“The beard is a masculine ornament, given to us by God not for any practical purpose, but for our dignity.” – St. Augustine
(Roman Catholic brothers, consider skipping this post. I pick on you in it. And if you do not skip it, bear with me in love.)
This past Sunday I experienced something that made me realize, or at least form a theory for, why so few Roman Catholics have beards.
Think about it. This doesn’t prove anything, of course, but think about the Roman Catholics you know. Do any of them have beards? I can think of one or two of my own acquaintance, but overwhelmingly, they are clean-shaven.
Some of this, I believe, is connected with the roman-ness of the Roman Catholic church. Scipio Africanus, the man who defeated Hannibal, and scion of the mid-Republic, is said to have been the first Roman to shave. After him, the Roman fashion was always to be clean shaven, except for brief periods when imitating the Greeks might have been seen to have been fashionable. Shaving was a symbol of being Roman, usually over against being Greek, but also in comparison to the barbarian races.
Shaving was a rite of passage of religious significance for the pagan Romans, and a sign of manhood. Having a long beard meant slovenliness and squalor. The propensity of early Christians to grow a beard signaled two things: the eastern origins of their faith, and their willingness to be seen as other than Roman.
As Europe moved further into the Christian era, the barbarian Christians brought the beard back in. Men had beards. Warriors had beards. Knights had beards. Beardlessness was a sign of extreme youth, or of femininity.
Priests of the Western church began to shave. It became a symbol of celibacy. It became a symbol of control over the flesh and sin. Men have their appetites to kill and rut and grow beards, but the Roman priests overcame that through shavery.
According to a very interesting post at the Catholic Encyclopedia (the complexity of which will allow you to poke holes in this wee little post if you care to, although it will still hold water after you’re done):
The legislation requiring the beard to be shaved seems to have remained in force throughout the Middle Ages. Thus an ordinance of the Council of Toulouse, in 1119, threatened with excommunication the clerics who “like a layman allowed hair and beard to grow”, and Pope Alexander III ordained that clerics who nourished their hair and beard were to be shorn by their archdeacon, by force if necessary. This last decree was incorporated in the text of the canon law (Decretals of Gregory IX, III, tit. i, cap. vii). Durandus, finding mystical reasons for everything, according to his wont, tells us that “length of hair is symbolical of the multitude of sins. Hence clerics are directed to shave their beards; for the cutting of the hair of the beard, which is said to be nourished by the superfluous humours of the stomach, denotes that we ought to cut away the vices and sins which are a superfluous growth in us. Hence we shave our beards that we may seem purified by innocence and humility and that we may be like the angels who remain always in the bloom of youth.” (Rationale, II, lib. XXXII.)
This body is a body of sin; the beard is an unleashing of the body. Therefore mortify the beard.
Thus the scholars of the West, inspired to shave by their connection to a cultural Rome that Frankish kings and Saxon peasants knew nothing of, and driven to shave by their desire to overcome concupiscence, became the clean-cheeked representatives of our faith.
But none of this, I propose, is the reason Roman Catholics today are still shaven.
You may have heard that I have an awesome beard. A beard perhaps worthy even of El Cid, defender of Christians before the Moorish hordes, que en buenhora nació. His wife called him “the perfect beard”. His beard has a facebook page. Of his beard El Mio Cid himself hath said, “Thanks be to almighty God, it is long because it has had much loving care lavished on it. What reproach can you cast on my beard? All my life it has been my chief delight. No woman’s son has ever plucked it and no one… ever tore it.” Truly here, and not in the tonsured scriptoriums, was a paragon of Christian manliness in the Middle Ages.
But could El Mio Cid de Bivar, champion of Christendom, have taken the Lord’s Supper?
“Only if we practice intinction. That will permit the host to pass my mustache unmolested.”
My mustache runs over my lip, as I’m sure the mustache of El Cid Campeador did. This past Sunday, as one of the elders at my church handed me the chalice and I dragged deep and full of the wine, I got to enjoy a second sip courtesy of all the wine still caught in my mustache.
Think that’s gross? It’s just being human. Any dude with a mustache runs his lower lip over his mustache after taking a quaff of any drink, be it beer or water. But you couldn’t do that with transubstantiated wine.
So this is not a theological argument. Well, it is, but barely. It’s an anthropological one. My point is this: only dudes who shaved could have come up with a doctrine like the Roman Catholic one of transubstantiation. It is a doctrine that tries to drag earth, kicking and screaming, all the way up to heaven. But isn’t it our belief that the Kingdom of Heaven comes down to earth? This very real wine very really is Christ’s blood right here and right now. It has come down to you, and you may drink it and feast with it. Also, this very real man very really is God right here and right now. He has come down to you, and you may drink and feast with him. And while you’re at it, grow a beard with him, as he surely did.
Hence we shave our beards that we may seem purified by innocence and humility and that we may be like the angels who remain always in the bloom of youth. Here’s a question of sacramental theology for you. Do you want to be like the angels, or do you want to be like our Lord Jesus?
We are meant to be glorified humans. If we begin to reject our humanity, we will twist our glory and come up with all sorts of weird ideas.
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.
When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry:
Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.
Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
When we mortify the flesh, we are to mortify our members, our arms and legs. These arms and legs are things like fornication and covetousness. We pluck those eyes out. This is very physical.
The new man is also very physical. Your new man may or may not be circumcised, but he certainly has bowels. And these are bowels of mercy.
We are not to cast aside all that is physical. We are to save it. We are to save men and their beards and their appetites. And if our priests tell us that it is best to not mate, we’ll be all weird when it comes to sex. If our priests tell us that this bread and wine is not so base as real bread and wine, we will become either aesthetes or drunkards.
And if our priests act like it’s best no to have a beard, we’ll go beardless.
“I’m going there to see my Father. And finally get a decent shave.”
It is perilous to despise that which Jesus glorified. And we all do it. This has been a history of one weird scorn that developed in one corner of Christendom, and how it becomes part of a complex of ridicule for that which God has chosen to glorify. Ridiculing and despising that which God has glorified is what the world does. In this way the church is like the world.
If we despise wine, we will hate fellowship. If we despise sex, we will hate women. If we despise beards, we will hate brotherhood and masculinity. If we despise feasting, we will hate weddings and life together.
Don’t be like the angels. Figure out what sort of human Christians are supposed to be, and do that. Do I write you a new commandment, that all men must have beards? I do not write a new commandment, but an old commandment I write you. Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.
So I urge you, but do not command you: Grow out your beard, you son of a King! When he appears, we shall be like him! And if there’s beer at the right hand of God, my brother, I’ll buy the first hundred rounds if Jesus is clean-cheeked.