I was reading Les Miserables again the other day (I’m only on page 700… It’s so long!!), and I came across this beautiful passage on prayer. After Hugo spends about 50 pages talking about the history of convents in Europe (He’s quite the long-winded chap), he writes the following passage about his perspective on human fellowship with God. I found it quite beautiful, and seeing as Les Mis comes out so soon, I thought I’d share! I’ll put my comments in italics.
But these men, or these women who are behind these four walls. They dress themselves in coarse woollen, they are equals, they call each other brothers, that is well; but they do something else?
They gaze on the darkness, they kneel, and they clasp their hands.
What does this signify?
To pray to God,—what is the meaning of these words?
Is there an infinite beyond us? Is that infinite there, inherent, permanent; necessarily substantial, since it is infinite; and because, if it lacked matter it would be bounded; necessarily intelligent, since it is infinite, and because, if it lacked intelligence, it would end there? Does this infinite awaken in us the idea of essence, while we can attribute to ourselves only the idea of existence? In other terms, is it not the absolute, of which we are only the relative?
I love this concept! He is the absolute; we are the relative. He is more real than anything in existence. He IS being. He is the template, the perfect model, and we are lesser, fragile beings. Yet, he condescends to commune with us.
At the same time that there is an infinite without us, is there not an infinite within us? Are not these two infinites (what an alarming plural!) superposed, the one upon the other? Is not this second infinite, so to speak, subjacent to the first? Is it not the latter’s mirror, reflection, echo, an abyss which is concentric with another abyss? Is this second infinity intelligent also? Does it think? Does it love? Does it will? If these two infinities are intelligent, each of them has a will principle, and there is an I in the upper infinity as there is an I in the lower infinity. The I below is the soul; the I on high is God.
God is a person, just as we are persons. He has a soul like we do. He is not an impersonal force, but a volitional, loving, personal being.
To place the infinity here below in contact, by the medium of thought, with the infinity on high, is called praying.
Let us take nothing from the human mind; suppression is evil. We must reform and transform. Certain faculties in man are directed towards the Unknown; thought, revery, prayer. The Unknown is an ocean. What is conscience? It is the compass of the Unknown. Thought, revery, prayer,—these are great and mysterious radiations. Let us respect them. Whither go these majestic irradiations of the soul? Into the shadow; that is to say, to the light.
The grandeur of democracy is to disown nothing and to deny nothing of humanity. Close to the right of the man, beside it, at the least, there exists the right of the soul.
To crush fanaticism and to venerate the infinite, such is the law. Let us not confine ourselves to prostrating ourselves before the tree of creation, and to the contemplation of its branches full of stars. We have a duty to perform, to cultivate the human soul, to defend the mystery against the miracle, to adore the incomprehensible and reject the absurd, to admit, as an inexplicable fact, only what is necessary, to purify belief, to remove superstitions from the face of religion; to remove the vermin from the garden of God.
As for methods of prayer, all are good, as long as they are sincere. Turn your book facedown and you are in the infinite.
Prayer is not a formal affair. We have but to turn our attention to him, and he is there with us. We engage with him on a spiritual level anytime, anywhere, and because his attention is infinitely focused on each one of us at any given moment (because he is infinite and outside of time), he waits eagerly for every moment we think of him as he thinks of us. Prayer is a wonderfully divine privilege, so beautifully spoken of here by Hugo. Have a blessed day and remember that God is forever and always near to you.