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Posts Tagged ‘Grace’

les-mis-eponin-marius

Again, having seen “Les Misérables” is not mandatory.  We are here dealing with a theme, not plot points.

Ok, we’ve had a break.  Now let’s get back into it.

We’d be remiss if we concluded that the Grace/Law issue is the only great theme that shines through “Les Misérables.”  In fact, I think even that falls under a wider umbrella — namely, hope.

We can say that hope is upheld by the change that Grace allows and legalism prohibits.  But on another level, hope is the “food” of the human race.

I can borrow no better words than those of motivational speaker Matthew Kelly, who has commented on the difference made by people “who believed that the future could be bigger than the past.”*

“Les Misérables” bears witness to hope, but it is also a cautionary tale.  We have to remember that hope transcends us, and must be patiently awaited until it is ready to meet us on its own terms.

Humility is mandatory.  Look at it this way: If we think of the progression of time and history as a straight line, we can infer that it is set against a larger background (eternity), and headed toward a final end (heaven).

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As a progression, it has a length, but no width.  No two points in time can exist side by side.

Now, imagine trying to give it width.  Mentally attempt to grab the middle of a line by its “edges” and stretch it out like so…

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You have some more width — or something vaguely like it — but what does this “stretching” do to the rest of the line?  It pulls it back in both directions.

I think utopianism and triumphalistic ambitions toward hope do the same thing to us as human beings.

When we invest our hopes in this world, we forget where we came from and where we’re going.  The great progression of history becomes no longer a line, but a mess…like a blob of jelly spread out over the face of eternity.

Again, humility is mandatory in order for hope to be truly hope.  As with Grace, we must acknowledge our dependence on something higher than ourselves.

More than that, we have to acknowledge the fact that our destiny, our fulfillment, our hope lies in something that is beyond our powers — and beyond this world.

And now the curtain opens…we’re ready for Act II!

* Here is a link to one of at least two videos in which Kelly says this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcM7S7Y7r0A

Top photo obtained through a Google image search; others courtesy of Yours Truly.

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Les-miserables-movie-poster1Note: You do not need to have seen “Les Misérables” in order to appreciate this post.  It is simply a reflection on one of the film’s themes and contains no spoilers.

So we close the curtain on Jean Valjean and Fantine.  Now that we have a bit of a break, we can get down to a bare bones question: Which is harder, Law or Grace?

(As long as we remember that Grace and the Law are not opposed, as well as the difference between the Law’s proper place and its abuse, I think the following points are valid)

Grace is less scrupulous than the Law.  The ancient Jews had a daunting number of commandments in the Torah, and each had to be observed with exactness.  And lest you think to yourself, “Hey, you’re gonna miss something here and there — it’s understandable,” understand that the whole Law is, in fact, one “piece.”

That’s not to say that all failures to observe the Law necessarily carry equal weight — but when the Law becomes the end-all-and-be-all of our spiritual lives, it can get overwhelming.

Grace takes account of human weakness and can even work with human failures.

But in another sense, Grace is much harder.  While perhaps emphasis on Law can be content with mere outward observance, Grace demands an overhaul of the heart.  In response to Grace, we are now responsible not only for performing the right action, but also for developing the right motives.

Colm Wilkinson 2That is why the Bishop’s forgiveness of and charity towards Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables” is such a great illustration of “turning the other cheek,” which Christ prescribes in Luke’s Gospel.

“Turning the other cheek” does not mean being a doormat, nor does it mean excusing, minimizing, or ignoring the wrongs committed by another.  Rather, it is a method of nonviolent confrontation — it causes no harm, but it lets the other see the wrongness of his/her ways.

After the episode with the Bishop, Vajean cannot comfortably return to his former course of action (which we may suppose to be a life of vengeance against the society that has disenfranchised him).  He has been confronted with something bigger than himself, something that compels him to go out of himself.

That something is Grace, pure and simple.

