Years ago while I was still an associate pastor in Chicago, I saw Victor Hugo’s 19th-century French novel Les Misérables on the desk of my pastor, David. It intrigued me greatly. He is quite well-read, including fiction, but it did not seem like his usual taste.
So we got to talking about it. He explained how he wanted to increase his attention span by reading such a mammoth work of literature. He talked about how potent it was conveying biblical themes like mercy. His reasonings were inspiring. I wish I could say I went straight home and bought the book and began to read it. But I did not.
Still, here I am, years later as a senior pastor on my own, yet still being mentored by David. My wife has always had the book and a few weeks ago I picked it up. And so began the arduous yet paradoxically delightful journey through this widely revered story. I have not seen the musical or the movie, so it has all been brand new material to me. And it has also been fantastically enlightening. I have not even finished yet, but what I have read has helped me to become a better pastor, husband, and human. As such, I want to write about it.
I have no idea how many parts this series will be. Les Misérables is 900+ pages, with five volumes broken up into 48 “books” and over 200 chapters, after all. But I will keep writing regularly until I finish it. Because I can only assume the major story arcs still to come will inspire me as well. Today, however, we begin at the beginning: with the wisdom and character of the Bishop, Monseigneur Myriel, in Volume 1, Book First, Chapter 1: “A Just Man”.
“In villages which were greedy for profit and harvest, he said: ‘Look at the people of Embrun! If, at the harvest season, the father of a family has his son away on service in the army, and his daughters at service in the town, and if he is ill and incapacitated, the curé recommends him to the prayers of the congregation; and on Sunday, after the mass, all the inhabitants of the village–men, women and children–go to the poor man’s field, and do his harvesting for him.'”
This is in a series of comments by the Bishop speaking to different people groups’ sins with specific illustrations. But this one stands out to me. Because it is a perfect example of Acts 2:42-47 Christianity. I recently heard of a teacher that tragically lost a child, and how her fellow teachers all willingly gave up their sick days to her. Because she’d used all of hers during her pregnancy. We need a lot more of this in the world.
“Thus he discoursed gravely and paternally; in default of examples, he invented parables, going directly to the point, with few phrases and many images, which characteristic formed the real eloquence of Jesus Christ. And being convinced himself, he was persuasive.”Page 9
This is how I want to preach. Especially the last sentence. Above all, preaching is the Holy Spirit working through the Truth. But I want people to feel it in their soul that I believe with my life that Jesus is alive.
“Moreover, he was the same toward the people of the world and toward the lower classes. He condemned nothing in haste and without taking circumstances into account. He said, ‘Examine the road over which the fault has passed.'”Page 10
This reminds me of the plethora of teachings against partiality in the Bible. In James 2, for instance. Additionally, it reminds me of how poorly we practice not forming justice mobs on the internet today. We consistently bear false witness against our neighbors.
“A tragic even occurred at D——. A man was condemned to death for murder. He was a wretched fellow. On the eve of the day fixed for the execution of the condemned man, the chaplain of the prison fell ill. A priest was needed to attend the criminal in his last moments. They sent for the curé. It seems that he refused to come, saying ‘That is no affair of mine. I have nothing to do with that unpleasant task, and with that mountebank (charlatan): I, too, am ill; and besides, it is not my place.’ This reply was sent to the Bishop, who said, ‘Monsieur le Curé is right: it is not his place, it is mine.’
He went instantly to the prison, descended to the cell of the ‘mountebank,’ called him by name, took him by the hand, and spoke to him. He passed the whole day without food or sleep, praying to God for the soul of the condemned man. And praying the condemned man for his own. The Bishop told him the best truths, which are also the most simple. He was father, brother, friend. He taught him everything, encouraged and consoled him. The man was at the point of dying in despair. The Bishop made him see the light.
