The popular play “Les Miserables” recently ended a month-long run in Austin. I didn’t see it this time around but I have seen it before. I also just last week DVR’d the recent movie that earned three Oscars. Many of you have probably seen both, but how many of you know that the age-old story is actually deeply rooted in Catholicism?
A recent article by Christian Gonzalez describes how the book, musical and movie all have a great deal of Catholic symbolism, which is amazing considering the fact that author Victor Hugo didn’t always agree with the Catholic Church.
Still, at the central core of the story are the concepts of love, charity, forgiveness, redemption, salvation, and hope. Kinda sounds like the Beatitudes to me. As all of us who have faith believe, as miserable and wretched as life can be at times, there is always hope. Such is the plot of “Les Mis.”
In his “Catholic Spirit” article, Gonzalez notes that the book version of “Les Mis” is said to be the second-most read book after the bible and that everything from pro-life to the Catholic altar can be found in its pages.
In the musical depiction, the Bishop of Digne is a minor character but in the book, Hugo took 100 pages to tell us about the good bishop who is pro-life and against the death penalty. In fact, as the bishop spends a night counseling a condemned man, he accompanies him to the guillotine and says, “Death belongs to God alone. By what right do men touch that unknown thing?”
Later in the story, Jean Valjean is paroled from prison and ends up at the bishop’s house, who invites him in by saying, “There is wine here to revive you. There is bread to make you strong,” an obvious reference to the Eucharist.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Valjean steals the bishop’s silver but in an act of true forgiveness, the bishop, instead of condemning the man, gives him two silver candlesticks. Throughout the rest of the film, the candlesticks are never far from Valjean and symbolically pull him out of darkness. These are reminders of candles on the altar during mass and that Jesus is the light that brings us all out of darkness.
Ultimately the bishop leads Valjean to conversion who then reinvents himself by running a glass bead making factory. In the movie, the beads are assembled into rosaries. You don’t get much more Catholic then a rosary!
Other symbolic moments include when Valjean chooses against killing Javert and instead ultimately forgives him, much like Christ forgave His executioners. In addition, if you listen closely to Javert and Valjeans’ two big solos, “Stars” and “Bring Him Home,” you will discover that both are actually prayers.
Prayer is also a central focus of the show’s grand finale, as Valjean prays for his newlywed daughter, “Take these children my Lord to thy embrace and show them grace,” and for himself, “God on high, hear my prayer. Take me now to thy care. Where you are let me be.” In his last breath, he prays, “Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to glory.”
I too want to live a life filled with hope despite the many obstacles and disappointments I face and I too ask for forgiveness and pray I am taken to glory.