One day more: Mercy and starting again
Monday 13 January 2020
Starting again is either liberating or terrifying—it is a make or break experience. We can embrace the opportunity of a new life or become paralysed in disbelief that we can actually start again.
In Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables (made into a well-known musical and films), the main characters are faced with the prospect of starting again. The criminal, Jean Valjean, has his world of hatred and revenge shaken by an act of mercy and kindness by a bishop, who saves Valjean from going back to a harsh prison after stealing the bishop’s silver. Later, the police inspector, Javert, has his world of duty and order shaken by an act of mercy from Valjean, who saves Javert’s life despite the fact that Javert pursues Valjean as a fugitive.
Both Valjean and Javert are completely disoriented by the act of mercy that opens a door to a new and unexpected start—a start that was not even wanted but was needed. The new start undermines their previous identities—one built on resentment and the other on a fanatical sense of duty. After experiencing mercy, they both know that they cannot go back—their lives have fundamentally changed.
Despite their similar experiences, they react in very different ways. Valjean wrestles with the mercy he has been given. He could see his whole life in a new light, presenting him with an irrevocable choice: between the ‘heights of goodness’ or the depths of depravity. Like Peter after encountering the forgiveness of the risen Jesus, the bishop’s forgiveness fills Valjean’s consciousness. Valjean’s hatred resides as he surrenders to a new life filled with light and kindness.
Javert also wrestles with the new insight that mercy has given him into his life. He recognises his faith in law and order was misplaced. He now has to confront a new superior—God—and the reality that the law was subject to a higher, divine authority—of mercy and conscience. Like St Paul, Javert recognises he has an irrevocable choice: between mercy and the law. Javert knew he could not deny or reject Valjean’s goodness and mercy, but he despaired at the loss of his certainty in the law. Like Judas, Javert could not cope with this shift in worldview and what it would require of him. One day more was too much for him if it involved cooperating with mercy, and so he committed suicide.
It is sometimes this way for us: the experience of light wrestling with our unwillingness to change. Our experiences of starting again may not always be so grand or insightful. Yet, we can all experience moments when mercy, kindness and conscience break into our lives to fundamentally change them. In these moments, we find it difficult to deny our conscience, or we risk descending into a pathology of denial, blame and violence. We are challenged to reflect on ourselves—something we don’t often like to do (as Javert admitted about himself). In particular, we may not like what we see, as Valjean experienced: ‘the picture of his life, which was horrible, and of his own soul, hideous in its ugliness.’
We may not have sunk to the depths that Valjean did, yet we usually experience times of remorse and regret for the pain we have caused to others and ourselves. Moments of remorse can be overwhelming when we recognise the ugliness of what we have done and who we have (unexpectedly) become. We see something our conscience can hardly cope with: the ugliness of our acts that have twisted our identity and soul. The Psalms remind us, though, that the experience of sin as overwhelming us is a common and ancient one:
‘If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive?’ (Psalm 130:3).
In the midst of this experience, the Israelites first discovered the equally powerful mercy of God:
‘But with you is found forgiveness: for this we revere you.’ (Psalm 130:4).
Like Valjean (and the Apostles in the Upper Room), we can find the strength to confront these moments, if we allow ourselves some help. For myself, I often feel I can only cope with these moments and start again when I meditate on God’s forgiveness for me in Jesus, ‘who has loved me and given himself up for me’ (Gal 2:20). It is an extraordinary revelation—that God does not condemn me but loves me and wants to free me from my sin and pain. This grace of love remains the most remarkable experience and insight that humans can be given, and it is at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus’ action on the Cross and in the Resurrection is to demonstrate this to us: that God madly loves us, even to the point of immersing himself in our violence as our forgiving victim in order to liberate us from evil.
For Valjean and the Apostles, this liberation involved surrendering to the unimaginable mercy and forgiveness of God even as they were deeply immersed in hatred, fear and evil. In the experience of grace, Valjean found the will and courage to surrender to mercy. He allowed it to fill him with a blissful vision in which he saw ‘Satan bathed with the light of Paradise’. It opened him to God and motivated him to live a life of goodness and mercy. His life remained filled with troubles and challenges but he was given the strength to go on and keep starting again—as he learned the lessons of love more deeply—until his vision of Paradise was realised.
Dr Joel Hodge is Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne) and National Course Coordinator for Undergraduate Theology Degrees and Short Courses.
This article was originally published in Melbourne Catholic.