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,
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.
Can such a life be possible? It is not, if we surrender to the same false doctrines of self-esteem and self-regard that have befuddled my students and so many like them, depriving them of the example and presence of godly men. It is not, if we waste our lives living to please and to amuse ourselves. It is not, if we are waiting to be thanked or honored in this world for doing our duty. But a life of genuine manhood is possible, if we look to the source and perfect image of all manly virtue, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ hanging on the cross.
Pontius Pilate said, “Behold the man,” and for once he was right. Our Lord is a man as the Father intends a man to be. He is strong enough to bear the burdens of the whole world. He is brave enough to face down the terrors of death, trusting in his heavenly Father to give him victory even over death. And now that our Lord has won his victory, he will share it with anyone who is man enough to take up the crosses of this life and to follow after him.
Humility, Courage & Honor
The first step is humility. As St. Peter wrote: “Be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:5–7). Our Lord humbled himself before his Father and achieved the salvation of the world. Our achievements as men will follow from the same courage to be humble and to trust in God for ourselves, for our families, and for all that we love.
Humility is courage in action. It is the courage to be known as a Christian on the job and on the street, and not just in private. It is the courage to teach and to live the difference between right and wrong. It is the courage to act as God’s representative within the home, to be a man of God, knowing that at times we will fail and need to ask forgiveness both of God and of those we love. It is the courage to be imperfect and yet to seek perfection in Jesus Christ. It is the courage to commit the sweat of our faces to the commandments of grace.
Given the hard work that it takes to be a Christian man, it isn’t surprising that around the world every Sunday morning perpetual boys throng the golf courses, sleep off Saturday night, or otherwise occupy themselves with pleasures instead of worshiping their God in his Church. They may even feel like he-men for doing so, but they’re not. They are leaving a hole in their families, where a grown-up Christian man is supposed to be. They are leaving a hole in the churches, where boys are meant to learn how to be Christian men from the society of Christian men, and where girls are meant to learn from observation the difference between a godly man and a moral slob.
Like it or not, a man never makes a decision just for himself, but always for his family and dependents, for his society, and for the world. God offers all Christians, but men in particular, a challenge and a promise: As St. Peter put it, “But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you” (1 Peter 5:10).
The challenge is to dedicate our lives to the glory of God, including a ceaseless witness to the perfect fatherhood of the Father in heaven. The price is to suffer a while—to gain and to provide in Jesus Christ what is eternal, at the cost of self-discipline and self-sacrifice in the here and now. The promise is to build with God—to build a family of blood and spirit for God to make perfect in grace, for God to establish in his power, for God to make strong by the Holy Ghost, and for God to settle forever in his own kingdom.
Every family has a Father in heaven, but every family does not have a father on earth—even those who have a male in the house. It is the essence of God-given manhood to be an earthly father in God’s Name, both after the flesh and after the spirit. The call to be a father, and a father to the fatherless, is the great, too-infrequently-tapped resource of Christianity for reform, for the protection of the innocent, and for the spread of God’s kingdom. The world around us bleeds for the lack of an army of responsible Christian men.
We honor our fathers every year on Fathers’ Day, and we should. But we will honor them best if we demand of ourselves and of each other that we be Christian men as they were. The very best of them have shown us the way to walk, day by day, in the footsteps of the Man Jesus Christ, bearing the burdens of others, building the kingdom of God, and sharing the fellowship of “love’s austere and lonely offices” until we are called home by our Father in heaven.
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“The Austere Offices of Manhood” first appeared in the June 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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