Monday, January 28, 2013

Les Miserables - a rich tapestry of grace and mercy in each warp and weft.

(Please note - this is a spoiler alert for those who don't care to know endings of stories before they encounter them - you may prefer not to read this post.)

There’s a movie that has been out since Christmas that has been creating a lot of buzz, and it is Victor Hugo’s epic work Les Miserables.  Of course, if one is a theatre fan, one will swear by the stage musical version for its authenticity and perhaps even (arguably in some cases) singing quality.  But the movie version now gives easy access to millions who would otherwise not get a chance to encounter this very Christian story, a story that every one of us can identify with on many levels.

At the heart of the story is the central message of mercy and grace, which many of the characters struggle with.  At the heart of each of our lives is also the message and act of God’s mercy, which admittedly, many of us struggle with too.  In the opening scene, we meet the pivotal characters of the story, Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean.  Both are bitter about life, but for different reasons.  Javert refuses to see that a person can actually change, and it is significant that he also refuses to refer to Jean Valjean by his name but only by his prisoner number 24601.  Why is this significant to us?  We all have a name given to us at our baptism, and it is closely connected with our relationship with God – where we find our greatest hope in life, where we know that we can turn to when everyone and everything in life has rejected us, and where we established our identity as God’s beloved.  Javert’s obstinate refusal to refer to Jean Valjean by his name is a strong sign that he doesn’t give this released prisoner any hope in life, and that he will always be a criminal.  Throughout the story, Javert lurks waiting for Jean Valjean to turn against the law.

Even Jean Valjean himself shows an internal struggle between responding to grace and turning from grace.  In a wonderful scene that is set in the chapel of the Bishop’s house, as he sings of this struggle in his life, he physically moves towards and away from the Altar.  When he is closer to the Altar, his decisions are for godliness and a converted life.  But when he turns his back to the Altar and walks away, the lines of the song turn to his being embittered with what life seems to have dealt him, and he becomes cynical.  But of course, at the end of the song, we know that he decides to cooperate with grace.

There are a multitude of other characters that have a depth which we can all relate to, but this blog is not about the entire story.  Besides, a commentary like this cannot do justice to such a masterpiece. 

There are so many different definitions of grace that abound in and even outside of the Church’s teachings.  Just this week there was the March for Life in Washington DC, where tens of thousands of Catholics descend on the capital of the United States of America and in a show of unity and total support for the right to life, protest against legalized abortion, which statistics show has resulted in 50 million aborted babies in this country alone since 1973.  That’s the population of a large country.  I have been struggling to recover from my illness, and so reluctantly decided to stay home during the March, while those at the March were in freezing and snowing conditions.  At breakfast the morning after, someone remarked that because the conditions were so harsh, there must have been plenty of ‘graces’ that were given by God on the entire event.  One priest later spoke to me “that really depends on what you mean by grace”.  I wonder if the reason he made that remark to me was because I am the only one in this house who is studying Systematic Theology, which has a very important tract on Grace.  I was too tired and weak to respond either positively or negatively.

Everything that we encounter in life is grace, and this is a safe statement to make, because nothing in our lives can actually happen without God willing it.  Since God is grace, we become partakers of God’s grace whenever we respond positively to his offer of Grace in life. 

The character of Javert is poignant in that he refuses to cooperate with grace and he doesn’t know what to do when grace presents itself to him.  He is absolutely confused, dumbfounded and flummoxed when the very man who he cannot wait to incarcerate again shows goodness and mercy to him.  (Spoiler alert)   In the scene of his dramatic suicide where he falls into the swollen River Seine, Javert is seen literally walking between life and death on a narrow ledge.  The words of his swan song are haunting as they define what must go through the minds of those who refuse to cooperate with grace no matter how grace is presented to them in life. 

“I am reaching, but I fail, and the stars are black and cold.  As I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold.  I’ll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean, there is nowhere I can turn, there is no way to go on!” are Javert's memorable lines before he plunges into despair because he finds himself unwilling to respond to grace.  

In a strange turn of events, at this point he acknowledges that prisoner 24601 has a God-given name, and yet he still cannot see the God that is reaching to him through his nemesis. 

Presented to us in our lives are plenty of experiences of grace, and all God needs is for us to freely cooperate and respond to his constant offer of love and life.  He doesn’t force or coerce because our positive response doesn’t make God one bit happier or more full.  What he wants is for our fullness in life, where we become more and more godly in our ways of living. 

Blog readers who have yet to watch this movie - after reading this brief commentary, I do hope that you look out for these wonderfully humane and stirring scenes in the movie, and when you do, become aware that in each of us can be a strange mix of both Javert and Jean Valjean, and that our lives are always surrounded by grace.  The challenge is to respond appropriately to God even when it is difficult and challenging.


  1. Dear Fr Luke,

    I saw picts of March for life .. literally thousands of pple on it.. amazing!!.. God's works in mysterious ways indeed!!

    Abortion is a deadly sin..imagine a human being with all the innonence is being killed by scalpers twisted and crushed for no apparent reasons other than the wrong doings done by the in other words.. sort of martyrs for the sins of others..

    But whatever is done canot be undone.. for those who have abortion before.. and if its hurts.. offer up to God and let Him heal you.. its takes time no doubt...

    Fr Pavone is doing a gd job promoting the awareness of the evils of abortion.. not just in US but worldwide.. Let us pray for him and all his staff for his courage act..

    GOd bless!


  2. Though I would be hard put to give a definition of Grace, I very much like and do agree with what you said that - ‘’Everything that we encounter in life is grace, and ............................................... nothing in our lives can actually happen without God willing it...................(for) God is grace, we become partakers of God’s grace whenever we respond positively to his offer of Grace in life.’

    I know of a patient suffering from a terminal illness, who gets an unexplainable, indefinite extension of life that even have the doctors baffled, - while others, less critically ill, succumbed to their is definitely not due to any merit on the part of the terminal patient that his tumours seemed to be ‘frozen in time’ as there was no apparent ‘cure’. Neither can medical science claim merit for this state of affairs. Perhaps it is because the patient ‘‘respond positively to His offer of Grace.........’’ - yes, as a partaker of His Grace !

    As Catholics we are often exhorted to be in a state of grace for we know not when we shall see Him face to face, but I think it is also equally necessary if not more important that partaking of His Grace, we radiate His Grace to those whom we come in contact with. I believe this is what your character Jean Valjean did- radiating God’s grace, for any good has to come from God. But Inspector Javert shuttered himself tight against it. Perhaps, in his pride and lack of faith, he refused to believe he could be wrong in his assessment/judgement of Jean Valjean. And so, the radiance of God’s grace will never be able to filter through to one who refuses to believe in His compassionate mercy and chooses to lock or barricade the door of one’s heart to His Grace.

    God bless you, Fr.
    Shall continue to pray for your speedy recovery!