Top photo from Wikipedia; photo of the Bishop obtained through a Google image search

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TheatreIf it helps you, picture a bunch of stage hands switching things around in the dark.

From the counterproductivity of legalism we turn to an important question: How can we come to the defense of the sinner while at the same time condemning the sin?  The same question can be rephrased in reverse order: How can we express disapproval of the sin while behaving compassionately toward the sinner?

I think the answer lies in an understanding of what sin is and does.  Sin is like a prison.  It lures us with trappings of pleasure or satisfaction, and then when it gets a hold of us it binds us as with chains.

Jesus says as much:

Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. (John 8:34)

Sin makes us less human.  It may feel good for a time — just as using drugs and alcohol is pleasurable to the addict or alcoholic — but ultimately it harms the very heart of the person who commits it.

anne-hathaway-les-miserablesWhile we do see something of this in Jean Valjean’s case, we see it more explicitly in the character of Fantine (Anne Hathaway).  She has been forced into prostitution in order to feed her child, and when she sings her song of lamentation, “I Dreamed a Dream,” it is perhaps the most moving and tragic scene in the film.

And how do people from the upper tiers of the social hierarchy and servants of the law treat her?  With pure contempt.

Javert 2In fact, at one point Javert almost has her arrested for striking a “gentleman” (an act of self-defense).  The idea that her action might have been justified, that perhaps the man she struck had been posing a threat to her, never occurs to him.  He knows nothing about her — only that she is a prostitute, and therefore not to be trusted.  In all likelihood, she was born bad.

To the extent that the law puts people down and obscures their dignity, it becomes a servant of sin rather than a safeguard against it (remember, the degradation of the human person is sin’s purpose and effect).  When we look down on people self-righteously, when we jump too quickly to judgment, what we end up doing is maintaining them in their sins (“They’ll never change”).

Don’t get me wrong — law is necessary and good.  Society’s judgments on legitimate wrongs are likewise good.  But in the words of Pope John Paul II,

Forgiveness … seeks to reintegrate individuals and groups into society, and countries into the community of nations.  No punishment should suppress the inalienable dignity of those who have committed evil.  The door to repentance and rehabilitation must always remain open.*

No such “door” is open to Fantine, and so she loses faith in a benevolent God.

Jackman_HathawayAt this point, Valjean intervenes.  Having reformed his life and worked his way up to the position of mayor of the town in which Fantine lives, he discovers her in the gutter and lifts her out.

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One cannot help but be reminded of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.  As this woman is faced with the prospect of being stoned to death, Jesus says this to her captors:

Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. (John 8:7)

Not to be redundant, but I do need to return to Blessed John Paul II, who comments on this passage in his Apostolic Letter “Mulieris Dignitatem”:

In the end Jesus says to her: “Do not sin again“, but first he evokes an awareness of sin in the men who accuse her (…) Jesus seems to say to the accusers: Is not this woman, for all her sin, above all a confirmation of your own transgressions, of your “male” injustice, your misdeeds? (italics his)

This seems to apply in Fantine’s case as well.  After all, for all Javert’s zeal for the enforcement of the law, does he ever give any hint of concern for the social conditions that contribute to the sins of folks living in the dregs of society? (It is worth noting that there is a reprise of “Look Down” in the mouths of peasants at one point in the film)

Unfortunately, Fantine dies shortly after Valjean’s intervention.  A life of abject poverty and prostitution has taken its toll on her.  But she dies knowing that she is loved, and therefore her hope in the triumph of truth, goodness, and beauty — and, we may suppose, God — is restored.

Cosette

She is also happy because she knows her daughter, Cosette, will be well cared for.  Valjean promises to see to that — in fact, he takes Cosette in and raises her himself.

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Here, we see Valjean extending the “economy” of grace.  Having been shown mercy by the kindly old Bishop, he is inspired to live a life of grace, extending that mercy to others.

