2016-06-30
I couldn't find her epitaph anywhere. I was in Rouen, a city in France, west of Paris. Knowing I would pass the site of the execution of Saint Joan of Arc, a friend had asked that I pause and copy the words of Joan's epitaph.

I spent hours wandering around the half-timbered buildings, which clustered together like storybook houses. Over narrow cobbled streets, the houses leaned outward, rising toward each other until the uppermost windows almost touched. Neighbors were close enough to pass a cup of sugar across the street without leaving the house.

Below, in the gloomy alleys too narrow for a car to pass through, I stumbled over slippery stones in the rain. As I searched for the elusive epitaph, I looked around to see what other gems I might unearth.

Jeanne d'Arc, as she is known in France, was a 13-year-old girl when she heard heavenly voices. In 1429, she convinced the Dauphin of France that she could lead his army, and did so, bringing the French to victory over the English at Orleans and Patay. But she was captured and sold to the English in 1430, and the Dauphin, by then King Charles VII, left her to her fate. The English charged her with witchcraft and heresy, and finding her guilty, condemned her to death.

"You must assume your martyrdom willingly and you will enter the kingdom of Paradise in the end," the celestial voices told her. Willing or not, Joan was burned in the marketplace at Rouen. She was 19.

The cathedral at Rouen is so large, I couldn't get it all into my camera's viewfinder. Though I had seen the cathedral's many faces in Monet's paintings, in person I found it brooding and darkly gothic, with an ancient elegance and air of melancholy mystery. In marked contrast, the church built for Jeanne d'Arc in Rouen is a modern, post-war building given less than a sentence in most guidebooks. It soars heavenward in its own way, angular, asymmetrical, with a wall of stained glass, thousands of bits of amber and ruby and emerald light, luminous despite the rain-darkened sky.

The outward silhouette of the church reminded me of the traditional Breton woman's lace cap--white, jutting upward. I had seen many faux examples of those caps in the one discordant note to the marketplace: tawdry souvenir shop windows.

Inside the church, I beheld the same reverential hush one always hears, or notices, in a church. A simple, modern icon of Joan was flanked by flickering red votives. For five francs--about a dollar--one could light a candle to honor her, or offer one's own prayers. I heard somewhere, a long time ago, that when you enter a church for the first time, you should make a wish, and I did--I wished I could find Joan's epitaph for my friend.

Next to the church was a bare expanse of ground, which had turned to thick mud in the ceaseless rain. A small sign declared that this hallowed spot was where Joan of Arc was brulee vivre--burned alive. As I stood there, trying to determine if I felt awe, horror, or a disappointed nothing, someone's dog ran across the plot to the sign, lifted its leg, and marked it.

I turned away. Outside the church, across the courtyard, stood a number of souvenir shops, hawking Jeanne D'Arc medals and postcards. They sold everything short of a scrap of wood or charred bone from her bonfire. Tourists were few that rainy Monday, and many regular shops, like the ones that sold exquisite tapestry kits and children's clothing, were closed. But the souvenir shops stood open, ready to sell.

One shop across from the church advertised itself as the Musee de Jeanne D'Arc. It was a sight too familiar--I could have been at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, or any gimcrack tourist trap exploiting the name and location, reeking of popcorn and jammed by camera-toting tourists and sulky teens. At the Musee de Jeanne d'Arc, merchandise spilled out into bins and spinning displays under the dripping awning on the cobblestone walk.

Inside was a gauntlet of souvenirs: miniature bottles of Calvados, Eiffel Tower key chains, T-shirts with garish slogans in Italian, German, and English: "France: Been There, Done That!" and romanticized pictures of Joan, with the requisite halo, on her pyre.

The middle-aged shopkeeper perched on her stool, her blond hair in a tight bun on her neck. She kept her eyes on the till. No smile creased her face. I felt oppressed in that dim souvenir shop that dared to call itself a museum, with its 12 postcards for 10 francs, its spoon rests and oven mitts, its cheap plastic dolls in native Breton costume that were made by the thousands in China. What could I learn of Joan here?

Nevertheless, I pressed my 20 francs into the woman's palm, pushed through the old wooden door, then descended into the medieval basement of the shop, down uneven hewn stone stairs that smelled of old air and damp earth. In the warren of rooms below, I wandered from display to display, surprised and charmed despite my initial disdain. Glass cases held medals, coins, bits of stories and yellowed holy cards of Joan collected through the centuries.

I saw such relics, such little treasures, that her devotees must have gathered carefully over time, and I felt something like a small seed of devotion for this persecuted girl begin to grow.

I climbed back up another set of old stone stairs, their centers worn concave over the years, to the back rooms of the shop, where I found a series of tableaux of scenes from the saint's life. And there she was, Jeanne d'Arc, a mannequin in a bad wig, with what looked like a tinfoil suit of armor. There she was, pointing out the Dauphin in his green jerkin. There she was, dressed in men's clothing, the heinous sin for which she was ultimately condemned.

Despite the tawdriness of the museum, I was moved to tears: The martyrdom of a young woman who dared to speak her mind, to fight for what she knew was right, and to cross wits with the most dangerous leaders of her day--her senseless, politicized death--juxtaposed with the vulgar commercialization of Joan of Arc in the front of the shop, made me want to weep. The souvenir shop resided in a building that might have stood there when Joan was alive. Perhaps its tenants had watched the flames from their windows, or hidden their faces from the orange glow.

Even the tin-can voice that squawked from the speaker, too loud (Push 1 for French, 2 for English...), with an odd, lilting timbre as it read from a script, couldn't deflate the Spirit from her words: "But for the Voice, comforting me every day, I would be dead. But for the grace of God I can do nothing."

Her last words were, "Jesus, Jesus." Her ashes drifted, soft and grey, down the River Seine. Her heart would not burn.

Before they blurred like smoke in a clouded sky, I scribbled Joan's words and my impressions. This, then, is the epitaph I brought back for my friend.

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