On Beer: Love and Responsibility

November 29, 2021

“From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world,” St. Arnulf of Metz. “Beer makes you sleep easy. Easy sleep makes you not sin. Not sinning gets you into heaven,” an anonymous German monk. “It is my design to die in the brewhouse; let ale be placed to my mouth when I am expiring so that when the choir of angels come they may say: “Be God propitious to this drinker.” It’s not only Catholic saints who have sung the praises of this gold and foamy drink. “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” Ben Franklin supposedly, debatably, probably did not, say. But the sentiment’s nice, right? Just like this tweet sent by @Woke Rhinoceros at 2:20 AM in July 2020, that reads, verbatim, “no time read, no time write, I don’t love or fight, beer tho be right, yo.” Ah, maybe best to return to the reputable source of a Catholic saint, here St. Brigid of Ireland. “I would like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings. I would like to be watching Heaven’s family drinking it through all eternity.”

Catholics like beer. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh succinctly explained this at his Senate Judiciary hearings, quote, ‘We drank beer. I liked beer. I still like beer.’ This is true down to the truest declaration of truth, jokes. Where did the Irish family go on vacation? To a different bar. Beer is hardwired into the tradition of Christendom, present at the very origins of monastic life and within lived, ora et labora, practice. More on that soon. First, some disclaimers. This talk is subtitled Love and Responsibility as an intentional homage to John Paul II’s book on the Catholic sexual ethic. Uh, more on that next month, that’s my next talk. Wow, so many previews here pretty soon you’ll hear me say something like ‘on October 32nd, 2051 extraterrestrials will return to the pyramids and repossess their millennia-old handiwork,’ but, trust me, that’s not going to happen.

Beer is a love story, one whose thoroughgoing underpinning must be responsibility. If a person is prone to alcoholism, teetotalism can be a Cross picked up and dutifully followed, following the Master himself all the way to Heaven. Here, abstinence becomes holy mortification, and who would doubt those poor souls in purgatory can ever have enough sacrifices made on their behalf by us? Forget legal limits, why not live by a rule that even a few sips makes you turn those car keys over to a drier friend ferrying you home safe and sound? And what Catholic would deny the Aquinian communitarian sense of the common good that beckons us gently to follow established societal norms? Not 21, don’t drink, this because at sub-21 you most likely can’t properly think, probably have rocks in your head or maybe nothing at all. Not airhead, empty head, you, so why add alcohol to the mix?

Those are your disclaimers, for this talk is not some frat boy’s midsummer night’s dream extolling the virtues of 40oz malt liquor, swimming goggles, funnels, and duct tape, the tape to better affix 80oz total to five digits each, left and right, while your boys Tecate Tom and PBR Petey record the exploits for posterity. Catholics, beer if it is to really be loved, properly loved, must be done so responsibly. Leave it to a man who looked like he was born in a pub, and whose mother tucked him into bed with the stories of Kegman and the Fairy Princess Frothsip, GK Chesterton, to pen the definitive words here, on this subject. ‘You thank God for the gift of beer by not drinking too much of it.’

So I’ve told you what this talk is not about. How about some positive direction, though? You’ve heard some saints on the subject, I’ll start by giving you some more, then some input from the Lord and Savior Himself, this before arriving at the beating heart of this talk, a trip to Norcia, Italy, followed by a final brief stopover at Mt. Angel Seminary in Oregon, this then being the final destination of this talk, should time, flight itineraries, and arbitrary perhaps purposely contradictory gubernatorial edicts concerning in-fight and inside/outside dining social distancing and/or face mask slash my Aunt Karen’s unsolicited epidemiological opinions allow for it.

