The Bishop of Digne: dropping keys for prisoners

The Bishop of Digne

The Bishop of Digne is a key character of Les MiserablesHe is the one who offers Jean Valjean refuge, who treats him as an “honoured guest” and a shelter from the rules which allows Valjean to change his mind to the question which echoes through the story: the question of “who am I?” Valjean, or, rather, Prisoner 24601 conforms to type when he abuses the hospitality. He runs off with the silver and is captured by the law enforcers. They deliver Prisoner 24601 to the Bishop. The Bishop seizes the moment (what had he done to be prepared to react with such imaginative compassion?) and lyingly claims he had given the silver to Valjean, dismisses the police, commending them for their duty, and gives Valjean his chance.

Digne is in south-eastern France. I don’t know whether the name Digne had significance for Victor Hugo, but surely some association with dignity was intended. The Bishop of Digne was a steward (another word for “bishop”) of dignity. The Bishop is only a marginal character but according to Theresa Malcolm “he is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness”. Bishop Myriel (as was the name of the then Bishop of Digne) was also known as “Monseigneur Bienvenu” for his spirit of generosity and welcome.

Victor Hugo dwells on the character of the Bishop of Digne at great length. He describes how he moved out of his episcopal palace so that it could be used as a hospital. He describes how he gave 90% of his stipend to charity, and how he simply lived for the poor. He spent his life for them matching deed to word. He spent time with prisoners. Hugo described how Myriel went with one prisoner, standing side by side with him on the scaffold, having spent the previous day with him, sharing with him “the best truths, which are also the most simple. He was father, brother, friend; he was bishop only to bless.” It was through such a lifestyle that people came to refer to the Bishop as “Monseigneur Bienvenu” – a bishop most welcome and welcoming.

This key character brings freedom. He unlocks Valjean’s soul and “gives him back his life”. Fourteenth century poet Hafiz comments on such great people who “drop keys all night long”:

The small person
builds cages for everyone
he
sees.

Instead, the sage,
who needs to duck his head,
when the moon is low
can be found dropping keys, all night long
for the beautiful
rowdy,
prisoners.

Valjean sums his situation up with these words:

For I had come to hate this world
This world which had always hated me
Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!
One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom,
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit came to move my life?
Is there another way to go?
I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!

The engraving by Gustave Brion shows the Bishop of Digne prepared for the first edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in 1886.

A Thrill of Hope: Carols of Resistance

Richard Beck refers to the two carols, It came upon the midnight clear  and O Holy Night as “resistance literature”. The subversive words tend to get buried under the sentimentality that is so often Christmas, but they spell out the redemptive good news of the Christmas gospel. Both were written in the late 1840’s. It came upon the midnight clear is based on a poem written by Edmund Sears in 1849. O Holy Night was composed by Adolphe Adam two years earlier than that.  This was at a time of great turbulence. The American Civil War was not far away, and slaves were on their way to emancipation. (The Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863). It is easy to get carried away by a good tune and miss the political and redemptive meaning of both these lovely carols, and the Christmas story.

So we sing from It came upon the midnight clear:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and man at war with man, hears not
the love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing.

In O Holy Night we sing:

Truly he taught us to love one another;
his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our bother;
and in his name shall all oppression shall cease.

Richard Beck points out that the theme of emancipation is even stronger in the original French poem, where those four lines are rendered:

The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron has chained.

The theme of redemption is the essential Good News of Christmas. Hope and longing constitute the spirit of Christmas which promises a world turned upside down: where freedom is proclaimed to prisoners, the blind recover their sight, and the oppressed go free. It is such a subversive message that gets shrouded in sentimentality. We get carried away by a good tune. Do we know that they are redemption songs?