Jan 17, 2013
Just in advance of Christmas, the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit appeared. As I and many other commentators have pointed out, Tolkien’s great story, like its more substantive successor The Lord of the Rings, is replete with Catholic themes. On Christmas day itself, another film adaptation of a well-known book debuted, namely Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
Though Hugo had a less than perfectly benign view of the Catholic Church, his masterpiece is, from beginning to end, conditioned by a profoundly Christian worldview. It is most important that, amidst all of the “Les Mis” hoopla, the spiritual heart of Hugo’s narrative not be lost.
The story revolves around the figure of Jean Valjean, a man who, in his youth, had been convicted of the crime of robbing a loaf of bread to feed his starving child. For this eminently excusable offense, he had been imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor for 19 years. The experience made him, understandably enough, embittered and deeply distrustful of both individuals and societal institutions. Having escaped from prison and fallen into desperate straits, he was taken in by a kindly bishop, who fed him and gave him a place to sleep. But Valjean answered this kindness by stealing two silver candlesticks from his benefactor. Apprehended by the police, the criminal was brought back to the bishop. Instead of accusing and condemning Valjean, the prelate blithely told the constables that the candlesticks were a gift and even gave the thief more valuables. To the uncomprehending criminal, the bishop then explained that this grace is meant to awaken a similar graciousness in Valjean.
In this simple and deeply affecting episode, one of the most fundamental principles of the spiritual life is displayed. God is love. God is nothing but gracious self-gift. And what God wants, first and last, is that his human creatures participate in the love that he is, thereby becoming conduits of the divine grace to the world. What Jean Valjean received through the bishop was precisely this divine life and the mission that accompanies and flows from it. If the bishop’s gesture had been, in any sense, self-interested, it would not have conveyed God’s manner of being. But in its utter gratuity, it became a sacrament and instrument of uncreated grace.