Four ways Les Misérables brought me to Catholicism
I freaking love Les Misérables. I love it to the point of obsession, and I'm not alone. The new movie is on track to become one of the top-grossing musicals in North American history. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Victor Hugo's masterpiece is too full of truth, goodness, and beauty for anyone to resist. It speaks to the soul's desire to rise above suffering, follow a higher cause, and live by love. Most importantly, and I can't stress this enough, it does not follow love-crazed creatures from the netherworld with glitter issues.
However, I love Les Misérables for another reason: It helped bring me back to the Catholic faith. My family started off Catholic. Unfortunately, we fell away when I was only in grade school. Those years were filled with traumas and heartbreaks. By the time I hit my teens, I was desperate to find a deeper meaning to life. I had almost forgotten the religion of my childhood, so I turned to some bizarre places for answers. These included, but were not limited to: Hatha Yoga, emo iPod kid-ism, and weird Sci-Fi fandom. I stumbled across Les Mis somewhere during my hemp-wearing Buddhist phase.
I'm not saying this story is solely responsible for bringing me back to God. That happened because of God's infinite mercy and his inexplicable crush on my soul. However, the connection I formed with Les Misérables helped pull me back from all of crazy personality experiments. After all, what is Les Mis but a story of redemptive suffering? Even though my hard hippie heart didn't realize it, I was being pulled into a greater story line that finds its perfection in the Gospels.
I could probably write an entire book on the ways Les Mis has impacted me. However, to accommodate the average Internet surfer's ADD, I have narrowed it down to a list of four life lessons.
1) God can, and does, use the material world.
My brief stint in Buddhism taught me that I should try to detach myself from everything, especially the material world. Les Mis taught me that this was stupid. Material goods can be used to convey love. For example, the main character of Les Mis, Jean Valjean, wins the abused young Cosette's trust by buying her a beautiful doll. It is the first gift the little girl has ever received, and she immediately recognizes the love behind it. Here is her reaction, as described in the book:
Cosette gazed at the marvelous doll in a sort of terror. Her face was still flooded with tears, but her eyes began to fill, like the sky at daybreak, with strange beams of joy. What she felt at that moment was a little like what she would have felt if she had been abruptly told, "Little one, you are the Queen of France."
I couldn't help but remember my First Communion when I read this. Sure, I had just been in a local church wearing my cousin's hand-me-down veil, but I didn't care. I felt like a princess. I knew that Jesus was about to show His love to me in a special way. No one could have told me I was ordinary that day. All the Battlestar Galactica and Eastern philosophies in the world couldn't bring me the joy I felt when I received the Eucharist for the first time. How could I have forgotten that?
2) The choices we make in youth affect the rest of our lives
Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread when he was 25. He's still running from the po-po at his deathbed. Eponine dies because of a co-dependent crush she nursed for ages. Fantine fell hard for a guy when she was in her teens, got pregnant, and was forced to abandon the child she cries for in her dying moments. Our decisions have consequences.
When I first read Les Misérables, I really, really didn't want this to be true. I had made some terrible choices, and I didn't want to face them. Eponine especially terrified me. How many young girls can sympathize with her when she sings:
On my own
Pretending he's beside me
I walk with him till morning
His world would go on turning
A world that's full of happiness
That I have never known!
Loving deeply is a good thing. Throwing your heart at a man who has no interest in catching it is not. Eponine is like many women, in that she has had a hard life and is starved for affection. Unfortunately, she wants a man, Marius, to be the source of love and happiness in her life. Her last moment are spent trying to assure herself of Marius' devotion. In the book, she even goes so far as to tell Marius that she led him into a trap and that she is happy he will soon die.
I didn't want to "love" like that. I wanted to give myself to someone else totally and completely, with their best interests in mind. I wanted love that would be treasured, shared, and would exist in reality. But to get it, I was going to have to change the ways I related to men. Specifically, I needed to learn that no man was going to "fix" me. My happiness was going to have to come from a much more stable source.
3) We all need a Father's love
I would LOVE to be autonomous. Life would be so much tidier if we didn't need to love and be loved, and thus get involved with other people with all of their feelings and wants and dreams. Gross.
Luckily, God doesn't listen to my suggestions. We are made for a love that protects and strengthens. Look at Les Misérables. Jean Valjean has been wrongly imprisoned for most of his life, and consequently does not trust or love anyone. But then he chances upon Bishop Myriel. The good bishop gives him food, shelter, and humane treatment for the first time in 17 years. Valjean does not know how to respond to such love, so he does the logical thing: he steals the Bishop's silver and runs away. He barely makes it out of town before is caught by the police and dragged back to the Bishop's house to be punished. However, the Bishop surprises everyone by not only defending Valjean, but berating him for not stealing his silver candlesticks! One can only assume that he followed this statement with one of those penetrating priest-stares that just dares you to sin again.
This incident changes Valjean's life. He could have simply taken the silver and continued with his bitter life, but the Bishop's fatherly love causes a deep change in Valjean. He commits his life to God and tried to be the best version of himself. He eventually carries on this fatherly role in his relationship with Cosette.
My candlestick moment happened during my junior year of college. I had deeply hurt a good friend through my own selfish actions. I asked if we could meet so that I could apologize, which in my dictionary is synonymous to "cower in shame while the injured party lists your every deficiency." But that didn't happen. Instead, my friend looked me in the eyes and said they weren't angry, but they wanted me to know that I was better than the way I had acted.
I had no idea how to respond to that love. I think I blew it off with a joke and then excused myself as quickly as possible. But later, in Adoration, I realized it was the first time I had ever been unconditionally forgiven. I stared at the crucifix with new awe. Guilt for my sins threatened to crush me even as I experienced a new awareness of the love Christ offered. I felt like Jean Valjean when he sings about the Bishop's forgiveness:
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I had converted to God years earlier, but that was the night I gave myself over to His authority. It was the night I completely gave into the Fatherly love I was made for.
4. We were made for more.
All of my experiments ultimately stemmed from my dissatisfaction with an ordinary life. I knew I was meant to be extraordinary; I just didn't know how to grasp that something that would make me more than myself. It took a handful of amazing friends, a library's worth of good literature, and immeasurable grace before I realized that I was searching for the Infinite. And despite what Buddhism and yoga and all the rest had taught me, Infinity was neither a place inside me nor a state of absolute nothingness. Infinity is Love. Jesus Christ is its personification.
Everything else had a just been a distraction. I had been living my life like the revolutionaries in Les Misérables, who would rather start a civil war than embrace stable, lasting reform. I was like Javert, who put his own interpretation of justice and truth before God's teachings. I was like the Thenardiers, who sought constant, fleeting comfort over the struggles of a moral life.
But no more. My identity as a daughter of God is enough. I don't have to strive for love like Eponine, fight like Marius, or give into nothingness like Javert. I can live like Cosette. I spend my life falling more deeply in love with my beloved, breaking down the barricades around my heart and letting Him fill it with love.