Rising Beyond Martyrdom’s Fire

by Rivera Sun

In my dream, Joan of Arc’s fire burns in my eyes – both her pyre and her impassioned life flame. As a young twenty-first century woman, I romanticized the martyr and emulated her, pitching the un-tempered strength of my youth into battle with the corporate-political rulers of my time. Joan had her sword; I had my pen. Joan had her court; I had the stage. Joan put armor on her limbs. I put theatrical costumes on as I rode into battle.

Such folly! Such hot-tempered arrogance of my youth. I was tilting at windmills and bragging about it afterwards. Bravado and self-sabotage rode upon my shoulders. I set my sights on going down in history as a bright burst of martyred flame. Time and circumstance saved me. I survived my twenties without fame or early death – though the latter brushed closely enough to rattle my romanticized obsession.

Maturity tempered me. Martyrdom paled in comparison to a long, dedicated life. I had wrested a few kernels of wisdom from those challenges and now I wanted to live. A painting of Joan of Arc still lay on my desk and her biographies still lined my bookshelves, but as I pondered and perused and stripped away some layers of the cobwebby film of retrospect and history and youthful idealization, I came to this: martyrdom is a consolation prize thrown at women after the socio-political systems of their times crush them. Joan did not set out to be a martyr. She set out to win. And win she did, ending a siege, leading an army, crowning a king. She won so well that the threatened religious-political powers of the day labeled her heretic, held a pseudo-trial, and then burned her at the stake. That was in the 1400’s. She was nineteen years old. She was a general, a commander, and a mystic, mythic leader…had she been a man she might have lived. Her society had room for powerful men. But she was a woman, and young, at that, with a long life ahead of her that threatened the authorities. She burned with an inner fire that had no hearth in fifteenth century France. Without a place to put her, Joan was a wildfire that could rage across the established status quo. So, they threw her on a pyre. You could call her a heretic or call her a saint, but either way, she was dead, and let that be a lesson to all women in the future: you can burn with brightness, but then you’ll burn, and in retrospect society might label you a martyr. Now isn’t that romantic?

Hmm…perhaps when I was a girl, but certainly not to the full-ripened woman now; a woman who has witnessed birth and death; a woman who has loved and lost; a woman who has stretched her mind past all horizons; a woman, an artist, who dreams of Joan’s fire and armies – not armies of soldiers, but of artists.

I dream of artists who bend their brushes not to the canvases of the wealthy, but to the protest banners of the poor…artists who turn their pens not to self-involved narcissism, but to social issues of the times. I dream of artists who lift their voices toward vision, carrying us out of the drivel of our times, and lead us to a dawn that is coming. I dream of photographers who capture heart aching beauty along with heartbreaking reality. I dream of an army of artists that will not allow our society any distractions from the work that needs to be done.

If we are women, and we are rising, it cannot be as saints or martyrs. We must rise like our mothers before us to start the fires that nourish and light the way. We must rise with our feet planted firmly on this earth and our heads lifted strongly up to the sky. We must rise, not above the injustice and tragedy that surrounds us, but within it…and through it. We must rise and roll up our sleeves and get to work changing this world. We must set out like Joan of Arc, not toward martyrdom, but toward winning. An early grave should not have been her destiny, nor will it be ours.

Our lives will be full and long. They will rise like the sun, bringing warmth and fresh starts, new life and possibility. Our lives will rise scorching with illumination, demanding honesty and justice. Our lives will rise to engage this world in change and transformation. No longer shoved to the sidelines of life, given only the options of rising beyond or above this world, our lives will rise within it, bringing our art and our hearts to the work that needs doing, healing and strengthening this world.

© 2013 Rivera Sun

Journal, Volume 1 Issue 1