Why do Greek priests always seem to have beards?
Why do Orthodox priests always have beards?
I’m often asked do I have a full beard for religious reasons. When I try to say I’m a child of the ’60s, I know the answer is taken as avoiding the question.
Apart from one brief period of a few short weeks, I’ve had a beard since I was 20 – for the past 37 years. My younger son, when he was still a toddler, sat at the top of the stairs one evening, and looking down at my bald pate asked me why I didn’t try moving the hair from my face to the top of my head.
Once, at the height of panic in the aftermath of 9/11, on my way back from speaking at a retreat in a convent in Llandudno, I was stopped by police at Holyhead who were worried looked at my beard, some books in my backpack, and a large number of Middle East visas in my passport, added 1 and 1 together and got “militant Muslim.” But in my travels through Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Albania, the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East, it seems everyone I meet already presumes I am a priest. The surprise only comes when they find out that I am an Anglican.
In my theological college in the 1980s, there were three Orthodox students who were particularly bright, but two said of the third that he could never become a bishop .... because he couldn’t grow a full beard.
So, why do Orthodox priests always appear to have beards?
Bearded and shaven priests in a city centre church in Bucharest
On my first visit to Romania, I was surprised to find the majority of priests were clean-shaven. This has been reversed since the end of the Ceausescu regime, and today most Romanian Orthodox priests have beards. However, many Orthodox clergy in North America have reached some kind of cultural compromise. Many think that shaving might make them look effeminate, and so they trim their beards quite closely. But the portrayal of the priest at the wedding in My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a reminder that many Orthodox priests in North America actually shave.
The Orthodox explanations for priests’ beards sometimes quote Biblical examples, such as the beards of the unshaved Nazarenes, or Biblical passages such as: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (Leviticus 19: 27). In addition, I have been told that Moses told the sons of Aaron, the priests, not to “shave off the edges of their beards” (Leviticus 21: 5), that the Ancient of Days appeared to Daniel with whiskers and beard (Daniel 7: 9), and that our Forefathers in Faith, the Patriarchs, Prophets and Apostles, all wore beards.
But the most common argument I hear is that as the priest as a dispenser of sacramental grace and an icon of Christ should physically and visually resemble Christ in humility as he leads the people in celebrating the Divine Liturgy, not only in wearing a robe or cassock, but also in being bearded and having the same hairstyle, which means long hair that is parted down the middle.
Nobody quotes the Apostle Paul who wrote: “Does not nature itself teach you that, if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is to her glory?” (I Corinthians 11: 14-15).
In the past, there have been saints in the Orthodox Church who trimmed and shaved their beards, including the Emperor Constantine the Great, Theodore Ushakov and Justinian the Great. Saint Photius the Great says that clean-shaven clergy do not distort the essence of our faith, and that a sensible man does not condemn those who shave.
The origins of the Orthodox tradition are shrouded in the mists of history. It was customary in the Roman Empire for men to shave. Not to shave was to be a barbarian, not to be Roman, to be culturally inferior. The custom of shaving was particularly strong in the Western Empire, especially in Rome. Even in the Eastern Empire, beardless priests were still common until the 5th century, although beardless clergy had disappeared by the eighth century at latest, mainly due to the decisions of the Church council known as the Quinisext Council (Penthekte Synodos, or Fifth-Sixth Council).
The Byzantine Emperor Justinian II convened the council in Constantinople in 691-692 to complete the work of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, which omitted to approve disciplinary canons, and to decide on unresolved disciplinary matters. The council was attended by 215 bishops from the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. In addition, Bishop Basil of Gortyna in Illyria was present as the Papal Legate.
Many of the canons simply reiterated earlier enacted canons. They included regulations to eliminate festivals and practices that were seen as having pagan origins. Other canons tried to settle differences between the Eastern and Western churches over ritual observance and clerical discipline. Many seemingly differences in the West were condemned, including celebrating the Eucharist on weekdays in Lent instead of having Pre-Sanctified Liturgies; fasting on Saturdays throughout the year; omitting the “Alleluia” in Lent; and depictions of Christ as a lamb or Agnus Dei.
The council exposed major differences between East and West on issues such as the western efforts to impose celibacy on priests and deacons. The council affirmed the right of priests to marry and prescribed excommunication for anyone who attempted to separate a priest from his wife, or for any priest who abandoned his wife.
Many of the provisions of the council affected the day-to-day details of the life of the clergy. It ruled that they should not own taverns, lend money at interest, change dioceses without Episcopal permission, or fail to mix water with wine at the Eucharist, and they must not fail to preach on the Scriptures at least on Sundays.
In addition, the council ruled that the clergy must not shave their beards. By then, it was already the custom and practice throughout the Eastern Church for clergy not to shave.
