A Smile Is the Beginning of Love: The Little Way of Mother Teresa

St. Teresa of Calcutta treated each individual with dignity and love, and her every encounter began with a smile.

Mother Teresa greets a child at the Gift of Love Home on Oct. 20, 1993, in Singapore.
Mother Teresa greets a child at the Gift of Love Home on Oct. 20, 1993, in Singapore. (photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP via Getty Images)

“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”

These words, spoken by St. Teresa of Calcutta, known more familiarly as Mother Teresa, are typical of the petite holy woman both for their simplicity and their wisdom.

Although she worked among “the poorest of the poor,” Mother Teresa rightly noted that it was not material destitution that brought the most suffering, but the pain of loneliness and being unloved. While she spent much of her life ministering to the poor in very tangible ways — feeding them, clothing them and bathing them — it was the manner in which she did this that ignited her work with Christ’s love. She treated each individual with dignity and love, and her every encounter began with a smile.

We are all called to discern God’s will in our lives, and to live out that will to the best of our abilities. But few of us are asked to travel halfway around the world from our home and loved ones in order to found a religious order in the world’s poorest slums. We are commanded to love those around us as deeply and as profoundly as Mother Teresa loved the poor of Calcutta, but what does this look like? For some it will indeed include missionary work and work among the poverty-stricken, but for most of us, our daily acts of love will not include walking through the streets bringing the sick and dying into our home.

In this question we can still look to Mother Teresa and learn from her wisdom. We can smile. Indeed we can do much more than that through volunteering, prayer and almsgiving, but even with those efforts we will not be able to serve everyone. However, we can provide a smile for all those we meet, and we should do nothing less.

I remember when I worked in Washington, DC, and rode the metro daily. Commuters hurried from destination to destination, endlessly scrolling or tuned into the latest podcast on their phone. No one spared a glance for anyone around them. I rarely took out my phone on these journeys — not out of any surplus of virtue, I should note, but rather because I had limited data on my phone plan — and as a result I was granted the opportunity to observe those around me. It was difficult to ignore how unnatural the whole scene was. Dozens of men and women, packed into close quarters, barely acknowledging the existence of those around them. People actively avoided eye contact and often shrank back lest there be any human contact. Yet when I did witness a brief aberration from this insulation, perhaps a younger rider giving up his seat for an older passenger, or a small smile of apology for bumping another traveler, I was struck by the beauty of it. There was something uniquely moving about seeing an exchanged smile and watching the demeanor of both the giver and recipient shift ever so slightly for the better.

Given her sanctified status, it seems likely Mother Teresa was onto something true when she said a smile is the beginning of love. We may not be in a stage of life where we can give freely of our funds or time, but let us not be stingy with our smiles, to those we already know and love, but even more so to the strangers we meet every day. We smile when we see something good, something lovely. A sweet puppy or a particularly beautiful flower. If these small things warrant a grin, how much more so do our fellow pilgrims, each bearing the inestimable value of a creation made in the image and likeness of God?

‘Rowing Team’

The Commonly Misunderstood Common Good

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