There is a store in Manhattan, on the city’s west side. It is a small place. I passed it not too long ago and noticed some writing on the window. I stopped and read the words: “Behind All This Some Great Happiness is Hiding.”
The words were done in what looked to be white paint, and below the words, behind the window, were hundreds of items offered for sale. There were colorful vases and books about nature. There were beads made from shiny stones and balloons of different colors. Old photos were in frames, propped up against porcelain dolls that looked as old as the photographs. It looked to be a store that sold collectibles and a real potpourri of odds and ends, and everything in between.
An electric bulb glowed amidst it all—though I could not tell if that, too, was for sale. Everything lacked any kind of arrangement. It was all placed willy-nilly, which somehow added to the charm of the place. It was like looking at a display of treasures that might be found in an old attic. The stuff was dusty — it all looked like it had not been touched in a long time.
A man stood next to me and was looking at the items, his eyes slowly taking in one item after another.
I suppose that the words on the window were there to entice a passerby to come into the store and perhaps discover something that would provide happiness. Neither I nor the man went into the store. We both stayed a while, just looking, and then went our ways. The window words stayed with me as I walked toward the Port Authority, where I was to catch a bus to get back to my hometown. I was giving a mission in a parish and had written out the talk for that evening and had brought it with me. I would go over it again while riding the bus.
Is there any great happiness in life? Is there something we can discover and then entice it or buy it or perhaps steal it from its hiding place? Does happiness lie beneath a magic stone or a concealed heart, or is it tucked away in a book, a tabernacle, a distant place?
I had lunch with my brother Johnny on that day, and it was good to be with him. I had arrived a bit early and waited outside his office building, on West 57th Street. I sat on a low, street-level ledge of the building and watched the passersby. A man approached me and asked for some money, and I gave him a few dollars. He thanked me and went on his way.
I remember feeling happy but did not think about it at the time. I love Manhattan, and it was good to be there again, to watch the people and feel kind of small in such a shifting sea of humanity. Happiness seems to come on its own and settle in my heart for a while. Then it moves on, perhaps to someone else who needs it, and then perhaps it stays there, in that person’s heart, for a while. I do not think I have ever known a happiness that lasted for a very long time. It seems to move on when I have to move on to something else or somewhere else.
It is not that I get unhappy at those times—perhaps preoccupied is a better word. When I am still and can take in what is all about me, that makes me kind of happy. I am not looking for anything at such times. I just let things arrive.
Johnny walked out of his building and saw me right away—we hugged each other and then headed for a small, nearby café. I was happy, sitting there with him, talking about family and just catching up on things. People chatted all around us. Manhattan is a city that constantly speaks, in hundreds of languages. I suppose that a good part of what is said in all those languages has to do with happiness, in one way or another. If you lose it, you talk or even cry about it. If you find it, you talk about that, too, and maybe even cry.
The allure of finding happiness
It was just a short while later that I saw the window and its allure of finding happiness. I took a picture of it. I may pass by that window again someday, and, between now and then, I know that the happiness that comes my way will come as a gift. I know I cannot buy it or coerce it to come from all the places it hides. These days, I am happy writing about it, for I know that it is real, and when it comes it can be shared. It is like a bird who returns again and again to a place it seems to like in my heart.
It is written in Genesis that after Cain slew his brother Abel, he was marked on his forehead by God, so that no one would kill him. Then Cain left the Lord’s presence and went to live in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Manhattan is a vast city, teeming with people from all over the world, and every one of them seeks happiness. Bereft of the immediate presence of the Lord, we all seek the happiness that his presence alone can bring. It does seem to hide behind all that we know and encounter, be it just behind a window or around the next corner or in the heart of one we hope to love forever.
That little shop on the west side of Manhattan speaks to the longing east in each of us. Like Cain, we feel the mark of being lost on this earth and spend our lives in search of a way to get back to Eden. We may hope to possess that way by buying it or marrying it or taking it. But it is never enough. The Eden we long for is as elusive as our dreams. Yet it beckons—we are marked by God to seek it, to seek him.
But every now and then an awareness of his presence arrives, and it is always on the street side of the window — it is within you, seeing life in all its passing beauty and doing so with no need to take it, for it reveals itself as a living gift — and you are able to see the eternal through it.
I lingered for a while in front of the store and then moved on, walking slowly, heading east, hoping to hold for a while the happiness that came my way from the other side of a window without my having to enter it and browse, seeking what it offered.
Father Behrens is a Trappist monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. His most recent book is Portraits of Grace: Images and Words from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit .