In the previous post we looked at how Victor Hugo introduces the character of Monsigneur Bienvenu, the bishop of Digne. We saw how he got to be bishop, how he was received by the people of Digne, and how he conducted his daily routine. But here Hugo takes a timeout to relate an incident which he believes is important for us to understand what sort of man Monsigneur Bienvenu was.
At the time that Monsigneur Bienvenu took over as bishop of Digne, there was a dangerous criminal by the name of Cravatte hiding out in the mountains. Cravatte terrorized the villages in the area, and he even broke into one of the village cathedrals and stripped its sacristy. Despite the best efforts of the police, Cravatte still managed to elude them, sometimes by means of armed resistance. (Kind of like a 19th century Eric Rudolph.) As long as Cravatte was on the loose, travel in that region was very dangerous, even with the presence of three or four police escorts. The mayor of one of the towns in the area tried to persuade Monsigneur Bienvenu to turn back, but to no avail. He insisted upon going on–alone–despite all of the mayor’s arguments and protestations against it. The compelling argument for Monsigneur Bienvenu was that there were people up in the mountains who needed to hear the word of God, that they would–and should–think nothing of a bishop who was afraid to come to them, and that his mission was to care for souls and not to look after his own life.
So the bishop went over the mountain and stayed there for two weeks. Then he announced that he wanted to hold a Te Deum. The local priest said that they did not have suitable vestments for it, but the bishop said that he would use whatever they had. And then a very strange thing happened: On the day of the Te Deum, a huge box showed up outside the local church with a note that said “Cravatte to Monsigneur Bienvenu”. The box contained all of the church articles which Cravatte had stolen a month earlier.
A couple of things that jump out from this incident:
–This is a textbook example of someone who steps out in faith and takes a risk to do the right thing and is handsomely rewarded by God for it. As Monsigneur Bienvenu would say to Mademoiselle Baptistine upon returning safely home, “The poor priest went to those mountaineers with empty hands; he returns with hands filled. I went forth placing my trust in God alone; I bring back the treasures of a cathedral.”
The Bible is replete with stories of individuals who, in faith, took huge risks to do the right thing and were rewarded handsomely by God for it: Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego, Moses, Gideon, and many others. But what about those who take risks to do the right thing and are not rewarded by God for it–at least not in the way we think they should be rewarded? What would have happened if the bishop had been attacked by bandits while en route to the mountain villages, and, God forbid, had died in the attack? I wonder what the people of Digne would have thought of him then? Would they have lost respect for him, saying that he was foolish to have gone out in the first place? Would they have turned against him the way the community turned against Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov when he died and his body decomposed at a rate which was believed to be in excess of nature? Would they have said things to the effect of, “This was surely not a righteous man because if he truly was righteous, God would have protected him and spared his life”?
The most glaring example which comes to my mind of someone who took a risk in faith and was not rewarded for it (at least not in the way we think God should have rewarded him for it) is that of Jesus himself, when he made the decision to come to Jerusalem right at the time that the Jewish leaders were plotting to kill him. (Of course, from his point of view it was not a risk, because he knew all along exactly how it would turn out.) Jesus “risked” his life to be in Jerusalem during that Passover, and he lost his life and everything that he had stood for in the eyes of all his followers and the vast majority of Jews who had heard of him. All the hopes and dreams which his followers had for their lives and their movement and their nation were irrevocably shattered. But in dying Jesus defeated death and opened the way for all of humanity to be reconciled to God. He rose again from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of God and crowned with all glory and honor. And the movement which He started would grow to have a profound influence on all of history from that point forward.
Do we even have the categories to recognize that someone who takes a risk in faith to do the right thing and loses money, possessions, relationships, even his/her life as a result will be rewarded by God for it? Do we have the capacity to recognize that many who risk their lives in faith will be rewarded by God without ever seeing any fruits of it in this world? Or have we been just too Osteen-ized to believe in the validity of any divine reward that does not manifest itself in financial/material blessings and/or the protection and/or expansion of one’s physical life? Have we been just too Osteen-ized to see anything which lies beyond the reach of this physical, material world?
–When the bishop returned safe and sound, he said to Mademoiselle Baptistine:
Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. Why worry about what threatens our heads or our purses? Let us think about what threatens our souls.
This is a word to all of us in light of the present economic crisis. Jesus said that you will not have gained anything if you gain the whole world and lose your soul in the process (Mark 8:35-37), but that word is not heard very often in American evangelicalism these days. We need to stop looking at things which threaten our money, our possessions, or our way of life, and instead pay attention to those things which threaten our souls. And the Bible is quite clear that the love of money and the pursuit of material things is a threat–a serious threat–to the soul.
My sister, a priest must never take any precaution against a neighbor. What his neighbor does God permits. Let us confine ourselves to prayer when we feel danger looming, pray not for ourselves, but that our brother not fall into crime because of us.
This part of Monsigneur Bienvenu’s response, especial the last sentence, is reminiscent of everything that Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov says about prayer, about the monastic life, and about our responsibility to ensure that we do not lead others into sin.