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The masked but unconquered smile

Reading smiles on people’s faces can lead one deeper into understanding their actions and even their souls. The temperature of the body and soul are revealed in a smile in an almost immediate revelation.

(Image: Ani Kolleshi | Unsplash.com)

I put on a nicely hand-made face mask and my sunglasses, and before rushing into the garage I did quick check in the mirror. It had been a long time since I had been driving, been on campus, or even dressed formally.

I was rather shocked to see myself in the mirror, with my sunglasses and face mask on; I could not recognize myself. Actually, I was surprised by what I saw — or in fact what I did not see. I wondered about not being recognized by friends, co-workers, or students. I wondered how this will play out when we go back to work. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the mask has entered our lives. And the mask, combined with social distancing, will challenge and change nearly all of our interactions with others.

I am using the future tense here as New Jersey, my state, has still not been opened as I write this. As I was driving to my local supermarket, I could not help thinking about teaching and advising students while wearing a face mask. At least during this unusual semester, I could use all my verbal and facial abilities to teach online, which included smiles and laughs. Will people be able to smile or be expressive behind face masks? It sounds like a small thing, but it really isn’t.

Bernard Lonergan SJ (1904-1984) a Jesuit philosopher, theologian and economist, used the phenomenology of a smile to explain the meaning of inter-subjective communications. For Fr. Lonergan, a smile is charged with meaning; a smile is meaningful. This is what he wrote in his last major work entitled Method in Theology:

[A smile] is not just a certain combination of movements of lips, facial muscles, eyes. It is a combination with a meaning. Because that meaning is different from the meaning of a frown, a scowl, a stare, a glare, a snicker, a laugh, it is named a smile. Because we all know that that meaning exists, we do not go about the streets smiling at everyone we meet. We know we should be misunderstood… a smile, because of its meaning, is easily perceived. Smiles occur in an enormous range of variations of facial movements, of lighting, of angle of vision. But even an incipient, suppressed smile is not missed, for the smile is a Gestalt, a patterned set of variable movements, and it is recognized as a whole.

Smiles come naturally and instinctively; one cannot learn to smile the same way one learns to ride a bicycle or to skate. Reading smiles on people’s faces can lead one deeper into understanding their actions and even their souls. The temperature of the body and soul are revealed in a smile in an almost immediate revelation.

A smile was constant on St. Mother Teresa’s face, even when she was going through the dark night of the soul. Mother paid special attention to smiling and being joyful, and she required her sisters to smile abundantly. One of the resolutions she made during the 1956 retreat, and in which she persevered during her entire life, was to smile at God. Smile more tenderly, pray more fervently and all the difficulties will disappear, she insisted. Many scholars have asked the question: What was in Mother’s smile, or what made her keep smiling for fifty years while going through an unusually prolonged spiritual darkness?

Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2008 visit to Lourdes, reflected on the theology of smiling as a gateway to the mystery of love and God who is Love. Reflecting on the smile of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Benedict said:

In the very simple manifestation of tenderness that we call a smile, we grasp that our sole wealth is the love God bears us, which passes through the heart of her who became our Mother. To seek this smile, is first of all to have grasped the gratuitousness of love; it is also to be able to elicit this smile through our efforts to live according to the word of her Beloved Son, just as a child seeks to elicit its mother’s smile by doing what pleases her.

As Mary taught Bernadette, to know Mary, she had “to know her smile.” What, then, was Mother Teresa’s smile? She provides an answer: “The greater the pain and darker the darkness, the sweeter will be my smile at God,” she wrote in a letter on October 16, 1961. This is what Mother Teresa wrote to a schoolgirl:

Whenever you meet anyone, greet him with a smile. The utility of smiling is that it will keep you always acceptable to everyone. At the same time, it will make you, your face, look beautiful. If you are ever angry, try to smile rather forcefully and soon you will see, you have forgotten your anger, smiling with everybody. Mother’s advice to a schoolgirl.

