I just got home from Les Miserables, which deserves every ounce of hype given it. Anne Hathaway sings of her broken dreams and I weep. Russell Crowe is torn between the rigid legalism he has sold his soul to and the new found mercy of a criminal and my stomach churns with the struggle. As Isabelle Allen, the child Cosette, sings of her imaginary palace where there are no tears, the whole movie theater seems to fill with her pure longing.
The story revolves around Jean Valjean – portrayed brilliantly by Hugh Jackman. Valjean is a man defined by the grace of a gift. After spending nineteen years in a French labor prison (five years for stealing bread, fourteen more as punishment for attempting escape), he is released on parole with nothing. No one will shelter an ex-convict. Alone and friendless, he finds himself attempting sleep on the front steps of an abbey.
The priest at the abbey finds him there, feeds him, and gives him a bed for the night. Valjean repays the priest by stealing the silver dinnerware and running away in the middle of the night. He is drug back to the abbey the next morning by police anxious to have the priest press charges.
In one of the most famous acts in all of literature, when confronted with the thief, the priest tells the police officers that he, in fact, gave Valjean the silver. “You forgot something,” the priest says to a handcuffed Valjean, and stuffs two silver candlesticks in the bag.
Valjean will spend the rest of his life attempting to live into the gift of the priest. In so doing, he becomes more than we could ever hope for him when we meet him at the beginning.
The last movie I saw in theaters was The Hunger Games, based on the dystopian YA novel by Suzanne Collins. The title comes from the brutal coliseum-style “game” fought every year by two young adults from each of the twelve districts in a reimagined, postwar North America. The main character, Katniss Everdean, is sent to fight to the death along with Peeta Melark, the son of the town’s baker.
Katniss is a character defined by a gift. When her poor family was starving, Peeta took a beating from his mother to give Katniss a loaf of bread. From then on, Peeta is the boy with the bread and Katniss struggles for three books to find a way to repay him for the hope his gift of bread restored. It acts as a beacon to her – reminding her of goodness. Calling her to her senses amidst brutality and violence.
In the book Spiritual Direction Henri Nouwen writes in the first chapter that spiritual direction is not always (or even usually) about finding good answers to our questions, but about living our good questions. He writes, “To receive spiritual help in time of need requires, first of all, not to deny but to affirm the search. Painful questions must be raised, faced, and then lived.”
This is what I find so compelling about the characters of Katniss and Valjean. They spend lifetimes attempting to live into a gift they were given. In living that question, they do deeds and spin lives that are more than we could have hoped for them when we first meet them.
We find ourselves in a similar position. Of having received an unrepayable gift we have no idea how to live worthily of. Of grace and forgiveness and a Savior. How does one live in light of that? What kind of life honors such a gift?
Like Valjean, like Katniss, I need only to live that question and trust the Gift to recreate me into more than I could’ve hoped for on my own.