“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Many people think that to connect with God they have to go to a solitary place such as a mountain, desert, or the beach. Although these practices of solitude are often quite necessary, it is short-sighted to neglect the practice of experiencing God through other people.
Have you ever felt that magical connection with someone that made your soul soar?
Perhaps the embrace of a lover, or the words of a friend which give expression to the very deepest recesses of your heart.
Maybe you’ve experienced a contagious child-like joy while playing with a child.
Alternatively, someone may have forgiven you for some malicious act, much like Jean Valjean experiences in Victor Hugo’s play, Les Misérables. In desperation, Valjean steals expensive silverware and flees from a bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu, who has fed him and given him a bed for the night. When the police return Valjean and the silverware to Monseigneur Bienvenu, in a heart wrenching display of forgiveness Monseigneur Bienvenu claims that he gave the silverware to Valjean, and offers him his candlesticks also. A short clip of this scene can be found here.
This encounter enables Valjean’s transformation from despised criminal to respected businessman and mayor. Towards the end of the play, the Hugo sums up Valjean’s experience in the phrase “to love another person is to see the face of God.” As Hugo notes, divine transforming love can indeed be experienced through loving other people.
One of the Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, argues that because humanity is created in the image of the Divine, God can be experienced through human beings.
I would have you understand that our Maker also, painting the portrait to resemble His own beauty, by the addition of virtues, as it were with colours, shows in us His own sovereignty: and manifold and varied are the tints, so to say, by which His true form is portrayed: … purity, freedom from passion, blessedness, alienation from all evil, and all those attributes of the like kind which help to form in men the likeness of God: with such hues as these did the Maker of His own image mark our nature…
Again, God is love, and the fount of love… the Fashioner of our nature has made this to be our feature too… (On the Creation of Humanity IV.5)
As Victor Hugo and Gregory of Nyssa both realise, the Divine can truly be experienced within loving communion with others. This suggests that if we truly want to experience Divine love, we need to seek out peace and love in our exchanges with others, even with our enemies as Jesus taught, and as Monseigneur Bienvenu demonstrates.