[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
I really enjoy works of art—books, movies, plays and the like—that have Course-like themes. Even when they are fiction, the truths they convey move me and inspire me to walk the Course’s path with greater devotion. One of my favorite works in this regard is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables—the story of Jean Valjean, the criminal seeking redemption, and Inspector Javert, the policeman determined to hunt him down and send him back to prison for good (as potent a symbol of the ego as you can find). I have seen the Broadway musical version and several movie and television versions, but now I’ve finally decided to read the book.
One of my favorite scenes in Les Misérables is Jean Valjean’s encounter with the good Bishop of Digne, who is known to all as Monseigneur Bienvenu (“Monsignor Welcome”). Valjean has just been paroled from prison after nineteen years, and everyone he encounters rejects him. No inn will take him, no one will give him a meal, children throw rocks at him; he is a despised outcast.
Finally, someone points him to the bishop’s residence, and only there does he find welcome. He tells the bishop about his past, but Monseigneur Bienvenu is completely unfazed. The book goes into much more detail about their encounter than any of the film or stage versions do, and as I read, I was particularly moved by this passage, which depicts an exchange that takes place during dinner:
“Monsieur le curé,” said the man [Jean Valjean], “you are very good. You don’t despise me. You have taken me in and lighted your candles for me. But I have not concealed from you where I come from and what I am.”
The bishop, seated at his side, laid a hand gently on his arm.
“You need have told me nothing. This house is not mine but Christ’s. It does not ask a man his name but whether he is in need. You are in trouble, you are hungry and thirsty, and so you are welcome. You need not thank me for receiving you in my house. No one is at home here except those seeking shelter. Let me assure you, passer-by though you are, that this is more your home than mine. Everything in it is yours. Why should I ask your name? In any case I knew it before you told me.”
The man looked up with startled eyes. “You knew my name?”
“Of course,” said the bishop. “Your name is brother.”
Thus begins a fierce battle within Valjean’s soul between the embittered criminal he had been for so many years and the goodness and dignity the bishop sees in him. Unfortunately, later that night, the embittered criminal wins the first round. During dinner, Valjean had noticed the expensive silverware at the bishop’s table—his ticket out of destitution. So, late that night, he steals the silver and flees into the darkness.
The police capture him, however, and with the evidence of his betrayal of the bishop’s trust in his hands, he is brought before him. One word from the bishop, and Jean Valjean will return to prison, probably for life. Instead of condemning Jean Valjean, however, Monseigneur Bienvenu turns the tables completely:
“So here you are!” he cried to Valjean. I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good two hundred francs. Did you forget to take them?” Jean Valjean’s eyes had widened. He was now staring at the old man with an expression no words can convey.
The police release Valjean, and after they are gone, Monseigneur Bienvenu instructs him to use the money gained from the silver to make himself an honest man. Then the good bishop bids him farewell with a benediction: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil, but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
Later on, however, the battle within Valjean continues. He steals a coin from a little boy named Petit-Gervais. He is immediately ashamed of what he has done and tries to return the coin, but it is too late—the boy is gone. Jean Valjean weeps in agony, and the battle comes to a head. On one side is the old Jean Valjean, the criminal. On the other is the new man trying to be born in him, symbolized by the good bishop. Finally, resolution comes:
His mind’s eye considered these two men now presented to him, the bishop and Jean Valjean. Only the first could have overshadowed the second. By a singular process special to this kind of ecstasy, as his trance continued the bishop grew and gained splendor in his eyes, while Jean Valjean shrank and faded. A moment came when Valjean was no more than a shadow, and then he vanished entirely. The bishop alone remained, flooding that unhappy soul with radiance.
Valjean weeps some more, but this time “as he wept a new day dawned in his spirit.” From that day forward, the embittered criminal is gone. Jean Valjean becomes a giver of shelter to all his brothers and sisters in need, just like the bishop himself. “Thereafter…he was a changed man, enacting in his life what the bishop had sought to make of him. It was more than a transformation; it was a transfiguration.”
Though this account is fiction, Monseigneur Bienvenu can be our role model, just as he becomes for Jean Valjean. He is the perfect model of the indiscriminate generosity the Course calls us to practice in our lives. “When you bring in the stranger, he becomes your brother” (T-1.III.7:6). The bishop brings in the stranger Jean Valjean, seeing him as a brother in need, one to whom he can give. He invites this brother whom everyone else has rejected into his home. He welcomes this brother whom no one else would take in and gives him dinner and a bed for the night.
Then there is the final act, the giving of the candlesticks, which reminds me of the teachings of the historical Jesus. Jesus taught that when someone strikes us on one cheek we should turn the other cheek, when someone asks for our coat we should give him our shirt as well, and when someone conscripts us to walk a mile we should walk two. In other words, when someone takes from us, not only should we let him have what he has taken, but we should give him more. This is exactly what Monseigneur Bienvenu does: not only does he let Valjean have the silverware he has stolen, but he gives the silver candlesticks as well.
By so doing, he sets Valjean free both literally and figuratively, and teaches him a powerful lesson about the nature of God: God loves us so much that all He does is give to us without reservation, without any thought of whether we “deserve” it or not. The bishop’s gift impacts Valjean so deeply that, in time, it brings about a transfiguration of his soul. In Course terms, you could say that Valjean discovers his true Self. He too becomes an indiscriminate giver, imitating God just as the bishop himself had done, giving everyone he encounters the priceless gift of God’s Love. Through this giving, Valjean finds redemption. Truly, the holy encounter with Monseigneur Bienvenu is his salvation.
Let me remember this the next time I encounter someone in need. Let me remember to give to him as God gives and thus share with him the indiscriminate generosity and unconditional Love of God. Let me remember that even if this person is a stranger to me, in truth his name is brother.