Most Orthodox Priests have beards. Different jurisdictions are sometimes discernible by looking at the style of beards, since some priests have untrimmed beards while others have neatly trimmed facial hair. It is fairly common to see smooth faces on some priests, as well. So what is the deal with beards? I did a little online research (which can be dangerous - but fun, too). Here are a few tidbits that I found:
The simple reason why Orthodox priests wear beards is because, as a Nazarene, Our Lord had a beard, as can be seen from any icon. Since the priest is a dispenser of sacramental grace and an icon of Christ, he should physically resemble Our Lord, not only in wearing a robe or cassock (which need not at all be black, contrary to popular myth), but also in being bearded and having the same hairstyle (long hair with a parting down the middle). Taken from here.
The same source goes on to say that:
Sometimes this is not possible, especially if the priest has to do a secular job (and also if the priest's wife objects to long hair and untrimmed beard!)
Beards can be a touchy subject! In fact, it can lead to division, as evidenced by:
...by the 11th Century that it was listed among the reasons for the Anathema pronounced by Cardinal Humbert on July 15, 1054 against Patriarch Michael in Constantinople which precipitated the Western Church's final falling away from the Orthodox Church: "While wearing beards and long hair you [Eastern Orthodox] reject the bond of brotherhood with the Roman clergy, since they shave and cut their hair." Taken from here
According to St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, beard grooming could lead to excommunication (reminder for non-Orthodox or newly illumined, that contrary to the protestant understanding of excommunication where it means being "kicked out of the church," in Orthodoxy, it means to be barred from receiving communion). In any event, here are St. Nicodemus' words:
Those too incur the excommunication of this Canon, according to Zonaras, who do not put a razor to their head at all, nor cut the hair of their head, but let it grow long enough to reach to the belt like that of women, and those who bleach their hair so as to make it blond or golden, or who twist it up and tie it on spills in order to make it curly; or who put wigs or rats on their head. This excommunication is incurred also by those who shave off their beard in order to make their face smooth and handsome after such treatment, and not to have it curly, or in order to appear at all times like beardless young men; and those who singe the hair of their beard with a redhot tile so as to remove any that is longer than the rest, or more crooked; or who use tweezers to pluck out the superfluous hairs on their face, in order to become tender and appear handsome; or who dye their beard, in order not to appear to be old men.
Really? I am hoping that the rats referred to are the "twisting" type, not the rodents. No doubt, the purpose was to not look handsome - at least not on purpose.
I grew up with a father that did not care for facial hair. He was a product of his times. For him, facial hair equaled a rebellious nature. He grew up in the 50s and 60s and equated beards with unwashed hippies who burned draft cards and caused social unrest. But that was how I was raised. I often wonder what he would think, were he still alive, if he saw that both my little brother (a protestant minister) and I have facial hair. Neither of us currently have a full beard, but still...
And we aren't priests. We just do it because we want to. Well, that and because we might want to put rats in them.
OK, I know you are wondering (if you have made it this far and not gotten bored) why I bring this up. Well, if you have been at St. Joseph's over the past few weeks, you know that Fr. James is making a concerted effort to grow his beard out. I have to say that he looks very good with a beard. But like all beard growers, he has to struggle with some of the issues that are peculiar to growing one.
Stuff like: THEY ITCH when you are first growing them out. Sure, there are all kinds of advice that new beard growers are given - like using conditioner on it or lotion or eye of newt or whatever. In my experience, none of them really worked very well. It still itched. The only real thing that worked was time. After awhile the face gets used to the changing topography and it just stops itching. But it can take awhile. I still have to trim around the corner of my mouth regularly or it drives me crazy.
Which leads to another concern - trimming. OK, so you read the part about not trimming it, if one is a priest. But in our current society, most priests do trim their beards. It is much harder to trim than to just shave it off. I find this to be my biggest headache. It takes practice. One day, I almost shaved off the right side of my mustache when I let my mind wander while trimming. Let's just say that was a little awkward.
Finally, something happens to fellows who are growing facial hair for the first time after they hit 40 or so. The hair on top of the head might be as dark as can be, but the chin hairs seem to start fading to gray. Again, if you read above, the priest better not color the hair so as not to appear to be old. That is worse than the rats.
So what is the point? Well, I don't really have one. I just thought the whole beard thing is interesting. Having written and posted this, Fr. James will probably come on to say that the itch won out and he shaved it off. But I hope not, because he really does look good and, except for the gray patches, it is good and dark - no highlights or fake blonde.