Our need to engage with story is universal and enduring, and in essence, it is the medium that changes, rather than the message, writes Monica Dutton.
BY Monica Dutton
Stories define who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. They have the capacity to engage and captivate, inform and inspire, unleash imagination, and evoke memory and emotion.
From our earliest ancestors who told their stories through carvings and images on cave walls, to the multifarious communication devices accessible to their descendants in the third millennium, the power of story in the human psyche is unparalleled.
Stories are deeply personal, cultural and communal. They are written and recounted in time and place; in hearts, minds and spirits; and in the land.
Throughout the ages, the storyteller has always been a feted figure. From Homer and Aesop to Homer and Marge, the ability to tap in to the soul of an audience and provide social commentary, entertainment and challenge in stories which reflect unity and diversity, is a skill which is timeless.
Our need to engage with story is universal and enduring, and in essence, it is the medium that changes, rather than the message. Diary entries have become blogs and Facebook postings; Greek theatre, screenplays; and the town square – news, current affairs and reality TV.
The place of lucrative screen and television industries in popular culture is essentially to meet our need to connect with story. Some tales become more real in the telling and take on legendary status, while others become weakened and diluted by overexposure.
Still others enable people to live vicariously through their fictional heroes. Recipients often take more from a story than the writer intended as layers of meaning are uncovered, explored, dissected and analysed.
In the Christian tradition, we encounter and engage with the Word of God through story. From the sweeping historical narratives and aesthetically beautiful poetry, psalms and wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures, to the deeply profound nature of the parables in the sacred texts of Christianity, the role and significance of story and imagery is central.
The veracity of story to influence the spiritual life is also widely recognised, and many contemporary religious writers such as Joan Chittister, Thomas Merton and Ronald Rolheiser are renowned for their skilful use of story to engage and challenge the reader.
Layers of meaning present in significant religious or spiritual stories have the potential to elicit an intense personal response. Story and imagery can free the spirit to new ways of seeing, thinking and responding to God’s extravagant invitation to life and love.
Fictional writers also have the ability to influence the spiritual life, and many who position themselves within a Catholic worldview have scripted significant literary works which embrace this religious perspective. They skilfully reveal portals which enable readers to explore and develop links between the experiences and actions of characters, and personal expressions of spirituality.
Victor Hugo is one such writer; he was a poet, novelist and dramatist of the romantic period and is regarded as one of the most distinguished and renowned of the French writers. In his own country he is widely acclaimed for his poetry; while outside France, Hugo is best known for his novels, Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Whilst widely respected, his life and work are not without controversy. His interest in the political and social issues of his time is reflected in the dramatic shift in his views on many issues. He was a committed royalist in his early years, but later became a passionate supporter of republicanism, and despite the strong Catholic influence of Hugo’s mother in his youth, his dissociation from the Church and rationalist beliefs in later years are well documented.
The strong Christian themes evident in Hugo’s writing are a source of inspiration, contemplation and illumination for many, and have had a significant impact on the spiritual life of those drawn to his work. His story of the fictional Jean Valjean in the historical novel Les Miserables was first published in 1862. The Paris Uprising of 1832 and the personal struggles of the central characters provide a powerful backdrop for the exploration of the quintessential Christian themes of good and evil; forgiveness and redemption; salvation, grace and love.
After seeing the musical, I was both enthralled and moved by the story. I was then compelled to read the novel (all 1,500 pages!), and over the years, watch many of the 30 or so film adaptations, buy the CD and DVD, see numerous versions of the stage production, and of course, the recent cinematic extravaganza starring Hugh Jackman.
As with most adaptations of novel to screen, there are glaring departures from the original narrative. The musical version written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, first performed in 1980, poignantly highlights the multiplicity of religious motifs interwoven throughout.
The story of Valjean’s fall from grace and encounter with Bishop Myriel sets the scene for his transformation. Religious imagery abounds and forgiveness, redemption and new life underscore his ensuing relationships.
Valjean’s personal salvation sets him on a path which encompasses a selfless pursuit of justice and peace for those he meets. Through the forgiveness of the bishop who saves his soul for God, Valjean is obliged to take the opportunity he has been given to become an honest man.
The realisation of his unwitting role in the plight of the wretched Fantine is the catalyst for his mission to save her daughter, Cosette, and “raise her to the light”. His rescue of the wounded Marius at the barricades years later is reflected upon in the form of a prayer, as Valjean implores God to save the life of Marius and to grant him peace, joy and love.
Themes apparent in the confrontation between protagonist Valjean and his principal antagonist, the police official Javert, are intriguing from a religious perspective. It is far more complex than a mere contest of good versus evil.
Javert pursues justice by following the letter of the law, while Valjean seeks justice through acts of goodness after being transformed by grace. The disparity is analogous to Javert’s construction of meaning impelling him to act from the standpoint of the Ten Commandments, while Valjean’s altruistic endeavours are informed by the principles of the Beatitudes.
They are polarised on Kohlberg’s stages of moral development with Javert acting out of the pre-conventional punishment-obedience orientation, and Valjean in the post-conventional stage displaying a universal-ethical principle orientation.
Despite their differences, they are both driven to seek justice in their own way. Valjean’s goodness, compassion and mercy are the result of being brought face to face with grace and love. His actions are an outward expression of the love and life of God within. Conversely, Javert follows the law implicitly and is eventually thwarted in his attempts to enforce it, leading to disorder, turmoil and self-destruction.
The theme of love being akin to God is unambiguous. Those who are touched by love, and come to understand that its essence is in grace and giving, are drawn into a deeper relationship with God.
The vision of God’s love portrayed in Les Miserables is at the heart of the Gospel, and it is clear that people discover its meaning and respond to its message in ways that are not always fully understood.
Religious literature challenges its readers and asks them difficult questions. As responses become internalised, they demand and determine new ways of being. Encounters with God animate responses driven by awakening, informed by grace and impelled by love.
Benedictine images of love are also clearly evident in Les Miserables. The musical version sends the audience home just after the death of Valjean with “to love another person is to see the face of God” resonating with great hope. This is mirrored in Benedict’s directive on the reception of guests in that all should be welcomed as if they were Christ (RB, 53:1); in God’s love showing us the way of life (RB, Prologue); and in following this path, our hearts overflow with the inexpressible delight of love (RB, Prologue).
The awareness of running on the path of God’s commandments aptly describes the spiritual journey; a journey that is best taken with an array of maps and charts to assist with direction.
Along with the guidance of theologians, mystics, scholars and spiritual writers from diverse backgrounds and traditions, there is a place for the influence of literature. The road to eternal life is different for each, as is the guide from whom we obtain the light to follow our authentic personal path.
When we reach a crossroads, the unexpected source of illumination for the next step in the journey may well be a story – one which defines who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.