My all-time favorite scene in a dramatization is in Les Misérables. In the well-known story, the bishop defines mercy. The character, Jean Valjean, had been cruelly imprisoned for stealing food for his hungry family. After being freed, he was shown kindness, being fed and housed by the bishop. In turn, Valjean gets up in the night, steals the bishop’s silver and runs away. He is caught by the police and brought back to the bishop to confirm the robbery. The bishop attests that the silver was a gift and reprimands Valjean for not also taking the candlesticks he had given him!
That is the moment that gets me. The candlesticks are a symbol of extravagance in mercy. The bishop redefines who we are, in the light of experiencing mercy. He says, “You are a new man… I have ransomed you back from fear and hate, and now I give you back to God.” Life is transformed by the generosity of unreasonable love.
Last Sunday, at the parish session on addiction and substance abuse, I was reminded of the many mercies the Lord has shown me and my family. The discussion was about the theory that addiction can occur when original wounds are not healed in our life-when trauma, loss, or personal abuse are not acknowledged or addressed-and we mask over the suffering by dulling the pain we find hard to bear, in self-destructive ways. Having help that heals deeply when we needed it, my family has known this kind of mercy.
Jesus knows the need for the kind of love required to heal the brokenhearted. The teaching of Jesus is to love beyond what we seem capable of reaching. The bishop’s radical love gave new life to a broken man. This is one of those stories that I never tire of remembering.
Pope Francis was asked by a child about whether a relative with no faith would go to heaven or hell. The pope told the child a story about St. John Vianney: A woman asked him if her husband, who took his own life by jumping off a bridge would end up in hell, to which the saint responded, “Look, between the bridge and the river, there is the mercy of God.” That is the kind of mercy I hope I am showing to myself and others.
If you have 3 minutes, take a mini-retreat and watch the scene from Les Misérables here.