One of the promises I was required to keep, during this Christmas season, was to see Les Miserables in the theater with my wife and daughter. I completed that mission, on this feast of Saint John Neumann (the patron saint of our parish), and on the eve of the last day of Christmas- the Epiphany.
As many of you know, January 6th, 2006 was the worst day of my life and seven year’s passing has not reduced the pain enough that I don’t still dread it’s dawning. A day of joy, a day of celebration….not for us. At least, not yet. Recently, a friend (who shall remain anonymous) posted on his blog, that he got through Les Miserables by watching the LSU game on his smart phone. As much as I enjoyed the word that LSU lost to Clemson, knocking the mighty SEC from it’s perch, this was not a movie to ‘get through’. There are movies to watch and there are movies to ‘get through’ and then there are movies to drown in and and be washed by.
Les Miserables is a movie in which you sink all the way to the bottom and remain there for the duration as wave after wave of emotion of grace sweep over you.
I could make a list of movies that affected me this way- Titanic, The Passion of the Christ, The Lord of the Rings; return of the King and United 93 come to mind. The list would not be many more titles in length. I do not get into movies that rest alone on special effects or mindless violence or overly superficial depictions of love and life. A movie has to really speak to me. I walk away asking what does this film say to me? How is my life affected or changed in having seen it?
If You’ve Got Mail or When Harry Met Sally are the kind of trite, sugar coated mush that make people like me want to throw up, Les Miserables is a baptism of blood- an relenting and seemingly merciless way of the cross. It drags you down out of the warm confines of your comfortable life and into the darkly lit abodes of the lost and forsaken, the despairing and the hopeless who seek death as a respite from the misery that oppresses them and hangs over them like a menacing darkness.
How many of the actors and actresses in this movie really know of this despair, this blackness?
In the event you are not familiar with the story, it starts and ends with the struggle between a man, Jean Valjean who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child, and his merciless tormentor Javert, whose Pharisaical zeal for the letter of the law, could not grasp the concepts of love and mercy and redemption. On his road to redemption, Jean first finds mercy from a Bishop and that starts his journey to this hopeless man both finding hope and giving hope, saving others and saving himself.
Javert finds himself in need, from Jean’s hands, the very mercy he, himself refused to ever give. Where mercy saved Jean Valjean, mercy crushed Javert. Unable to give it, he was unable to receive it. Unable to comprehend what it means to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, Javert’s whole world view explodes. Unable to change, he kills himself instead.
Judgement vs Mercy, Mercy vs Judgement, these are the themes that ring through the whole film. The story is unmistakably Catholic, through and through. Not merely superficially Catholic but Sacrament-ally Catholic, so much so that one bristles at the suggestion that Hollywood was capable of making such a film.
One marvels at the ability of God to speak so boldly through a film created in a town with such a rabid hatred for Him. Then it dawns on you that maybe their derision and disdain for us is not entirely without merit.
One of the central themes of Les Miserables, one that fires at you over and over, is that you cannot reach a soul by condemning and judging that soul. Label him a thief and he’ll just become more of a thief. Label her a whore and you give her no reason to believe she is, or can be anything more. How many Jean Valjeans or Fantines have you made? How many have I? Yes, it is true that Hollywood and America are drenched in a sex craving, money worshiping worldview that can not work.
I just wonder, though, do you reach a wounded animal by barking at it? Love is the message of Les Miserables is the same as the movies I mentioned above- Love costs. One must be willing to lay down his very life for love, carry other’s burdens, heal other’s wounds. Only then, do we give the sinner the space to change- the way Jean valjean changed.
How many people perish and are damned simply because there is no one who cared for them or prayed for them or even noticed them stirring in the shadows? God forbid you were ever such a one, just needing one hand of compassion and never finding it.
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand,
Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which
is prepared for the devil and his angels:
42 for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat;
I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink;
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked,
and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye
visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer, saying,
Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst,
or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison,
and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily
I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto
one of these least, ye did it not unto me.
46 And these shall go away into eternal
punishment: but the righteous into eternal life.
The worst mistake one could make watching Les Miserables, would be to focus too heavily on the characters themselves, and not enough on the message. The characters are you and me- our good sides and our bad. The times we were low and lost and just needed to be seen as more than a whore on the street or the number 24601, the times when we were haughty and called down God to be merciless judge to anyone not meeting with our approval.
The story of Les Miserables is one of crosses, endless painful crosses and of how the outcasts of the world are the very precious souls that lead us to heaven.
January 6th, 2006 was the day I entered my darkness. It was a darkness I could not have hoped to extricate myself from. The prayers and compassion of others, over time, pulled me out of it, as it did my wife, my son and my daughters. Les Miserables uses the French Revolution merely as a backdrop. Hunger and desperation and loneliness and despair are themes as raw and real and fresh in 2013 as they were in France in the 1800s or even Israel in the first century.
The desire is too strong to stone the transgressors we know but who among us is really worthy to cast that stone? If measured by the same standard, how many stones do we deserve cast at us?
In the end, what we take from Les Miserables might be shaped by what we really value and how we really view life and salvation. How do we really view the least of us. Are they really just Les Miserables (the miserable), the hopeless dregs of society? Or are they children of God, our brothers and sisters, called to be cared for by us?
I give Les Miserables an enthusiastic 5 stars and urge you to see it.
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