Director: Danny Boyle, 98 min., U.K., 2004. Starring: Alex Etel, James Nesbitt, Daisy Donovan
Plot: (Spoiler alert!) The UK is about to switch its currency from Pounds to Euros, giving some criminals a chance to rob a train loaded with banknotes destined for incineration. During the robbery, one of the bags falls onto playhouse belonging to Damian, a young boy who talks to saints. Damian then starts seeing what the world and the people around him are made of. Ethics, being human, and the soul all come to the forefront in this film. It asks us to consider our basic interior dispositions as we enter into our own film-based spiritual journey this Fall. Film History Premiered at TIFF. Won a number of film awards, including “Best Screenplay” at the British Independent Film Awards. Proved that Danny Boyle cannot be pigeon-holed as a director. He has made compelling films about Scottish heroin addicts (Trainspotting), zombies (28 Days Later), and a game-show contestant in Mumbai (Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire). But Millions comes from the heart, and goes in a tender, spiritual direction that surpasses them all.
Anthony: What did you bring a thousand pounds to school for? Can’t you see that’s suspicious?
Damian: It’s not suspicious, it’s unusual.
Catherine Doherty once said: “Lord, give me the heart of a child, and the awesome courage to live it out as an adult.” What does it mean to have “the heart of a child”? It’s a question that vexed Nicodemus after Jesus said “Nobody can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Obviously, we can’t re-enter our mothers’ wombs. But there is something inside all of us that yearns for some of the dispositions, that is, the interior attitudes and states of being of our childhood, long before we become anxious, informed, and ironic adults. At the same time we are probably not eager to return to many childish ways. So in what sense are we to recover “the heart of a child” without losing the proper maturity into which we have grown?
The film Millions manages to capture some of the traits that this “rebirth” is pointing to, and these are especially important to consider at the dawn of a “film-retreat”. At the beginning of his famous retreat manual, the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola makes the following point: “It will be very profitable for the one who is to go through the Exercises to enter upon them with magnanimity (bigheartedness) and generosity toward his Creator and Lord.” He goes on to encourage the retreatant to “offer God his entire will and liberty, that His Divine Majesty may dispose of him and all he possesses according to His most holy will.” There was no soft-pedaling around a spiritual parkland with St. Ignatius. He wanted everyone to encounter the living God and, like so many of Jesus’ encounters in the Gospels, to be transformed by that encounter. So how do we have “magnaminity” and “generosity”, and offer to God our will and freedom? Even this self-offering is a grace, but we can dispose ourselves to receiving the grace by cultivating certain interior attitudes in ourselves. There are three qualities that the main character in Millions, 9-year old Damian, seems to have in a particularly generous dose. They aren’t his only qualities, and nor is he a perfect saint, but they are spiritually foundational, important dispositions: his guilelessness (authenticity), his compassion, and his trust. Let’s consider in of these in turn, and see how cultivating these attitudes in ourselves will serve us well, as we prepare to dispose ourselves to the graces we hope to receive from this year’s “Finding God in the Dark” film series. Damian believes it is his mission to use the bag of cash for good, and here we see a certain authenticity of soul. We might recall what the Lord said about his soon-to-be-called disciple Nathanael as he was walking toward him: “Behold, indeed, an Israelite in whom there is no guile” (John 1:47). Some translations also say no “duplicity” or “deceit”. The point is that to be a “true Israelite”, which meant to be a follower of the one true God, you were someone who did not live according to double-standards, or harbour hidden agendas, but basically lived in the light (“in truth”). You practiced no double-speak, no withering sarcasm, and no passive-aggressivity. Your yes meant yes and your no meant no. You wept when you were sad and you laughed when you were happy. This is the meaning of guilelessness. There is a purity about one’s conduct and speech. Children are often adorable because of their guilelessness. We know that with them “what we see is what we get”. Because they haven’t learned to conceal their thoughts and feelings, they are something of an open book when it comes to their inner life, and most of time, we find this refreshing (of course at other times, like during emotional meltdowns, less so). Often, the great enterprise of spiritual direction is simply about getting help in recovering our child-like transparency and freedom, to be “re-born” as it were. Needless to say, one cannot merely go about saying whatever pops into our heads. Being a blabber-mouth is not true guilelessness or transparency in the Christian sense. In fact, we would quickly lose friends if we spoke without filters. Our thoughts and words, while having a healthy spontaneity, should also be governed by something objective, something other than ourselves. In Damian, we see this second quality at work: he is compassionate, thoughtfully so. His charity rules his spontaneity. He’s a kind-hearted kid, who wants to use his windfall to help others. Children seem to have a natural compassion, whether it’s tears over an injured animal or for a fellow child who is upset. They tend to feel the pain of others in ways that many adults have lost touch with, due to the hardening we accrue from self-protection and personal sin. This, too, is the “heart of a child” that we aspire to recover. The third disposition is the attitude of trust. This perhaps is the most important disposition of all. In almost all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles and healings, he calls out this aspect of the person, afterwards saying things like: “Go, your faith has saved you.” It’s this “fundamental” that the Lord asks of everyone he meets. In fact, he can do no wonders in their midst, if they lack it. Before embarking on a spiritual journey, then, we need to have, at a minimum, the conviction that God is good and is therefore worthy of our trust. Unfortunately, many people are afraid of God – and not in the holy sense of fear (“reverence”), but an unholy fear that translates into fearful avoidance. But God is good and worthy of our trust. Thérèse of Lisieux, a doctor of the Church, wrote in her autobiography that: “Sanctity does not consist in these or those exercises and achievements; it consists in a disposition of the heart which allows us to remain small and humble in the arms of God, knowing our weakness and trusting to the point of rashness in his Fatherly goodness.” Trusting to the point of rashness in his Fatherly goodness. It’s the basis of the spiritual life, the one thing necessary. Damian never loses his belief that God is good, and that people are also good. He is guileless (transparent), compassionate (charitable), and trusting (faith-full). As we contemplate the overall character of this film, it will prompt us to prayerfully reflect on our own lives, our own character. In the weeks to come, you are invited to take these reflections home and pray over the meditation points at the end, perhaps staying with just one point per day. When you pray, read the passage then use your spiritual imagination and re-create the scenes. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you sense? What insights do you receive? Journal these afterwards if that is helpful to you. May we pray with the intention of disposing ourselves to becoming more receptive to the graces the good God wishes to give us during the films to come. And while we may find God in the dark, it is certain that God will find us there.
John D. O’Brien taught spirituality, communications and film studies at Corpus Christi College in Vancouver. He is based at Regis College, Toronto, and has been a Jesuit since 2008.