The Austere Offices of Manhood
Louis R. Tarsitano on the Labors of Christian Fathers
My literature students read a poem called “Those Winter Sundays,” by Robert Hayden. It begins with a description of the writer’s father getting up by himself on Sundays and making the fire, “with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather.” Called when the house was warm, the writer would get dressed,
. . . fearing the chronic angers of that house.
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know,
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
I would like to tell you that these lines move my students to tears, or at least to some sort of paternal piety or reminiscence, but they mostly treat them like a message in code from another universe. After all, the poem was written in 1962, and that’s ancient history.
The one line that stands out for them concerns “the chronic angers of that house.” Too many of them have known angry households, or are living in them still. They can identify with anger and disorder, but almost no one notices that the father has polished his son’s good shoes on that Sunday morning so that they can go to church together. Fewer still are capable of considering that whatever that father brings home from church “of love’s austere and lonely offices” may be the one frayed ligament holding that family together.
The First Vocation
A sociologist could probably provide a list of books to explain the general blankness that greets this poem. We would read of “cultural movements,” “generation gaps,” and “the redefinition of the family,” all in the cause of explaining a new sort of person naïve enough to believe that heat comes from thermostats, money comes from plastic cards, food comes from microwaves, and love comes from individual self-fulfillment. The real reason, however, is both simpler and more dire. Not very many young people today have encountered an ordinary, faithful, fallible, struggling Christian father.
To be a husband and a father is the first vocation. If it were not for sin and the complications of a fallen world, it would be the only vocation, other than the complementary vocation to be a wife and a mother. Adam’s calling from the beginning was to be a walking, talking, personal demonstration of the goodness of divine Providence. The Father in heaven made human fathers on earth to represent him, not as tin gods, but as flesh-and-blood extensions of his own love and care for every one of us.
The high calling and responsibility of fatherhood continue today, but as God warned Adam when he expelled him from the Garden of Eden for his sin, it is now a responsibility that must be exercised “in the sweat of thy face” (Gen. 3:19). This warning applies to every man and boy in the world.
To be a man is to be born with the obligation of earning our livings and supporting our families in the sweat of our faces. To be a man under God is to labor with our bodies, minds, souls, and hearts for others and to learn from Jesus Christ the duties of “love’s austere and lonely offices.” We are to provide, not merely the material things of this world that pass away, but more importantly, the things of the spirit that last forever, as God will give us the grace and power so to do. This is what we vow at baptism, at confirmation, in matrimony, and in holy orders, wherever and however God calls us to his service as men.
Louis R. Tarsitano (d. 2005), a former associate editor of Touchstone, was a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew?s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He also was the co-author, with Peter Toon, of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).
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