Bearded Spirits

Mad Hatter's Review | Spring 2012

Help me come clean. Listen as I confess my secret obsession, which, until recently, I had not even shared with my husband. This obsession lacks the bite of addiction; it is not destructive to myself, or others. I’m not an alcoholic, a drug abuser, or a gambler. The obsession doesn’t compel me to dive through neighbors’ garbage for intimate details of their lives, or spew my latest sexual adventures on a daily blog. I don’t wash my hands thirty times a day, or cleave to rituals, though as a child I daily created and recited a mantra to ward off my fears. No, compared to others’ obsessions, mine is insignificant. It is only this: I am obsessed with “spiritual” men with beards.

I imagine your questions as you read this sentence. You ask where it began1and what form it takes.2

You wonder what beards mean to me and my spiritual association with them.3

You inquire into the objects of my obsession4, its causes5, and my first awareness of it.6

1  Beginning of Obsession. My obsession with beards began with God, the Father. I don’t mean the “real” God, up in heaven. I mean the Italian Renaissance sculpture from Italy, or, perhaps, Southern Germany, my father brought home from a Philadelphia antique shop.

We children circled our father as, crowbar in hand, he pried a wooden slat from the top of the large crate. He pried another and another and another. Then, having removed the entire top, he reached his hands inside. With great care, he swept clumps of wood shavings out onto the floor, creating a haystack in the entrance hall. Finally, reaching deeper, his fingers groping for something solid, he extracted God, the Father—a three and a half-foot tall wooden statue. First, God’s dark face with a long billowy beard emerged, next His arms outstretched in a loving, protective embrace, and finally, His torso hidden in a wind-blown robe. God stood knee-deep in clouds swirling furiously around him, a cherub at His feet.

I no longer remember how old I was when God came to our house, but my father placed Him in the corner of the living room on a shelf he’d had made especially for Him. There, God perched, all-seeing, all-knowing.

God’s arrival in our house marked the beginning of my fascination with bearded “spiritual” men. Nothing else explains it.

Growing up, I knew only one bearded man, Dr. M., our pediatrician and a family friend, whose brownish-gray goatee, my sisters and I complained, scratched us when he kissed us goodbye. One of my sisters claims that he tried to molest her, and, though he never touched me inappropriately, I can’t credit him with responsibility for my obsession.

Sometime, in the late1960s, in the Virgin Islands, over a ten-day Christmas vacation, my father stopped shaving, and a bird’s nest, scraggly and unkempt in shades of brown, black, and red, sprouted on his face. Along with the beard, he donned a red bandanna as a headband, drank a lot of rum, and read Carlos Castaneda novels. Each morning, he arrived late at breakfast. Days he spent alone on the beach sipping rum—an about-face for someone who rarely drank, and then only a single sugary cocktail when dining with friends.

His Castaneda phase ended as quickly as it began. He shaved his beard soon after returning home, and reverted to his usual behavior. But, I wondered whether, during this vacation, I came closest to glimpsing the true man behind my father—the alter ego of this responsible, straight-laced man. Perhaps this phase represented a personal quest for something absent from his daily life. After all, he was reading Castaneda. Though my father’s beard may have sealed a connection for me between beards and spirituality, I know that my lifelong obsession with bearded men did not begin there either.

2  Form of Obsession. To date, my obsession has assumed the form of various infatuations. See footnote 3. These infatuations have not occurred at regular intervals of, say, ten years. Instead, the first dates from 1975, the second from 1977, the third from 1997. There have been others of lesser importance in between. These obsessions were not sexual or even romantic in nature. My meetings with these three bearded ones (a college student, a Presbyterian minister, and a yoga teacher) never once veered into forbidden territory, though I longed to see them and to be in their presence, even contriving occasions to speak or meet with them. If forced to characterize them, I’d say they most resembled unrequited teenage crushes.

3  The Meaning of Beards/ Spiritual Association With. 
Beard: “1. The hair on a man’s chin, cheeks and throat” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language). I imagine a parade of beards detached from the faces they adorn. To blaring beats and strobe lights, they strut the runway, stop, turn and pose. Some are coarse-haired, others smooth and silky; some long, others short; some tangled or curly, others straight; some neatly trimmed, others wildly free. Gray beards, red beards, brown beards, blond beards, white beards, black beards.

I think of beards, and I picture God. Have you ever seen an image of God without a beard? I doubt that an image of a clean-shaven Judeo-Christian god even exists. Jesus, too, sported a beard though His was less full than God’s. Closely cropped, perhaps artfully trimmed in a kind of hip look for His times, His didn’t billow. Even Zeus, the ruler of Mount Olympus, and Poseidon, the god of the sea, had beards.

Next, on a sliding scale, beards to me represent the mystical knowledge—bordering on the supernatural—which their wearers possess. I think of beards, and an image of a sect of mystic Jews with long flowing white beards pops up. Beards can also symbolize wisdom. Take, for example, Solomon, a bearded king, who proposed splitting a baby to settle a dispute between two women.

And then I see a clean-shaven man, who, embarking on a spiritual journey, goes off to live in the wilderness. An ascetic, he holes up alone in a cave for years, losing track of time. To keep warm, he learns to make fire. He eats berries gathered from bushes, and drinks the juices of mashed grasses and weeds that grow abundantly near his cave. Sometimes, he cooks up the dead rodents he finds in his cave. At first, their meat turned his stomach, but he comes to enjoy it. His home is open to all as his cave lacks a door. Beasts of all stripes trot in day and night, some staying for a time, others looking in and leaving. The man grows thin and hard. His clothes fray until, threadbare, they fall from him. He stands naked. His hair reaches his shoulders, then the middle of his back, his waist, his buttocks. His beard fills in, long and bushy. He learns of his appearance only through gazing in the brook where he bathes.

