Human beings delight in the world with their five senses that see beauty, hear music, feel comfort, taste deliciousness, and smell fragrance. They feel pleasure and pain, and they experience a range of emotions from tears to laughter. They also have the capacity to be moved, touched, and stirred in the depths by joys and acts of goodness that penetrate to the center of the heart and soul. From time to time human life affords a person a rare moment of the most exquisite and purest form of happiness when he feels profoundly touched by the wonder of beauty, the greatness of love, or by the revelation of a mystery that evokes awe. These unforgettable experiences provide a sense of the transcendent that illuminates man’s spiritual nature as a reflection of the image of God. Life provides some special moments that melt a person’s heart with an abundant, overflowing happiness that expresses itself in the tears of joy. The experience of the sacred at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the beauty of a piece of classical music or Gregorian chant, the eloquent words of a master poet, or the simple words of a compliment or a gracious act of thoughtful, sensitive courtesy can all pierce the soul and reach a person on the deepest human level.
When the priest in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Brothers” witnesses an older brother’s reactions of the deepest heartfelt joy at the performance of his younger brother’s poised, accomplished acting in a play, the brother cannot restrain the cries of bursting joy. Harry, the older brother, “in his hands he has flung/ His tear-tricked cheeks of flame/For fond love and for shame—.” Hoping to escape notice by watching from the wall away from the audience, Harry hopes to avoid embarrassment as he privately expresses unrestrained emotions and an open display of tears. However, when the priest in the poem (Hopkins) finds himself observing Harry’s intense involvement and identification with his younger brother’s stage debut (“For, wrung all on love’s rack, /My lad, and lost in Jack, /Smiled, blushed, and bit his lip, /Or drove, with a diver’s dip, / Clutched hands through clasped knees”), the priest is profoundly moved by Harry’s great joy for his brother’s success. As the priest sees Harry trying to hide his tears and appear unnoticed, he witnesses the beauty of the pure heart. Barely able to control his own emotion at glimpsing the image of God shining in the affection of a brother, the priest too cannot suppress his own tears at the sight of such devoted love: “Nature, bad, base, and blind, / Dearly thou canst be kind; / There dearly then, dearly,/ Dearly thou canst be kind.”
In the concluding chapter of Alcott’s Little Women, the sixtieth birthday celebration of Mrs. March coincides with the New England custom of the apple-picking holiday, the harvest of the field which also corresponds to the fruitfulness of the family as three generations are gathered to enjoy the occasion of both the apple harvest and the birthday party: “Everybody was there; everybody laughed and sang, climbed up and down; everybody declared that there had never been such a perfect day or such a jolly set to enjoy it.” As Mrs. March beholds the happy marriages of her children and flourishing lives of her grandchildren, she marvels at the abundance of not only the harvest of apples but also of the family’s fruits of love—the deep fulfillment of a long life of love of children and marital fidelity that has blessed three generations:
Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility—
“Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!”
This experience not only moves Mrs. March with the greatest of joys and most profound appreciation for all the affection, gifts, and congratulations she receives on this special occasion, but also touches her daughters who also cherish the same love of life for all the blessings that satisfy the deepest desires of the heart. Jo, the second daughter, best expresses the feelings that all the other daughters share as they witness the ineffable joy that fills their hearts in seeing their mother’s happiness: “I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world.” Their cups “runneth over.”
In Homer’s Odyssey, the Greek hero of the Trojan War, absent from his home for twenty years, returns to Ithaca as a beggar in disguise to assess the state of his family and his country before he reveals his identity. In the course of his investigation, Odysseus witnesses sights and hears words that evoke the fondest memories of his past and touch him deeply. He sees a faithful swineherd, Eumaeus, carrying out his duties on the farm with the same diligence and dedication as if his master were alive and present. Eumaeus even says before his master in disguise, “Here I sit, yearning and mourning for the best of masters and fattening his hogs . . . ,” and he later remarks, “For I shall never find so kind a master again wherever I may go, not even if I return to my parents’ home . . . . He loved me and took thought for me beyond all others. And, though he is far away, I shall think of him as my beloved lord.” Odysseus cannot help but be touched by these words.
Later, when Odysseus sees his beloved dog Argus (“who now pricked up his ears and raised his head”) wagging his tail at the recognition of his master, the Greek hero recalls the exhilarating hunting he enjoyed in his youth with his faithful companion, “a marvel at picking up the scent” who never let any game escape. Melted by the recollection of these happy days of adventure with a loyal dog, Odysseus “brushed away a tear, without showing any sign of emotion to the swineherd . . . .” When the queen gives orders for the vagabond to receive the welcome due to a suppliant, the maidservant Eurycleia, washing the feet of the beggar, notices a scar on Odysseus’ leg—the one she cleaned when he was visiting his grandparents and hunting with his uncles. While she is washing his feet, Odysseus recalls the affection and devotion of the servant “who took him in her arms the moment he was born” and cared for him in his childhood. The memory of the scar reminds Odysseus of the great love and affection of his grandparents and the special joy and welcome he always received when he visited them: His grandfather and uncles “shook him warmly by the hand, and his grandmother, Amphitee, drew her arms around his neck and kissed him on the forehead and on both his eyes.” The tears naturally appear and flow as Odysseus realizes how deeply he is remembered and cherished.
When he approaches his wife Penelope as a vagabond with some knowledge of her husband, he hears Penelope say, “I simply wear my heart out in longing for Odysseus,” and when the beggar invents the story of once entertaining Odysseus, “the tears poured from Penelope’s eyes and bedewed her cheeks.” Odysseus in disguise is even more touched when Penelope perfectly recalls all the clothes she packed for her husband twenty years ago as he sailed for the Trojan War, mentioning that she chose the thick purple cloak and golden brooch with great care and love: “It was I who gave him those clothes . . .; I who took them from the store-room; I who folded them and put in the bright brooch as an ornament for him.” All these tears in his absence, all these loving touches in her care for her husband, and all these poignant memories reach Odysseus at the center of his humanity as evidence of how dearly loved and missed he has been all these years. When the beggar finally discloses his real identity, “Penelope’s surrender melted Odysseus’ heart, and he wept as he held his dear wife in his arms, so loyal and so true.”
When Odysseus finally approaches his aged father Laertes to convince him of his return, Odysseus recounts another one of these touching scenes from the past. He reminds Laertes of a tender episode from the past when father and son planted fruit trees together in the orchard: “I was only a little boy at the time, trotting after you in the orchard, begging for this and that, and as we wound our way through these very trees you told me all their names.” As Odysseus names the thirteen pear trees, ten apple trees, and forty fig trees they planted, the doubting father of Odysseus melts into tears as “with trembling knees and bursting heart he flung his arms around the neck of his beloved son, and stalwart Odysseus caught him fainting to his breast.” These cherished moments of life’s sweetness, most tender emotions, and happiest memories reach persons on the deepest level of their moral sensibility. They touch the essence of life’s goodness, beauty, and love that always speaks to the heart and stirs the soul.
Without such touching moments, warm memories, affectionate bonds, and heartfelt expressions, true human happiness is wanting. These are the most exquisite sources of joy that hint of life’s abundant goodness and make a person’s life full of meaning, purpose, and significance. To see in the kindness of the human heart the image of God, to behold all the happiness that one loving family like the Marches brings into the world, and to know how much one is esteemed and valued as Odysseus does in his homecoming prove the ultimate worth of the true, the good, and the beautiful as the prizes and treasures that make them the greatest riches of a lifetime of love, commitment, devotion, and sacrifice.