My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister. He was as far from your stereotype of a Baptist minister, though, as M. Myriel was from the stereotype of a Catholic bishop. This anomaly was not the only link between my grandfather and Hugo’s fictional bishop.
My grandfather’s favorite book was, of course, the Bible, and he read it faithfully and knew much of it by heart. His second-favorite book was Les Miserables. He said that he reread it every year and never failed to find something new. I was the grandchild who would find my way into his study and be found curled up on the floor, reading his books on ancient history, or trying (as he had) to teach myself Greek. So he gave me my first copy of Les Miserables when I was 10 or so, and I wrestled my way through it. I reread it every 10 years or so. And, like my grandfather, I never fail to find something new, and something to remind me of this gentle man who left us almost 40 years ago. Follow below to hear a little more about M. Myriel, my grandfather, and a quiet life that made a difference that Victor Hugo would have recognized.
Jean Valjean is the dramatic hero of Les Miserables. His physical strength is eventually matched by his moral power, as he experiences dramatic changes in his life over the course of the novel. The catalyst, and the moral center of the novel, though, is Bishop Myriel, who is the focus of the first section of the novel and whose influence echoes through all the many pages after the focus shifts to other people and places. M. Myriel embodies Hugo’s understanding of the core teachings of Jesus, especially in his concern for the poor and in his humility.
Hugo himself was clearly aware of the plight of the poor in France, and deeply sympathetic. The book lingers repeatedly over vivid descriptions of the people and settings of poverty, from rural to urban to the sea, and from men struggling to feed their families to women exploited by the wealthy to abandoned children on the streets of Paris. You can read the book cover to cover, but you will find very few descriptions of the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” even though such people play a role in the story.
My grandfather’s early life could have been a chapter in Les Miserables, American Style. He was born in a log cabin in rural Mississippi in 1873, shortly after the Civil War, and his mother died when he was small. His eyes were so weak that he was nearly blind, and his family too poor to buy glasses, so he dropped out before high school. With this history, you might imagine that he would grow up as a believer in the Lost Cause, segregation, and Biblical literalism. But you would be wrong.
My grandfather was a remarkable man. He managed to educate himself, moved to Texas and worked as a newspaper reporter, and eventually graduated from college and was ordained as a Baptist minister. He married my grandmother, herself a college graduate and powerful public speaker, and the daughter of a San Antonio judge. They had four children; my mother was the third child and only girl. Again, you might imagine that he would now turn his education, his worldly experience, his eloquence and his faith to advancement in the church. Again, you would be wrong.
Like M. Myriel, my grandfather’s primary concern was for the least among us. He moved around in the 1910’s and early 1920’s in visiting ministries in the poorest parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas. His concern for the poor and oppressed led him to favor civil rights and integration; these views were not well received in that time and place. On top of that, his deep reading in the Bible and wide outside reading led him to see no conflict between the core teachings of loving faith, and the science of evolution. This openmindedness was even less popular in Arkansas in the 1920’s. My grandparents returned to Dallas, where they raised their family in a drafty old house, lent by a church member who admired my grandfather. They were poor themselves, and often all they had to eat was some beans or a bit of ham given by someone as payment for a wedding or a thank-you for a funeral service. My mother says, though, that no matter how little they had, they would share their meal with anyone who came to the back door of the old house hungry. I remember this house from visits from California as a small child; its site is now under the Dallas-Fort Worth freeway. Too bad, as it would be far more worthy of a memorial plaque than some apartment where Reagan lived for a few months as a child.
By the time I was old enough to look for books in the study in their little house in Oak Cliff, my grandfather was officially retired – sort of. He had a tiny office at the Dallas County courthouse and took the bus down there 5 days a week. He spent his days caring for prisoners, visiting and doing what he could to help them and their families. (The part of the Bible he took literally was the section on visiting prisoners, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick.) My grandfather was deeply mindful of the injustices of Texas law. He saw reflections in Hugo’s work of the poor and the afflicted whom he helped each day.
My grandfather had a little business card that gave his phone number and said he was available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year long, to help those in need. Perhaps my most vivid memory of his responsiveness was from his 50th wedding anniversary, one Christmas Day. The guests were laughing and eating cake. There was a knock at the door, and my mother let in a very young couple. At first she thought they must be some distant cousins, but it turned out that they were hoping my grandfather would be able to marry them. He took them off to his study for a quiet talk, and then came out and performed the wedding ceremony, with my grandmother and mother as the witnesses, and cake to celebrate. It never occurred to me to wonder why a young couple would show up without family or friends on Christmas Day, desperate to marry. I have often wondered what happened to them. But I am sure my grandfather found out what had brought them there alone, and gave them what he could to help them, and tried to stay in touch. When someone came to his door in need, he gave his heart to helping, just as the Bishop did for Jean Valjean.
M. Myriel was a fictional saint, the creation of the author Victor Hugo. My grandfather was a gentle and loving real-life Texas saint. He took the lessons of his favorite books to heart, so perhaps you could say my grandfather was, at least in part, a creation of Hugo as well as of the teachings of Jesus.