The relationship between alcohol and the Church is as old as the Church herself. Saint Paul counseled Saint Timothy to give up the habit of drinking water alone and to have some wine to settle his stomach and help with other illnesses. Earlier still, let’s raise our pints in a toast to the Old Testament, the Psalmists rejoiced over God creating wine to ‘gladden the human heart’ while, in the book of Proverbs, heavy-hearted depression is to be cured in similar fashion: with wine. For in drinking, the Scriptures tell us, people forget their poverty and remember misery no more. Alcohol only grew in importance as the young Church itself grew into the large seat of the former Roman Empire then laying in ashes. For as Christendom became the New Rome, with monastic life often the active, catalyzing ingredient, within the monastic walls it was often beer, the catalyst within the catalyst, that allowed monks to live the laborious requirement of Benedictine’s rule that monks should provide for themselves. And, lucky us, lucky world, this self-sustaining goldfrothed provision provided for us art in liquid form, sips of sublime satisfaction, daily bread lowest common denominated down to watery essentials. And all this but a pour and a few pulls away.

Monasteries started brewing beer as early as the 5th century AD. A few centuries more and there were five hundred plus monastic breweries spread about the continent. The typical design of these included partitioning into three separate brewing areas, one producing beer for customers and travelers visiting the monastery, another area making beer that would be given as charity to the poor, and a final, personal area if you will, where monks brewed beer for themselves. Medieval monks were reputed to drink up to four liters of ale per day—that’s 135 ounces, eleven beers—and during Lent some monks would actually drink more, not less, for this ‘liquid bread’ would be a form of nutritional sustenance to get them through long, one-meal days. And far from being restricted to the monastery, and from this wellspring to kings and the common visitor alike, the importance of beer to Middle Age society is brought into starker relief when seen under the guise of that long repeated legend that beer was safer to drink than water, the boiling element of the preparatory process killing pathogens the scientists of that time did not know even existed. “Let us make use of a healthy, natural drink which will sometimes be of benefit to both body and soul,” the Abbot Lupus Servatus declared in the ninth century, specifying, however, that it “is drawn not from a muddy cistern but from a clear well or the current of a transparent brook.” This timeless drink, brought forth from a labor of love, has come down to our time today, and makes use, still today, of our own transparent brooks and clear wells with the hope being that it may still be, to those who can love it responsibly, a benefit to both our bodies and souls.

It is therefore to our current times today that we now turn, readying the end of our very brief historical reflection as we board flight 12345678 to Norcia, Italy, the flight attendant right now, as I read you the forthcoming few sentences two, in fact, handing you beers, two, in fact, crème-foamed blonde in the left, an amber-auburn Chimay for the right, so as you sip you do know now that it really is all going to be, all of it, alright, your ears now ready to listen to the historical reflection’s denouement, a return full circle, back to the beginning, back to the very beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry, the strongest possible argument for alcoholic drink as a gift to be responsibly enjoyed. The public ministry that was quite literally kicked off, and at a wedding to boot, with alcohol, a miracle, water into wine, wine, the pre-Transubstantiative foundational material for the arrival of Christ’s real and true Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, and the final instructive words from Our Blessed Mother in Scripture. ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Her final words in Scripture, given to us all as general instruction, just do what Jesus wants you to do, whereas, in that moment then, a command to a waiter to follow her son’s guidance without hesitation as he, the Divine Son of God, began the road to Calvary by first gladdening the hearts of wedding guests shocked to learn post-sip that he had kept ‘the good wine until now.’

The flight has landed in Italy. But our Italian driver showed up fours late. Then our car broke down and had to be left, still smoking, by the side of the road. We took a taxi to the nearest train station but the train was itself a little bit tardy; three days late. When we finally made it to the penultimate train station we found it closed for business. This region in Italy, a local woman informed us, takes a daily siesta from 9 am to 6:30 pm. No worries, though, she assured us, you can always take the bus to Norcia, the station’s five minutes in that direction….or, excuse me, no, it’s behind us, in…wait, hold on, I think it’s…when she finally asked an older gentleman in a plaid shirt and slacks smoking like a chimney while slouched against the wall of a newspaper kiosk ‘does this town have a bus station?’ we knew maybe this wasn’t our lucky day, our lucky trip.