Continuum of Bearded Spiritual Men

God and gods    Religious Sages    Ascetics    My Objects

4  Objects of My Obsession.
Mitchell: The first beard to seduce me. I met him through a mutual friend at her country club. We stood in the lobby as I, slack-jawed, stared into the man’s handsome face—his full, deep brown beard and his soulful eyes (he aspired to be a photographer) —all the while trying to hide my alarming attraction to him and to quell a sudden need to confess undying love. I explored the topography of his beard, its mountains and glens—neat but not fussy. It framed his lips like a forest surrounding a lake. I wanted to take off my hiking boots, set down my walking sticks, and drink him in. During the 20 minutes or so that we talked, I never let the subject of my fast- approaching nuptials slip. I didn’t want him to know I was soon to be married.

Mitchell beguiled me. Though I saw him only once, and though we never kissed, never touched, and never even spent a moment alone, the spell lasted until my wedding day. For those 14 days, while cramming for final exams, packing up my dorm room, standing for a fitting for my wedding dress, instructing the florist not to include stephanotis (the “bride’s” flower) in my bouquet, and the band leader not to play “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” I obsessed about Mitchell. Like a continuous tape, thoughts looped through my mind: What was Mitchell doing? Was he dating anyone? Had he asked my friend about me? When would I see him again? I imagined that he’d fallen madly in love with me. Surely, he’d plead with me to marry him, and we’d ride off into the sunset together.

I can only explain this strange interlude as a reaction to my wedding. Thinking about Mitchell eliminated all else. I adored my fiancé and wanted to marry him, but my parents’ reaction to my marrying a “Gentile,” planted a seed of doubt in my mind. This imaginary love affair with a man I didn’t know allowed me to flee my fears and anxieties. And, yet, I think that the beard itself lured me. Had Mitchell been a clean-shaven college student, I wouldn’t have given him a second thought.

Jim: My next obsession. A man of the cloth, the pastor of the church my husband and I attended in our Midwestern university town. His short, red-flecked beard expressed his personality—neat, controlled and understated. Whereas Mitchell, a layman, exuded soulfulness (which I mistook for spirituality), Jim, projected quiet “holiness.” Preparing to convert from Judaism to Presbyterianism, I met him weekly in his cramped study to discuss theological readings in which I had no interest. We sat on either side of his desk—a clutter of papers, pens, books, a Bible, and Kleenex. Dim light leaked from a green glass-shaded lamp—the kind once used by accountants and bookies.

As I climbed the steps to his office, as we spoke about the religious commentaries he’d assigned, I held my breath, awestruck—not by the theology—but instead by the feeling of holiness emanating from him during these sessions. I feared speaking, feared breaking the spell of this mysterious, semi-conscious world. Pastor Jim did not burn incense, chant, or write in runes, but he might as well have.

I doubt that I ever would have asked him for spiritual advice, much less converted, had he been beardless.

Brian: Most recent and most consummate obsession. My fixation with this yoga teacher did not occur immediately. It lay dormant for months—flat as the mat on which I practiced. Then it exploded! Perhaps this seeming contradiction was due to Brian’s fickle relationship with beards. At times, he had one, and others times, he didn’t. Nevertheless, of all the bearded sages, I fell hardest for him.

Lured by the promise of gentle physical movement and emotional calm after months of back pain and a job I loathed, I walked into the yoga studio that September day though I knew nothing of yoga as a spiritual discipline. There, in the minimalist, Japanese-inspired entrance, I met Brian, a kind, soft-spoken man with calm blue eyes and a closely clipped mousey-brown beard, who explained the fundamentals of yoga to me.

For years, I took several weekly classes with him. Threading his path through the maze of multi-colored mats, he stopped to adjust body alignments, and encourage further extension. Even as I leaned down into a standing forward bend, my eyes directed to the floor, my arms hanging loosely by my sides, and my hands grazing the warm maple floor, I sensed Brian’s approach. I inhaled his faint scent of patchouli, a smell I will forever associate with him and spirituality. My breath caught as he ran a soft finger down my spine

5  Causes of Obsession. I know that this obsession erupted when I felt lost or overwhelmed in my life, and craved fatherly advice and assurance that I was where I should be, doing what I should be doing. My own father never offered me these things. Instead, he often questioned my decisions, suggesting that I should be other than where I was, pursuing something other than what I was. As a child, I believed that my father had some kind of supernatural power, which allowed him to invade my psyche, to see through me, to divine the best course for me. And I let him—while also fighting him.

But, I yearned for something beyond my father’s advice—something greater, something all-encompassing and protective. I think now I was longing for a spiritual dimension to my life. These bearded wise men turned up at transitional moments for me—Mitchell, a couple of weeks before my wedding; Jim, at the beginning of my marriage, and a move to an unfamiliar part of the country; Brian, at a time of career change.

6  First Awareness Of. This awareness emerged only recently as I fell once again under the spell of a new meditation teacher—bearded, of course. During a particularly unproductive session in which, rather than concentrating on my breath, I meditated exclusively on him, I realized that I’d levitated myself away with his spirit, and that he’d joined my other bearded sages. I have little hope that I can escape a full-blown compulsion.