|Ray Milland on the wall at the Anne Frank House|
Here’s what I’m thinking. In a fifty-year career of almost 150 movies, Ray Milland was as well known as any Hollywood leading man. Think of the publicity his pictures generated when they were released, the many who saw them back then; then imagine–try to compute–how often he’s been seen on TV in replays of the old classics. Turn on the Turner Movie Classics channel almost any week of the year and you’re likely to strike an old Ray Milland.
Even though perhaps few knew the Welshman personally, even though his life story really is his film credits, his face is still recognized by thousands today, although the numbers are likely slipping, year by year. And even though some might say that Ray Milland’s craft as an actor was unexcelled; some might praise him for the dignity by which he carried himself on the set, and some might claim his legacy includes a deep commitment to his profession, what I’d like to suggest is that in the cut-out snapshot on Anne Frank’s wall, up there in the annexe where she and her family attempted to wait out Hitler’s genocide, in that picture he may well have played his most memorable role.
And he knew nothing about it. I like to imagine what he must have felt like if and when he discovered it glued on the yellowing wallpaper of Anne Frank’s room. I never knew the man, but on the basis of my own sense of human character, it would surprise me if, after walking through the gaping portal left by the most famous fake bookcase in the world, then negotiating a set of incredibly steep stairs, Ray Milland himself didn’t break down and cry to see his own face on her lonely wall. What I’m thinking is that despite the array of rewards he received for his many films, despite an Oscar for his portrayal of a drunk, despite the fact that during the war he made over twenty movies, his snapshot on an annexe wall may well have been the most important performance of his career.
After all, annually more than a half million visitors step through the annexe at the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, and all of them pass through her empty bedroom. And when they do, they spot his photo. That picture, like his film credits, say nothing about who he was–whether he loved children, beat his wife, drank too much, or was a sweet and good man. Just as he did in all of his work, in that snapshot he plays a role--but perhaps his most important role, bringing joy and comfort.
I’m not interested in making a pitch for Ray Milland’s soul. In our tradition we’ve likely been far too quick with such judgments–both to claim some for sainthood and to relegate others to hell. I certainly won’t claim that his picture on Anne Frank’s wall grants him grace.
But I know one thing about the only gospel story concerning end times, the only narrative Christ himself ever delivered about the judgment: where we end up eternally has apparently little to do with tenacious doctrinal fortitude. I’m not arguing for universalism or campaigning for a doctrine-less faith, but in that passage in Matthew where Christ describes the ultimate in discrimination, he points the sheep to his right and the goats to his left on the basis of criteria which seemingly have everything to do with love.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit,” he says to those of us he earmarks for eternal joy.
And here comes a grand mystery. “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
Apparently, the truly righteous don’t know a thing about what it was they were doing. They only did. They saw and acted–and loved.
I didn’t grow up Jewish or Roman Catholic or Lutheran. I don’t know about Mormon life, or the minutia of the day-to-day existence of Seventh Day Adventists. But after fifty years within the Reformed tradition, I think I know something about what it means to grow and live among those believers in the Calvinist tradition, and I dare say that among us, should is a great big word. We all feel the clarion call of that word’s obligation–I should really do this or that or the other blessed thing.
Yet Jesus Christ’s own description of what will happen at the outset of eternity is as revealing as it is mysterious because even at the very moment of judgment the sheep remain as unpretentious as they’ve ever been. They look at the Judge, quite befuddled. “When on earth did we do all of this?” they say. Their gifts were apparently given away unconsciously.
If our best deeds are as filthy rags, they can turn crystalline only with the grace of our God, often enough when we don’t even know it ourselves. The fact is, we get used, as did Ray Milland on a secluded fortress on a busy street in Amsterdam. God uses us for his good, whether or not we know it or approve it or even like it. Grace itself tingles in the inklings we sometimes receive of his own mysterious and divine plan.
Ray Milland may never have seen his photograph on Anne Frank’s wall. He may have gone to his grave without knowing what a half-million people every year see when they tour the secret annexe. Certainly, in 1944, when he was making The Lost Weekend, which would become the vehicle for his own greatest performance, a piece of stark realism, he knew nothing of the real life of a young woman hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam and looking up at his picture daily.
There’s nothing new in all of this, of course, only mystery. We are most the Lord’s when he works his will, mysteriously, through us. We are most the Lord’s when we give, in love, without considering why. We are most his own when He is most of us.
As always, when it’s all said and done, He gets all the credits.
This essay originally appeared in The Banner.