A Clean Heart

My father was the least prudish man I’ve ever known, taking the ordinary goodness of the body completely for granted. That meant, of course, that he turned away from prurient things with sheer indifference, or bemused contempt.

One day I was watching on television the BBC’s production of The Tempest, a silly affair featuring an androgynous soft-bellied Ariel and other brown-skinned spirits wearing the tiniest of loincloths for the front end, and nothing for the back.

My father walked by just when twenty of these nekkid spirits were dancing for the benefit of the newly betrothed Ferdinand and Miranda. Shakespeare wrote that scene as a tribute to the goodness and bounty of chaste married love, but it might as well have been stripped Tahitians dancing to entice Fletcher Christian and his fellow long-frustrated English tars.

My father stopped, stared, and shot me an ironical smile. “What,” he asked, “is this?”
“It’s Shakespeare’s Tempest,” I said. “Hm,” he replied, and walked away. I turned the thing off and found something better to do.

Only once did I ever hear him blurt out an obscenity. Oh, he could be vulgar enough if he rammed his thumb with a hammer, but obscenities, never; except once, when he was the manager of a Babe Ruth league baseball club.

My brother was the starting center fielder; the shortstop was a speedy little fellow with an attitude. On this particular day the shortstop was warming the bench, because he’d missed practice without any excuse. His father was in the bleachers.

Our team was losing, and that set the father a-going. He was a skinny man with a motor where Nature has seen fit to locate the mouths of most men, and he was walking with a cane, having recently broken his leg. All he did, inning after inning, within twenty feet of the dugout, was curse, flap his lips, and abuse my father, calling him stupid, accusing him of playing favorites, ridiculing his decisions in the game, shouting nasty things, and making his son on the bench hang his head for shame.

Then all at once my father had had enough, and he looked over the fence at the heckler and told him to shut his mouth, using, to modify the object of that infinitive, a present participle I’d never heard on his lips before, and adding that if the fan did not perform said operation, he would be glad to perform it for him.

“Go ahead,” said the heckler, brandishing his cane. “Hit me! Hit me! I’ll have your house!”

     God the Father by Cima da Conegliano, c. 1515

The poor son stared at his feet in dead silence. Then the umpire ordered the heckler off the grounds, under threat of a forfeit, and that was that.

My father never told foul jokes or listened to them. That wasn’t because he thought he was better than other people; he’d have said, if you asked him, that he wasn’t interested in that stuff. He never gossiped, nor did he listen to gossip. He was a keen judge of character, but only once or twice in my life did I ever hear him say anything about someone that he would not have said to the person’s face. 

He sold insurance to customers in a far-flung rural area, making money only on commission, never on salary. That meant that he saw fewer prospects in a week than did salesmen who worked the towns, because he had to be on the road a lot. But he liked the farm folk; they were hospitable and talkative, and they appreciated somebody who would tell them, “This is what I’m offering, this is what you have now, this is what my policy costs, this is what yours costs, here’s what we cover that yours doesn’t, here’s what yours covers that ours doesn’t,” and so forth.

My brother, who learned the trade from him, has told me that sometimes he’d plainly tell the prospects that they should sit tight, and they’d end up fairly begging him to let them buy something.   

Farmers may live far apart from one another in miles, but they still live among one another in the reality of sweat and shared work and celebration. So my father quickly gained a reputation for friendliness, clarity, and unshakeable honesty, often fighting for his clients against his own company.

“You can make a dirty sale,” he said to my brother, “but it’s like stepping into a pile of cow manure. It will be months before you get the stink out.”

My father had a clean heart. He’d grown up in a time when you might expect that of a hard working, well brought-up young man who had served at Mass for many years as a boy, and whose pastor and mother both wanted him to become a priest. 

“Blessed are the clean of heart,” says Jesus, “for they shall see God.” My father was Italian, not Welsh, but I like very much what the Welshman calls the Holy Spirit, because it connects that mysterious beatitude with one of Jesus’ most encouraging promises.

“Which father among you,” says Jesus, “if his son should ask him for an egg, would give him a snake?  Or if he should ask for a fish, would give him a scorpion?  But if you, who are evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” Welsh has a word for holy, but not here; the third Person of the Trinity is yr Ysbryd Glan: literally, the Clean Spirit.

“A clean heart create in me, O God,” sings the Psalmist, “and a right spirit renew within me.”  My father’s body is now dust, but it was, and will be again, a temple of the Clean Spirit; and I only wish that his son’s will shine half so bright. 

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He directs the Center for the Restoration of Catholic Culture at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts.