The acts of the council were signed by all four Eastern Patriarchs – Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem – but Pope Sergius I refused to sign the canons, claiming they were at variance with the traditions of the Western Church. Justinian II sent a military delegation to Rome to induce him to sign, but when the imperial soldiers arrived at Ravenna they declared their support for the Pope. Unsuccessful negotiations on signing the canons continued for 30 years without an agreement between East and West being reached.
Because the council completes the work of the Fifth and Sixth Councils, the Eastern Orthodox Church holds that this council is part of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, that it was properly convened and authoritatively ecumenical, and that its canons have full canonical status.
In his comments on Canon 96 of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod, Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite said the sentence of excommunication provided applied equally to those who allowed their hair to “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 red-hot 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.”
He argued that by the outward decency and plainness of their garments, and of their hair, and of their beard, priests and monks were able “to teach the laity not to be body-lovers and exquisites, but soul-lovers and virtue-lovers.”
The canon censured priests of the Latin-rite who “shave off their moustache and their beard and who look like very young men and handsome bridegrooms and have the face of women. For God forbids men of the laity in general to shave their beard, by saying: ‘Ye shall not mar the appearance of your bearded chin’ (Leviticus 19: 27).”
In the West, hermits and monks continued to have long hair and beards, like Saint Martin of Tours. But the tradition of trimmed beards was lost in the West under Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century. With his massive “barbarian” inferiority complex, he tried to imitate pagan classical Rome and ordered the Western clergy to shave regularly. The Council of Aachen ruled in 816 that priests and monks were to shave every two weeks.
Despite this, until the beginning of the 11th century most western hermits and bishops were still bearded. By the end of the 11th century, most priests and monks shaved regularly, at least 10 times a year if not more frequently, and in 1080 Pope Gregory VII tried to enforce shaving. Pope Gregory VII even resorted to force in order to make bishops and priests shave off their beard.
Surprisingly, there were bearded popes after Gregory VII, including Pope Gelasius. But in the 16th century, further canons barred Roman Catholic clergy from keeping their beards, and while many friars and monks continued to wear full beards, this prohibition was not dropped officially until the Second Vatican Council.
Metroplitan Nikitas (left) and Patrick Comerford at a conference in Rome
Some patristic and Orthodox sayings on priests’ beards
“In their manners, there was no discipline. In men, their beards were defaced … The beard must not be plucked. ‘You will not deface the figure of your beard’.” [Leviticus 19: 27] – Saint Cyprian of Carthage.
“Men may not destroy the hair of their beards and unnaturally change the form of a man. For the Law says, ‘You will not deface your beards.’ For God the Creator has made this decent for women, but has determined that it is unsuitable for men.” – Apostolic Constitutions 7.392. (ca 390 AD)
“How womanly it is for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, and to arrange his hair at the mirror, shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them! … For God wished women to be smooth and to rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane. But he adorned man like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him as an attribute of manhood, with a hairy chest – a sign of strength and rule.” – Clement of Alexandria.
“It is not lawful to pluck out the beard, man’s natural and noble adornment.” – Clement of Alexandria.
“Let the head of men be clipped, unless they have curly hair. But let the chin have the hair … Cutting is to be used, not for the sake of elegance, but on account of the necessity of the case … so that it may not grow so long as to come down and interfere with the eyes.” – Clement of Alexandria.
“This, then, is the mark of the man, the beard. By this, he is seen to be a man. It is older than Eve. It is the token of the superior nature….It is therefore unholy to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness.” – Clement of Alexandria.
“There are some things, too, which have such a place in the body, that they obviously serve no useful purpose, but are solely for beauty, as e.g. the teats on a man’s breast, or the beard on his face; for that this is for ornament, and not for protection, is proved by the bare faces of women, who ought rather, as the weaker sex, to enjoy such a defence.” – Saint Augustine of Hippo
“You, young men, honour those with beards. And if there is a man of 30 with a beard and one of 50, or 60, or 100 who shaves, place the one with the beard above the one who shaves, in Church as well as at the table. On the other hand, I don’t say that a beard will get you to heaven, but good works will. And your dress should be modest, as well as your food and your drink. Your whole conduct should be Christian so that you will be a good example for others … I beg you, my fellow Christians, say three times for all those who let their beards grow: ‘May God forgive and have mercy upon them.’ Let your nobility also ask for forgiveness. And may God enlighten you to let go of your sins as you let your beard grow – Saint Cosmas of Aetolia.
“What can be worse and more disgusting than cutting one’s beard, which is an image of a man … The word of God and the teaching in the Enactments of the Apostles, on the issue of a beard, prescribes not to spoil it, which means not to cut the hair of the beard.” – Saint Epiphanius of Salamis.
“I am saddened by and pity those clerics who reject the cassock and who shave their beards.” – Elder Philotheus (Zervakos) of Paros.
“To shave the beard is a sin that the blood of all the martyrs cannot cleanse. It is to deface the image of man created by God.” – Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Moscow.
“God did not create men beardless, only cats and dogs. Shaving is not only foolishness and dishonour; it is a mortal sin.” – Patriarch Adrian.