Posted by: smstrouse | January 12, 2013

Les Miserables: Grace Amidst the Pathos

OK, so Hugh Jackman can’t sing ‘Bring Him Home’ like Colm Wilkinson.  No matter.  I loved the movie version of Les Misérables as much as the two stage versions and the anniversary concert on PBS I’d seen previously.  I confess that I have never read the book, but I do know that Victor Hugo is revered as a saint in the Cao Dai religion of Viet Nam. That doesn’t really surprise me. The first time I saw the scene of the bishop (played by Colm Wilkinson!) telling the police that not only had Jean Valjean not stolen the silver, but had forgotten to take the candlesticks, I saw the theme of grace woven throughout the story. Those candlesticks have been describes as symbols of love and compassion, but I see grace.  I’ve found grace to be a concept easy to talk about yet difficult to define. And even more difficult to live.

I saw the movie the day after I had given money to someone who needed it, more money than the usual ‘spare change.’ I was feeling doubtful of my action, with a confused mix of compassion, anger, disappointment, guilt. Was I more angry at this person who had asked for my help or at myself for being duped into yet another hopeless cause?  Hard to say. I was feeling more angry about the former when I went to see the movie. But during the scene between Valjean and the bishop, though my compassion kicked back in. As even the wicked Thénardiers sang, “It’s no more than we Christians must do!”

But later confusion returned. How do we set the boundaries between compassion and enabling? When is giving away the silver the right thing to do and when is it wrong? And here is, I think, where grace comes in. The bishop doesn’t simply give the silver to Valjean; he gives it with the words: “My brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you . . . and I give it to God.”  No, grace does not come with a price, but it does come with a message. It’s up to the recipient whether or not to hear it or do anything about it, but it’s there – the invitation to be transformed and then to turn and show grace to others in kind. The bishop was quite explicit in his charge to Jean Valjean. I can’t say that I have often followed his example. I give either grudgingly or helplessly or guiltily, but not grace-fully.

So now, how to be transformed myself into a conduit of grace? I don’t think it will get any easier. I think the questions and the confusion of feelings will always be part of it. The difference for me is the message: our souls belong to God, now what will we do with them? In a way it makes it harder than just throwing money at a problem or just saying ‘No.’  Grace involves a real spiritual connection, with responsibility on the parts of both the giver and the receiver. So as I think about the next steps with my needy friend, I’m chewing on all this – and wondering what you all think about it as well.

Finally, my favorite line in Les Misérables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  St. Victor Hugo, indeed!



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  3. For me, this is very timely. I, too, am always concerned about where my money will go and how it will be used when I give. I want to make a good investment. The pot is not bottomless, so it’s important to give wisely.

    What do you do when the need seems bottomless? What do you do when the initial need is met with enthusiasm, but then, after six months, you see that there is always another need? In our case, some of us dug in our heals and asked, forcefully, that a discussion be held and a long-term solution found. Where was all the money going? How could the problem be solved? But, the discussion was vague and as soon as it was over, it turned out that there was another immediate, unavoidable need. What now?

    I said “Enough”. Others have said, “But, the need is there. We must help.”

    I can only hope that those who have given so generously will appreciate the fruits of their charity. I am stepping back and, perhaps, away. My trust is gone.


    • There is definitely a need to find a middle way in between unending giving and generosity burnout. I’m under no illusions that it’s an easy path, but I think we have to have the discussion, and as pastor, I’m responsible for helping all members of our community to walk it. Therefore I must work this out in my own mind and heart. But I must say I’ve gotten a new perspective on the spiritual connection created between giver and recipient, a la the Bishop of Digne.


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