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 is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.