The grammar of (per) gift

The grammar of (per) gift
The grammar of (per) gift
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There are some books, and they are very few, which are capable of saying for themselves everything that needs to be said about justice, about moral pain, about life. They are children, like everyone, of their time and place, yet they possess the almost divine privilege of eternity. Their characters are more contemporary than our colleagues, they are friends and relatives: it is us, they are the truest part of our heart. As the pages of these books and poems go by, we reread our life, invisible or hidden corners light up, those words manage to say the unspeakable pain. We read the stories of the characters and those stories read us and reveal the soul of the soul.

The Miserables by Victor Hugo is one such book. Its main protagonist is Jean Valjean. However, the novel opens with a bishop, Monsignor Myriel, to whom some of the most beautiful and intense pages in the history of literature are dedicated. Pages that touch, move, convert.

We are in 1815 – the same year as the beginning of the history of the other French masterpiece: The Count of Monte Cristo. We meet a bishop, now elderly, who in his youth was the son of an aristocrat. The Revolution marked his economic and social ruin. He had to emigrate to Italy with his young wife, who will die during that exile. This failure of the projects of youth brought about a turning point: the priesthood. The bishop is presented to us as the icon of the lived Gospel. As soon as he was appointed, he donated his great episcopal residence to the hospital of Digne, then we were told his personal budget, all spent on the poor. So we see him traveling on a donkey’s back, never in a carriage.

At the house of this bishop, one winter evening the tramp Jean Valjean came knocking, just released from prison. He had been released after nineteen years in prison. He ended up there because he was out of work (he was a pruner): desperate for the hunger of the seven children of his widowed sister, he ended up stealing a loaf from a baker: «He went in gloomy, he came out desperate». Hugo explains the reasons for this desperation. In the prison, “the natural light was on in him”, and “the misfortune that has the light of him” had increased it. In that unfortunate light Jean Valjean became a “court to himself”, and “recognized that he was not an innocent unjustly punished.” He had really stolen that bread, he hadn’t been able to bear hunger, he hadn’t been able to wait – he thought while he was in chains. But then he also thought, “Was he the only one wrong in his fateful story?” And he said no. He realized that society too was to blame for him, in making him lose his job first, then in starving him and his grandchildren, and finally in keeping him in prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. And so he “judged society and condemned it: condemned it to his hatred of him.” He declared to himself “that there was no balance between the damage he caused and the damage caused to him.” So “Jean Valjean felt indignant.”

The miserable is also a great reflection oninnocence of human beings. Even though Jean Valjean acknowledges his faults, we feel that he is innocent. Because the innocence that matters to him is not the absence of guilt or harmlessness (we will see it shortly): if this were the case, no person would be innocent. The innocence of this novel, deeply biblical and evangelical, has instead to do with the purity of the heart, with sincerity, with honesty towards oneself and towards others. Jean Valjean «was not of a bad nature. He was still good when he got to jail ». And the writer asks himself: “Can the man created good by God become bad by the work of man?”; can the wickedness of others and one’s own “erase the word that the finger of God writes on the forehead of every man: Hope»? Hugo’s answer is a clear: “no”. Justice does not see this profound innocence, nor can we see it in others and in ourselves. It is the innocence of the prodigal son, that of Job: it is the innocence that God sees, that which needs to see at least God. The image of God, the vocation to love and relationship, remains alive and active in our marrow despite the gesture of Cain. The writer’s gaze, as it reaches the victims of his story, touches them with the pen of the soul and touching them innocentize. Art is the invisible road that leads the victims from Golgotha ​​to the empty tomb. The Bible tells us that God, looking and touching us in our misery, makes us innocent with his gaze, from the first breath to the last, when in the arms of the angel of death we will feel the same innocence with which we came into the world.

With this hatred and with this indignation Jean Valjean had come to Digne. In the city he is recognized as an ex-convict and therefore expelled from the inns. Until, resigned to sleep hungry in the cold, he reaches Myriel’s door. The bishop welcomes him, sets the table with silver cutlery. And when he addresses Jean Valjean with the word “sir”, Hugo gives us one of his most beautiful phrases: “Ignominy thirsts for consideration.”

After this fraternal agape dinner, night comes. The ghosts of hatred, anger and indignation return to Jean Valjean’s mind: “Those six silver pieces haunted him.” He gets up, goes to the closet, then “shoved the silverware into his backpack, crossed the garden, jumped the wall like a tiger, and fled.”

