I haven’t posted in a long time and there are several reasons for that. I have been helping a friend who is going through a really hard time and although I have had a lot to think about and write about, I haven’t been sure how to do it while still keeping confidences. I’ve thought about writing a parable or something, but everything is still so raw and sensitive that there really is no way to express how I feel even on a private blog without revealing something.
So I just pray that I can write something that will do no harm, but might help someone even if that someone is only myself. The biggest take away that I have had from the last three weeks is that there is real suffering in this world and that there are some people who, through no fault of their own, become victimized again and again. These people have tremendous potential for good, but often cannot see it in themselves because society writes a script for them and they believe that they cannot break out of that script to write their own story.
Les Miserables is my all time favorite book. I’ve read it several times, the last time I read the unabridged version in which I learned more than I ever wanted to about the streets of Paris and Napoleon and French politics. Most of it I have forgotten. The most memorable parts of the book for me have been the characters. Who can forget Fantine? She was lovely, she was good, she was so devoted to her child that she sold her teeth and hair to pay for her fictitious medical bills. Her daughter Cosette was destined to follow in her footsteps; a waif, enslaved by the monstrous Thénardiers, robbed, deprived, and abused in every way. But when great evil exists in the world, the hand of God is also revealed.
Consider the Bishop Myriel. He was the embodiment of the Savior, fearless, compassionate, and wise. When Jean Valjean, the despised convict, brings his vitriol and bile into the Bishop’s home, steals his silver candlesticks, the only things of value in his sparse abode, and flees as a literal thief in the night, the reader expects that the Bishop will allow him to be punished to the full extent of the law as he is caught and dragged back in chains to be identified. Instead, the wise Bishop sees something in Jean Valjean. He sees the man beneath the pain, beneath the course exterior, behind the crimes he has committed. He sees Jean Valjean as the Savior would have seen him, with the eye of hope; the vision of the possibility that Jean Valjean could change. He could live a life different than the one society had carved out for him. He acted on that faith, sent the law enforcement officers away, insisting that the candlesticks had been a gift. When the threat of the officers is gone, he tells Jean Valjean that the candlesticks are a gift to him, a ransom in the similitude of the Savior’s atonement, and that he should use them to make a new life for himself.
Then Jean Valjean continues his life of crime. He even steals from a child, terrorizing him before taking a coin from him. He sees the yellow paper he is required by law to carry that marks him as a convict and forces him into the role he has been told he is to play on life’s stage; a vagabond, a thief, a vagrant. Then he thinks of the Bishop and the candlesticks and the possibility that he could carve a different path for himself. Could he, Jean Valjean be redeemed? Could he have a new life as the Bishop told him he could. He kneels down moments after the child he stole from flees in terror and he weeps at the man he has become; a man he despises. He feels the bitterness, the anger, and the pain melt away in the sunlight of the Bishop’s faith. He throws the yellow paper aside and begins his new life, with a new name, and a new vision for the man he wants to be.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, I highly recommend that you read it or watch the many dramatic reenactments that have sprung up in its wake over the decades. The remarkable life of Jean Valjean as he battles against the social construct of his time, symbolized in the fascinating character of Javier, to live his life of service and moral principle is as inspiring as it is entertaining. Jean Valjean tries to save Fantine, but tragic circumstances result in her death. He is determined to rescue her child Cosette. The child becomes his life, his one and only love, his whole world. He saves her from a fate destined to follow the tragic footsteps of her mother, and gives her a charmed life instead. She is given an education, fine clothes to wear, the love and protection of a devoted father. Instead of victimization and slavery, Fantine’s daughter is married into a wealthy Bourgeoise family where her every need is met. Victor Hugo’s descriptions of Cosette’s happiness are heavenly and they are made possible solely by the incredible sacrifices of Jean Valjean.
In this world of sadness, heartache, abuse, and pain; there is also righteousness, redemption, and noble sacrifice. Jean Valjean would not have become the man he became without Javier, the Thenardiers, the galley slave ships, the yellow convict papers. The evils within the fallen society of France, which could be any place on this Earth, forged Jean Valjean into the man who was able to save Cosette.
I’ve often thought of the name of the book, Les Miserables— the miserable. Truly, it is a story of misery. War, unjust punishments, slave galleys, prostitution, rape, poverty, the slaughter of student protesters in the streets, greed, exploitation of children; there are so many ways in which we humans can create hell on Earth and many of them are explored in depth in this book. And yet, in Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean and Fantine and Eponine, we see that redemption is possible through love and compassion for our fellow travelers on this road of misery that is life. The Bishop inspired Jean Valjean who comforted Fantine. Fantine inspired Valjean who then rescued Cosette. Cosette inspired Valjean to save Marius. In the end Valjean even cracked Javier, his ultimate nemesis. Javier is the symbol of justice in the story, the personification of fallen human construct, self-righteous and void of compassion. He is at last overcome by Valjean’s character which can no longer be denied or explained away. Like the Savior, Valjean’s love and valor were not of this world and this world cannot rule it or understand it. Just as the Savior broke the bands of death and walked from the tomb, Valjean broke Javier; shattered his stereotypes, his cynicism, and his calloused assumptions about the potential of the fallen human soul.
So next time you see great evil; the next mass shooting, the next victim of abuse, the next road rage incident, the next murder– don’t forget, great evil can inspire great love and courage. There is compassion, service, and sacrifice. There is a choice that each of us has; the same choice that Jean Valjean had that day as he knelt in the field. We can walk the path that society dictates; the slut, the abuse victim, the convict, the addict, the helpless spectator, the greedy user, the coward who casts blame and expects others to solve problems. We can walk that path, or we can choose something different. We can cast away that yellow paper no matter what the consequences our fellow men threaten. We can forge our own lives, make our own path, and counter the evils of our time through repentance and the grace of Him who is Mighty to Save!
Perhaps you think there is nothing you can do. Perhaps you believe that you are powerless against the tide of wickedness that is permeating our society. Perhaps you feel you are meant to wait on the Lord who will come rescue us from our peril. I have felt that way too, but something tells me he expects more from us. He sees in us what the Bishop saw in Jean Valjean; a man who can inspire, uplift, and strengthen others; a man capable not of waiting for the Savior to rescue him, but of being the Savior’s hands to rescue others. I picture the Bishop extending his candlesticks to me. “Take these and make of yourself a righteous woman, a handmaid of the Lord.” What potential would he see in me? What could I do with the opportunities that I have around me?
I have had the tremendous privilege to serve some of “the miserable” in the past months. It has given me powerful insight into the way the Savior views each one of his children. Each and every person is of eternal value. It is natural to harbor fear which cripples faith and paralyses righteous action. Those who suffer are often sensitive, easily offended, and difficult to foster a relationship of trust with. Sometimes they may even victimize us as Valjean did to the Bishop. (Fortunately, those I have helped have done no such thing.) When I fill my heart with the sure knowledge that each and every one of God’s children is of eternal value and that his grace is sufficient for them, my fear is purged away. When I follow his promptings and strive to see His children as He does, I know that my efforts will be enough.
Praise be the name of my Master! Glory be to the Son! In Him I find my strength. In Him my weakness is swallowed up. In Him I find meaning and purpose in my life. Blessed be His name!