Sunday, November 27, 2011

at the gallows

Not long after he gives his mansion as a hospital for the sick the Bishop from Les Misérables feels himself called to attend to a criminal in his last moments before facing the death penalty.

He went instantly to the prison, descended to the cell of the “mountebank,” called him by name, took him by the hand, and spoke to him.  He passed the entire day with him, forgetful of food and sleep, praying to God for the soul of the condemned man, and praying the condemned man for his own.  He told him the best truths, which are also the most simple.  He was father, brother, friend; he was bishop only to bless [not to judge or condemn].  The man was on the point of dying in despair.  Death was an abyss to him.  As he stood trembling on its mournful brink, he recoiled with horror. . . . He gazed incessantly…and beheld only darkness.  The Bishop made him see light.

On the following day, when they came to fetch the unhappy wretch, the Bishop was still there…

He mounted the scaffold with him.  The sufferer, who had been so gloomy and cast down on the preceding day, was radiant.  He felt that his soul was reconciled, and he hoped in God.  The Bishop embraced him…

Here is love.  Simple.  Elegant.  Powerful.  Changing a life at its most desperate hour, on the  brink of death and the unknown.  Never should we condemn the work of simple folk who sit all night with those bound for death, or walk with them into their punishment, or pray with them at the uttermost end.  For such is the work of love. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Monseigneur Bienvenu

This past weekend I thought I’d start a new book.  I’d finished Eugene Peterson, and wanted good old fiction.  We have a variety of ‘classics’ (some better than others) on our Kindle.  I started looking through them and found Les Misérables.  Les Mis is Sarah’s favourite play, and one of her favourite stories.  I had first encountered it in the film version with Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean.  The book, of course, is much different and it starts out with a lengthy description of the Bishop Myriel, or, as the people of his mountain diocese call him, Monseigneur Bienvenu.

I think I could take a lesson or two from the good Bishop.  What’s neat about the Kindle is that you can underline things and write comments as you go.  I took note of a few favourite passages—scenes of him giving away all his money, studying away in his room, tilling his garden haphazardly, and so on.  Two scenes in particular stand out: the first occurs early on in the Bishop’s arrival to the new town.  He’s inspecting the hospital which is adjacent to his ‘palace’, and finds that it is overcrowded with the sick.  He and the hospital warden are standing together in the Bishops’ dining room when Bienvenu turns to the hospital director and asks:

     “Monsieur,” said he, “how many beds do you think this hall alone would hold?”

     “Monseigneur’s dining-room?” exclaimed the stupefied director

     The Bishop cast a glance round the apartment, and seemed to be taking measures and calculations with his eyes.

     “It would hold full twenty beds,” said he, as though speaking to himself.  Then, raising his voice:—

     “Hold, Monsieur the director of the hospital, I will tell you something.  There is evidently a mistake here.  There are thirty-six of you, in five or six small rooms.  There are three of us here, and we have room for sixty.  There is some mistake, I tell you; you have my house, and I have yours.  Give me back my house; you are at home here.”

     On the following day the thirty-six patients were installed in the Bishop’s palace, and the Bishop was settled in the hospital.

This is the first of several ways by which the Bishop sacrifices his own comforts, possessions, even his ‘rights’ (a popular topic in Canada today) for the sake of giving to his community—loving his neighbours.

Sometimes I wonder if we over-think what it might mean to help someone in need.  What do we have before us?  What actually is extra?  There’s so much we can live without, and there is so much that others are without.  It’s not complicated.  I don’t have a palace that I can give to a hospital director, but I can give in other ways.  I just need to be open to thinking about it.  Monseigneur Bienvenu, the good old Bishop, can help us to do just that.