by Robin Bartlett Barraza
I just saw Les Miserables in the movie theater when it opened on Christmas Day. Have you seen it yet?
As a young girl, Les Miserables was the STORY OF MY LIFE. I was so miserable, and Les Mis TOTALLY GOT ME. I was a forgotten orphan wearing rags like Cosette (or really, a suburban white kid in New Hampshire whose parents refused to get me a Nintendo), I dreamed a dream in time gone by when hope was high and life worth living like Fantine, and I suffered stabbing unrequited love on my own pretending he’s beside me as a teenager like Eponine. (I just didn’t put myself in the way of the bullet for the guy like she did, thank God. I read in a blog somewhere that Eponine would have benefited from the book “He’s Just Not that into You”. So would have I. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been written yet.)
Those familiar dramatic miserable story lines didn’t have an impact on me as much when I watched this film as an adult. This time, when I watched Les Miserables, I noticed a story line that didn’t get my attention at all as an angsty child or teenager. The character who got my attention this time was the priest played by Colm Wilkinson. You are rolling your eyes right now, I know. “Oh jeez, how predictable,” you are thinking. “Robin is studying to be a minister, so now Robin identifies with the priest. Plus, it’s Colm Wilkinson, who is basically the second coming if you are a musical theater freak.”* The thing is, I don’t actually identify with the priest in Les Miserables, but I want to.
For those of you who don’t know this story, Les Miserables is about Jean Valjean, a man who goes to prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his poor pregnant sister who doesn’t have food to eat. He is in prison for like 27 years before he is finally released on parole, permanently labeled a thief and a criminal for his entire life. After he leaves prison, he can’t get a job because this stigma follows him around. He lives on the street, begging for work and food when a kindly priest takes him in. The priest offers him food at the table with his finest linen and china, which Jean Valjean wolfs down savagely. The priest offers him a warm bed with clean sheets.
Jean Valjean waits until the priest is asleep, steals as much silver as he can carry from the parsonage, and runs out into the streets of France. He is quickly caught and beaten by the police, who bring Jean Valjean and the silver back to the priest’s house. The police say to the priest snidely, “Father, we have found a thief who stole your silver. He tells us you gave it to him.” The priest answers, “I did give it to him.”
He turns to Jean Valjean and says, “In your haste to leave, you forgot these,” and hands Jean Valjean two silver candle sticks. The police leave, surprised and angry. The priest says to Jean Valjean, “remember this my brother, see in this a higher plan, you must take this precious silver to become an honest man…I have bought your soul for God.” Jean Valjean is radically forgiven, and sanctified with that forgiveness.
Jean Valjean then goes into a virtual tizzy of guilt and spiritual crisis. His heart hardened by all of those years doing slave labor in jail, he feels so shocked to be captured by the love of God that he goes into a church to cry out in anguish. “Yet why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love? He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust. He called me brother. My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?…I feel my shame inside me like a knife. He told me that I have a soul. How does he know?”
Radical forgiveness causes us to feel the shame of what we’ve done to hurt and harm.
Radical forgiveness reminds us that we have a soul.
Jean Valjean decides to start a new story of his life–one where he works tirelessly to become a benevolent mayor, a worker for justice, and the devoted father of an orphaned girl. Because Jean Valjean is offered forgiveness by another human being and told that he matters, he believes finally that he has a soul, forgives himself and uses his life for good. When Jean Valjean dies, his friends are there to help him die in peace singing “just remember the truth that once was spoken: to love another person is to see the face of God.” That’s the whole message of the musical.
Radical forgiveness heals us, transforms us, and allows us to transform the world in love.
After all, forgiveness means loving another person (including most especially yourself) at one’s most unlovable moments, and is nothing short of a holy act.
But it is not easy. Forgiveness takes trust like the priest showed to Jean Valjean–trust that you have a soul, and that the person you are forgiving has one, too. It takes the ability to recognize your own need to be forgiven–we have greater empathy for the person we are trying to forgive if we recognize our own propensity toward harming others. It takes a great deal of courage–because it involves letting go and being vulnerable, and letting go and being vulnerable is hard. You have to be courageous to let go of old patterns of anger and self-protection. When our heart is softened, it is more easily wounded.
Have you ever been forgiven after you did something that you can hardly forgive in yourself? I have. And I remember thinking at the time, “He told me that I have a soul. How does he know?” I have never felt more wounded, or more loved.
I ask my kids each and every night what they are sorry for. I don’t ask them so that I can rub in their faces the ways in which they have screwed up that day, or to force them to repent of their sins. I ask them so that I may follow up with the assurance that they are forgiven, and always held in my love. I assure them that nothing can separate them from the love of God. I tell them that God loves them the way I do–that nothing they can do is unforgivable.
I do this because I want them to forever have access to their souls. I want them to freely forgive others. Most of all, I want them to freely forgive themselves. I know I need this forgiveness and assurance, so I give it to my kids. Truthfully, it is easy to give it to my kids, who are young and still fairly innocent, and who I love more than anything on this earth or in heaven.
It is much harder to offer this love to the people with whom I am at odds, with people I don’t know or don’t trust, with people who have harmed me. This is why I want to be like the priest in Les Miserables, but have fallen far short. So this year, I’m vowing to forgive as freely as I can. Join me if you’d like, and share your story here.
In the words of Rumi:
Forgive the harm that anyone does.
We are here to be a forgiveness door through which freedom comes.
I weep when I ask that the door not be shut.
This is Colm playing Jean Valjean in a concert version of Les Mis.
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*In my “Making of Les Miserables” video from childhood, after Colm Wilkinson, who plays the original Jean Valjean, sings “Bring Him Home” in front of the cast for the first time, one of the cast members says, “I knew that this was the part when we would hear ‘the prayer’, but I didn’t know you were going to actually bring God in to sing it.”