Les Mis, priests, and kindness

As time goes on and the American election season progresses, I grow more and more frustrated with the entire thing. Candidates and politicians say horrible things, and their followers demean anyone who disagrees.

People are unkind, and they almost make me lose hope in my society.

I’ve mentioned this character before, but I love thinking about the bishop in Les Misérables. He was based on a real bishop in the same area who was renowned for charity and caring for the poor. Let me share a few of my favorite things about the fictional Bishop of Digne, Monseigneur Myriel.

  1. Three days after moving in, he trades houses with the town’s hospital. Though his position in the church and in society give him a beautiful mansion, he sees that the paupers’ hospital is overcrowded, especially during epidemics. So he switches.
  2. Right after swapping houses with the hospital, he draws up his budget so he can give 93% of his stipend/income to others. Who gets the money? The seminary, missionaries, maternity societies, prisoners (and improvement of prisons), underpaid teachers, education of poor girls, and the poor. That leaves 1000 francs for him, his sister, and their maid/housekeeper to live on. Then, when he discoverfs that he’s supposed to get money for travel expenses, he applies and gives the 3000 francs to hospital patients, maternity societies, and orphans.
  3. The people in his region like him so much that they nickname him Mr. Welcome.
  4. He speaks their language. Not only does he make religion easy for people to understand, but he takes the effort to understand where people are coming from. He listens. Then there’s the fact that he literally speaks their language, in a time when not all of France speaks the same language. He’s from the region, so he picks up the Provençal languages that the people speak.
  5. He’s willing to change his mind. Before he became a bishop, M. Myriel fled the French Revolution in fear of being killed for being an aristocrat. Years later, he hears that a member of the Revolutionary Convention is dying nearby. This old man is utterly repugnant to him, but they talk. It’s a very strained conversation, and yet the former aristocrat leaves with empathy for a man who tried to fight against injustice. He enters the room expecting to be stern, and leaves having asked for his former enemy’s blessing.
  6. He’s daring in the way he serves others. He visits mountainous villages under threat of violent robbers, because the villagers need him, and the robbers are so touched that they leave expensive church apparel so he can hold a church service. He wears his clothes threadbare so he can devote more money to the poor. He leaves his doors open so he’s always available to those who needs him. He gives Jean Valjean, a convict who steals from him, his only precious metal belongings so the latter can become an honest man.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to live on only 6% of their income, and I’m not saying that no one should lock their doors. That’s not very safe or wise nowadays. What I am saying is that this character is insanely humble and radically loving, and I admire that. He has a position of power and influence, yet he uses it to put others before himself. He takes the Golden Rule seriously, and it’s a beautiful thing.

There is plenty of unkindness in the world, but love and kindness still exist. Moving to Canada isn’t the answer, and neither is calling people names. But maybe recognizing kindness in others and loving others a little bit better- maybe that can make this world a slightly better place.

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