The Beard: Blessing and Banner

How I'd probably look with one.

Of all my colleagues in the Catholic blogosphere, no one makes me look to my own brittle laurels like NC Register‘s Mark Shea and Jimmy Akin. Part of my trepidation where these two are concerned comes from the recognition that both have immersed themselves more deeply in the Catholic faith and its peculiar logic than I’ll ever be able to do. If Natural Law and Canon Law were oceans, they’d have gills; I, a snorkel.

But, as that description implies, I am a shallow person. I would probably be able to ignore any disparities between their acumen and mine if it went unmarked by any eye-grabbing personal affectation. In other words, I might have missed their brains if not for their beards.

There is a great deal of serious writing on the interplay between personality, perception and facial hair. In his Vanity Fair essay, “Becoming Adolf,” Rich Cohen wonders whether Hitler would have turned out quite so Hitlerian had he not at some point begun to wear a toothbrush mustache. “Did the mustache affect history, or was it just a matter of style? Did it attach itself to a person and drive him crazy? Was the man in charge of was the mustache calling the shots?”

If that sounds a little too arch, he fills in the thesis with a quote from historian and journalist Ron Rosenbaum, who argues, somewhat controversially, that Hitler began wearing his signature mustache after Charlie Chaplin had claimed it for his own. “Chaplain’s musache became a lens through which to look at Hitler…A glass in which Hitler merely Chaplniesque: figure to be mocked more than feared…”

Now, partly because of Hitler, I have deeply mixed feelings toward the mustache. Toward the beard, however, I feel untrammeled reverence. This is another aspect of the Jewish hangover. As Meir Soloveitchik writes in his Commentary essay, “Why Beards?”, Jewish tradition esteems the full beard as a marker not so much of virility, but of maturity, of gravitas. He recounts the story of Elazar ben Azaryah, whose election — at the age of 18! — to the leadership of post-Temple Jewish scholars was ratified only after a full white beard grew from his face overnight. That it was ratified even so is remarkable to me, but if anyone thought to say, “Beard-schmeard — you’re still a teenaged pisher!” his thoughts have been lost to history. Even for the notoriously fickle Jewish mob, the beard did the trick.

Having been born in 1972, right at the beginning of the so-called Age of Aquarius, I’ve tended to attach an additional meaning to beards that complements the rabbinic sense of sagery. At the progressive schools and summer camps I attended, beards tended to take root in those teachers and counselors who were renouncing — or trying to renounce — the pomps and empty promises of modern society. They were the men who raised chickens or vegetables in their suburban New Jersey backyards, and gathered their nobler garbage into enormous compost heaps. During water shortages, they were the first to mark their toilets with signs reading: “IF IT’S YELLOW, LET IT MELLOW; IF IT’S BROWN, FLUSH IT DOWN.” Who needs delicacy, the lifestyle trappings — including the beards — seemed to demand, when you’ve got purity? Tolstoy did it right; Al Gore did it wrong.

To my eye, at least, the beards on the faces of Shea and Akin would appear to represent an analogous frame of mind. Though neither, of course, is Jewish, either would be mistaken for a rabbi long before he would, say, a colonel of Confederate chasseurs a cheval. Whether either indulges a distributist kink I don’t know; whether either exercises a tyrannical stewardship over his water I am inclined to doubt. The point is, both men write with a special, very bearded seriousness of purpose. Their very words haev beards.

Take Shea‘s recent piece, “Againt Idolatry, He begins by writing: “The apologetics subculture in the Church is a place with both rewards and dangers,” and I have to stop right there. Until reading those words, I had no idea any apologetics subculture existed. If anyone had asked me what it was, I’d have misheard him to say, “apologetic subculture,“ and imagined a group of young people — urban, college-educated — who meet in lofts and specialty bars and tell each other, “Sorry.” (In fact, “Whence the Culture of Apology?” sounds just like the title of an article I’d expect to read in NC Register.) Mr. Shea, on the other hand, is so dedicated to the science of apologetics that he knows all the “do’s” and “don’t’s,” and can sniff out an apologetics poseur at 1,000 meters. That’s serious stuff right there.

But wait, there’s more. In the piece itself, Shea effectively sabotages his own job satisfaction as surely as if he’d set of a car bomb by the entrance:

Neither I nor any of my fellow yakkers in the apologetics subculture have ever brought a living soul to the Church. The Holy Spirit does that. We humans yak about the Faith and sometimes, by the grace of the Spirit, something we say scratches where somebody itches and they receive the grace of the Holy Spirit to obey Jesus. But they do not receive that grace from Keating, Akin, Shea, Hahn or whoever, but from God. Because (mark this) no human being has any power at all to convert a human heart to faith in Christ or to trust that He is present and teaching through Holy Mother Church.

