Changing a life through a single act of mercy

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

In recent years audiences all over the world have been delighted by the musical version of Les Miserables. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, the story is about Jean Valjean, a French prisoner hounded and ultimately transformed by mercy.

Sentenced to a 19-year term of hard labour for having stolen some bread, Jean Valjean gradually hardened into a tough convict.

He had an unbreakable will, and was unbeaten in fist fights. Finally he earned his release. He wandered for days seeking shelter from the weather, but could not find anyone who would accommodate an ex-criminal.

At last he found a kindly bishop who offered him hospitality. On the first night in the bishop’s house, temptation overcame Jean Valjean, and he stealthily crept off into the darkness with a bag full of the bishop’s silver.

The next morning three policemen pounded on the bishop’s door. They had caught the scoundrel with the silver, and from the inscriptions on it identified it as belonging to the bishop.

They were now ready to lock him up as a criminal for life.

The bishop responded in a surprising way. “So here you are!” he cried to Jean Valjean. “I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well?

They’re silver like the rest, and worth a good 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?”

Jean Valjean was speechless. The bishop assured the gendarmes that the silver was his gift to Jean Valjean. “He is no thief.”

When the gendarmes had gone the bishop gave the candlesticks to his runaway guest, who was now confused and trembling.

“Do not forget, do not ever forget,” said the bishop, “that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.”

The power of the bishop’s act of mercy, which was against all human instinct for revenge, changed Jean Valjean’s life forever.

He saw the gift of the candlesticks as a precious memento of grace, and dedicated his life to helping others. This gift of mercy, which was unsolicited, offered to a heart as yet unrepentant, melted that heart and gave Jean Valjean a new power to be the man he was intended to be.

This is an extract from Fr Ken Barker’s book His Name is Mercy.