What does it mean to be a man in this culture?
In my freshman year of college, the year when young men grow a beard perhaps for the first time in their lives, I had to face the obvious–my beard was weak. God just didn’t give me the chops to grow strong chops. There’s a section of my right jawline that’s a veritable no man’s land for a full beard. If only it could connect, but it just doesn’t. I couldn’t disagree with a friend who said, “King, if you didn’t shave, you’d look like an out-of-work painter.”
Because of said beard weakness I’ve been clean-shaven all these years. The spirit’s been willing for a beard, the flesh weak. But in the middle of October this year, I began thinking differently. Being on sabbatical will do that to a man. Movember was on the horizon and I thought I’d go for the patchwork beard I have, not for the one that’s never coming in. Every man needs to go for the natural beard or stache God gave him at one point in his life. I’m obligated both as a man and a Red Sox fan to grow a goatee, given the success of the bearded nine who won the 2013 World Series. So I aimed for a respectable goatee, testing this out in the latter days of October.
Many guys have a beard or stache patron, a style made famous by some celebrity that is native to his own face. I wish that I could have Johnny Damon as my beard patron, but that’s never happening. I have to settle for a more humbling–no, humilitating–beard patron.
The first time I saw my best friend and fellow bearded priest, Fr. Aaron Wright, in mid-October, he sees my new goatee and says to me, “What’s up, Inigo Mantoya?” I want to lather my scruff and shave immediately. I’m quite happy to have Mandy Patinkin as my beard patron, but don’t give me Princess Bride Mandy Patinkin. Give me Mandy Patinkin from Homeland and Saul Berenson’s mane of whiskers.
Gently mock me as he does, Aaron is my beard mentor. Most guys who grow facial hair for the first time need a beard mentor. He may have been calling me “I.M.” for most of the autumn, but I’m finally past the embarrassingly thin stage of the goatee and he knows it. But Aaron was a beard mentor when it mattered most–he talked me back from the ledge of shaving in the scratchy stages. When we had family pictures scheduled in early November, he persuaded my wife that I should keep the goatee for pictures because it will be a memory of sabbatical.
So here I am in the middle of Movember somewhere past Inigo Montoya yet far away from Saul Berenson. But the whole experience of growing facial hair has been good beyond a surface level. It’s prompted me to think about what it means to be a man in this culture. I’m reminded of the original purpose of the Movember movement–the need to remember and contribute to the cause of men’s health, especially those who suffer from prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health conditions.
I’m also aware of some sparse but not unimportant theology of the beard through Christian history. Beards are one way of celebrating how masculinity reveals the image of God. Clement of Alexandria cited the beard as a tool for praying the Psalms.
Let the head of men be shaven, unless it has curly hair. But let the chin have the hair. But let not twisted locks hang far down from the head, gliding into womanish ringlets. For an ample beard suffices for men. And if one, too, shave a part of his beard, it must not be made entirely bare, for this is a disgraceful sight. The shaving of the chin to the skin is reprehensible, approaching to plucking out the hair and smoothing. For instance, thus the Psalmist, delighted with the hair of the beard, says, ‘As the ointment that descends on the beard, the beard of Aaron.’ Having celebrated the beauty of the beard by a repetition, he made the face to shine with the ointment of the Lord. (The Instructor, Book 3).
Then there is the theology of the beard from the great Western father, St. Augustine who wrote, ““The beard signifies the courageous … the earnest, the active, the vigorous. So that when we describe such, we say, he is a bearded man.”
And this is only a small sampling of bearded theology. One could assemble a commonplace book on the subject with a bit of research, the most interesting piece being Fr. John Peck’s article titled “The War Over Christian Beards.”
Men have no difficulty defending or finding glory in their beards, but being a man with more humble chops, I’m more interested how beards might help men reflect on their weakness. After all, that’s what I see when I look at my fuzz in the mirror. And that’s why I think the Movember movement is a good thing, a cause that draws men to embrace manliness by facing suffering in their physical and mental health.
It’s important to have a theology of masculinity, but I don’t have much patience for masculine theology that tends towards a chest-thumping machismo or, much worse, misogyny. A theology of masculinity that only emphasizes a man’s strength is dishonest. Manliness can and should be about admitting, facing, and embracing one’s weakness. Fear lies within the heart and soul of every man. But courage can become a habit of the soul, a virtue of a man who knows his fears and weaknesses. After all, Socrates said, “courage is knowledge.” To draw on another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, I find his words on courage to be instructive and inspiring for a theology of masculinity:
The man, then, who faces and who fears the right thing and from the right motive, in the right way and at the right time…is brave. He would be a sort of madman or insensible person if he feared nothing…[Courage] is for facing what is painful that men are called brave. Courage involves pain, and is justly praised; for it is harder to face what is painful than to abstain from what is pleasant. (Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book III)
Did not Christ, the true image of manliness, reveal masculinity at its best when he took up his cross for the sake of love? This is godly courage and it is the kind of courage God can form within us in the midst of our fears and weaknesses. That is the kind of man I wish to become, though the journey last a lifetime.
So for all the guys out there still deliberating about whether to show up to Thanksgiving clean shaven or a bit scruffy, I say go scruffy, whether your beard’s strong or not. For those gents still grooming their Movember whiskers, let that physical reminder stir something more substantial within your soul, to remember you of your own weakness as a man and the suffering of other men.
God can use the strangest things to prompt a more noble pursuit, even a patchy little Movember goatee. Long live Inigo Montoya.
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