Day One: Get your beard on (or off)!

40DAYSBLOGBeards are all the rage.  Here in New England, the Red Sox just won the World Series by getting their beards on; the male cast of Duck Dynasty has also done their part to bring respect to the beard.  In my profession, beards are often seen as part of the game.  When I was catechized, I learned that “the priest without a beard is no beard”.   Along with a prayer rope and incense saturated clothes, a beard is a badge of a convert’s zeal.  

Unfortunately, I couldn’t grow a beard when I converted: I was in the Army Reserves.  I would still try to grow a hip goatee in between drills, but the ability to signal my zeal through the fur on my face was denied to me!

When I became Ukrainian, I learned that facial hair is still correlated with zeal, but not always in the expected direction.

First, a bit of history.  The politicization of beards in the Church has a long history.  Christ had a beard, but those who came later sometimes disagreed about it’s applicability – especially among the clergy.  In Ukraine, beards have long been an indicator of a man”s allegiances.  When Peter the (not so) Great tried to “modernize” his empire, he imposed a tax on beards.  Clergy were exempt, but the was a lot of social pressure for everyone to shave their chins.  In Ukraine, the situation was further complicated by the Catholic clergy and Polish influence: so they had three beard-o-clastic empires were trying to keep them from achieving crumb-catching glory!

Which brings us to the early 20th century and the formation of the Ukrainian Autocephalist Orthodox Church (the Church that grew into the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada here in North America).  The Autocephalists were part of the Ukrainian independence movement; their goals of “independence (for Ukraine), autocephaly (the Ukrainian Church), and Ukrainian (language, both liturgical and civil)” included a preference for… smooth faced clergy in order to differentiate them from Russian and Russophile priests.  If you look at pictures of American Orthodox clergy from Ukraine  (whether in [what became] the OCA or the Ukrainian Church), you will be struck by the lack of facial hair.  Today, the situation is mixed, with those with roots in Western Ukraine and/or who want to assert their non-Russian-ness keeping their faces smooth (with some adding the cossack moustaches) and the rest of us sporting a mix of goatees, trim beards, and Gandolf-locks. 

So what about this convert?  I haven’t shaved since I retired from the Army Reserves and became a priest.  The hypothesis that it is because I just love the freedom is as valid as the one that has me wanting something that goes with my cassock (the model is overdetermined).    However, for the past year, I’ve really let it go; not trimming it (or my hair [what is left of it]) at all.  While this gives me more cred with the hyper-Orthodox crowd and is an obvious sign of my theosical progress, it is really just a prayer offering – the vow of the Nazarene – until we get back into our church (it was devastated by fire on St. Michael Day, 2012).

But even so, I may donate it to “Beards of Love”; for all those poor priests who cannot grow their own!

For some silliness on Orthodoxy and beards, here’s some satire from the podcast archives:


Charity appeal from a priest who heard of our podcast (Fr. Vasily Vasilich).

Dear Fr. Anthony,

As we move into Pilipivka (ed. Holy Advent/Nativity Fast), the great fast that prepares us for the coming of the Sun of Righteousness, we must ensure that we devote more of our energies and resources to serving those less fortunate than ourselves. In order to help you in this important obligation, I offer this uniquely Orthodox charity opportunity to you and your listecers. It is the opportunity to help some of those who serve us in our parishes, but who suffer tremendously by a sort of defect that limits their godpleasingness. I am, of course, speaking of beardless clergy.

I, Fr. Vasily Vasilich came up with this idea after my dear matushka grew and donated her hair to Locks of Love. I was so moved by her generosity that I wanted to do something similar. Alas, am all but bald, but, being an Orthodox priest from the heart of the very old country deep in the woods, I have a magnificent, long, scraggly, and entirely Pravoslavyanski [sic] beard. It is at least as long as matushka’s hair had been!

Alas, Locks of Love was not interested in my beard, so I tried to find someone who could benefit from my offering. At the next Orthodox Clergy Fellowship meeting in the town I serve (one which has an amazing number of parishes, most of them quite peaceful) this epiphany came to me: it was obvious by the baby-faces that shone around me at this meeting that some poor priests were incapable of growing beards! “Tis outrageous calamity”, I thought to myself: “I must help them.”

I invite you (although I hear that this defect is rampant among our brothers in your diocese – perhaps you, too, are afflicted!) and your listeners to join me in donating at least a portion of their beards to our suffering priests this Pilipivka.

With peace from your priestly servant, Rev. Vasily Vasilich


 A week later, we received this:

A new charity opportunity from a listener, Fr. Mikola.

[Begin transcript: This is Fr. Mikola of the Holy Independent Halitsian Orthodox Church, representing the First Corinthians 11:14 Society offering you and your listeners a great charity opportunity. Not long ago, volunteers from our parish hosted a homeless shelter. We opened up our hall for a week to help these poor victims of American godlessness. One of our responsibilities was to make sure the men and women made it to their job interviews. Some of us would watch their darling children while others took them downtown. But it was terrible – the men wanted to go to their interviews with dingy old clothes and ratty hair and beards. They were scaring people! They came to our church and they scared our children! Who would hire such scary looking cavemen? So we got them new clothes, proper haircuts, and some razors so that they could shave. The transformation was amazing. These people who had looked like the devil had been transformed into clean and proper images of God. We were so happy to have made such a change in their lives and allowed them to have a positive affect on the people around them. Then, a week later, I was at a meeting of our local clergy fellowship, and there, sitting across from me was what I at first thought was a grizzled were-bear demon – it had such a load of gangly hair around its scary mug, then I realized that it was just a homeless man who had found his way in for a hot cup of [coffee], then, when I saw his cross, I realized that it was, in actuality, a poor priest from the northern woods whose civilization had not yet discovered the use of [soap] and razors. I felt as sorry for him as I did for those poor homeless men who came to our shelter. How he must frighten the children in his parish! Then I found out that there are many such poor suffering priests (and poor suffering children!). Therefore, I beg you and your listeners: please send razors and scissors so that we can help these poorly civilized priests and the children they are scaring. Again, please send all the scissors and razors you can so that we can help the people of the northern wilderness by getting their priests shaving. [Soap] wouldn’t hurt either.


A week later, we received this:


Mail call.

Fr. Vasily wants priests from the Independent Galitsian Orthodox Church to know that it is okay for them to wear beards: priests were always immune from Peter the Great’s prohibition.  He also wants to point out that the mystical elder Aintsuchaman of the Noerthern Thebaid’s exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:14 definitively describes how that passage means exactly the opposite of what it sounds like it means.  This is reaffirmed by the angel Nefactivnius in the dream vision of elder Devoid’ovtruth of the Eastern Expanse, when the angel told the monk; “the priest without a beard is not a real priest; and the priest without a ponytail should never be allowed to serve.” He also wanted me to thank all our listeners that generously supported the beard drive for poor baby-faced priests. 


That’s enough silliness for now.