National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

When Christian Souls Are Smiling

Marge Fenelon has found that, when it comes to living out one’s Christian witness, a simple smile can work wonders — in the giver as well as the recipient.

BY Marge Fenelon

May 20-26, 2007 Issue | Posted 5/15/07 at 9:00 AM


Chris grabbed my arm as I walked by and pulled me around to face her. “Smile,” she ordered. I stiffened and gave her one of those “What kind of goofy prank are you about to pull on my now?” looks.

“Smile!” she ordered again, this time a bit more forcefully and squeezing my arm a bit more tightly. I smiled one of those air-headed, awkward smiles you paste on when someone shoves a camera in your face and tells you to say “Cheese.” “That’s better,” she said. “Make sure you smile all the time.”

“What for?” I asked, puzzled at her sudden interest in my facial expressions. I mean, what did she care? It wasn’t like we hung around together or anything.

She glared into my eyes. “Because you look really ugly when you don’t,” she snapped as she got up and left the room.

I was 11 or so and Chris was around 18 when we shared that charming moment. Back then, I chalked it up to an older sister’s superiority complex. I figured that, like most big sisters, she needed a new reason to pick on her little sister, so I just let it go. If I tried to pick back, I’d just get flattened.

I did, however, proceed to the bathroom mirror to assess the accuracy of Chris’ claim. I smiled a big, open-mouthed grin. “Okay, I guess,” I said to myself. I smiled a tight-lipped smirk. “Naw,” I shook my head. I smiled a pouty, TV star smile. “Yuck. Forget that,” I sighed. I straightened up, tilted my head to the side and tried my best to offer a perky, natural smile. It, too, looked weird and contrived. Discouraged, I scowled at myself. “Ugh,” I groaned. “I give up.”

I never gave Chris’ advice any serious thought after that. I supposed that my face is just the way it is and there’s nothing I can do about it. That changed recently, when I was speaking with someone I deeply respect and love. She said something that completely flabbergasted me.

“You’re one of those people I never know how to approach,” she said. “Sometimes you look so open and happy that I can’t wait to go right up and greet you. Other times, you look so angry and sullen that I think I’d better just stay away.”

Suddenly, I was the 11-year-old Margaret listening to my older sister’s curt advice. “Smile. … You’re ugly when you don’t.” And I finally got it.

I try to be consistently joyful. But sometimes I get lost in thought, encapsulated in my own little world of God-knows-what. Then I forget to show my joy on the outside, even though I might be perfectly joyful on the inside. That’s when I’m really “ugly.”

What Chris lacked in tact, she made up with intention. She’s right. I should work harder to show my joy on the outside regardless of what I’m pondering on the inside. Not to studiously avoid looking “ugly.” But to fully embrace my calling as a Christian disciple.

“In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of (your) faith, the salvation of your souls.”

That’s our first Pope speaking, as recorded in 1 Peter 1:6-9. In the past this part of his message has eluded me. These days I’m hearing it loud and clear.

Marge Fenelon writes from

Cudahy, Wisconsin.