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We know Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of the incomparable The Little Prince. The acclaimed French writer and pilot, who fought against the Nazis, also wrote other books and stories. Among the stories I have read, one stands out: The Smile (Le Sourire). I read it again and decided to comment on it and share it with my generous readers.

This story is probably autobiographical. Saint-Exupery was then fighting on the side of the political left in power in the Spanish Civil War. He was captured and jailed. He thought that he would be executed the next day.  He was not. The following lovely story tells us why.

“I was sure that I was to be killed. I became terribly nervous and distraught. I fumbled in my pockets to see if there were any cigarettes which had escaped their search. I found one and because of my shaking hands, I could barely get it to my lips. But I had no matches, they had taken those.

“I looked through the bars at my jailer. He did not make eye contact with me. After all, one does not make eye contact with a thing, a corpse. I called out to him ‘Have you got a light, por favor?’ He looked at me, shrugged and came over to light my cigarette.

“As he came close and lit the match, his eyes inadvertently locked with mine. At that moment, I smiled. I don’t know why I did that. Perhaps it was nervousness, perhaps it was because, when you get very close, one to another, it is very hard not to smile. In any case, I smiled. In that instant, it was as though a spark jumped across the gap between our two hearts, our two human souls. I know he didn’t want to, but my smile leaped through the bars and generated a smile on his lips, too. He lit my cigarette but stayed near, looking at me directly in the eyes and continuing to smile.

“I kept smiling at him, now aware of him as a person and not just a jailer. And his looking at me seemed to have a new dimension, too. ‘Do you have kids?’ he asked. ‘Yes, here, here.’ I took out my wallet and nervously fumbled for the pictures of my family. He, too, took out the pictures of his ‘niños’ and began to talk about his plans and hopes for them. My eyes filled with tears. I said that I feared that I’d never see my family again, never have the chance to see them grow up. Tears came to his eyes, too.

“Suddenly, without another word, he unlocked my cell and silently led me out. Out of the jail, quietly and by back routes, out of the town! There, at the edge of town, he released me. And without another word, he turned back toward the town. “My life was saved by a smile.”

His life was spared by a look and a smile! In this story, we can see how significant a look may be. A look may be an indifferent look (apathetic), a bad look (hateful) and a good look (empathetic). As human beings, as men and women of good will, many among us look at people with respect and kindness, and never with an evil look, which poisons the soul.  

Jesus always had a compassionate look. Not only for the widow, the leper, the beggar, but for all: “I feel compassion of the crowd” (Mk 6:34). I love his healing in stages of a blind man at Bethsaida: first, Jesus takes the blind man away from the crowd to the outskirts of the town; then he puts saliva on the blind man’s eyes (the blind man opens his eyes; he can only see people as moving trees); then Jesus puts his hands on the eyes of the blind man again, and “looked intently” - and his sight was restored. Jesus looked intently with great compassion (cf. Mk 8:22-25). Christians are invited to look at others with “a contemplative outlook” that reveals to us that every person is the living image of God (St. John Paul II); with a “contemplative gaze” that sees others with the eyes of God and sees Christ in them (Pope Francis).

Looking at a breathtaking landscape, at a spectacular sunset, at a clean blue sky at night illumined by the white moon and thousands of bright stars, at the leaves of a tree being gently moved by a light wind, at the elegant eagle flight … make us smile serenely: “God gave us the eyes to see the heavens and his whole creation, the beauty of creatures, and to contemplate God’s mysteries” (St. Catherine of Siena).

A child looks at us with wondering eyes. We smile and the child returns to us a lovely innocent smile. Indeed, a kind look, a joyful smile will reap a kind look and a joyful smile in the one who receives it. All the saints have a kind smile, even when they are hurting. As someone said, “the greatest of their gifts was [and is] their smile.”

We all remember gladly and nostalgically a special smile. The best smile I have received in my life: my mother’s. She was already gravely ill. I was then in Manila and was told to go to Madrid as soon as possible to be with her on her final days. As I entered the hospital room and saw her, our eyes met and she said to me with an incomparable, unique smile: “I knew you would come.”

The Little Prince is going back home to his little planet. His friend, the pilot, who is also going home, could not bear the thought of the little prince departure: “I knew that I could not bear the thought of never hearing that laughter anymore.” And adds: “For me it was like a spring of fresh water in the desert.”

A look, a smile, laughter can be like a spring of fresh water in the desert of our life! “A smile is often the most essential thing. One is repaid by a smile. One is rewarded by a smile. One is animated by a smile” (Saint-Exupery).