Joy returned from college last night so breakfast was a little later today.
A leisurely breakfast in the living room is family tradition at my house the morning after anyone gets home. The Clarksons are trickling back home this week and by tonight, we’ll all be safe in the blue house on our own piney hill. Our sibling harmonies, varied opinions, and general uproar usually raise the roof off this old house, so we make sure to punctuate our boisterous enjoyment of each other with moments of great, and very appetizing civility. Scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast, coffee strong enough to succor a lively conversation, candles lit, and siblings sprawled over the green couches is the way we always begin.
Part of this beginning is the Clarkson habit of immediately informing the family of what book, thought, movie, or conviction has most recently captivated those gathered. This morning, our various enthusiasms converged, for we are all counting the seconds, waiting on tenterhooks for the new Les Miserables movie to be released. Hugo’s grand story of love and forgiveness, of blind justice and radical grace is greatly beloved in our home. We siblings have grown up pounding out the Broadway songs on piano and belting them at the top of our lungs, as well as savoring the impossibly lengthy book.
Today, our love for this story led into a discussion that has left me rather quiet with pondered thought. Joel began it, for he is listening to an unabridged audio version of the book as he drives the long miles back and forth to his job. He recently reached the part in the story where Jean Valjean (the convict, and hero of the tale if you haven’t read it, and you must) encounters a priest whose radical act of kindness offers him an unexpected chance for redemption.
This is one of the pivotal points in the story, and the passages that tell the life of the old priest up to that point are some of the dearest and truest in the book. But those parts are never included in the movies or play, so Joel explained what made the priest the Christ-like man he was. For years, the priest practiced a life of gospel love- exchanging the grand house that was his right as bishop for a cottage, so the mansion could be made into a hospital, sharing his table with the hungry, visiting the poorest and sickest in their need.
“What a picture of true, holy love,” my Mom remarked, “Hugo really understood what it meant to love God.”
But this reminded me of a remark made by a professor whose lecture I recently attended. He said that Victor Hugo struggled deeply with doubt in real life, wrestled with his faith and could not quite seem to grasp all the pieces. When I told this to the family, we sputtered to a thoughtful halt. The quiet lasted about a second before we all began speaking at once, convinced that Hugo’s faith must be true. For if ever there was a story that images the grace of God without confusion or doubt, it is Les Miserables. There is no murkiness in the supernatural redemption presented in that book. Rather, there is a ringing, crystalline truth pervading the whole story that is, I think, the Gospel. And as we began to talk it out, we came to a realization.
Perhaps Les Miserables, in its breathtaking grace, was the gift born from Hugo’s struggle. Not in spite of it.
Maybe his story, with characters whose frailty and sin and grievous need image forth every human heart on the planet, was the truth he knew in his own dark nights. Maybe the grace that invades it, the startling redemption that grows in the very heart of the story’s despair and draws every thread of narrative home was the truth he knew beyond the pain. I think his masterpiece of a book was the affirmation of his faith, a bold and final statement of what he ultimately believed to be true. He may have doubted. But he wrote Les Miserables. And that, I think, was his final word on the subject.
This deeply affects me. I begin to wonder if we judge people, writers, artists, even ourselves, too much by the struggle so common to every human life, instead of by the luminous, strong, true things we create out of it. I remember reading a news article a few years back in which Mother Teresa’s journals of spiritual struggle were used to prove that she doubted her faith. I dismissed it at the time merely on the fact that most people I know put their darkest thoughts into their journals. I do – it’s a means of cleansing them from my mind. But I reject wholly today as I think about Hugo, because I think we must understand Mother Teresa’s faith by the life she lived, the live she incarnated, the good she created, rather than by the struggle she experienced. Of course she doubted. She was immersed in pain, in sickness, in poverty. But her actions spoke of her faith in a beauty beyond it. Her lifelong, faithful, gracious work in Calcutta was her final word, just like Hugo’s, on what she held to be true.
Surely our own lives can be the same. I need to grasp this, for if you are anything like me, then you walk with doubt, or fear, or a far-too-keen sense of your own frailty just about every day. I rarely feel sure of myself, my faith, my ability to endure, or even of God’s presence. I am about as human as they come and sometimes I feel that my very doubts make me a failure. If you measured my faith by the doubt I sometimes experience or the frustrated thoughts I jot in my journal, then you might say that I too, just like Victor, never quite got it together.
But I hope that my life speaks louder than my doubt. I hope that my stories and poems and essays speak the redemption, the grace, the beauty that is my final and ultimate truth. Yes, I speak it forth from out of the struggle, but it is all the more a ringing affirmation of what I hold to be true because it comes from the shadows. I hope that I will be judged, and that I can judge myself, not by the inadequacy I sometimes feel, but by the love I give, the beauty I make in home and habit, the meals I craft, the songs I sing, and the hands I hold. Like Hugo, I hope you will look beyond my frailty to see what I create and know that it is my final word on the subject of faith.
Don’t we all need that? Don’t we all need to know that the feelings we bear in a fallen world don’t define us? It’s not what we feel, it’s not the doubt we taste, it’s what we create, what we choose, what we do that shimmers and gleams and spreads our faith to the world.
Maybe this all just touched a tender spot in my heart.
Maybe you share that tender spot.
Who knows. Regardless, I wish you a morning of discussions and scrambled eggs and candlelight and fun just like ours. May your holiday week be blessed. May your homes and feasts and friendships be a blazing picture of the deepest joys you hold in your heart.
And if you haven’t yet tasted the world of Les Miserables… go ye forth and be amazed!