The Miracle Club, starring Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates, and Laura Linney, is itself something of a miracle: Despite being attached to a major star (Smith) and a compelling story, the film, directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan, almost never came to fruition. But finally, after 20 years of tweaking the screenplay and fundraising, this charming and challenging film has made it to the big screen. And that’s not the only thing miraculous about The Miracle Club: It is a rare film that presents spiritual truths about grace and forgiveness in a way that avoids preaching.
The Miracle Club is the story of four women from a suburban Dublin town that, along with members of their parish, go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the small French town in which it is said that Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a young girl. They each have their own reason for going: Lily (Smith), the oldest, feels that this might be her only chance to go on a pilgrimage. Eileen (Bates) is looking to be cured from what she fears is breast cancer. Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) wants her young son, Daniel, to be able to speak.
And then there’s Chrissie (Linney), who learns her her mother has died and returns to Dublin after a 40-year sojourn in the U.S. We learn Chrissie was rejected by her family and community, and fled to the states as a teenager after becoming pregnant by Lily’s son Declan. But after reading a repentant letter from her late mother, Chrissie decides to go to Lourdes as well.
Once Chrissie joins the pilgrimage, she becomes something of a Christ-figure, upending the trip and breaking into the other women’s mundane existence. Lily, Eileen, and Dolly are, as Henry David Thoreau might say, living lives of quiet desperation, taking care of their children and husbands and performing regular household drudgery.
“The beginning of [the film] to me is like Thelma and Louise,” O’Sullivan told me in a Zoom interview. “They need to get away from underneath their children and from underneath the husbands … but once they’re on the road, something’s going to change.”
Once Chrissie joins the group on the bus, Lily and Eileen realize that they will need to deal with the ghosts of the past during this trip. “From that moment on, their relationship with Lourdes has changed,” Sullivan said. “They have to engage with [Chrissie’s presence] because that’s what Lourdes is about. That’s what a pilgrimage is about.”
Over the course of the pilgrimage, Lily and Eileen will have to engage with the hurt they caused Chrissie by condemning and banishing her. Chrissie will also engage with that hurt. And as a result, what happens at Lourdes is miraculous.
Psalm 84:5 reads, “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage” (NIV). When the women initially set their hearts on pilgrimage, they hoped for big miracles: Eileen’s healing, Daniel speaking. Instead, they experience the miracle of forgiveness: Chrissie forgives Lily and Eileen, and Dolly forgives herself for supposedly causing her son’s speechless condition.
I think when most people imagine miracles, they imagine what Lily, Eileen, and Dolly hoped for: physical healing that defies medical or conventional wisdom.
But for those of us who have been hurt or abused in physical, sexual, emotional, or spiritual ways, who might have been, like Chrissie, exiled from family and community, we know that the ability to forgive the people who hurt us is also wondrous. It can be incredibly difficult — and in some cases nearly impossible — to let go of anger and resentment toward someone who’s profoundly hurt you, to relieve them of the debt they owe you. As Enlightenment-era poet Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” In other words, we need God to work in our hearts to do something as miraculous as forgiveness. The journey to forgiveness is something we can set our hearts on, but it’s a miracle only the Divine can bring about.
Blessed are those whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.