Beauty and Truth Wrapped in Vice and Folly

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, unabridged, translated by Julie Rose and with excellent historical and cultural notes by James Madden. I alway prefer editions of the classics that have notes and even critical essays attached. It is perhaps a random way of learning, but at least it helps me make connections.

I mentioned before that I was amazed by Hugo’s description of a pious bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu.  It seems to me that even to imagine such a holy man inspires hope that holiness is possible even amid corruption.  It is for me the same inspiration I experienced reading Anthony Trollope’s description of the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital in The Warden.  Reading about such ideal humility and holiness somehow inspires me to strive for something similar.  

It is a curious thing how men and women can imagine holiness–perhaps based on some small encounter somewhere, such as Tolstoy’s encounter with the Optina monastics, though Tolstoy himself rejected the Orthodox Church formally.  Similarly, Hugo, Dickens, George Eliot and others whose novels hold gems of spiritual insight and inspiring examples of holiness, righteousness and humility, how these very authors are also clearly seen as anticlerical.  They reject Christian religion as they encountered it.  

Nonetheless, they were able to imagine.  And often the imaginings of these writers are not far off the mark.  In fact, as a “religious person,” I have heard many people with no particular talent for imagination explain to me that they reject “organized religion” because it does not conform to an ideal that they hold, which as they tell it, seems to be a pretty accurate description of the ideal held by the same “organized religion” they reject.  It all somehow seems to me like rejecting penicillin because the pharmaceutical companies are in it only for the money.  

We need to distinguish the germ from the husk, the wheat from the chaff–even if the wheat is bound up inside the chaff and only tribulation (literally, being threshed, or beaten with a tribulum) can separate the two.  

And yet there is a reason why religion and faith are synonyms.  Perhaps truth and beauty are hidden in the husks of folly and vice so that we can be free to ignore it.  Were the way plain to all, where would the freedom be?  But if the truth is veiled just enough to be ignored, to be an excuse for self-enforced ignorance, then one has a real choice.  If righteousness is not rewarded, if kindness must be paid for, and if humility seems like foolishness, then you have to really want it to find it.  You have to believe in what is not seen, or at least not seen very clearly; you have to believe in what is behind the veil, what is hoped for.

Hugo himself was a genius, a literary giant; but he was not by any stretch of the imagination a moral or religious example.  Perhaps real people who are like Monseigneur Bienvenu (whom Hugo says dies in the “odor of sanctity”) or like Trollope’s Mr. Septimus Harding (the Warden) could never write with the breadth and insight Hugo has into the many and varied aspects of human experience and history.  Perhaps it takes all kinds of people to make a world.  And perhaps in a world fallen and corrupt, the grains of truth and beauty found or even imagined by the more talented of us corrupt and fallen ones, even these very grains of truth and beauty are too a word of God pointing us in the Way.  

For me, sometimes that seems to be the case.

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