Steel spines and shivers

Recently I read two newly published books, back to back: Joan of Arc, by Helen Castor, and A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura, by Eileen Markey. The first book put steel in my spine. The second one gave me the shivers. Here are two unlikely martyrs, one born a peasant in a small, inconsequential French village, the other born in the Bronx, New York.

How does a young girl go from the Bronx to El Salvador? How does a young girl go from a small French village to the Cathedral at Rheims and the coronation of Charles VII, King of France?

It starts with voices. Both women heard them. Joan was 13 when she first heard the voices of Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret telling her to remain a virgin. Later the voices became specific — restore the weak dauphin King Charles to the throne of France.

She was a 17-year-old girl when she left home to gather and lead an army. Think about it — who is going to listen to a 17-year-old peasant with no training as a knight, no battle experience, no connections? Well, they did listen, thanks to her voices, her daunting courage, and her flaming charisma. She heard the voices of angels and saints, and they were the source of her power.

After months of fierce battles, Joan and her army did restore King Charles to his throne. On coronation day in Rheims Cathedral she stood at his side dressed in her shining armor, her unfurled banner prominent. She was the youngest person in the room.

The battles to free France continued. In the end, Joan was pulled from her horse and imprisoned, spending more time in jail than on the battlefield. She was tried by church men — one cardinal, six bishops, 32 doctors of theology, seven doctors of medicine and 100 other clerical associates. They accused her of heresy, of claiming to hear heavenly voices.

"It's all in your imagination," they said.

"That's how God speaks to us, in our imaginations," she replied.

Another bone of contention was her preference for male clothing, meaning the 60 pounds of armor she wore in the battles her voices told her to wage. This accusation came from men who themselves wore dress-like robes. And what about her battles — were they holy or political? As if the two are not sometimes inseparable. No matter. They found her guilty of heresy and handed her over to the English who burned her at the stake. It was slow torture, needing two incinerations — her heart, according to legend, refusing to burn. She died with the name of Jesus on her lips. She was 19.

Twenty-five years later, the church that had condemned her reversed its decision. Almost 500 years later, on May 16, 1920, Joan of Arc was declared a saint.

Maura Clarke struggled with the "voice of God" most of her life. No saintly voices like Joan's directed her. Rather, it was the bravery of her immigrant father who had been part of the Irish Revolution that inspired her. The voice of God led her to Ossining, New York, and the Maryknoll motherhouse, at about the age Joan was gathering troops to storm Orlèans. Mary Elizabeth Clarke changed her name to Sister Maura John. Joan called herself la Pucelle, "the maid." She held a banner with the names "Jesus, Mary" inscribed. Maura held the Maryknoll book of rules governing her every waking moment. For all intents and purposes, the superior who interpreted the rules became the voice of God.

Maura was sent to teach second grade children in the Bronx, a work for which she seemed ill-suited. Then Vatican II appeared on the scene. The voice of the poor in Nicaragua became the voice of God calling Maura there. Or so she thought. She went on retreats, sought spiritual direction, looked out at a vast ocean from the side of privilege, and imagined what life looked like on the other side where Maryknoll Sisters ministered.

When her order changed from their grey habits, the lean, pretty Maura wore the plain dresses her mother made for her. She went to Nicaragua where her mild, friendly manner soon endeared her to the poor and oppressed. While Joan led armies through terrifying battles, Maura taught the poor to read the Gospels and relate them to their oppressed lives. She hid them from Somoza's soldiers. She begged food and clothes for them from back home in the United States. She inspired rough husbands to respect their wives. She gave women a voice in their small villages. She sang and danced in the streets with them, pondered the Gospels and broke bread in their homes when no priest could come for weeks. "When she looked at me, I felt loved," they said.

Then doubt returned. Nearby was El Salvador where oppression, poverty and a brutal military ruled. Bishops asked for more sisters. Maura returned to Ossining for counsel, then on to see her family, the parents she sorely missed, and with them to visit Ireland one last time. She set out for El Salvador.

What she found was a graveyard, a cesspool of corruption, an oppressed people. When a lieutenant of the National Guard threatened Maura with "Sister, go back to your convent," this mild mannered woman shouted at him, "This is my convent!" She pointed to the dusty street and said it again, "This is my convent."

In the end Maura and her three companions were pulled from their van on a dark road, violated and murdered by five National Guardsmen. A farmer later discovered their four bodies in a shallow grave near San Salvador. Maura wore her simple profession ring with the word "Christ" in Greek.

Thousands mourned their deaths. Large pictures of the four women were carried in processions throughout the villages. Maura and her Maryknoll companion, Ita Ford were buried near where they were murdered. Maura Clarke became the people's saint, "the angel of our lives."

Sometimes it is difficult to discern the voice of God, especially in dark, political situations. But God's voice does come, mostly in the needs of others. And so we follow God's voice to inner city classrooms, shelters, hospitals, and safe havens, to American jails and Peruvian prisons, to Alaskan snow houses and small Guatemalan boats where bullets fly over our heads. We bravely bring the plight of the poor to halls of power, from the United Nations to the Nigerian National Assembly.

Even now, some of us are murdered — Sr. Karen Klimczak in Buffalo, Sr. Dorothy Stang in Brazil. Still we go wherever the voice of God calls us. We go with steel spines and sometimes, shivers.

[Joan Sauro, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, publishes widely in the Catholic press. Her new book is titled We Were Called Sister. Her essay of the same name was awarded first place for Best Essay 2014 by the CPA.]