That’s the thing about the life of grace, which comes to us through Jesus Christ: It is a gift that is increased by being shared, the treasure that grows to the extent that it is given away.

What motivates this sort of “pay-it-forward” attitude for the Christian?  Gratitude, certainly.  But also, it gets us less focused on ourselves.  It neither permits us to indulge in sin nor maintains us in our guilt, but frees us to actualize our true selves.  And as I’ve said before, all human beings are made in the image of the Triune God, and so we only truly find ourselves when we make of our very selves a sincere gift to others.

Both sin and the pharisaical abuse of the law (itself a sin) get in the way of this.

*From the book “Go in Peace”

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Les-miserables-movie-poster1

Notice: Some spoilers here

“Les Misérables” opens with the song “Look Down,” which is significant. The forces in this world opposed to the Will of God would always prefer to keep human beings looking down rather than up — that is, rather than looking toward hope. There are many ways of doing this, but in some way or other they all involve the wounding of the dignity that belongs to human beings.

Jean_ValjeanAs the film opens, we meet Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has been serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister’s starving child.

Valjean is finally paroled after nearly two decades, but he is a marked man. He must carry his convict’s papers with him wherever he goes so that everyone knows he is a “dangerous man.”

His first foray back into freedom takes him from town to town, and he is met wherever he goes with nothing but contempt — even to the point of being physically assaulted.

JavertOn top of that, he is being relentlessly pursued by Javert (Russell Crowe), the Constable who is determined to put Valjean back behind bars…even years later, when he has reformed his life.

Before we go further, we must realize that the crime for which Valjean was imprisoned is not only understandable, but fully justifiable.  In fact, his action was in total accord with Catholic social teaching, which states that whenever there is a question of obtaining basic necessities such as food and drink, and there is no other means of doing so, one has a right to take from the abundance of another.  Why?  Because, in fact, the person in question has a right to this necessity in justice.

After his release, Valjean’s situation reverses. He has been embittered and hardened by the institutional and societal injustice he has suffered, and this leads him to do something that is actually wrong.

Colm WilkinsonHe is taken in one night by a kindly old Bishop (Colm Wilkinson), and then at night he steals valuable items from him and escapes.  The next day, he is caught and dragged back to the Bishop by police officers.

Then what happens?  The Bishop denounces him, right?

On the contrary, he tells the police officers that these stolen items were, in fact, gifts from him to Valjean.  Not only that, he then declares that the only mistake Valjean made was forgetting to take two beautiful candles, which he immediately bequeaths to him.

Colm Wilkinson 2Valjean is not only “off the hook,” but now has a variety of valuable goods at his disposal.  The Bishop sends him on his way, but informs him that he must use these gifts for his own genuine good, for the bettering of himself as a man.

hugh-jackman-les-miserables1Now, contrast Valjean’s response to the Javert style of justice (already noted above) with his response to the Bishop’s utterly gratuitous act of generosity.  Valjean is a changed man.  The rest of the film follows him as he “pays it forward” with remarkable acts of charity toward others.

My point in recounting these plot points is to illustrate an important principle: The law, while good and necessary in itself, must never defeat its own purpose.  To the extent that it puts people down, it loses its way and becomes mere legalism.

When legalism is privileged over more humane approaches, as we can see, it proves to be counterproductive.  I’ll talk more about that in relation to the characters of “Les Misérables” within the next several days.

Top photo from Wikipedia; others obtained through a Google image search

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Having commented on various films from the past year, I could not rest easy if I didn’t cover Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical “Les Misérables.”

As you can probably tell from the title of this post, my commentary will be divied up into segments that resemble the playbill of a theatrical performance.  For today, we will delay our dive right into the movie for a prelude in which we immerse ourselves in one of the story’s major themes — or differently put, into some of its defining “music.”

The theme in question is the relationship between law and grace — particularly from a Biblical perspective.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther, the founding father of the Protestant Reformation, famously held that the Law and Grace were opposed.

