And so the portraits march through the new century, all unsmiling men of determination, until we get to Msgr. Charlie Durkin, who in 1995 became pastor of what had become a declining parish. He sports a somewhat imbalanced smile, seemingly unsure of how to project gaiety into the Catholic priesthood. In fact, Msgr. Durkin was removed from his pastorate on charges of homosexual activity with minors. From Father Charlie on, all of the pastors make heroic efforts to smile into the camera, including my own picture. For this wall of history, I choose a snapshot that sports my most winning smile. After all, we want to win souls for Christ, and we do so with honey better than vinegar.
This morning I was working my way through the Book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of Vanities,” the sage begins. “All is Vanity.” In Chapter 8 he denounces levity. “Better the day of death than the day of birth,” he writes. “Better sadness than laughter, a severe face confers some benefit…. For laughter makes a fool of the wise man and merriment corrupts the heart.”
Our Jewish fathers considered it bad form to smile. Chuckling and chortling, for a good Hebrew, were to be used sparingly. And yet Nehemiah told the Israelites (in Chapter 8 of his book) not to weep or give into sadness, for “rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.” The distinction is between a smile artificially projected to the outside and a smile naturally emanating from within. A contractor friend told me yesterday how difficult it was to renovate the wealthiest homes in San Francisco. “The owners are such miserable people,” he said. An LG Smile (“Life is Good,” especially when you can afford LG Home Theatre systems for your house) is unsure of itself, but a smile radiating from “the simple joy of knowing Jesus" (Mother Teresa's words) cannot fail. This life is a “Vale of Tears,” but how is it that the saints radiate joy in the depths of this Dark Valley? Mother Teresa’s canonization portrait shows a radiant smile, even though she was an old woman in the slums of Calcutta. “Let us always meet each other with a smile,” she wrote, “for a smile is the beginning of love.” Mother Teresa was not thinking of the plastic smile we get from greeters at Walmart (God bless them!).
“Some time ago,” she recalls, “a big group of professors from the United States came to our house in Calcutta. Before leaving, they said to me, ‘Tell us something that will help us to become holy.’ And I said to them, “Smile at each other’ (because we have no time even to look at each other). And one of them asked me, ‘Are you married, Mother Teresa?’ I said, ‘Yes, and I find it sometimes very difficult to smile at Jesus for He can be very demanding.’”
Should we smile for our portraits, or present a rather more sober aspect? I return to the book of Ecclesiastes. “For everything there is a season. There is a time for tears, and a time for laughter.” Wisdom consists in knowing when and how to smile. I would say, especially as the social order careens into steep decline, that we should sober up a bit. We should laugh a little less and apply ourselves a little more to the great needs of our moment: to rebuild and to restore right worship, true wisdom, and a sober assessment of first principles and final ends. This will allow true joy to radiate from us.