However, one does not smile with the mouth alone, for the whole face is engaged in a real smile. The sparkle Mother had in her smiling eyes never faded away. Angelo Cardinal Comastri told a personal story of Mother Teresa that has to do with her smiling eyes. The cardinal remembers Mother participating in a celebration of profession of new religious sisters in a Roman parish, when a photographer was bothering Mother by taking flash pictures right in front of her face. The cardinal intervened, asking the photographer not to bother Mother by taking pictures when she was praying. The photographer responded rather bluntly by saying that Mother Teresa was not attractive, but her eyes were the happiest that he had ever seen. How, the photographer wondered, this was possible? Cardinal Comastri was shocked by the comment and at the end of the celebration, he repeated to Mother what the photographer had commented about her eyes. To his great surprise and with her usual wit she responded: “My eyes are happy, because my hands have dried many tears. Try it, I can assure you that works like this.”

The great poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) reflected on the smile and smiling, and on how expressive one can be using the eyes. Dante made “the smile” (Sorriso – noun and sorridere the verb to smile) the hallmark of his work, and the reflection on the topic of smile marked one of Dante’s original contributions to Christian art, poetry, and iconography, as well as to Christian and theological imagination. Smile accompanied Dante in his journeys toward the beatific vision of God as he was journeying through Inferno and Paradiso.

Until the middle of the thirteenth century, people in ecclesiastical circles argued about whether or not Christ had ever smiled during his life on earth. Yes, “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35), but did he really smile? For Dante, the soul operates principally in two places or through two windows both located in people’s faces: the eyes and the mouth. It is through these two “balconies,” as he called them, that people reveal their souls: the gaze in the eye when people gaze at them intentionally and in the mouth through the sweet smile. He asks in The Convivio:

What is laughter if not a coruscation of the soul’s delight – that is, a light appearing outwardly just as it is within? … She reveals herself in the eyes so clearly that the emotion present in her may be recognized by anyone who gazes at them intently. (Book 3, chapter 8)

Obviously, by wearing a face mask, the mouth will be impaired in making any expressions. What will remain to us in a post-pandemic world, at least for a while, will be the eyes, and the deep dive one will be eager to take through the window of a person’s eyes to discern and understand the soul.

The hope for academia is that by September, we will be able to return to normal, to face-to-face classes on campus. Students will return and flock to what have now become ghost campuses. Maybe by then we will not be required to wear face masks, but even if the face mask will be a requirement, I hope that I will have learned to read people’s faces and give a smile with my own eyes. The pandemic can never destroy or conquer human relations; it cannot atrophy our smiles. With face masks or without, I will continue to smile big any and every time, hoping to share some light from my soul with all I meet.


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About Ines Angeli Murzaku 19 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia/) is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, Director of Catholic Studies Program and the Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University. She earned a doctorate of research from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome part of the Pontifical Gregorian University Consortium and has held visiting positions at the Universities of Bologna and Calabria in Italy and University of Münster in Germany. She is a regular commentator to media outlets on religious matters. She has worked for or collaborated with the Associated Press, CNN, Catholic World Report, National Catholic Register, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, The Record, The Stream, Vatican Radio (Vatican City), and EWTN (Rome). Dr. Murzaku is currently writing a book on St. Mother Teresa entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries who Became Catholicism’s Center Piece to be published by Paulist Press in 2020.

3 Comments

  1. Vergil in his Fourth Ecologue (widely regarded in the Middle Ages as a pagan prophecy of the Messiah’s birth)wrote: “Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem” (Begin, little boy to recognize your mother by her smile)!
    Dr Murzaku is certainly onto something.

    • Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar reveals that his entire corpus of theological works–dozens and dozens of volumes–all pivots off the moment when a new baby sees into the eyes of his mother and smiles for the very first time, instinctively discovering and knowing that he truly belongs, rather than not.

      Balthasar goes on: “Now man exists only in dialogue with he neighbor. The infant is brought to consciousness of himself only by love, by the smile of his mother. In that encounter, the horizon of all unlimited being opens itself for him, revealing four things to him: (1) that he is one in live with the mother, even in being other than his mother, therefore all being is one; (2) that love is good, therefore all Being is good; (3) that that love is true, therefore all Being is true; and (4) that love evokes joy, therefore all Being is beautiful” (My Work in Retrospect, Communio/Ignatius, 1993, p. 114)

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