Observance of the Law, in Luther’s mind, was somehow inherently slavish.  Grace and faith alone were the substance of the Christian life.  The purpose of the Law was simply to convince human beings of their own helplessness, of their total inability to save themselves.

And in this state of abject self-abasement, we are ready to receive the free grace of God.

A Catholic would agree and disagree.

On the one hand, we would agree wholeheartedly that the Law of itself cannot save.  It is like an X-ray in Israel’s (and human) history, showing to man the deep sickness of his sin.  It goes without saying that the X-ray and the cure are not the same thing.

But to say that this is the only purpose the Law could possibly serve is a bit short-sighted.  Yes, there are a great many aspects of the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament that were abolished with the coming of Christ, Who is the perfect fulfillment of the Law.  But the Divine Law, the Natural Law — which is, in fact, inscribed onto every human heart, even if it is obscured by sin — does not lose its value with the coming of Grace.  In fact, I think we could probably say that in a sense, the Law is a grace.

What Christianity is all about is not primarily rules and regulations, but a relationship:

You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22: 37-40)

However, the Law, rather than being a stricture, is the structuring logic of the relationship.  All stable families, for example, have ground rules, boundaries, and expectations, all of which are usually codified in a way that resembles “the Law.”

Romantic relationships are governed by a similar logic.  Typically, each partner expects the other to remain faithful to the other, to the exclusion of any other romantic relationships.  Both partners are at the same time expected to respect one another as unique persons, and to be willing to make compromises for the good of the other.

Baseball

Let’s turn to another scenario. Imagine a group of kids playing baseball.  Imagine putting them in the midst of about 40 acres of land and giving them a bat, a ball, and some gloves.  Then imagine telling them: “Okay, now just do whatever you want.”

I don’t know much about baseball, but I don’t think I need to in order to say that this just ain’t gonna work.

The fact is, kids who intend to play a game of baseball are going to want rules.  They want someone to lay out the physical boundaries of the playing field.  They want to know what makes for an “in” and what makes for an “out.”

They want, to sum up these points and everything else that could be said, to know how to win the game and how to lose it.  Otherwise, all the excitement goes out of the game.

I have written all of this not merely to give a full scale defense of the Law, but more specifically to show that the Law is the recipe for humankind at its best.  Many cultures throughout the centuries have expressed belief in a universal law that governs all things (some of the ancient Chinese, for example, spoke of the Tao).  To the extent that you were in conformity with this law, you were happy and virtuous … or, as contemporary writer and motivational speaker Matthew Kelly would say, “the best-version-of-yourself.”

Precisely because the Law is such a good thing in and of itself, its abuse is a tremendous evil. To the extent that it is used to put people down, to cripple them, to “freeze them up” with burdens they cannot bear, the Law has been hijacked and robbed of its true purpose.

We can prevent this by realizing that the Law — along with all laws, in the last analysis — is a means to an end, and that this end is nothing other than God, Who is love itself (1 John 4:8).  That is why, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, all human laws must be tempered with some sort of compassion, with what we might call a human element.

Otherwise, law defeats its own purpose.

That said, we can take a proper look at Grace.  Because of Original Sin, our hearts are not right; therefore, we cannot obey the Law as we ought, because our hearts are out of sync with the Law’s very purpose (that is why we sometimes use laws, which are derived from the Law, to oppress rather than to build up).  And if that’s the case, it only makes sense that we cannot turn to the Law for salvation.

Jesus Christ

In Christ Jesus, God, Who is infinitely, unconditionally loving and merciful, reaches down to us in friendship and offers redemption.  More than that, He offers us a share in His own Divine Life.  Undeserved, unearned, and totally gratuitous, it comes to us straight from eternity — the gift of Divine Grace.

