The Holy Experience of Watching Les Miserables


Last week we watched the Tom Hooper production of Les Misérables. We have all seen it live (in London, no less!) but I believe that the next best thing to a live performance is this movie.

I cannot see Les Misérables without crying. The story,full of redemption and grace, is timeless.

For those who don’t know the story, Les Misérables takes place in 19th century France. While it is commonly thought to be about the French Revolution, it is actually a different insurrection in 1832 that was quickly and violently stopped.

A prisoner by the name of Jean Valjean, better known by his number 24601, is granted parole after 19 years of imprisonment. He was initially given 5 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child but because of many attempts to escape ended up being there for 19. Seen as a pariah because of his prison past, he struggles to find work or food.  He is ultimately taken in by a man of the cloth, the Bishop of Digne, and given food and lodging. He returns this kindness by stealing the silverware in the middle of the night, is caught by police and taken to be accused by the clergy. Instead of accusations, he is vindicated as  the Bishop claims they were given to Valjean as a gift and wonders aloud to Jean Valjean’s captors why he left the silver candlesticks in ‘his haste’ .  This act of grace is given with a challenge by the clergyman to ‘Become an honest man.’ He journeys through his life doing just that, though continuously haunted by his past in the form of a police inspector named Javert.

The contrast between Javert and Jean Valjean is profound as one is consumed with the need for justice and retribution and the other attempts to live out his life in grace, but secrecy. Like all good stories there is the protagonist, a conflict, and a critical climax that I will not spoil for those who have not yet seen the show.

Les Misérables is great theology wrapped up in an excellent story and beautiful music. Watching either the movie or the live production is nothing if not a holy experience. In Les Misérables, love and kindness are woven together and so grace and mercy triumph.

The Bishop plays a small role in this musical, but it is the Bishop that I have been thinking about since last week. From the beginning, the Bishop takes a risk on this prisoner, Jean Valjean. He doesn’t know why he’s been in prison. Just that he is a man, troubled and in need of food and shelter. In the movie rendition, two older women who obviously care for the Bishop’s residence, look aghast as the Bishop extends hospitality and kindness to this dangerous stranger.

In the theologically rich book of Romans, there is an ending of a verse that is never far from my mind. It’s the end of verse 4 in the 2nd chapter and it reads like this: “not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”* 

We can’t say no to something, unless there is something better to say yes to. The Bishop gives Jean Valjean a picture of something better, of a life lived well, of grace, and of God’s kindess. Jean Valjean cannot say no to this offering and his entire life is changed.

God is infinitely creative in his design of holy moments and experiences; but there are times when I need my vision checked and restored in order to see and participate. Last week, sitting on a couch and watching Les Misérables was one of those holy moments, and I am grateful.


Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief at last at last behind you
Lord in heaven, look down on him in mercy!
Forgive me all my trespasses
and take me to your glory
Take my hand, and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God!”

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the ploughshare;
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

*The end of the verse is part of a longer conversation as the whole passage is about passing judgment on others, but for the purposes of my reflections I have chosen to focus just on this verse ending.

Note: For an interesting and informative read take a look at the article “Enjoy Les Miserables. But please get the history straight!”

This is Holy Ground 

Holy Ground

This is Holy Ground by Robynn

Sister Mary Elizabeth, in an opening prayer session for the spiritual direction program I’ve recently been enrolled in, encouraged us to kick off our shoes, to feel the earth beneath our soles and our toes. She wanted us to know and appreciate that this, where we stand, where we are right now, is holy ground.

I suppose it might be said that there’s nothing more opposite from someone who’s lived his or her life as a child of missionary parents far away from here, to that of a Benedictine nun. The former tend to be restless and rootless—they’ve travelled extensively. Their community is scattered. They feel constantly a pull to be somewhere else. Their longings are as far flung as the languages they speak. They belong nowhere. They belong everywhere. They often move frequently. Quite likely they’ve been to Egypt and stood barefoot by bushes that still speak of holiness. Vocation and calling often mean leaving and going.

A Benedictine sister, on the other hand, is connected to a place. Her sense of community is strong. Perhaps she has travelled some but she is magnetically drawn back to her monastery, back to her community. She is well schooled in obedience, in stability, in simplicity, in an even-tempered, well ordered life. This Sunday, Sister Mary Elizabeth, celebrates her golden jubilee at the monastery. Sister Sylvia has lived there 57 years, Sister Marcia over 40. These women are remarkably steadfast. For them vocation means staying here, called and grounded to the holy ground beneath their feet.

Imagine then the cross-cultural contortions I went through last week where I spent a week with these sisters and others at Mount St Scholastica, in Atchison, Kansas. I was there attending the Souljourner program—a training in spiritual direction, at the Sophia Center.

It was important to the sisters that we recognize the holy ground beneath our feet as we entered the week long intensive. We are connected to the ground beneath our feet. Sister Mary Elizabeth is so completely tethered to the present. She and her colleagues seemed very aware of the sacredness of now. She reminded us that Ignatius of Loyola identified hope as the profound realization that God is with us in this very moment, here and now.

