Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Admiring the Bishop of Digne

On a recent holiday in France my wife and I stayed in Digne-les-Bains, which is a good base for exploring the alpine area north of this region or simply soaking in the therapeutic thermal pools.

I happened to visit the cathedral that was nearby our apartment and, sitting in one of the pews, I read the history of this St Jerome’s cathedral. The pamphlet mentioned that behind the main altar a ledger covers a tomb of several bishops, one of which is that of Bishop Miolis “immortalized by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables under the name of Bishop Myriel.”

Apparently Bishop Miolis had been such a kind, forgiving man that his example gave to Hugo the inspiration.

This surprising episode made me want to read about Bishop Myriel again. Here is a summary of the commencement of Les Mis (thanks to Stuart Fernie):

Jean Valjean was an honest man who, through force of desperate circumstance committed the relatively minor crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, and paid a price out of all proportion with the severity of his crime.

Captured and sentenced to a term of five years’ imprisonment, Valjean spends nineteen years doing hard labour as a result of four failed escape attempts. He emerges from prison on parole, a hardened and bitter man, having encountered little kindness in the course of these nineteen years, and having adapted to the company he was forced to keep.

Because of his criminal record he encounters problems in finding employment, lodgings, and indeed any place in society. Exhausted and demoralised, he finds comfort and accommodation at the home of the Bishop of Digne who shows Valjean kindness and compassion. However, during the night Valjean surrenders to his experience and degradation of the previous nineteen years which, combined with a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness he has felt since his release, lead him to behave as he has been condemned to do – he steals the Bishop’s silverware.

He is captured and returned to the Bishop who, contrary to Valjean’s expectations, not only tells the police that he gave Valjean the silverware, but insists that Valjean should take two silver candlesticks as well.

This is the first act of kindness and generosity Valjean has encountered in all those nineteen years. Accustomed to having to fight for his very survival, this act of compassion and understanding (whose existence he has long since abandoned and then forgotten) causes him confusion and bewilderment.

While still dazed by his meeting with the Bishop, Valjean reacts once again in an animal-like fashion, doing what he feels he has to do in order to survive, when he steals a coin from a passing young chimney sweep.

This act, contrasting violently with the kindness he has just been shown, brings home to him just what he has become and how far he has fallen.

With a clarity missing for some nineteen years, he sees he has a choice to make – continue on the path of petty crime and self destruction upon which he is set, or start afresh and follow the example set by the Bishop. He can view people as a means to an end, as potential victims in his quest for survival, or he can live by compassion and understanding, offering help to others, just as he received help from the Bishop.

He determines to start a new life, adopting a new identity and a new mentality in the process.

It is inspiring to consider the influence of the Bishop of Digne in his counter-cultural ministry to those in desperate circumstances.

Geoff Pound

Image: Jean Valjean and Bishop Myriel, as played by members of the Reading High School Drama Club in their 2004 production of Les Miserables.