers. However, repeatedly, Ellen would stop, quiet herself and formulate a plan. She is not impulsive.
Ellen is often the reluctant military leader. In Aliens she resists joining with the special commando team to battle with the Alien. It is not until she sees the ineptitude of the commander does she take charge. Because she is methodical, she is an excellent tactical leader. Ellen attempts to calculate the Alien’s next move based on her previous experience with it. Once she accepts the mantel of military leader, she easily gives orders to both the trained commando team and the fierce group of criminals.
Although Ellen states she does not have faith, she is a blend of Christ and Joan of Arc. The Aliens 3 opening scene depicts an attempt to resuscitate Ellen after her ship crashes, the camera focused on her twisted torso. Her position is reminiscent of a Michelangelo pieta, and the foreshadowing of her sacrificial martyrdom begins.
In an attempt to destroy any possibility of the Alien being birthed from one of the dead crewmembers of her crashed ship, Ellen insists the bodies be cremated. But just as she tries to destroy the evil with fire, the Alien is birthed from another part of the prison. The fire imagery continues as Ellen and the prisoners try to trap the Alien in a vat with hot lead, but this does not kill the Alien. Instead, it takes both a baptism of fire and of water to destroy the evil.
Unknown to Ellen, it is she who is impregnated with a queen Alien. The now-imprisoned Alien recognizes her as the host of its queen and will not harm her, despite Ellen’s repeated attempts to go into hand‑to‑hand combat with it. At one point, she asks the criminal group’s spiritual leader—a convicted murderer—to kill her; she prostrates herself against the prison bars like a crucifix. He refuses because he knows she is needed to battle the Great Evil.
Near the end, after the Alien has been destroyed, representatives from the cargo company arrive and tempt Ellen away from the sacrifice she knows she must make. They promise they can remove the queen Alien growing inside of her without harming her. The scientist tells her: “You can still have a life—children, family, and the knowledge that it’s dead. Trust me. Please trust me.” But Ellen is wisely mistrustful.
And with the strongest association to Joan of Arc, Ellen falls backward, arms flung out in the shape of a crucifix again, into the vat of fire. As we see her falling to her martyrdom, the queen Alien bursts out of her, but Ellen grabs it, pulls it to herself, and they both are consumed by the fire.
Joan, Edna, and Ellen are female protagonists formed in the shadow of the real St. Joan of Arc, each one echoing this complex woman who continues to intrigue us centuries after her short life. We are drawn to this young maiden who took seriously the voices and visions she experienced, believing them to be from God and obeying their commands into war. Filmmakers haven’t yet properly portrayed the full dynamic tension of St. Joan’s character within a single film. Was she a woman of action? That’s Edna. Was she a woman of contemplation? That’s Joan. But St. Joan is both Edna and Joan, more of an Ellen. St. Joan is perplexing because she was a real person—someone able to think and act but only in terms of her humanity. We must remember: St. Joan may be canonized but only one human was perfect. Which is why we need various sisters on-screen to show us examples of mystics and warriors who think and do as best they can in the moment, for our crucibles will force us to make the best choice we can even as the fire rages.
To read this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine in full today, become a member for as little as $5 per month. Members also get full access to all back issues, free stuff each month, and entrance to our exclusive members-only group on Facebook—and you’ll help us keep the lights on. Join now.