The Personalist Project

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. Was Mother Teresa playing a part, straining to be something she was not, thus becoming inauthentic? There are some cultures where it is the custom to smile continuously, no matter how one feels inside. This kind of smile can come across as superficial and unreal. It is difficult to “meet” the other who puts on such a smile (at least, if one doesn’t manage to get beyond it), even when instilled through our education, demanded by our culture and when it has become second nature. It can kill relationships in the seed, hindering an interaction based on truth; if a friendship is to develop, then one will have to transcend this “putting on”. It would also make meeting God difficult, it would seem. For how can He reach us when we are straining to be something we are not? It would prevent Him from healing our wounds that need to be acknowledged before they can be redeemed. This fake smile locks us into a mode of being separate from reality, leading to dissociation, sadness and frustration.

Did Mother Teresa therefore get things wrong when she decided not only for herself, but asked her sisters to “smile for Jesus”? After all, even a saint is not immune to error. Yet, isn’t there a difference between Mother Teresa’s smile, a Hollywood smile or the strained kind one sometimes finds in Christian communities? First of all, Mother didn’t just tell others or herself to “smile”, but to smile for and at Jesus. The smile thereby becomes a response to someone whose unconditional love for us is the ultimate source of joy. Being loved by Love itself despite one’s brokenness is the best reason to smile. One may not experience this love at all times – and Mother Teresa didn’t for over half of her life – but if one still believes in this love deep down, then one’s smile is (or at least can be) real.

There is more to it, however: a smile directed at Jesus shows Him that despite all our sufferings and difficulties, one is still happy to work for Him, to serve Him in the poor as a missionary of Charity, or simply those around us as a layperson in our everyday lives. It is an expression of love directed at God (and others) who knows our anguish. As long as one is not pretending to Him that everything is fine – when it is not - , but allows Him into our pain, then smiling at Him is genuine and beautiful.

This love for Christ expressing itself in a smile can also be directed at others. But we may (and sometimes must) at the same time express – at least to those close to us – difficulties we are struggling with and sorrows weighing us down.[1] If we are mourning the death of someone dear to us, then we do well to cry. Christ cried over Lazarus’s death though He knew He would raise him. When Christ was in anguish in the garden of Gethsemane, he turned to his disciples for comfort. These were not times to smile. When crushed by affliction, one is only capable of crying out to God. It is a false understanding of holiness to think that one must always smile. For holiness is not stoicism, but allows for the whole range of human emotions. God’s love gives us the safety to be ourselves and express what we experience to Him and others who affirm us. That various cultures and temperaments will do so differently does not change this. The underlying fact is the same, as long as we can still manifest our emotions in a genuine way, even if they may seem understated or over-the-top to other cultures.

Telling others to smile for Jesus is a different matter than deciding for oneself to smile, however, and can easily be misunderstood. It has to be explained and put into context, so that it doesn’t become a mere pretense or a straining that contradicts the very nature of a smile and of a genuine relationship.  Emotions and even attitudes cannot be demanded; at the most, they can be invited and encouraged, albeit without any pressure. This leads us to a significant truth regarding the spiritual life, namely that it is more about letting go and allowing oneself to fall into the arms of Christ than of straining to become good. Simone Weil once said that attempting to be good through our mere will is like thinking that by jumping often enough we will one day be able to fly. Jumping is an important experience, I’d add, because it allows us to realize that we are not taking off and never will. It takes grace to give us wings, but at the same time demands that we turn our whole being to God, letting us fall into His arms. This is the humility of the children of God who know that they can do nothing on their own, yet trust in God’s absolute love. They know that God has loved us from all eternity and that we can therefore admit, without fear, that we are far from perfect.

Mother Teresa did not order her sisters to smile, but encouraged them to smile for and at Jesus. As a spiritual mother, she was helping them on their journey towards God, encouraging them to a complete gift-of-self. A smile is the bodily manifestation of this self-donation in response to absolute Love that one can give despite trials and tribulations. The relationship with Christ is key, not the smile itself; sometimes smiling will be the right response given the circumstances, sometimes mourning. Only a genuine relationship with God and others turns smiling into a revelation of love rather than becoming a mere mask. Hence walking continuously around with a grim face (if one doesn’t happen to suffer from depression), claiming to be “authentic” may well mean that we’ve failed to understand this fundamental fact. To smile is an expression of gift-of-self which always includes the cross in this world. Smiling and suffering therefore often go together. Authentic joy is a rare flower that only grows on the tree of life, namely the Cross.


[1] Mother Teresa hardly did so because she simply could not express what was going on in her, which is typical for a dark night of the soul (though hers was reparatory). She tried to speak with her spiritual directors about this experience, but often found herself incapable of doing so.

Comments (4)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Nov 3, 2015 10:31am

I'm so glad you distinguish between authentic and inauthentic smiling, and between smiling yourself and telling others to smile.

I've been reading a lot about spiritual abuse lately,  and I've noticed that a common feature in cult-like Christian groups is an insistence on smiling. Families are taught, for instance, 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.

So, Mother Teresa's exhortations to smile (which pop up now and then in my Facebook feed) always make me a bit uneasy. I know that it's possible to smile authentically, even while suffering. But it clearly has to be something beyond an external act of will.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Nov 3, 2015 10:39am

Here is a quote from someone who was raised in the same Christian subculture the Duggar family inhabits. I found it here—a blog post that also includes a super creepy song video about "the smile Jesus gave me." [emphasis in the original]

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. Not only that, it is also an indicator of your respect for authority. Bill Gothard explains in the Basic Seminar session on How To Relate to Four Authorities that if you look unhappy, you are publicly shaming your authority. In parenting, that means that if the kid looks unhappy, it is a personal offense against the parents. He also teaches that unhappiness is the result of ungratefulness, and that anger comes from not yielding our rights to God. This boils down to the idea that if you are not cheerful, you are not pleasing God.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Nov 3, 2015 11:48am

I like the direction in "smiling at Jesus," because, coming from Mother Teresa, I see in it an extension of her focus on seeing the face of Christ in every individual she came across. A smile given as self-donation out of recognition of the good of another is very different from the manipulation inherent in those subcultures that insist that adherents smile in order to make their Christianity seem attractive to others.

I make an effort to smile at my children and my neighbours even when I am inwardly burdened because the smile communicates, not something about me, but something about them and their worth. Were I to smile in an attempt to uphold a façade, if it were about me, it would be far less fruitful for all. 

Marie Meaney

#4, Nov 4, 2015 8:48am

Thanks for these comments! Yes, it is shocking how abusive it can be to demand cheerfulness from people. The cases you mention, Katie, speak for themselves. I've mainly encountered this "thou must smile" as implying that one is a bad witness for Christ if one doesn't put on a smile. People with this opinion fail to realize that inauthenticity cannot help another on his/her way to conversion. Only if one is authentically in Christ, can Christ shine through. Otherwise, as you say, Kate, it turns out to be all about me, my fruitfulness, my capacity to draw people in rather than all about Him. And that is sterile and harmful for all parties involved.  

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