Another story must begin: A Les Misérables

by Michael Burslem

I attended a retreat at the Ignatius Centre in Guelph by Brother Dan Leckman, S.J.
Another Story Must Begin: A Les Misérables was advertised as, “This guided weekend retreat will use the movie/musical Les Misérables to help us explore the grace of God alongside our fallen state or brokenness and the opportunities we have for redemption.”

When I first saw the musical years ago, I had little grasp of the story and remembered little afterwards but the blood surging song, Let the People Sing. During the Arab Spring, which we witnessed on TV in Cairo in 2011, I read the novel at the urging of our pastor, Paul-Gordon Chandler. With 18 days of curfew I read the whole book.

When completed I could only cry through my tears, WOW! It is the most profound book I have ever read, even more than the Bible. I put it on my tablet and reread portions many times. We saw the film many times. Each time I had a good cry. When I saw the ad, I signed up immediately for the retreat.

“I read the whole book. When completed I could only cry through my tears, WOW!”

Friday night we saw the film. I shed more tears. I went home, almost borne on angels’ wings. Saturday Dan gave talks on the bishop, Jean Valjean and Fantine/Cosette, and Sunday on Javert and finally on sin and redemption. These were based on the songs, duplicated for us. The whole Gospel is in these. Their authors, like Victor Hugo, were divinely inspired. There was ample time for journaling, prayer on biblical passages and questions, but no imperatives. I was surprised how fast the time went. The questions encouraged us to look inward according to Ignatian spirituality, something I find difficult.

To the question, who am I? I went to our catechism, “a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” My thoughts wandered to consider who were Les Misérables? Were they the abaissés? (First reading I totally missed the pun of the ABC Club, ABC pronounced in French.) These were the abased, impoverished, living in the gutters, uncared for by the callous government of the restored monarchy. After Dan’s talks, I thought they were rather those with such stone hearts, that they either couldn’t (Javert) or wouldn’t (the Thanardiers) receive God’s grace when offered.

At the film’s epilogue, when everybody is resurrected to the tune of Let the People Sing, these two are notably absent.

Sin is the heart of the story, but also redemption and hope for those who would receive them. A cross/crucifix is seen often throughout the movie. But the story could never have begun without the bishop’s generosity and the subsequent change in Jean Valjean’s heart; from one of hatred towards the world to love. Dan pointed out from the novel that Bishop Myriel had had a change of heart, after visiting the member of the revolutionary convention (an atheist and outcast of respectable society) who had killed the royal family. The home call ended with the man’s dying, before which the bishop begged of him a blessing. He had learned not to prejudge. After confronting the disreputable ex-convict Valjean, he welcomed him into his home.

I can’t relate all my impressions of the weekend, still less the whole story. It’s far too emotional. For me the icing on the cake was Dan ending the weekend with two songs: Bring Him Home, my late wife Ellen’s favourite. I felt close to her through it. The second was the epilogue, in French the final words of which were Qui aime sa femme … aime Dieu.

WOW!!! The weekend was better than the story.

Michael Burslem is a member of St. George’s Guelph.