When we think about the movie Les Miserables, a nominee for the Motion Picture Academy Awards best picture, the role of religion is obvious. We see a Catholic bishop give the hero, Jean Valjean, a second chance at life and we see the conflict between grace and law in police officer Javert’s relentless hunt for Valjean. But when I watched this latest movie iteration of Victor Hugo’s novel, I noticed the prayers.
When scholars talk about prayer, they describe the meaning of the relationship between the individual and the act of communication with a transcendent Other, a divine love, that some call God. A prayer may take us deeper inside ourselves and cause us to commit to what we think is a righteous course of action. Prayer can also take us outside of ourselves in a willingness to pray intercessory prayers for someone else. Prayer demands action.
In “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” we see the paroled convict after the bishop has chosen not to send him back to prison for theft. His prayer begins:
What have I done sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night, a dog on the run?
Valjean’s situation is not unlike the real-life circumstances of ex-offenders today. They try to get honest work, but many employers will not hire people with a criminal record. When they cannot get work, it is far too easy to return to the illegal underground economy that led them to prison in the first instance. When this happens, it may seem as if the people themselves are incapable of changing their habits. This leaves us blind to the social culpability for their recidivism.
In this fictional case, Valjean’s prayer causes him to think about the world of hate within which he has lost himself and become only a number. It is an eye for an eye world of stony, hardened hearts. But, the lyrics go, the bishop has claimed his soul for God, trusted him, and called him brother. Through his prayer, Valjean decides another story must begin, and he breaks parole.
The police officer Javert-Valjean’s nemesis-also prays. Very often, people who are our enemies believe in the righteousness of their own cause. They believe they are doing the will of God. For Javert, God is the law. He prays to God, swearing upon the stars to bring Valjean who he believes has “fallen from God, fallen from grace” to retributive justice.
The stars light the darkness. They are fixed. Javert says to the stars: “You hold your course and your aim.” The stars are sentinels keeping watch in the night. In Javert’s spiritual astrophysics, the unbreakable relationship between act and consequence leaves no space for grace. He says: “Those who follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward.” However, in his mind there is no escape from flame and sword for those who fall as Lucifer fell. Javert prays: “Lord let me find him that I may see him safe behind bars.”
In the end, prayer at its most sublime is prayer for others. In “Bring Him Home”, Valjean prays to God on high for Marius, the young revolutionary who loves his daughter. It is a prayer that many parents have prayed for their daughters and sons. It could be a supplication to bring a child home from a distant war or from a night out with friends or from the far country of bad decisions or addiction of various kinds. Valjean prays:
God on high, hear my prayer, hear my need,
you have always been there.
. . .
Bring him peace, bring him joy.
He is young. He is only a boy.
You can take, you can give
Let him be, let him live.
Valjean is ready to trade his life for that of Marius. And, as all prayers demand, Valjean, as must we ourselves when we pray, becomes the hands and feet, the breath, bone, blood and sinew of answered prayer.