Something only a few of my current friends know, but all of my high school classmates will tell you, is that I am a hopeless musical theater nerd. For the nearly two decades it has been since I graduated high school, I have longed to feel the heat of the stage lights and nearly crippling anxiety that precedes the last breath you take after the house lights go down, but before the spotlight finds you waiting, the audience is waiting. Even though I may still feel that urge to be up there from time to time, I am grateful for the opportunity to be a member of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and support our local theater in town.
In late November, I was fortunate enough to swap tickets from a different show to see the traveling Broadway production of Les Misérables. If you’ve never seen it, you’re missing out, and I caution you to stop reading lest I divulge some of the most pivotal moments of the plot and characterization from the musical, first released as a novel by Victor Hugo in 1862 and a musical in 1980. You’ve had more than 160 years to hear the story, so I don’t feel obliged to give you a spoiler alert, but here’s one anyway.
The plot follows the story of a Frenchman named Jean Valjean whose life was ruined because he stole food for his starving nephew. He spends 19 years working on a chain gang only known as Prisoner 24601. When he is released, he is assured by Javert, a law enforcement officer, that people like Valjean never change, and will only be known by his crimes.
He is rejected and scorned by people, just as Javert had promised, but one man takes him in to give him food, wine, and shelter. This man is the local bishop. Crippled with fear, Jean Valjean attempts to steal silver from him and is promptly caught. The bishop informs Valjean that he forgot the best and gives him the very precious silver candle holders. No charges are pressed, and he has the opportunity to start over.
Mercy. This man was struggling in life until someone was in a position to help him. And it wasn’t much. The bishop gives him what he has and asks the police to go away. In that instant, a life was changed by a single act of kindness, a single act of mercy. How many times do we miss the opportunity to do the same for someone else? How many times do we forget that the mercy of God is limitless for those who truly repent? This bishop made a disciple of Jean Valjean as is evidenced by his incredible story that follows.
He eventually becomes the Mayor of a small community and runs a warehouse. When one of his former employees who was wrongfully dismissed then falls to a life of ill-repute to support her daughter lay dying in the street, Jean Val Jean gives up his true identity, rescues her, and then promises to provide for her daughter, Cosette, for the rest of his life. He locates Cosette and moves to Paris only to experience the June Parisian Resistance a few years later. A young man, Marius, grows fond of Cosette, but is involved with the resistance. Of course, Jean Valjean goes to the barricade seemingly only to see to it that Marius stays alive. In the process, Jean Valjean is given the chance to execute Javert, but instead lets him go free, and then rescues an injured Marius by carrying him through the sewers of Paris. It is not until the day Cosette and Marius are married that he learns that Valjean was his “savior that night.” This all leads up to, as you would expect, a very epic death scene for Jean Valjean in his advanced age.
Sacrifice. After he was given the opportunity to start a new life, Jean Valjean never stopped caring for other people. He put others before himself, always. He lived considering his own salvation and the salvation of others. This is the story of a Saint. Broken, but not beaten, scorned by his fellow men, but loved by God. He literally makes his new life’s work, after his mayoral service came to a screeching halt, to care for a poor woman’s child who he didn’t even know.
Ultimately, we all recognize that we are created by God to bring Glory to His Name. As Jesus tells us in the Gospel, we are called to love our neighbors. How many of us can honestly say we’d do the things Jean Valjean does for people he barely knows? Some of the heroic things we’ve read about in the lives of the saints may inspire us to grow in holiness and virtue. Jean Valjean may do the same, but are we prepared to put it all on the line for others?
Jesus shows us through His Passion that love is an action, not a feeling. Les Misérables has a plot that explicitly illustrates this concept over and over again. Nearly every action Valjean takes is rooted in love for the other, from his incarceration through his death. Probably the most striking line from the entire production is professed in the midst of his transitus when the audience hears the line, “to love another person is to see the Face of God.” Consider how beautiful that line really is. This is the universal call to holiness, the universal vocation. Life is worth living because God created it to be lived, but life is joyful when we actively and genuinely love other people. I’ve always enjoyed finding the Catholic essence that naturally exudes from literature and art, that quality of Les Misérables is just so easy to realize, but really challenging to put into practice. Let us all be like Valjean to the people we know we love, but ask Jesus to help us love those we didn’t know needed our love.