Should We Smile, Smile, Smile?

Many Catholics will tell you that we must smile for the sake of the kingdom. We are all evangelists of one kind or another. If we want to sell the Good News to other people, we need to present it in an attractive package -- and so smiling and looking happy is the best way to show that our Faith is something worth having.

Is this so? What if we're not actually happy, because of temperament or circumstance? What if the person we're dealing with is repulsive? Isn't it a form of deception to smile when we don't feel it?

At The Personalist Project, Marie Meaney says

I’ve been re-reading Brian Kolodiejchuk’s book on Mother Teresa and noticed how much this “saint of darkness”, as she called herself, speaks about smiling at Jesus, the poor and ultimately at every person for His sake.  Despite the inner night she was going through, the pain she experienced from God’s seeming absence while longing for Him with every fiber of her being, she transmitted joy, peace and a sense of God’s presence. 

She asks whether or not this Mother Teresa's smile is strained and fake, like the artificial smiles that the doomed Gothardites (especially the women) are required to paste over every kind of interior weariness and suffering.

Katie van Schaijik comments, saying

In cult-like Christian groups... families are taught ... that if their children don't appear cheerful in public, they shame their parents.

Many ex-members of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi tell about the harm done to their spiritual lives by having been taught that unless they were smiling, they were being poor witnesses. Sadness was considered a kind of religious failure. 

She quotes a former cult member as saying,

One key idea teaches the importance of a joyful countenance and a light in your eyes. This is a measure of how mighty you are in spirit.

Speaking of "a light in your eyes," I'm reminded of an account I once heard from an experienced therapist — or maybe it was Oliver Sacks? I can't find it anywhere, but the way I remember it is this:

He was working with the most difficult client of his career. She was ugly, and deliberately dressed herself in a way to make herself even less appealing; but worse, every word, every gesture, every idea she expressed was repellent and offensive. She worked overtime to irritate and frustrate everyone she met.

The doctor, being human, hated spending time with her, and struggled to hide that fact. Desperate to find something in her that wasn't overwhelmingly repulsive, he noticed that her eyes, though narrow and fierce, were a truly heavenly shade of blue. And so, when she sat in his office and spewed every ugly, profane kind of abuse she could muster, he focused on that shade of blue, and responded to its beauty. He rejoiced in it, and clung to its loveliness, and forced himself to smile at her for the sake of her eyes, and to ignore all the rest.

And in time, the woman changed. She broke down, began to reveal her own pain and fear, and allowed the doctor to guide her through her own suffering and to find a less destructive way with dealing with it.

She said, eventually, that he was the only one who smiled at her -- the only one who looked at her with love, and the only one who saw that she was worth loving.

The story came back to me as I've been thinking about how sincere we need to be as we approach the rest of the world.

What's the difference between feigned joy that cult members are required to display, and a suffering saint's determination to smile at everyone she meets; and what does it have to do with the awful client with the beautiful blue eyes?

One difference is that feigned, deceptive joy is designed to create an impression about the person who is smiling. Its purpose is to make people think favorably about me, my spirituality — and, by extension, about the people who are in authority over me. Even if it's difficult to pull off this kind of smile, it's ultimately all about me. It's not at all about the person I'm actually smiling at. And it shows a lack of faith in the power of love, and instead uses the appearance of love as a means to an end. 

In contrast, what Mother Teresa was attempting (and which, by the way, she did not insist that her sisters imitate), and what the therapist did, was aimed outward:  at the person at whom she was smiling.  It was outward focused. In the case of the doctor, he simply wanted to be able to help the woman who had come to him for help. With Mother Teresa, the relationship between herself and the person in front of her was deepened because she was also acknowledging the presence of Christ in everyone she met, and she was smiling both at and for Him. It showed a supernatural trust in love as a powerful, desirable, transformative end in itself.

It comes back to the idea that true love is lively, and always flows outward. When we deliberately show, with our faces, with our tone of voice, with our gestures, that we are open and receptive, then this is a form of love. When we love, we are making the decision to look outward. True love is, ideally, self-forgetful. Its goal is never to create an impression, but to open the doors for something real, to make room for something necessary, something larger than ourselves. 

When I show love, rather than showing that I am a loving person, I demonstrate my faith that love suffices, and nothing else is needed. I show that I trust in God, who is love. 

I do not think that we should deliberately smile at people in order to give them a positive impression of our Faith — to persuade people that they should come to God so that they can be happy like us. I do think, though, that we should make an effort to deliberately smile at people, or show receptivity to them in other ways, as a way of focusing on them — which is the way love works. It's not about me; it's about moving past myself. Love is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself. Showing love, even as a pure act of will, is not an evangelical tool; it is a virtue in itself.

As part of Jewish-Christian dialogue, a joint concert was given on Sept. 4, 2021, in the Dohány Street Synagogue by the Solti Chamber Orchestra in Budapest. Hungary.

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