Transportation problems notwithstanding, to arrive at Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict, Western Monasticism and really the West, ‘Western Culture,’ in sum, is to arrive at what seems like a slice of heaven on Earth, especially if you were lucky enough to go before the devastating 2016 earthquakes that destroyed and damaged much of the city and the monastery itself. Fear not, however, these men are monks, Catholic special forces, so I refuse to answer the question of whether they are rebuilding and building back better than ever. I will say that what the monastery once was, and soon will be once more, was a nuclear reactor of spiritual energy running on long hours of prayer, the full office chanted in Latin, prayer at daytime at during the wee hours, midnight, 3 and 6 am, and Gregorian chant so hauntingly pretty that the fact that the monks’ recordings have topped Billboard charts seems more like an insult than an award.

Their music, like the beer they brew, is better than awards, beer that comes in two varieties—a blonde and a dark beer—and is sold in cases and six-packs, the latter known to run you a cool $85. The Benedictine monks in Norcia practice what they call the ‘brew evangelization,’ a name which is cheesy but at the same time horribly cheesy, so there, that doesn’t sound cool, c’mon, call a spade a spade, but the results of which appear to have marvelous effects. Trendy Atheist Italian guy number 005 visits the monastery along with his best friend, Obnoxious American Tourist #CiaoBella and these two long-lapsed Catholics start sipping and speaking. Soon, maybe after beer number three, they are no longer speaking but speaking about serious things, scratching off old, hardened wounds of resentment and allowing the brewmaster Doctors of the Soul monks to have a look, and why not? It’s not too long afterward, and by this time beer number four has long been filed away safely in the stomach, that both of these men have made appointments for confession at the monastery; the first time in twenty-one and sixteen years, respectively. Yes, the beer is intrinsically good at Norcia, delicious even, but its true import lies in allowing the monks to, in their own words, ‘preach the Gospel without preaching the Gospel.’

One cannot leave Norcia without having a glass or two of the monk’s beer. But if you can by virtue of the fact that you cannot, can leave without a beer because you cannot or will not drink beer, at least allow the descriptive words on the bottle’s label to send you on your way. ‘In the birthplace of St. Benedict, set in the beautifully preserved nature of the Umbrian landscape, the monks of Norcia brew this beer with the finest ingredients, following the ancient monastic tradition. We invite you to enjoy Birra Nursia in the company of friends and family, “Ut Laetificet Cor,” that the heart may be gladdened.’

Want your heart gladdened somewhere closer to home? Well, I have two suggestions for you, one closer than the other, both closer than Italy. In fact, in our chartered direct flight from Norcia to Mount Angel Abbey, one of these two options, in, surprise, surprise, Saint Benedict, Oregon, our flight takes an unscheduled pit stop a stone’s throw from the Palouse in Cottonwood at St. Gertrude’s Monastery. How did we end up here? To make a long story short a gentleman on the flight had to go to the bathroom and both ‘could not hold it’ and was ‘unsure that the in-flight faculties would be up to the task of my personal challenge,’ whatever that meant. The plane rerouted and landed in a secret airport near Cottonwood. The passengers were none too happy, having their plans gashed mid-air and now having to wait patiently in place, FDA regulations requiring their seatbelts remained fastened, tray tables up, and their baggage stowed overhead while the man disembarked to answer nature’s call. Returning two hours later he was met with jeers and boos from the still seatbelted passengers. One woman yelled, ‘you’re probably a Trump supporter!” Turns out it was Donald Trump. Actually, Joe Biden pretending to be Donald Trump, MAGA hat and all. See, it turns out that Biden, while on the campaign trail…a never mind, long story, as I said before.

Long story, but one with a happy ending, here in Cottonwood, at Saint Gertrude’s Monastery, a monastic community following the every inch and detail of Saint Benedict’s Rule, the motherhouse of which was founded in 1909 because of three sisters who had originally left a cloister in Sarnen, Switzerland right in the middle of le belle Époque-fin de siècle Europe and came to New York and then onto Idaho, to become proprietors, Book of Genesis style ‘man’s dominion’ over the surrounding greenspace, 1400 acres of pristine Idaho land, here, in Cottonwood, and if you want a beautiful church then see a chapel hewn from locally quarried blue porphyry, matching twin towers with candy apple red domes, the two them with golden crosses on top and inside a majestic, golden-hued altar and Tabernacle at the center of it all, the center of the universe. Saint Gertrude’s sisters host a “Raspberry Festival Arts and Crafts Fair” where select items include raspberry shortcake, pancakes, and raspberry jam but this list remains incomplete without the wine they make and sell. It’s not beer, fine, but this Wedding of Cana Feast near the Palouse gives, each one of us, a very close ‘Norcia-like’ experience where one can come and drink from the wellspring of integrated architecture and agriculture, holy hymns, and homemade cuisine, while driving the experience, activating it, with the do whatever He tells you gift from God to us.

