“We think it our duty to notice that, outside of and, so to say, beyond his faith, the bishop had an excess of love.”1 This is Victor Hugo’s description, in his novel Les Misérables, of the Bishop of Digne, a man who gave away his bishop’s palace to the local charitable hospital so that they might have more space and who spent his carriage allowance from the Church as alms to the poor. This is his description of a man who walked up onto the scaffold with a guilty man to proclaim that he would have life everlasting. This is his description of a man who claims the soul of a thief—Jean Valjean—by giving him the parish silver which he had stolen.
Throughout its many, many pages, Les Misérables is the story of the contrast between the Law and Grace. This disparity is clearly delineated in the stage and film versions by the contrast between Javert, the “picture” of the Law, and Jean Valjean, the “picture” of God’s Grace. However, few Christians will ever read the book. Few will be inspired by the “picture” of radiant Grace, mercy, and love with whom Hugo opens his story—the Bishop of Digne.
Many who have seen the stage and film versions have been inspired by Jean Valjean’s transformation from a petty criminal into a business owner and town mayor. Many have wept over his rescue of the prostitute, Fantine, who becomes destitute after losing work in his factory. Many have rejoiced over Valjean’s rescue of her helpless child, Cosette. However, few have thought about the man who made all of these things possible by sharing the Gospel with Valjean.
Hugo describes the daily life of the Bishop: “prayer, celebration of the religious offices, alms, consoling the afflicted, the cultivation of a little piece of ground, fraternity, frugality, self-sacrifice, confidence, study, and work, filled up each day of his life. Filled up is exactly the word; and in fact, the Bishop’s day was full to the brim with good thoughts, good words, and good actions.”2 In a day in which Christian heroes are too few and far between, this man can serve as the example for us and for our children. I would that we all could spend each day “full to the brim with good thoughts, good words, and good actions.”
After a full day of ministering to those in his parish, the bishop finishes each day in his garden, contemplating God the Father.
He was there alone with himself, collected, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts which fall from the Unknown. . . He contemplated the grandeur, and the presence of God; the eternity of the future, strange mystery; the eternity of the past, mystery yet more strange; all the infinities deep-hidden in every direction about him; and, without essaying to comprehend the incomprehensible, he saw it. He did not study God; he was dazzled by the thought.3
Surely, this is true worship. Do we make enough time to contemplate the presence of God? Are we ever still long enough to truly know Him, to be dazzled by Him? When my Challenge III students balk at their poetry exercises, I remind them of the importance of contemplation to the Christian life. All of us must spend time in contemplation of who we are and of who God is. Even Jesus went away to spend time with His Father. Our age of rushing around and filling every silence with television and the Internet leaves little space for the contemplative life. If we are never quiet and still, we will never be moved by the grandeur and the mysteries, we will never be dazzled by the thought of God.
It was once thought that literature could hold up a mirror to the human soul to reveal, as it were, “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” By example, the stories would teach us to be wise, to shun the bad, and embrace the good. Now, in our postmodern culture, when everything is relative, literature has lost its way. Therefore, more than ever before, we must place before our children that which is true and good and beautiful, that which is deserving of their love. My children could not do better than to learn from this man, the Bishop, who is described as having an excess of love. Should that not be the hallmark of every Christian life?
At the recent Oscar ceremony, Anne Hathaway received the Best Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of Fantine in last year’s film of the musical version of Hugo’s novel, colloquially referred to as Les Mis. She closed her speech by saying that she hoped that one day the stories of wretchedness, despair, and poverty—stories about people like Fantine—would exist only in fiction and not in real life. Perhaps there would be fewer Fantines if there were more Christians like the Bishop of Digne, who spends his nights filling himself with God’s Grace through prayer and contemplation and then spends his days pouring out God’s love on everyone around him. Les Misérables is a novel every Christian should read.
1 Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Translated by Charles E. Wilbour. New York: Modern Library by Random House. p. 45.
2 Hugo, Les Miserables, p. 47.
3 Hugo, Les Miserables, p. 47.