Friday, January 04, 2013

Les Miserables - Eleanor Shepherd

            When I was in the seventh grade, our class was required to read a book called Jean Val Jean.  As I got into it, I loved the story.  At the time, I had no idea that it was an English translation of the classic by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.  One scene burned itself on my memory as I read of the kindness of the priest, Father Bienvenue.  Instead of choosing to condemn Jean Val Jean when the gendarme brought him back to the priest’s house with the bag of silver that he had stolen, the priest chose to offer grace.  He told the lawman that he had given the silver to Jean Val Jean.  Then to give veracity to his story he mentioned to the former prisoner that he had left behind the silver candle holders and he should take them as well.  I was knocked over by this example of grace. It clearly became the turning point in the life of Jean Val Jean.

            All my life, I had been a part of the church and while I had heard about a God of grace, He always seemed to be overshadowed by the requirements of the law.  In the story of this priest’s kindness to the undeserving thief, I saw someone choosing to respond with grace rather than with law.  A new beginning was offered to Jean Val Jean. I knew that was the message of the Christian faith, but I could not imagine what it looked like until I saw such a graphic illustration of it in the transformation of the life of this French convict.  Something clicked inside me as understanding of faith began to dawn and I knew that was the kind of faith that I wanted.  I saw how through the passing years, the life of Jean Val Jean was transformed by an act of grace.  He became a person who was motivated by grace.  In response, I wanted to become someone who understood such transformation. Today, I still long for that kind of a grace filled life. The flame that was ignited by the book still burns.

            When I was in my forties, I saw the story of Jean Val Jean brought to the stage through the musical Les Miserables.  This marvellous tale was brought to life to me again and the desire to know and share grace was rekindled in me anew.  The flame burned higher as the powerful songs of the musical echoed in my heart and reaffirmed a truth I could not deny.  There is a God of grace who is still in the business of transforming our evil natures and making us good.  By now, I had lived long enough to experience some of that transformation myself and see it taking place in people around me. I had also become even more aware of our need for such transformation, as I had seen those whose lives were hopeless and could never change without such a transformation. I was confronted by the evidence that grace is true and powerful enough to change lives and love is the most powerful dynamite in our world.

            Then, last week, I went into the theatre with my popcorn and soft drink and sat down ready to enjoy the story once again.  The years have a way of taking something that we once found powerful and dulling our senses to it.  I remembered it as a story I loved.  Les Miserables has now been released as a movie.  Having lived in France for several years, the scenes were familiar to me.  As the tale began, I sat there with eyes glued to the screen, unable to focus my attention on my snacks. I was not prepared for another confrontation with the power of grace.  I did not realize that transforming love would grip my heart once more. Just as I had been when I was twelve, I was overwhelmed as I witnessed the power of the story of a grace that chooses the way of forgiveness rather than retribution.  Now I have lived long enough to understand a little more about the cost of such grace.  Yet still it overwhelms me and again calls me to open myself to surrender to the power of such transforming love. It is my reason for hope at the beginning of another year.   
Word Guild Award

Word Guild Award


Jim Ellis said...

Thank you for sharing your experience and response to this story, Eleanor. It is encouraging to realize the potential each of us has to be graceful persons.

I think these kinds of stories impact us deeply partly because they resonate so congruently with the very nature of the universe from which we have arisen. They touch us deeply because grace/love is within the 'hidden heart of the universe' as astrophysicist Brian Swimme says so eloquently. A very different perspective from the Genesis narrative which starts with our original sinful nature!

Peter Black said...

Thank you Eleanor.
You have sparked real thought, and that's very worthwhile. Thank you.
It seems that grace is grace, whether or not it is appreciated by the one to whom it is directed or extended.
However, I'd suggest that the power of grace to transform is released and realized, when it is appreciated and accepted, for then the work can begin.
For that to happen, surely one must come to the place of recognizing that he / she is in need of grace.
Jean Val Jean was aware that he had stolen and that it was wrong, and he knew he was worthy of arrest and be required to make retribution, and therefore he could have appreciation for the grace extended to him.
"Blessed [truly happy and fit to be immeasurably benefitted] are the poor [humble] in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3 expanded).
Offending God, on part of human beings -- originally cast in the likeness of God as to spiritual and volitional attributes, is sin and represents an imbalance in the universe.
God's grace extended in the person of Jesus Christ, by whom grace and truth have come John 1:1-17; 3:16-17), and through whose sacrificial death has been made available, when embraced, results in restorative life transformation, and restores that balance cosmically.


Diana Dart said...

The power of the age-old story resounds in Les Miserables, whether through the words of Hugo's novel, in a stage production or on a screen. Thank you for a glimpse at how all three have touched your heart.

I love how the priest's offer of grace transformed not only Jean Val Jean's life, but countless others beyond. A beautiful ripple effect that echoes the Greatest Commandment and inspires us to not only accept the gift of grace, but to act as a conduit as well.

Peter Black said...

Eleanor, I return to comment again, with a wry -- if not slightly embarrassed -- smile.
My intention when commenting earlier was to express, as others have done, on the wonderful poignancy of grace that so influenced your life through Les Miserables. Hmm, instead, the theological bent overtook . . . and well, you know the rest.

Amazing grace -- Ah, how sweet the sound!
Thank you for bringing that glorious focus. :)

Eleanor Shepherd said...

Thanks, Diana for your lovely and poetic comment. I love your thought, "A beautiful ripple effect that echoes the Greatest Commandment and inspires us to not only accept the gift of grace, but to act as a conduit as well."
Thanks for commenting.

Eleanor Shepherd said...

Not to worry, Peter. I know how easily that happens to us. We start to say one thing and then other ideas overwhelm us and we go in a completely different direction. I love your constant encouragement. Warm regards.

Ed Hird+ said...

Great book review, Eleanor. I just posted my own book review of Les Miserables. I sense that this new movie may be a moment of grace for many.


Ed Hird+

Eleanor Shepherd said...

I do hope that is the case, Ed. I saw your post and appreciated what you said about the story. There is such a longing for grace in our world, as there was in the world of Victor Hugo.

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