The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 27, 2023 - 1:43:43

Smiling at Jesus

Marie Meaney, Nov 03, 2015

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.