But if you’re a purist, and a talk on beer should not veer from the beer, steering clear of deer, assorted car gear, and fear itself as you drive on the nexus of highways near us to that nearer to where we are not, and I mean St. Benedict, Oregon, one will soon find it crystal clear that there, here, at Mt. Angel Abbey, that there is beer here, plenty of it, three cheers for beer at the simply named ‘Benedictine Brewery,’ founded in 2018, the year, and it really is all about the beer here, ‘taste and believe’ the brewery’s slogan, the simplicity of that only outdone by the simplicity and simple beauty of the process behind the product, for, as their website declares, since Saint Benedict envisioned monasteries as self-sufficient communities, the monks of the here and now follow the example of the monks of days gone by, ‘striving for the same’ the site says, meaning, as in Norcia, that the monks do the brewing, the water comes from their own well, and the hops from their own land, an agricultural tradition on land owned since the 1880s. It may be hard for us to get to Norcia. But one can come to the Norcia in Oregon, can come to pray, can come to find peace, can come to taste and believe. This confirmed belief in the brewing brilliance of the Mt. Angel monks perhaps, just like their Benedictine brethren in Norcia believe, serving as a catalyst to belief in someone still more sublime, that arriving at the table of the monk’s brewery men and women might progress to one day coming to the table of the Lord’s supper, to eat and drink their own salvation so gratuitously offered by a God who loves us so much.

Okay, so I’ve given you a very brief, thinly superficial admittedly, history of the relationship between alcohol and the Church, have given you some introductory information on monasteries in Italy, Idaho, and Organ, and began the talk with some notes on how a love for beer should always be connected to responsibility. Let’s end here because this is the most important takeaway. That beer drinking can be harmful if abused is perhaps the whole point. Maybe God gives us beer as it is, healthy and simultaneously harmful depending upon context and contingencies, because he wants us to experience the full measure of our freedom. Maybe it all comes back to Genesis and our first parents. Beer is the Garden of Eden, glorious, golden liquid good for the heart and mind and better still for fellowship with friends, gateway, in thanksgiving to God for the taste and the theological implications behind it, for a deeper love of God and neighbor, a way to appreciate the good gifts of the Creator and so be moved to appreciate Him Himself in the fullest measure; brew evangelization, indeed. But drunkenness, alcoholism, and worse of all decisions made while drunk, that’s the forbidden fruit. Just as God told our first parents not to eat the forbidden fruit, and that there would be consequences for doing so, we can be assured that we too are to avoid the forbidden fruits of alcohol abuse lest dire consequences fall upon us once more. Do not eat the forbidden fruit. Rather, in the full flush of responsibility, eat from the fruitful cornucopia of God’s gift of beer with a joyful and mirthful heart, in moderation, with respect, and doing so you might just stumble upon a lesser type of love marking out the path to the God who is Love Himself.

Gracjan Kraszewski is the author of two books: a novel entitled The Holdout (Adelaide Books, 2018) and a Civil War history entitled Catholic Confederates (Kent State Univ. Press, 2020). A third book, a novel entitled Thermonuclear Mirth, is under contract with Arouca Press. Currently the Director of Intellectual Formation at the St. Augustine Center on the Univ. of Idaho campus. Earned his PhD in history from Mississippi State University. Writing—incl. academic articles, essays, and literary fiction—has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, Nashwaak Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Eclectica Magazine, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, New English Review, The Catholic Historical Review, The Polish Review, and Idaho Magazine. Fluent in English, Polish and French, can speak Russian and Italian at an intermediate level. Played baseball in college, two seasons professionally in Europe in the Czech Republic and Belgium, and for the Polish National Team.

Guest Contributer


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