Smiling during Lent

A “guest post” from Fr. Pat McNulty from Madonna House:

Did Jesus Laugh?

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

When you fast do not put on a gloomy face like the hypocrites do (Mt. 6:16).

It was the loudest doorbell I had ever heard. And when I pushed the little black button a second time, I was certain that every monk turned toward the door in monastic desperation as if to say, “What? Don’t you know this is a monastery!”

Yet when the door opened, there stood a monk with a smile that was put together with his whole face. It was so delightful I didn’t even notice his almost-shaven head and his foot-long beard.

There is something very special about smiling. So much so that science continues its desperate attempt to explain the phenomenon. Some explanations seem fair and some foolish.

One says that smiling, like exercise, releases powerful natural body elements (endorphins) into our system making it possible for us to tolerate pain more easily. That would make most people I know smile more.

But how about this one: smiling constricts the facial muscles and thus reduces the amount of blood flowing to the brain and temporarily cools it down. The cooler the brain, the happier we are. I guess polar bears must be really happy, huh!

But one thing that is generally agreed on is that there are two kinds of smiles. One involves only the lips and the cheek muscles, and the other involves both these and the eye muscles.

They say you can smile with the cheek and lip muscles even when you are not happy or in agreement with someone else, and most people will never know for sure if it’s a real smile or one put on for the occasion.

But once the eyes are involved the person who is smiled upon can tell exactly what we really mean: it’s there in our eyes.

The cheeks and lips may seem to say, “hello” or “have a nice day,” but the eyes express the real message: “Get a life,” or “Get a job,” or “Don’t bother me, I’m busy.”

I didn’t need any scientific explanation to know immediately, from his eyes, which smile this monk was showering upon me when he opened that monastery door. “Come in, little friend,” he said, “What can I do for you today?” And he meant it.

It didn’t surprise me to learn, not too long after, that I had been staring into the face of Fr. Solanus Casey, who is now up for canonization.

Nor did it surprise me to discover over the years that there were lots more like him in my hometown monastery, monks who would never become famous but whose smiles did.

It was in the eyes, and almost all of them had it.

People often ask, “Did Jesus laugh? I mean, you know, a good ol’ belly laugh?”—as if we might finally find something in common with him if he had.

Well, at least we know that he told us not to be gloomy. When you fast do not put on a gloomy face like the hypocrites do (Mt. 6:16). Gloomy means “dismal, grim, dark, long faced, without laughter.” These are all things you can hide with smiling lips and face muscles but not with the eyes.

You can fast for forty days and forty nights from visiting the mall, from TV, from beer, from coffee, gossip, and eating between meals. You can spend ten hours a day in church on your knees, and then smile like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. But in the end the truth is in the eyes.

So this year it comes to me that maybe a good Lenten discipline which would help me not look gloomy when I fast could be that of simply looking into the mirror every day. Every day I could smile and then look into my own eyes and see what message I find. Do I merely “muscle” my way past other people all day, or does my heart join in the festivities?

I might even go a little further with this Lenten fast from gloom and mention a specific name each day as I look in the mirror and try to smile on that person with my eyes. That ought to crack a mirror or two.

But what if it seems hopeless? What if the mirror on the wall tells me that I am not the fairest of them all, that my smile is just my lips and cheeks? Maybe I could ask Jesus to help me want people to see beyond my own pain and sin into a heart that knows Him anyway and wants them to know Him better, too.

Yes, a Lenten fast from gloom could make Lent go very fast indeed—especially for everyone else around me.

But P. S. you didn’t answer the question: Did Jesus ever laugh?

I would say that if Jesus ever laughed, it was intimately connected to his smiling. And his smile could not have been a polite smile like when you hold a door for someone, or a nodding smile when you pass and greet someone in public, or even the kind of smile you give when someone smiles at you and you return the smile.

Jesus’ smile must have opened up his very heart to those who looked into his eyes. When that happened between him and someone else, I imagine they suddenly smiled “out loud” together. And thus was born, I think, a new kind of laughter.

It must have been something like what happened that day at the monastery door when Fr. Solanus smiled at me: we both started laughing. It was not nervous laugher, and it was not polite laughter.

The laughter flowed through the smile, from the heart, and was visible in the eyes. Suddenly we were smiling together “out loud.”

I remember it with Catherine Doherty, too. Her smile was so profound you knew she was looking into your very soul. At first it was a fearful thing, but then one day you realized she was letting you look into her soul, too, and the fear was gone. And after that, every now and then, unexpectedly, eye-to-eye, you smiled together “out loud.”

Perhaps when Jesus tells us not to be gloomy during our Lenten fast, he is trying to teach us how to smile from the heart so that we notice less and less the other person’s physical condition, social or economic status, woundedness, or personal sins or our memories of the same.

Then perhaps by Easter, we will rise from the gloom-tomb again and suddenly find ourselves smiling together with Jesus “out loud” the laughter of Resurrection.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, what does my smile say to them all?

One thought on “Smiling during Lent

  1. Sr.Dorcee
    I just read this after coming home from a silent retreat.
    I just love thinking about all smiling out loud I experienced with those on retreat where Silence is spoken.

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