I found that very challenging and simultaneously comforting. So much of me wants to recreate things as they were. I want to be somewhere else. I long for different dirt under my toes. And yet, now and here, are really all I have. What would it look like for me to sincerely trust that the place I am in is the sacred place for me at this moment? What if I truly understood that God has called me to this here and now?

The theme of the holy now continued throughout the week. The key-note speaker, elaborated on it some more. We live now…it’s really our only option. It’s all we have. But when something in our now reminds us of our past a wave of seemingly unwarranted emotion might be stirred up. It behooves us to bring that emotion forward. We can only truly feel in the present. Certainly, there are memories of past emotions, but for healing to take place, we have to feel in the present. We have to acknowledge those feelings in the now. She then encouraged us to be gentle with those emotions, to take care of them, to listen to them, to sit with them a little.

It all felt so new and transformative for my third culture adult self! So much of my energy goes to keeping my past at bay and my longings for the future deferred. Many of my days I squelch my self and my emotions. I stuff them down. They don’t seem to fit my current reality and so, to the best of my ability, I ignore them.

What if, instead, I actually identified my feelings? What if I admitted that I’m sad? I don’t necessarily know where the sadness is coming from but it seems bigger than the moment calls for. Perhaps something from yesteryear is creeping on to today. What if I spent a few moments with that sadness? What if I gently cared for it somehow? What if instead of trying to avoid my sadness, I actually made eye contact with it and was present to it.

The movie Inside Out certainly illustrates that the emotions we feel are all legitimate and valuable. The question is, how much power do we give them. How much control are they allowed to have? The un-cared for emotion in us keeps demanding more and more control. We can keep trying to keep sadness at bay…but sadness grows and grows until it’s no longer containable. It seems to me that naming my emotion (that’s sadness again), feeling the emotion (sigh…. Sadness feels sad…and a little lonely, there’s no getting around it) and then gently caring for that emotion (I’m sorry you’re sad. It’s ok to be sad.) actually attends to our selves and brings us back to the present where holiness is and healing can happen.

From that original burning bush God introduced himself to Moses as the I AM—the Always Now God, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say: ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Ex 3:14). The Psalmist also knew God to be present tense. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1). God is now. He is here. Present. Active. He invites us to come live in the here and the now too, to meet him in the moment. 

This is holy ground and a hope for healing rises out of our present place. Admittedly my Third Culture Adult self is curiously mystified by this. Over the years, (and this will come as a shock to many of you), I’ve struggled to fit in. I have endured deep self-imposed shame for the angst of not fitting in and then felt isolated and insulated hidden behind that same shame. The idea that I might experience this space I’m standing in right now as the tiny arena for God’s great grace extended to me at this present time is expansive and freeing. It’s comforting and hope-inspiring. I can slip off my sandals and stand with naked feet next to my Benedictine sisters. If I close my eyes I can nearly imagine my toes warming in the heat emanating from another burning bush. This, right here, this, right now, is holy ground!

No one Wants to Eat Baby Jesus!

20121207-121706.jpgWe make sugar cookies every year. It’s a sweet, messy, sticky, yummy tradition. The after effects are sugar highs, gritty floors, and creativity to make your eyes pop. Sugar cookies are our favorite.

One year we decided to make the Nativity Scene. So proud were we as we painstakingly cut out Blessed Mary, Joseph, angels, sheep, camels, a manger, and Baby Jesus. It was amazing. The whole clan, baked with butter, sugar, and flour; frosted with blue and yellow and white and green and any other shade we could create with our liquid food colors that stained the hands and the tongue.

But…it was hard to eat this cast of characters. Oh the camels and sheep were easy. The angels? Well, we had eaten angels before so we gave in and ate those with a hot cup of evening tea. Joseph? While indeed a major and noble character in the scene, it wasn’t that hard to ingest his yellow-brown robe. But Mary? She proved difficult in her bright food-color blue, green sugar bedazzled robe, the yellow halo around her head. Finally, even she was eaten. Delicious.

But no one wanted to eat Baby Jesus!

What were we thinking? Of course no one wants to eat Baby Jesus. It seemed so wrong.

As Christmas passed and the goodies in the house were slowly eaten, we still had one lone sugar cookie in the container. Baby Jesus. What were we to do with Baby Jesus?

As I think back, there is something funny, poignant, and sacred about this. What do we do when no one wants to eat Baby Jesus? Do we shellac him? Throw him away?

But now I think the best choice would have been to eat the cookie – in fact break it in pieces and pass it around, sharing. Use it as a time to talk about how Jesus meets us in the sacred and the mundane; that he draws us into worship through cookies or through the sacrament. In my mind I go back to that time and re-write the story where we sit around the kitchen table and break off pieces of Baby Jesus, sharing the cookie no one wanted to eat. A holy moment in the middle of a simple holiday tradition, the Body of Christ broken for us.

We’ve not made the Nativity Scene for a long time – instead it’s the traditional trees and bells, candy canes and stockings. But I’m tempted every year to make that nativity scene again, to decorate Baby Jesus and break him in pieces encouraging all to partake.