Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lost Angels

The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean[NOTE: In the Roman Catholic liturgy today, we honor three biblical angels--Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. Over the last 40 years, angels have not played a prominent role in the average Catholic's prayer and spiritual life. Into the gap stepped the New Age movement, which seems to have now run its course, or at least tapered off. To honor today's angels, I'd like to share  an excerpt from my book, The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean.]

To teach Cosette to read, and to watch her playing, was nearly all Jean Valjean’s life.
And then, he would talk about her mother.

Les Miserables, Cosette, Book Fourth, III: Two Misfortunes Mingled Make Happiness

Jean Valjean must have discovered soon after taking Fantine's child into his care that not even his heartfelt attachment to the little girl could love away her loss. Nor could he erase Cosette's earliest memories of rejection and humiliation, suffered at the hands of the Thenardiers.

Being a good father, Jean Valjean spoke often to Cosette of the mother she had never known. This elderly guardian, who knew nothing of modern parenting techniques, followed the counsel of his love for both mother and daughter. Wounded and scarred himself and grieving the woman he loved, he intuited that Cosette, too, suffered from a "primal wound" that festered at the core of their shared abandonment.

Jean Valjean possessed a special antidote with which he revived Cosette’s numbed spirit—the gift of healing stories. He recounted her mother’s eternal love and her dying wish to have her child at her side, as in former, better times. Jean Valjean held back from Cosette the truth that, in her mother’s quest to achieve that reunion, she had sold her golden hair and perfect teeth. And, with nothing left of commercial value, her body, too. In a final act of desperation, Fantine had entrusted her child to M. Madeleine (Valjean), the very man she had once blamed for her loss of employment. Piece by piece and in carefully edited versions of that history, Jean Valjean restored all that was healable in Cosette’s spirit, leaving the rest to the Ultimate Healer of Souls.

Throughout my daughters’ childhoods, I used stories and parables to shed light on the meaning of their lives. Some dealt with actual events in our family life; others combined fact and fiction. All the stories were true in their own way and intended to heal wounds I had not inflicted and could not cure.
One bedtime story in particular drew frequent requests: "Daddy, tell us about our angels!"
"The ones who made a terrible mistake?" I knew exactly which parable they meant.
"Yes, that one."

After getting them settled, I began the familiar story:

"When it was time for you to be born, God gave each of you an angel who had instructions to deliver you directly to Mom and me here in California. But something went wrong. Your angels forgot the directions, or something. Anyway, they got lost. Instead of delivering you to us, they brought one of you to El Salvador, the other to Honduras to other mothers and fathers who gave birth to you and took care of you the best they could. Somehow—don't ask me to explain it—these good people sensed that something wasn't quite right. They had received misplaced children. And so, they began to search for your true parents.

"Meanwhile, back in California, Mom and I were saying to each other: 'What could have happened to those girls?' We waited some more until we decided, 'We'd better go looking for them.' It took a long time, but first we found Monica in El Salvador! Then we found Cristina next door in Honduras. Now at last, we’re all together, just the way God planned it from the beginning."

In answer to our daughters' concern for what might have become of those errant angels, the best I could offer was: "I suppose God assigned them to new jobs that didn't require delivering children to families."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

When Life and Art Come Face to Face

A cropped picture of Mandy Patinkin posing wit...Image via Wikipedia
I'm a stingy person, if not by nature, then by choice. Part of this is due to shyness, but I claim no legitimacy for that excuse. I am embarrassingly like the passersby in Jesus' parable of "The Good Samaritan" (Luke 10). These thoughts were triggered on a recent Saturday night in Berkeley, CA. 

Esther and I were walking along Shattuck Avenue on our way to a Berkeley Repertory production of a new play, Compulsion, starring Mandy Patinkin. I'm a suburban guy--have been all my life. I venture out to cities like San Francisco and Berkeley (my East Bay equivalent) only when I have to, or there's something I really want to see or do there. 

A number of beggars--most of them in their late teens, early twenties--lined the sidewalks. We passed an elderly woman standing alone at a street corner. Esther said, "She seems lost." I kept walking. Mentally, I was calculating. How long will it take to dial 9-1-1 and wait for assistance to arrive? We'd probably be late for the play--or miss it entirely (expensive orchestra tickets down the drain). Maybe she's not lost at all. When I didn't respond, we kept walking.

Based on a true story, Rinne Groff's Compulsion is a moving and highly creative rendition of the Anne Frank story and legacy. Patinkin plays Mr. Sliver, a thinly veiled fictionalization of real-life author Meyer Levin. Silver's personal obsession with Anne (as he imagines her) and his compulsion to get her story out to the world, drive him to the brink of insanity. The Holocaust theme--all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing--was not lost on me. 

One of the Scripture readings of the Catholic liturgy this week was from the Book of Proverbs (3:27): "Do not hold back from those who ask your help, when it is in your power to do so." 

A conscience-stinging play, the image of that seemingly lost woman, the wounded Samaritan, and the practical wisdom of Proverbs--lots of challenging spirits living in my house this week.

(c) 2010 by Alfred J. Garrotto
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