“Open Our Eyes”

Harold Shank
National Spokesperson for CCFSA

An at-risk child plays a key role in Victor Hugo’s, Les Misérables, a story made popular in recent years by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Broadway musical. Fantine, a poverty-stricken factory worker, places her illegitimate child, Cosette, in the care of an evil inn owner, Thénardier. While the mother, Fantine, sacrifices, even to the point of prostituting herself so that her daughter, Cosette, can have a better life, Thénardier and his wicked wife abuse the youngster for their own profit. As Fantine lays dying in a Montreuil-sur-mer hospital bed, her former boss, Jean Valjean, who doesn’t know her from the multitude of others in his factory, promises to devote his life to caring for her child, Cosette, who is soon to be an orphan.
The exchange between Valjean the boss and Fantine the dying mother initially goes unexplained. Why would a wealthy man devote himself to a child he has never met? Why does he grace the offspring of this particular impoverished factory worker? As the story unfolds, Valjean sacrifices all, his fortune, his freedom and even his life, to save young Cosette, his adopted daughter.
We might seek the reason for this altruistic behavior in the larger issues of social justice, unmerited grace, and costly forgiveness which Hugo explores in the story. Then, perhaps even those weighty concerns provide no clear rationale.
Even today men and women in the pattern of Jean Valjean continue to help at-risk children just like young Cosette. Perhaps a sense of justice, or a significant unearned gift, or an unexpected reconciliation turned their hearts to help a child. But then perhaps not even those motivations explain all their actions.
There must be something else that ultimately prompts such sacrificial service because similar thoughts exist in all of us, even in the worst of us. It may be that such deep stirrings, even those prompting irrational commitments like adopting a child sight unseen, need to be stoked, coaxed, nourished. An episode of justice, grace or forgiveness might bring it from the back of our minds into fuller consciousness. But the stuff of Jean Valjean is inside each of us.  
I believe the stirring comes from God. It was placed there by the one who first had such concerns and who never gave them up. When he made each one of us, he inserted a stirring, that sometimes, even in the unusual circumstances like the bedside of a dying prostitute, come to life, and then go on to give life.
It is not only Hugo’s storytelling ability or the haunting melodies of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score, or the penetrating lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer that launched the record twenty-year run of Les Misérables on stages around the world; but maybe its popularity stems from the story’s ability to awaken something deep inside each of us.
It rouses a stirring put there by God, the father of the fatherless.


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