With Grace comes a superabundance of aid by which we can, however imperfectly and however gradually, live by the Law given us by our loving Creator.  As long as we are doing the best we can and continually to striving for perfection, the Grace of God will be with us the whole way.  And if we fall, He is always ready to pick us back up.

On that concluding “note,” the Overture ends, and the curtain opens…

Photos from Wikipedia

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Disney-Pixar’s first fairy tale venture was, in my opinion, a hit.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems, but I am glad I saw it.

Set in medieval Scotland, “Brave” follows the tumultuous relationship of a young, stubborn, adventurous highland princess named Merida (Kelly Macdonald) with her traditional, reserved, and maybe somewhat overly strict mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson).

I will not give too much of the story away.  I would just like to focus on one particular creature that insinuates itself into the story intermittently – the will-o’-the-wisp, a fairy-like creature that appears as a tiny ball of light floating through the forest.

will-o'-the-wisp

We encounter our first will-o’-the-wisp right at the beginning of the film, which deals with an episode of Merida’s childhood.  Young Merida follows the will-o’-the-wisp for a short distance before reporting the siting to her mother, who tells her that these mysterious beings can “lead you to your fate.”

As a young adult, our heroine meets a whole “herd” (my choice of words) of them at a stone circle in the woods after running away from home.  They lead her to the hovel of a witch, from whom she buys a spell that she thinks will solve the problem from which she ran away.*

Later, when the spell turns out to have made things worse rather than better, Merida returns to the spot at which she met the will-o’-the-wisps in the hope that they will reappear and guide her again to the witch’s hut (her intention being to procure a reversal spell).

But they do not come.  She ends up having to rely on more natural means of finding the way.

Brave

The plot of “Brave” is basically structured around Merida’s ardent striving to undo the damage done by her selfishness (manifested in the spell mentioned earlier).  As she struggles to make things right, she undergoes a moving journey of maturation in which she learns the value of responsibility and the depth of familial love.

But there are key moments when she cannot succeed by herself, and it is then that the will-o’-the-wisps reappear to help.

It occurs to me that the will-o’-the-wisps, like many supernatural elements in fairy tales, represent the concept of grace.

Characters in these stories are faced with trials that help them, in the end, to acquire virtue…to become “the-best-versions-of-themselves,” as motivational speaker Matthew Kelly would say.  For this reason, they must give all they can to the quests they undertake.  But there come certain points at which a fundamental reality is made manifest: The hero or heroine’s ultimate well-being – and, therefore, his or her quest – is upheld and guided by something much greater than himself/herself.

This being the case, help will come to protagonists “from above” when need be.  Beyond their powers, capacities, or merits comes deliverance from circumstances beyond their power to withstand (sometimes resulting from their own faults or mistakes).

Here’s the thing about grace: By its very nature, it is superior to the one upon whom it is bestowed.  Like the will-o’-the-wisps at the stone circle, it is not something that is at our beck-and-call like a genie in a bottle.  It holds sway over us, not us over it.

That does not mean that grace will not come to our aid when asked for.  But when it does come, it will come on its own terms.  Like Merida, one must put one’s own efforts and acquired skills and knowledge to work when the situation demands it.  What is more, grace requires us to own our faults, make reparation for them, and make sincere resolutions to change for the better.

Otherwise, there is no growth, and we fall just short of being mere “puppets” of grace (which is not really grace at all in that case).

And that brings me to a quote from Merida at the end of “Brave.”  I don’t remember it verbatim, and somebody please correct me if I have it wrong.  But she says something to the effect that true bravery entails knowing your destiny (or “fate”) and having the courage to respond to it and pursue it.

True grace both enables and demands such courage of us.

*Based on what viewers learn later, I think we can say that there are spells that could be used for good and not-so-good ends in the witch’s shop.  It may be that the will-o’-the-wisps intended the former for Merida, and she simply messed that up.  Otherwise, the concept of grace suggested by “Brave” is admittedly ambiguous.

Images taken from a Google image search.

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