Several years ago, an ex-Catholic writer thought she would spend a year sampling all the different churches she could find, one per week. I haven't read the resulting book, but I do remember hearing her say that Catholics certainly don't smile very much during Mass -- and what a shame that was. I suppose it varies from region to region, but she's right about her observation. In all the Catholic churches I've been to, I've only seen smiles during Mass on a few occasions: during the sign of peace (which often feels like an interruption or intermission in the middle of Mass, rather than a part of it); during a homily, if the priest cracks a joke; when there is a "milestone" sacrament, such as First Communion or matrimony, during the Mass; or if something unexpected happens, like a squirrel wanders in or a kid yells out something cute.
In other words, Catholics do smile during Mass, but not, in general, because of what's actually going on in the liturgy itself. Isn't that kind of odd? I mean, if we're sitting there hearing the Good News and then lining up to be literally fed with the literal food of salvation. If that's not a time to rejoice and be glad, then when is the time?
Well, I said I agreed with the church-hopping author about her observation, but I don't agree that all this non-smiling is a sign of anything bad, or something that needs changing.
A couple of years ago, I was telling my brother about my plans for that year's vegetable garden. "Oh, why don't you just skip it this year?" he asked. I was baffled. Skip my garden? Why?
"Because you worry about it so much!" he explained. "It gives you so much anxiety and trouble." For a minute, I didn't even know what he was talking about. But then I had to admit that he was right. Most of the time, when I talk about my garden, I talk about the grubs, the beetles, the hassle of dealing with all those endless rocks that keep drifting up to the surface. Will there be a late frost tonight? I don't know what's gone wrong with my peas this year. I think I need a more gentle method for transplanting. I think I tied up the tomatoes too tight! Oh, gosh, it's time to thin the seedlings, which always makes me feel like such a monster. That's it, I'm going to try hand-pollinating those pumpkins one more time tonight, and if they don't get with the program, I give up. Stupid pumpkins.
And heck, if you went out and took a picture of me while I was gardening, my face would look like this:
But in my garden I am happy. So, so happy. All winter long, I think about my garden, and all through early spring, I suffer while I wait and wait for the last of the snow to melt. I sneak out back just to lean over the soil and sniff deeply when the evening dew is sinking in. I have dorky conversations with worms and grasshoppers. I know exactly how many leaves are on each pepper plant, and rejoice over each new one. When I see my little girls wandering into the yard, still in their nightgowns, and finding themselves a snack of string beans, I think I'm going to die of satisfaction. But no, I am not necessarily smiling -- especially when I'm actually working in the garden, digging, weeding, breaking up the soil, looking for something ready to pick.
The same is true for all sorts of worthwhile, significant activities. Do we smile when we're building something, or sewing, or reading a life-changing book? Do we smile when we're learning? Or when we're making love? Sometimes, maybe, but not the whole time!
Now, there's nothing wrong with smiling during Mass. Sometimes, when I'm on one end of the pew and my husband is on the other, and all of our kids are ranged out between us, I do catch his eye and give him a big grin, just because I'm happy to be here, happy to know that, for at least one hour a week, we're doing something right. But most of the time, I probably look more like this:
People are weird. We do smile when we are glad -- when we do things that we know are worthwhile. But we do other things besides smile: we fret, we think hard, we ponder, we plan, we reflect, we feel gratitude and anxiety and relief, even inspiration and joy. These are all behaviors and emotions which look, when they show on our faces, like trouble. So if you look around at Mass and see faces that seem troubled, that may actually be a very good sign: a sign that people are forgetting themselves, and are totally invested in the Mass. Up to their elbows in the rich soil of the liturgy. Maybe full of joy. But not necessarily smiling!