With an attitude like this, Shea pretty much kills his chance of ever editing Maxim. Something tells me he knows this, and is perfectly cool with it. If I wore a hat, it would be off.

With Akin we move from the virtuous to the sublime. At the beginning of last Lent, when Fr. Corapi announced be’d been placed on administrative leave, everyone cried for clarity. Jimmy Akin served it up with a steam shovel. In this piece, he dissects Corapi’s initial, ambiguous, statement, works through each possible meaning to its logical conclusion, and then, as if that weren’t enough, determines which outcome Catholics ought to hope for. It’s not as obvious as I would have thought:

In that case, what does hoping that they are not true amount to? Seemingly, it would amount to hoping that either 2 or 3 is true. That is, hoping that the woman making the allegations is delusional or that she is lying.

If she is delusional, then she would seem to be quite delusional — and, in fact, gravely mentally ill — if she believes wrongly that Father Corapi has had sexual “exploits” with her when in fact he has not. Further, her delusion is even projected onto other women, with whom she also falsely believes Father Corapi to have had such exploits.

If she is lying, then she would be sinning, and sinning in a particularly grave way because she would be accusing an innocent person of grave sin with multiple exacerbating circumstances (he’s a priest, he’s very well known, it’s a sexual sin, he’s religious and thus has taken a vow of chastity — not just made a promise of celibacy — and the Church has been reeling from sexual scandals in recent years). If she’s lying, she’s telling an abominably horrible lie that is gravely, gravely sinful.

Of course, things are also appallingly horrible if No. 4 is the case and the accusations are true. In that case, there is a very well-known priest who has taken a vow of chastity who has violated that vow multiple times with multiple women — with an unknown degree of their cooperation, and in abuse of his sacred office — at a time when the Church has been reeling from sexual scandals.

This makes hoping that the allegations aren’t true a little trickier.

And how! He goes on — read if you like — but you’ll already have gotten enough to be suitably impressed. I actually have a tiny bit of experience with this kind of thing. In grad school, I took an ethics class — highest grade I got, believe it or not — where we practiced moving through something called the Potter Box, a visual aid for ethical problem solving. We divided every ethical question into a number of sub-questions, which we distributed throughout the four quadrants of a square. Working our way clockwise though each quadrant in turn, we came to something like a reasonable answer.

Akin stretches the Potter Box into something resembling the Daytona International Speedway, and whips through it at 200 mph.

The point is, if either man were beardless, I doubt I’d be so quick to believe. Rather spitefully, I’d write it all off as vanity — both Shea’s enlightened ego-guardianship and Akin’s brainastics. But the beards? The beards seal the deal. They make everything, so to speak, kosher.

Don’t ever change, gentlemen. And don’t ever shave.

  • Allison

    Now…how do you feel about hirsute women writers?
    But seriously, a great piece. Thanks!

  • Gamaliel

    Everyone who has witnessed what this man has said about Fr. Corapi should check this out:

    The damage you’ve done to Fr. Corapi, a Priest, through your writings still demands correction.

    Does not Our LORD Jesus Say not to judge RASHLY. Follow St. Gamaliel’s advice then concerning Corapi. May the LORD Jesus Bless him to continue to bear fruit abundantly as the Blacksheepdog. For by their fruits you shall know them. Whether good or bad. Sometimes it takes time to discern this for some (you owe Fr. Corapi the charity of doing that, if, as you say, you are praying for him). But for others, it takes a relatively short time to smell the stink of their fruits, like, for instance, the time taken to write a dozen blogs about Fr. Corapi’s decision, condemning him.

    My anger is just. So I will anger no longer against you. I will pray for you though. And for all the followers of Christ who you are leading astray. So stop your gossip immediately and your slander immediately and repent immediately: Take down ALL these blogs you have written about Fr. Corapi or simply “Corapi” AND stop making new ones.

  • Anonymous

    “Jewish hangover…” Oh Max, you never fail to amaze and delight. I’ve not read a lot of Akin, but Mark Shea… Oh Mark Shea. Thanks for this post.

  • Anonymous

    “Jewish hangover…” Oh Max, you never fail to amaze and delight. I’ve not read a lot of Akin, but Mark Shea… Oh Mark Shea. Thanks for this post.