The next morning, the maid discovers the theft and alerts the bishop. And these: “Was that silverware ours? It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? Evidently a poor man ». There is a knock on the door: “Three men held a fourth by the collar. The three were gendarmes, the other was Jean Valjean ». And here is the unexpected: «Ah here you are, I am happy to see you. What would it be like? I also gave you the silver candlesticks: why didn’t you take them with the cutlery? ». The breath stops.


Hospitality is a vulnerable gesture. The guest may be an angel (Heb 13,2), but whoever arrives may be Ishmael who killed Godolia who welcomed him, murdered while “they ate together” at home (Jer 41,1). There have always been, still are and will be guests “killed” by those they host. When we welcome someone home, we cannot know what will happen during the night; especially when the injured, humiliated, angry, indignant man enters. Myriel was imprudent: he was not virtuous, the ethics of agape is not the ethics of virtues. We disapprove of Jean Valjean’s action; but the empathic exercise that Hugo makes us do does not end with the recommendation: “do not welcome future Jean Valjean”; it ends instead by increasing in us the imprudent desire to open one more door – at least that of our home. We stopped reading the Bible and The Miserableswe have closed the doors and ports to our wayfarers, and we have become the new wretches.

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Myriel teaches us what agape is. A stranger arrives, perhaps a damned one. Become one of the house, we bring out the most beautiful cutlery for him. We know well, we are experts in humanity, that that glistening sight after so much pain and evil can become an invincible temptation for that poor man. But the honor to be given to the guest outweighs the fear of temptation – we must not curse every cloud laden with water for the remembrance of the murderous storm.

This special (wonderful and essential) form of gift begins with a transgression: instead of letting the disturbing guest sleep in a hospice, he gives him the good bed at home; he does not send him to the soup kitchen, he invites him to the intimate table. To honor the guest he offers him silver cutlery and calls him “sir”. Beauty is the first cure for all misery. Then you go to bed knowing that you are risking your possessions and even your life (the ingenuity of agape is not stupidity), but knowing that those goods, and even your life, are not private property, they are already a gift and therefore can-must be donated. Then comes the experience of betrayal, we are disappointed but we don’t feel cheated. Then the guest returns: the condemnation and the insult are expected, and instead the forgiveness is found. That is, in place of the stolen gift he finds another gift: the ring on his finger, the banquet.

But why also the candlesticks? Wasn’t the good “lie” about the gift of cutlery enough? (Note: the abstract rules, “lies never are told”, are almost always wrong). Perhaps because the betrayal of those who made mistakes is cured by looking to the future, generating hope with a new gift. It is the gratuitous surplus given to us by the other that, after error, makes us capable of what is necessary. Only a new gift can heal the theft of a first gift. Eros is not enough for vulnerable reception. Friendship (philia) can donate dinner and bed and go as far as the three gendarmes, but there he says to the guest: “rascal and ungrateful”. Only the agape reaches the candlesticks. It is certainly difficult, today impossible, to build an entire social and penal system only on agape. But when we build it without the agape our societies and our prisons end up resembling too much to those of Polyphemus and the Benjamites of Gabaa (Gd 19-21).

However, it is in the ordinary life of the bishop where the decisive dimension of the grammar of agape is found. Myriel reacted that way to the betrayal of the gift – the agapic gift includes from the very beginning the concrete possibility of betrayal – because his whole existence was fueled by agape. What may appear as an emotional response is instead the fruit of a life of daily agape exercise. Like when I see someone drowning in a stormy sea: if I instinctively throw myself into the whirlwind of the waves it is almost certain that I will drown with him; if instead a professional swimmer dives, the probable rescue is the result of the training of a lifetime. Agape is not improvisation: it is habitus conquered, it is hard discipline: “When you think of the lightness of the dancer, look at her feet” (Carla Fracci). Not everyone can experience agapic hospitality every day, but some do needs to to do: at least one, at least me at least once. A single gesture of agape can redeem a life, so it can save the world – we will see it next Sunday, continuing to follow Jean Valjean. But now let the heart rest on the beauty of agape.

Dedicated to the prisoners, innocent like Jean Valjean, who in the light of their misfortune were able to keep a true innocence.
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The article is in Italian

Tags: grammar gift

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