Some of the best theology penned has been produced by novelists. Take, for example, the figure of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. If you haven’t read the novel, perhaps you’ve seen the musical, or recently taken in its film version.
In 19th century France, Jean Valjean is sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. That might be the first important lesson to be learned of sin, entirely in conformity with the Church’s doctrine of Original Sin: we are sinned against before we learn to sin.
At the chief prison...all was blotted out of his previous life, even unto his name. He was no longer Jean Valjean but No. 24,601. What became of his sister and the seven children? Who troubled about them? What comes to the leaves when the tree is laid by the root?
Four times Jean Valjean tries to escape his harsh sentence. Each attempt lengthens his time served, so that the wretch pays for that loaf of bread with nineteen years of his life.
One can only imagine the bitter hatred Valjean feels. Hugo writes:
He sat in judgement on himself and acknowledged that he was wrong to have seized society by the collar, so to say, and demand that it should give him bread.
Then he tried society, and condemned it to his hatred. He made it responsible for the doom he underwent, and said to himself that he might one day fight this out with it.
Escaped from prison, Valjean makes his way to the home of Bishop Myriel of Digne, a kind old man who allows the stranger to stay the night. Valjean thinks he is a parish priest, and he repays the hospitality by stealing silver plate from the prelate’s home. He is caught, and is marched before the man he now learns is the bishop.
To Valjean’s astonishment, the bishop leads his captors to believe that the silver plate had been taken as payment for handiwork. He even adds two silver candle sticks to the bag of loot, saying that he had intended that they should go with Valjean when he departed.
Valjean leaves a free man, though scorched by grace. In parting, the bishop tells him, "Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil but unto good. It is your soul that I have bought; I redeem it from black thoughts and the Spirit of Perdition, and I offer it to God."
On the road again, Valjean steals a very valuable coin from the hands of Gervais, a twelve year old boy. He later regrets his action and looks in vain for the young boy so that he can return the coin.
Here’s Victor Hugo in all his moral clarity and theological brilliance:
While weeping, an extraordinary day of a new life dawned more and more brightly, delighting and terrifying at the same time.
All returned to him, his past life, his first offense, his external brutifying, his inward hardening, his return to freedom gladdened by so many plans of revenge, what happened at the bishop’s, his last deed — the petty theft from the child, a crime the more monstrous and dastardly as it came at the heels of the prelate’s pardon — all this appeared in the light unseen before. Looking at his life it appeared horrible; at his soul, and it seemed dreadful.
Nevertheless, a sweet light gleamed on his life and soul. It was as though Satan stood in the ray from Paradise (Il lui semblait qu’il voyait Satan a la lumiere du paradis).
There’s the Gospel image: Satan standing in a ray from paradise. We tend to think that sinners know they are sinful and, conversely, that the saints recognize their own holiness, but the truth is quite the opposite. Because it is in the nature of sin to blind, the truly wicked seldom recognize their evil. They write off their misdeeds as giving others what they deserve, settling scores, looking out for themselves. It’s the saints who, in the light of God’s mercy, truly see sin.
The great Saint Augustine wrote in The Confessions, "Let me then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face" (X.5.7).
When Isaiah sees God’s glory that he cries out, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Is 6:5). When the great catch of fish reveals the identity of the Christ Saint Peter "fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man (Lk 5:8).’" The sin is revealed as the spot shrouded in grace. As Victor Hugo put it: Satan stands in a ray from paradise. One recognizes sin for what it is because of the presence of grace.
Those who have never heard confessions tend to think the entire business must be rather intriguing: hearing such scandals! The truth is quite the opposite. Nothing is more sordid, more sad than sin. Fortunately, I can honestly report that I forget confessions almost as quickly as I hear them, but I do remember — I cannot forget — the sheer holiness that often shines in those dark corners.
Here’s my claim. No one could sit through an hour of confessions with me and not wish to be a priest. Granted, so much of what one hears is routine and hackneyed, but suddenly a soul enters and confesses, often with tears, convinced that no one could be a greater sinner. The poor penitent sees Satan. I see the rays of paradise, and all I can do is to make Saint Peter’s prayer my own. "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."
Here’s how Victor Hugo ends our scene with Valjean.
How many hours did he mourn? What did he do when weeping was done and whither did he go? None knew. It was only learnt that the carrier, who went between Grenoble and Digne, on arriving at the latter place about three in the morning, saw, as he crossed Bishop Street, a man in a praying attitude, kneeling on the paving stones, in the dark before Bishop Myriel’s door.
Isaiah 6: 1-2a, 3-8 1 Corinthians 15: 1-11 Luke 5: 1-11