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  • Jennifer Pierce

    You should definitely check out my friend Tim’s blog:

    The League of Bearded Catholics. ;)

  • Mark Shea

    My mouth opens. My mouth closes. No words come out. You’re a hell of a writer, Max. Don’t ever change.

    PS. Bad news. The beard becomes a goatee, a very Corapiesque goatee, for the warm months.

  • Nolanjj

    Hey Mark – Have you ever eaten crow before. With what you’ve been saying about Fr Corapi I suspect you’ll be eating a lot of it sooner or later.

    Amazing what certainty you have about the whole thing.

  • sjay

    I have been thinking about this topic for a few months — some time last winter, I began thinking about my habitual wearing of a beard as almost a religious statement. I was born in the late 1950s and my earliest memories of my father are him as a graduate student with a beard of almost Amish proportions. In the late 1960s, when he perceived a beard as just making it too hard to get a job with which he could support his family. But as soon as I could grow facial hair I began playing around with beard growing. All through law school, I had a beard. However, when I graduated I cut it off with the expectation that it would make my job search easier. But, seven years or so after getting that first professional job, I took my first two week vacation and came back from Wyoming and Seattle with the beard that I’ve worn for the last 16 years. Originally, it was red, now it’s heavily gray splotched. Accordingly, I’m slightly piqued at Father C. allegedly dyeing his beard, since before it looked a lot like the beard I have now, which I take as a sign of wisdom gained through experience. At any rate, I feel like I just would not be fully adult without a beard. Curiously, most of the guys I went to high school with in the early 1970s have beards.

  • sjay

    This blog needs a “dislike” button for comments like this.

  • Mark Shea

    I’ve eaten crow many time. I would be overjoyed to eat it in this case. But, alas, I know too much of the emerging facts of Fr. Corapi’s long career as a serial liar now and am learning more. When it all comes out–and it will, soon–I implore you not to vent your anger on Fr. Corapi for hoodwinking you, but to forgive him–and to forgive yourself for treating his whistleblowers exactly the same way as the dupes of Maciel treated his. You’re only human and people make mistakes. So cut yourself some slack and don’t kick yourself too hard.

  • John C. Larson

    Interesting article here, on ALL fronts… As a humble card-carrying Epicopalean, I am unfamiliar with this latest of clergy controversies, (BTW, all churches have their scandals, I’m not singleing out anyone!), but I do get tired of people, well-meaning though they are on both sides, rushing to judgement, painting clergy with a broad brush of guilt or, just as bad, demonizing the victims. Not a terribly Christian response. The facts, whatever they are, will or won’t come to light and we need to trust God on the eventual outcomes if nothing becomes known for certain. (Trusting God, remember THAT concept?) Work for justice but work for JUSTICE, not one’s personal preference of outcome, I’m just sayin’…

    I’ve had my beard on its second go-round for about sixteen years now and it’s become a whole lot whiter than it used to be. Earned every one of these wintry hairs, too!


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  • freddy

    This is only very tangentially related to the post, but that’s how my brain works.
    Years ago, at Mass, my then-three or four year old leaned over to me and whispered, “There’s a WOLF in this church!”
    I looked around, expecting to see a toddler with a colorful t-shirt, or stuffed animal, or even a trained assistance-dog, but nothing.
    “I don’t see a wolf, sweetie,” I whispered back, wondering if he was confused about some of the stained-glass sheep above us.
    He knew he wasn’t supposed to point, so he tugged my hand and said, “Over THERE! He’s wearing GLASSES!”
    I looked. Sure enough, seated on the bench across from us, was a well dressed middle aged man with a full, dark brown beard and dark hair. Wearing glasses.
    His observation made me realize two things.
    First of all, that my poor sheltered child had never seen (other than pictures of saints, who always have white beards) a real bearded man.
    Second, that I rather envied him living in a world in which, although exciting and remarkable, it was still perfectly possible that a wolf would put on human clothing and go to Mass on Sunday.

    Oh, and I agree with the author of the post: Mr. Akin and Mr. Shea; don’t y’all ever change! Or shave!

  • Lenpacek

    Nice to see the boys get their due. Thanks.

  • Mark Shea

    Larry Coty? of Georgia Perimeter’s Math Department? Zat you? Look, if you are going to do the equivalent of writing on bathroom walls, could you at least spell the name right? How’s the Syndrome costume coming Buddy? Remember! No capes!