I hear his voice often, increasing in volume anytime I think of altering something in my life or character. The beginning of a new semester, the start of summer, Lent.
And January. The voice shouts loudest of all in January, when the new year beckons me down a road of shimmering opportunity paved with fresh starts.
Soon as I take a step in the direction of that path, however, I hear his voice. Warning me away. Scoffing. Pushing me back.
This year, the voice sounds suspiciously like Inspector Javert, the prison guard/policeman in Les Misérables who spends his years mercilessly tracking the parolee Jean Valjean. When I saw the film last week, one of the lines that most stood out to me was this (Javert shouting at Valjean with great conviction):
A man like you can never change…
A man such as you…
Perhaps the line struck me because I live with that voice inside my head. The voice that insists with Javert-like intensity that I cannot change, that the messed-up parts of my life and character are destined to stay that way.
Perhaps the line haunts me because I believe it. Much of the time, I agree with Javert.
I can’t change.
Sure, I can change surface aspects of my life. I can reorganize my office. I can work my way through some thought-provoking books. I can lose a few pounds, get a haircut, train myself to put the cap back on the toothpaste.
But there are some deeper issues in my life that have plagued me for years. And try though I might (and I have), I’ve not been able to effect any true or lasting change in those areas. I’ve pulled free of them in short bursts, but have quickly returned to my former patterns when opportunity arose.
Much like Jean Valjean.
Released from prison after nineteen years, Valjean tries to make his way honestly in the world. But the obstacles he faces are many, and when the opportunity presents itself, Valjean returns to thievery, stealing several valuable pieces of silver.
It’s not only Javert, then, who denies Valjean’s ability to change; Valjean himself questions it.
What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night
Become a dog on the run
And have I fallen so far
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate,
The cries in the dark that nobody hears,
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?
If there’s another way to go
I missed it twenty long years ago…
This is where I find myself this week. Again. The voices in my head reenact an age-old drama on the stage of my mind, using the lyrics of Les Mis.
You cannot change, shouts Javert.
You’re right, say I, in the voice of Valjean.
But quietly, another voice whispers underneath those two. For me, today, the voice sings in the character of the Bishop of Digne and it intones an unexpected hope.
The Bishop, from whom Valjean steals the silver, refuses to condemn Valjean back to prison. Rather, he shows mercy, bears the loss himself, and makes a gift of the silver to the frightened parolee. He speaks the possibility of change into Valjean’s defeated heart:
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!
Perhaps the deepest cracks of my heart cannot be mended either through adherence to the law or through effort–though both are important.
Perhaps my deepest flaws are undone when met by unexpected mercy.
As I move into the fresh starts of 2013, I need to lower the volume of Javert’s condemnation and Valjean’s defeat and listen for the Bishop’s grace. I need to remember that my soul, too, has been bought for God. And wonder what that means for the coming year.