Monasteries of the Heart

Climbing to the Light

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What is it about the musical Le Miserables? I always leave the theatre a sobbing basket case, yet inspired by the human spirit—its ability to transform soul-wrenching tragedy into raw beauty.

I’ve just seen it for the third time and am more overwhelmed by this one—presented by our local playhouse--than the previous two that I saw in Cleveland and Toronto.

It’s not just that the Erie Playhouse did such a tremendous job, one of only four community theatres in the United States licensed to stage the Tony-Award winning play. It’s more that the themes and the music and the story grow richer with time.

The musical, based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables, centers on ex-convict Jean Valjean who served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread for a hungry child and his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert. A simple story line, made into great literature.

Tolstoy wrote, “The purpose of great literature is to reveal what is hidden and to illuminate what is in darkness.” Les Mis leads us through a dark human labyrinth of vengeance, self-righteousness, poverty, injustice, greed, and betrayal. Yet this powerful story, told through a haunting and lyrical musical score, illumines the darkness with a tiny flame, flickering but never extinguished, of love, hope, human kindness and unconditional forgiveness.

At its core Les Miserables is a testament to what constitutes a meaningful life captured in the song at the play’s conclusion: “To love another person is to touch the face of God.”

My bucket tears, however, are always saved for the idyllic young revolutionaries who believe the people will rise and follow them in an armed fight to bring justice to the poor. But no one takes to the streets and all of these dear student revolutionaries are shot and killed on the barricades. And yet, it is their song that plays in my heart:

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest nights will end and the sun will rise

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the ploughshare
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

“Yes, yes,” I shout silently at the end of the Les Mis. “Count me in the crusade for a world that all long to see.” I pray that I am never jaded enough to leave a Les Mis performance dry-eyed. I want to always weep with the suffering while holding fast to the possibility that human compassion will triumph…someday.

P.S. The movie Les Miserables is opening on Christmas Day. Here’s the movie trailer. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xk5UStefYmE