  • Jack,CT

    You had me i tears,my Lord
    you are blessed to have
    that man!
    I will pray for all of you

  • Ryan

    Beautiful remembrance of your father. It tug at me for those times I have not lived up to God’s calling, enticing me to become a better dad. And one who shuns gossip!

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    I had a discussion with my 40 year old son this morning on his way to work who was bemoaning his having to travel to the People’s Republic of Maryland from Virginia to earn his living. We got to talking about his 7 year old son and some recent misbehaviors that called for fatherly intervention. We finally arrived at the zenith of our discussion on the role of fatherhood and his need to march his son to the confessional this Saturday over an infraction at school. We talked further about images of God as Father – neither tyrannical nor irresolute – and how his fatherly interventions were going to greatly influence his son’s developing notion of who God is as Father. We both agreed however that so many of our culture’s problems can be laid at the feet of children growing up fatherless. Would that God the Father send his Holy Spirit to restore fathers to their rightful role in our current social morass.

  • Briana

    What a wonderful role model for a young person like me to look up to! I hope one day I can have a clean heart like your wonderful dad did! 🙂

  • Maggie Goff

    Oh my goodness, I knew what I wanted to say, and Jack, CT said it before me. I can hardly see to type this. Thank you for this beautiful post.

  • Jeanne Marie Booth

    I need to confess that I was to the end of this beautiful paen to fatherhood before reading the name of the author. Happy fault…as I would have geared myself for a joyful read as I do anything I come upon authored by Anthony Esolen (thanks to a most edifying pastor many years ago, Deo gratias).
    So it was, sans gear, sans expectations, that something unexpectedly tugged, dug, sprouted, grew, flowered and drew the dew from a still unsurrendered fatherwound. How beautifully vivid! From what I have read of your work and viewed of your conferences seems ’tis true…the fruit does not fall far from the tree. It is so very gracious to hear you speak of your family in the midst of interviews/conferences…and that you have your priorities well ordered. Blessed day of fathers on this Sunday of The Most Sacred Trinity!

  • Manny

    I loved this Mr. Esolen. You’re a good son.

  • Derek

    This was very nice.

    It reminded me of what I am called to be.

    God bless your dad.

  • Angelee Sailer Anderson

    ” . . . I only wish that his son’s will shine half so bright.”

    As I said on my Facebook share of this essay, it already does, Dr. Tony.

  • Mr. Levy

    Thank you, Prof. Esolen. Your father was lucky to have such an observant and pious son.

    Would you be willing to expound further, even a sentence or two, on your understanding of the distinction you draw between “vulgar” and “obscene”? I understand the roots of each word – (vulgar – relating to the common crowd; obscene – offensive to the tastes or senses) – but is your view that, in English today, the word “vulgar” relates generally to matters that are coarse or crude, whereas “obscene” relates more particularly to things lascivious or salacious? Thank you again.

  • Julianne Wiley

    I can honestly say my father was like yours. He once quit a badly needed job at a lumberyard because the other men were verbally beleaguering a new hire in a sexually contemptuous way. My father couldn’t stop their filthy insults against the new guy, and he couldn’t stand to witness it.

    I also never heard him say a mean word, or a stupid one.

  • Jen Nee

    Just lovely!

  • Randall

    Professor Esolen, you do great honor to your father by writing this.

  • JRF

    Dr. Esolen you were blessed and the beautiful thing about it is you realize it. Thanks for sharing. I always envied those who could quote some truth, something wise (not intellectual) something virtuous that their father had told them. I was not so blessed. Then one day while reflecting one my 12 favorite Bible passages that have helped guide me on my journey it donned on me that I had been quoting my “Father” for years and hadn’t appreciated the connection. Who knows, maybe I am envied when declaring to someone who has not heard, well my Father asks, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul”. Happy Father’s day to all fathers!

  • debby

    dear Prof.,
    you have become a larger than life, true Father-figure to those of us who stand (or have stood) in front of the “Father’s Day” card section and experience pain.
    God THE Father provides where men can fall short. You have often given us a glimpse of the Father-heart of God, and i join my brothers and sisters here in thanking you for not holding back.
    i send greetings along with prayers of thanksgiving to God for you, father Tony, and for Fr. Schall, great Saint and Pope but above all Father John Paul 2, father Robert Royal, father Brad Miner, father Austin Ruse. all of you men have shone the light of the Father’s face in your imitation of Christ. i need that, and God knows how to minister and heal. thank you for your vulnerable manhood.
    His Will Be Done and His Kind Blessings to each one of you, through the intercession of St. JP2, i pray for your intentions…amen.