The road to sanctity can feel strangely elusive at times. I have desires for goodness, humility and generosity, and yet I react to trying situations with selfishness and surprising impatience.
Most of us don’t want to recognize the tendency to evil within our hearts, for we know that Christ made us in His image, and that we are empty glasses waiting to be filled with His grace. We are perhaps afraid to face the fact that we are desperately inadequate on our own.
An Inspiring Story of Redemption
Have you read Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables? Or listened to the musical performance? If so, you will recall the main character Jean Valjean and his inspiring story of redemption.
He is a fallen man who encounters the grace of Christ in his life, and uses the bad choices of his past to create a new life of virtue.
The first thing to notice about his redemption story is that he comes into contact with the mercy of Christ through another human being, namely, the priest who welcomes him into his home.
Receiving love and forgiveness from a man whom he offends (he steals from the priest and escapes during the night), allows him to be able to ultimately experience true forgiveness from God. When he can forgive himself and allow God to pardon him for his sins, then he is able to begin anew and become the man he desires to be.
Intense Interior Battles
Yet his past is always a part of him, and this fact aids him in living a life of deep humility, recognizing his nothingness and constant dependence on the mercy of God.
When faced with the decision to hide his true past or to come clean in order to save an innocent man, Jean Valjean endures an intense interior battle, saying, “Can I conceal myself forevermore? How can I face my fellow men? How can I ever face myself again? My soul belongs to God, I know.”
Here, Valjean recognizes that he can never be completely free if he does not own his past and admit his true identity in order to protect the innocent man from slavery. We can have the appearance of freedom and happiness, yet be slaves on the inside when we are true only to ourselves and not to God.
Indeed, when Valjean is arguing with the constable Javert, he answers Javert’s question with humility, saying, “I am a man and nothing more.”
He points to the fact that he is no bigger or more important than the innocent man, even though he has become a town mayor and is responsible for the good of the people in his domain.
We must reconcile ourselves to this fact as did Jean Valjean, that no temporal circumstances place us above our fellow men in dignity or worth. In the eyes of God we are immensely valuable, yet so is the person standing next to me, whom I am guilty of humiliating and treating with contempt.
Uncomfortable with Humility
Javert, of course, is completely amazed by the fact that Valjean would turn himself in, and this act of humility causes him to feel uncomfortable. Often, true humility has such an effect on those who do not understand it: it causes them to question their own motives and re-examine truth.
In the case of Javert, he cannot accept and understand the mercy exemplified by Valjean, and is blinded to truth because of his own preconceived notions of justice. When we are caught up in our minds like Javert, we are unable to receive the light of Christ.
We must first rid ourselves of our extreme self-confidence, coming to terms with the truth that we are fallen human beings, and thus we are often subject to error in our thoughts, feelings, and judgments. Most of the time, our first reactions to a situation is based off our instinct for self recognition and self protection.
From here, we must ask for God’s grace to help shift our focus outward from the self to our fellow men.
We live in a world of much false pretense and pride. More of us than ever are educated, prosperous, and comfortable. Yet our intellectual prowess can become a hindrance as well as a good in pursuing virtue; for we must never place our needs or our importance above our fellow man, no matter how strongly we desire affirmation, recognition, or even peace of soul.
We may battle with ourselves daily in this regard: for surely I “deserve” this recognition, that I must be noticed and preferred in order to thrive! If I don’t convince myself that I am right in this area, then how will I ever live with peace and happiness?
How many of us are guilty of self-justification in small areas of our lives, which then leads us to self-justification in bigger issues. Do we wonder why so many in our culture are comfortable with the idea and brutality of abortion?
When we are convinced of the god of self, there is no limit to where our deranged reasoning may take us.
Who Am I?
After reading Les Miserables, perhaps I should ask myself again, who am I?
Who am I to place myself and my needs above those of my neighbor? Do I ever deliberately humble myself for the good of another, as did Jean Valjean? Do I take the time to interiorly examine my motivations for my thoughts and actions, and put into proper perspective my place in the family, and society at large?
Jean Valjean ultimately lives a life of heroic virtue and self-sacrifice, even while he is hidden from the eyes of the world. He dies surrounded by the prayers and love of those whom he has spent his life serving.
Surely a hidden life of humility is a thing of beauty, which is in utter contrast to the ideas of worldly success surrounding us.