“This imaginary baptism, the immersion in purity, the elevation of my being above the filth in which I had been mired and, overnight, this sense of responsibility, made me into a different man.” “What they lack in progress they make up for in a Christian charity that puts the so-called civilized nations to shame.”
The above are both quotes from Papillon, an autobiographical portrait of one man’s struggle (Henri Charriere) to escape from a sentence of life-long hard labor on a French penal colony for a murder he did not commit. There is much in this remarkable story that I think is illustrative of how life’s struggles ought to be faced. Particularly, I think it highlights the power of grace and perseverance.
The first quote is from Charriere’s first attempted escape. He had reached the island of Trinidad and had met up with a British lawyer (Mr. Bowen) who had put him up in his own home. Upon waking up the morning after his arrival on the island, Charriere discovered that Bowen had already left to go into town—leaving Charriere alone with his wife and daughter, who gave him food and pleasant company. This act of trust and respect was a foreign experience to such a man as he. While he was not a murderer, Charriere was, by his own admission, a man of “the underworld” who made company with many nefarious persons.
The Power of Grace
However, one act was enough to shine through the darkness in which he dwelt. The juxtaposition of one simple act was enough to spark a desire in him that was more sublime than he had ever entertained before. From that moment on, Charriere had decided that if his escape should be successful, he would devote the remainder of his life to being a respectful and productive member of society.
There is a two-fold lesson I can see from stories like the one above: Though such a quick and lasting conversion is not the usual course of things, we must not scoff at the possibility. And we must paradoxically use trial and hardship as a support for the good choices we make, and not see it as evidence to the contrary. Upon reading this, I was struck at the similarity between Charriere’s experience and that of biblical figures like St. Paul and St. Matthew. St. Paul and St. Matthew had just one experience with the Lord, and their lives were permanently changed.
The Difference Perseverance Makes
No trials or tribulations were able to dissuade the Saints from their choices. On the contrary, it further confirmed and solidified their decision because their trials allowed them to see just how awful things can be when the grace is extinguished from the human heart and, therefore, how badly humanity needs the light of God. We must, therefore, never stray from the path no matter how hard the terrain becomes.
Our Lord is not on earth as He was in those days when St. Paul and St. Matthew changed. However, our Lord is present in all of the Mr. Bowens in our lives. Indeed, we ourselves can be Mr. Bowen to the souls God has put in our paths, so we should never discount the possibility of such a radical change either in ourselves or those around us. What seems like a small act – leaving a person alone in your home – or calling someone to follow you, can turn to be a great thing in the end.
The question that we must ask then, before we perform an act for our neighbor, is not what good do can I see coming from this? Rather, we must ask, is this a good thing do to for my neighbor? If it is good, then it matters not how large or small the kindness is. That is enough for grace to work in the soul.
The second quote above is from the end of Charriere’s book when his escape attempt was successful at last. He was responding to a question which compared the French to the indigenous peoples who aided him on his journeys. Though not well educated and not himself a Christian, Charriere is able to see through a common misunderstanding, i.e., the confusion of progress or innovation with charity and understanding. We often assume that the more “civilized” a culture is then the more genteel and compassionate the people in the culture will be. Charriere’s experience proved precisely the opposite. The civilized nation of France gave him a rigged trial, torture, undernourishment, years of solitary confinement and much more besides. From the indigenous people he received food, trust, kindness, understanding and a deep desire for friendship.
This story again has biblical echoes. Many people discounted Jesus because He came from Nazareth. In the Bible we hear onlookers say things like “What good can come from Nazareth (John 1: 43 – 46)?” Others discounted Jesus for being the son of a carpenter. However, as John says, “All who welcomed Him, He gave them power to become the children of God (John 1: 12).” What makes a person good and what makes one sophisticated are not necessarily the same thing. This is not to say that civilization or sophistication are essentially opposed to charity or holiness. It is merely to say that as we make our way through life and try to be a Mr. Bowen to others, and search for our life’s direction, we have to be willing to look very deep. We have to look in the places that we might not expect.
Trial, Grace, and Triumph
So, as we each go through our own life and faith journeys, we must remember several things. First, that trial and suffering are unavoidable. Rather than run from them, we must persevere through them and use them as the means by which we will continue to choose and do good. Secondly, we must not discount the power of God’s grace and the powerful impressions we can leave on our neighbors. And lastly, we must not confuse goodness with sophistication. We know ourselves and others not by the technology we carry in around with us, but by the good fruits we produce in our hearts and the hearts of our neighbors.