And it’s not just some hipster affectation
“STOP CRASHING BAPTISMS JUST TO SMELL THE BABY’S HEAD.”
So reads a Facebook ad for Catholic Balm Co, which makes chrism-scented beard balms and body lotions that are aromatic dead ringers for the blessed oil used in the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy orders.
“Is this a joke or is this a real thing?” asked one commenter, voicing a common reaction.
“It’s a real thing,” she was assured, but Tony Vasinda understands the confusion — after all, he did start making the stuff as kind of a joke.
Tony Vasinda. Photo: Stephen Brashear
‘Wouldn’t it be funny?’
See, Vasinda had wanted to make some (unconsecrated) chrism to use as a teaching tool at St. Luke Parish in Shoreline, where he’s the pastoral assistant for faith formation. He figured an ounce would last a couple of years, but when he ordered the fragrant chrism essence online, from a Trappist monastery in Massachusetts, he discovered that a small bottle was enough to mix with three gallons of olive oil.
Around the same time, Vasinda, a transplant from Texas, had been getting into the Northwest’s DIY culture by developing a homemade beard balm for himself and a few hairy friends.
In a “wouldn’t it be funny” moment, he decided to stir in some of the excess chrism essence to make a “fun Catholic thing.” Working in his kitchen in Edmonds, he mixed up about a hundred tins of “Catholic beard balm” and brought them along to a national youth ministry conference in late 2014.
Beards are big among youth ministers, Vasinda said. Still, he was surprised when he sold out and had to take mail orders. He’d hit on something, and he decided to start selling his beard balm online.
Not just for the bearded
Thanks largely to some savvy social media marketing around Father’s Day and No-Shave November (“St. Joseph taught Jesus how not to shave”), Catholic Balm Co has sold upwards of 15,000 units in the last year and a half, Vasinda said. The proceeds support ProjectYM, a resource for Catholic youth ministers that Vasinda co-founded, as well as various charities.
The business has now taken over an entire room of his house, plus storage space in the basement and laundry room, but it’s still very much a handcrafted, small-batch enterprise.
Beard balm containers. Photo: Stephen Brashear
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Vasinda — sporting a green WE EXIST TO EVANGELIZE T-shirt — grabbed a metal pitcher off an electric stovetop and poured a mixture of almond oil, shea butter, beeswax and cocoa butter into 95 tins arranged on a metal tray, trying hard not to spill, “which happens pretty much every single time,” he said.
The balm business is a family affair: Vasinda’s wife, Tricia, handles shipping (they’ve gotten orders from every continent, including Antarctica); their four kids help stick labels on the tins.
In addition to the original Chrism variety of beard balm, there’s unscented Franciscan, a tribute to the spiritual simplicity of its namesake religious order. Holy Smokes smells of frankincense and myrrh. Lectio (as in lectio divina, or divine reading) is meant to evoke the scent of an old Bible. And Orthodoxy, with aromas of pipe tobacco and hops, is an homage to early-20th-century English writer and convert G.K. Chesterton.
In response to frequent “What about people who don’t have beards?” questions, Vasinda also started making Little Flower Lip Balm (in honor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux) and Lumena Solid Lotion Bars (inspired by St. Philomena); he hopes to come out with a line of soaps this year.
There’s definitely a “tongue-in-cheek sense of mirth” about Catholic beard balm, Vasinda said, but also a real spiritual seriousness. “We’ll get these really intense emails from guys for whom this is, like, a daily spiritual practice,” he said. With his friend and business partner Michael Marchand, Vasinda even wrote a “blessing of the beard” (see box).
Depending on the scent, Catholic beard balm can be “a daily reminder of your baptismal promises” or a gentle spur to “spend time in Scripture,” Vasinda said. A mundane moment — getting ready in the morning — becomes a time to recall “that I am Catholic, that I have a baptismal calling, and that God desires something for me — and that something is my happiness, for me to be fulfilled in him.”
It can also provide openings for some olfactory evangelization. “There are guys who walk into their office … and people are like, ‘Oh, what aroma are you wearing today? What does that mean? Tell me about it.’ And it’s a way for them to be able to share their faith.”
It’s especially good for sparking conversations with fallen-away Catholics. “For a lot of people who have been distant from the faith for a while, they still know that smell of chrism, so they’ll catch a whiff of it and they’ll ask,” Vasinda said.
“I think, at its best, evangelization is about creating an irresistible attractiveness to the Gospel,” he added, “and I think that aroma is a great way to do that.”
Blessing of the beard
Lord above, bless this beard as it grows from my face. Let it serve as a reminder that I am yours. Let it serve as a symbol of my role in your kingdom. Let it serve as a sign of your blessing in my life. As I was anointed and claimed for you at my baptism, I anoint this beard as a reminder of love. Amen
Northwest Catholic - July/August 2016
Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.
Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: Kevin.Birnbaum@seattlearch.org.