Les Miserables 5: The Bishop in the Presence of an Unfamiliar Light (cont’d)

In the previous post we looked at Monseigneur Bienvenu and his encounter with the conventionist G—-, a dying pariah who lived all by himself on the outskirts of Digne.  Monseigneur Bienvenu was rather harsh with him during the early part of their meeting, but then G—- lit into him with an explosive diatribe accusing him of living richly in the name of Jesus Christ who walked barefoot.  He ended his harangue with the question “Who are you?”, and that is the point where we left off.

And now that you’ve had a couple of days to wait breathlessly for the continuation of this gripping saga, we will pick up right there.

The bishop responded with the Latin phrase “Vermis sum” (I am a worm).  To my mind, the use of the high church Latin right there, in conversation with a conventionist who has just shown a strong distrust for the church, destroys the earnestness of whatever the bishop was trying to communicate.  But perhaps that was all he could have said in that moment.

The conventionist was not too impressed with this response either, because in response he said, “An earthworm in a carriage!”

But now, notice how the bishop responds.  Even though we have seen quite clearly from what we have read up to this point that the conventionist’s accusations are manifestly untrue, the bishop does not attempt to defend himself or to deny these accusations.

Monsieur, so be it.  But explain to me how my carriage, which is there a few steps beyond the trees, how my good table and Friday poultry, how my twenty-five thousand livres of income, how my palace and my lackeys, prove that pity is not a virtue, that kindness is not a duty, and that ’93 was not an outrage?

The bishop and the conventionist bandy back and forth for a little bit, but it doesn’t take long for G—- to pierce Monseigneur Bienvenu’s armor with a jab about Bossuet chanting the Te Deum during the persecution of the Huguenots.  G—- launches into another tirade, listing a whole bunch of names that were probably quite familiar to the people of Hugo’s France but have little if any meaning to us nowadays.  But you can still pick up on the thrust of what he is saying when he talks about Marie Antoinette and the Huguenot woman whose baby was torn away from her breast as she was nursing.

This harangue breaks down almost all of Monseigneur Bienvenu’s defenses, and with all the harshness of the beginning Monseigneur Bienvenu responds, “Progress ought to believe in God.  The good cannot have an impious servant.  An atheist is an evil leader of the human race.”  But even he was not prepared for what was to come:

The old representative of the people did not answer.  He was trembling.  He looked up into the sky, and a tear gathered slowly in his eye.  When the lid was full, the tear rolled down his ashen cheek, and he said, almost stammering, low, talking to himself, his eyes gazing inward:

“O thou!  O ideal!  Thou alone dost exist!”

The bishop felt an inexpressable emotion.

After a brief silence, the old man raised his finger toward heaven, and said, “The infinite exists.  It is there.  If the infinite had no me, the me would be its limit; it would not be the infinite; in other words, it would not be.  But it is.  Then it has a me.  This me of the infinite is God.”

The dying man pronounced these last words in a loud voice and with a shudder of ecstasy, as if he saw someone.  When he had spoken, his eyes closed.  The effort had exhausted him.  It was evident that in one minute he had lived through the few hours remaining to him.  What he had said had brought him near to the One who is in death.  The last moment was at hand.

The conventionist then rouses himself for one last speech, in which he explains that everything he did was for the good of France and the good of humanity.  And at the end:

“…Now I am eighty-six years old; I am about to die.  What have you come to ask of me?”

“Your blessing,” said the bishop.  And he fell to his knees.

When the bishop raised his eyes, the face of the old man looked noble.  He had died.

Surprise, surprise.  Instead of the bishop blessing the old man and granting him strength to face the uncertain world beyond death, it was the bishop’s turn to be blessed by the old man, who, as it turns out, was much closer to God than anyone else, including the bishop, dared to suspect.

Now at this point perhaps the more cynical among us would say, “Yeah, all that happened here was that the bishop believed in helping the poor and serving humanity, and when he found that the old man believed these things as well, he was ready to fall at his feet and be blessed by him.”  True enough.  But Jesus makes it perfectly clear in the course of the Gospels that we are to be concerned for the poor and to do all that we can to help them.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”  (Matthew 25: 31-46)

Those of you who denounce the liberal mainlines because of their gospel of social justice, I ask you to explain to me how their liberalism and dead, dry religion, as you would call it, nullifies this clear command from our Lord Jesus Christ that we are to look after the least of these.

This whole interchange between the bishop and the conventionist holds a lesson for us evangelicals.  One of the biggest problems which we evangelicals have is that we just don’t know what to do with a Christian who thinks or believes differently from the accepted evangelical party line.  I wrote about this in my Inauguration Day rant; the common evangelical attitude toward Obama or any of his supporters provides a clear and convincing example of this.  Mother Teresa is another example.  It may seem strange nowadays, but I remember some intense debates among my friends about whether or not Mother Teresa was “saved”.  Many said that her life of joyful and contented service to the poor people of Calcutta was clear and convincing evidence, but many also said that she was not saved because she was a Catholic who had never “gotten saved” according to the accepted evangelical formula.

The lesson here is that God works differently in different people’s lives, and it is not right to pass judgment on what God is doing in the life of another person because it does not fit in with your ideas of how God ought to work.  In the eyes of the townspeople of Digne, G—- was a revolutionary conventionist and therefore an atheist with no hope of ever knowing God.  Yet G—- was much closer to God than anyone ever suspected, including Monseigneur Bienvenu.  We saw this in his dying moments.

Another takeaway is that frequently those who enter into works of service expecting to bless others wind up being blessed themselves, and often the blessing which they receive is more than what they expected to give.  Those of you who have traveled abroad on short-term mission trips or who have engaged in service projects here in our community can attest to this.

Surely Monseigneur Bienvenu approached his visit to the conventionist with the expectation that he would bless him in the way that he blessed the criminal a few chapters back by reconciling him with God and granting him the courage to meet God in his dying moments.  And I am sure that it was very much a surprise for Monseigneur Bienvenu that he was the one to be blessed in watching the conventionist meet God in his death, and that this meeting proved to be such a defining moment in his life.

The bishop went home profoundly absorbed in thought.  He spent the whole night in prayer.  The next day, some individuals, their curiosity piqued, tried to talk to him about the conventionist G—-, but he simply pointed to heaven.

From that moment he redoubled his tenderness and brotherly love for the weak and the suffering.

Every allusion to “that old scoundrel G—-” sent him into a strange reverie.  No one could say that the passing of that soul in his presence, and the reflection of that great conscience upon his own, had not had its effect on his approach to perfection.