On the following day, when they came to fetch the unhappy wretch, the Bishop was still there. He mounted the scaffold with him. The sufferer, who had been so gloomy and cast down on the preceding day, was radiant. He felt that his soul was reconciled, and he hoped in God. The Bishop embraced him, and at the moment when the knife was about to fall, he said to him: ‘God raises from the dead him whom many man slays; he whom his brothers have rejected find his Father once more. Pray, believe, enter into life. The Father is there.'”Page 11
I confess I shed tears at this. Even so, I don’t have much to add in commentary. Just that I pray for this kind of impact, to people the world has forgotten or purposefully cast aside. That is absolutely how Jesus lived. I would not have imagined in a hundred years that Les Misérables would teach me this.
“There exists, yonder in the mountains,” said the Bishop, “a tiny community no bigger than that, which I have not seen for three years. They need to be told of the good God now and then. What would they say to a bishop who was afraid? What would they say if I did not go?”
“But the brigands, Monseigneur?’
“Hold,” said the Bishop, “I must think of that. I may meet them. They, too, need to be told of the good God.”
“But Monseigneur, there is a band of them! A flock of wolves!”
“Monsieur le maire, it may be that it is of this very flock of wolves that Jesus has constituted me shepherd. Who knows the ways of Providence?”
“They will rob you, Monseigneur.”
“I have nothing.”
“They will kill you.”
“An old goodman of a priest, who passes along mumbling prayers?”
“Oh mon Deiu! what if you should meet them?”
“I should beg alms of them for my poor.”
“Do not go, Monseigneur. In the name of Heaven! You are risking your life!”
“Monsieur le maire,” said the Bishop, “is that really all? I am not in this world to guard my own life, but to guard souls.”Page 18
First, this reminds me both of Ezra in the Old Testament and of Paul wanting to go to Jerusalem in Acts 21 despite his companions’ pleas not to. Secondly, it convicts me of how often I want to live a life of safety and convenience. Furthermore, the Bishop really nails the nail deeper when he soon adds,
“Let us never fear robbers nor murderers. Those are dangers from without, petty dangers. Let us fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices are the real murderers. The great dangers lie within ourselves. What matters what threatens our head or our purse! Let us think only of that which threatens our soul.”Page 19
If I may juxtapose a 150-year-old French literature classic with 21st century American English internet speak: fire emoji, fire emoji, fire emoji.
“Certainly the Bishop’s day was quite full to the brim, of good words and good deeds. Nevertheless, it was not complete if cold or rainy weather prevented his passing and hour or two in his garden before going to bed. It seemed sort of a rite for him, to prepare himself for slumber by meditation in the presence of the grand spectacles of the nocturnal heavens. He was there alone, communing with himself, peaceful, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the ether, moved amid the darkness by the visible splendor of the constellations and the invisible splendor of God, opening his heart to the thoughts which fall from the Unknown.
He thought of the grandeur and presence of God; of the future eternity, that strange mystery; of the eternity past, a mystery still more strange; and of all the infinities, which pierced their way into all his senses, beneath his eyes; and, without seeking to comprehend the incomprehensible, he gazed upon it. He did not study God; he was dazzled by him.Page 36
Wow! I don’t know of many passages I have ever read in any book, fiction or non, that blew me away. God forgive me for “studying” you all the time when instead I should be dazzled by you! This reminds me of Psalm 19, Job 38, and a whole host of other passages on creation. And the part about eternity future versus eternity past…Hugo took the words right out of my brain. This is a soul-exposing, heart-wrenching, mind-blowing two paragraphs. And so I want to go stand by the ocean or look at the stars for hours now.
Without a doubt, I could have written about several other passages. However, I want to attempt to be somewhat concise, even over an indefinite amount of articles. But the material from even the first 37 pages of Les Misérables is overwhelming in its goodness. It compels me to think about my faith, my relationships, and my vocation, and how they all overlap. I am already giddy to write again.
Part 2 is coming up soon.
- Pastors, Be Encouraged Even During This Time of Extended Frustration - September 9, 2021
- Life Lessons From Les Misérables, The Book (Part 1) - August 19, 2021
- Saying Goodbye To The World Series Champion Chicago Cubs - August 2, 2021