A Lesson from “Les Misérables”
One of my favorite books is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. If you’ve read it, you may remember the first part of the book introduces us first to Bishop Bienvenu Myriel. While he is a fictional character, when I grow up I want to be just like him. He serves as bishop but does not have the typical attitudes of a bishop.
When he first becomes bishop, Bishop Myriel has a magnificent home while the hospital next door was too crowded with patients. Recognizing the hospital’s need and the extravagance of his home, he says, “There is some mistake, I tell you; you have my house, and I have yours.” His salary of fifteen thousand francs was given almost completely to the the poor. When he discovers that he has an allowance for a carriage and pastoral visits, he takes that money and gives it away as well. All that flowed in went to those who had need. He saved for himself only what was needed for his “bare necessities.”
I love Bishop Myriel’s attitude toward those most in need. “The most beautiful of altars,” he said, “is the soul of an unhappy creature consoled and thanking God.” And later we learn that “he respected learned men greatly; he respected the ignorant still more; and, without ever failing in these two respects.”
He never locked his door. He said, “There is a bravery of the priest as well as the bravery of a colonel of dragoons,– only,” he added, “ours must be tranquil.” When faced with the need to take a ministry trip to a remote and dangerous area under his care he said, “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 it what threatens our head or our purse! Let us think only of that which threatens our soul.”
Eventually we are introduced to Jean Valjean. He is a criminal who stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her seven children. After serving his sentence – lengthened for attempting to escape on several occasions – he is finally released. He wanders into Bishop Myriel’s village and after being refused lodging at the towns inns, he comes to the Bishop’s home for shelter and food.
Bishop Myriel does not turn him away but welcomes him as a brother. Valjean is stunned at the Bishop’s kindness. The Bishop tells him,
“You could not help telling me who you were. This is not my house; it is the house of Jesus Christ. This door doe not demand of him who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has a grief. You suffer, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And do not thank me; do not say that I receive you in my house. No one is at home here, except the man who needs refuge. I say to you, who are passing by, that you are much more at home here than I myself. Everything here is yours. What need have I to know your name? Besides, before you told me you had one which I knew?”
“Really? You knew what I was called?”
“Yes,” replied the Bishop, “you are called my brother.”
Here is a character who loves with the heart of Jesus. He gives generously and loves liberally. He trusts God to care for him completely and welcomes even a hardened criminal into his home.
The Bishop has only one possession of value – genuine silver knives and cutlery as well as two silver candlesticks. During the night while all are asleep, Valjean sneaks into the Bishop’s room and steals the knives and cutlery. He then runs out into the night.
In the morning, Valjean is arrested and brought to the Bishop’s home. As soon as the door is opened, Bishop Myriel cries, “Ah! here you are! I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
Only Valjean is more stunned than the gendarmes. Valjean is released and the Bishop does give him the candlesticks. Before Valjean leaves, the Bishop says to him, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
This is the spirit of Jesus. To give all we have to those who need that they might discover the incredible love of God and in turn love and serve others. Reading these words, I think of Scripture like Micah 6:8 and Matthew 25:31-46 and Isaiah 58 and so many others and I long to be one who loves like Jesus. I long to walk so intimately with my Savior that I understand how to truly “do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.” I want to be like Bishop Bienvenu Myriel…loving and respecting my fellow men and women in my actions, not just my words.