Liquid Bread (Beer as an essential part of daily life)

Writing my previous post (Saints of the Suds: German Monks) got me to thinking about the role of beer in our daily lives.  It doing a little basic research into the history of beer consumption, there was a time in which beer held a much more prominent place in our daily lives.  Today most people in our culture see beer as something recreational… something we indulge in when we knock off of work or when we are partying with friends on the weekend.  This stands in stark contrast with much of the rest of the world where drinking beer or wine is daily and normative, and in some cases even begins with breakfast.  So how did this disconnect happen?  Is it something we should continue to embrace?

I am sure that a sociologist/historian might be able to posit more in depth and/or more accurate theories.  But you dear reader, are stuck listening to the babblings of a priest, which means your getting a religiously focused analysis.  We can begin by blaming the Puritans, which I find to be an effective panacea in assessing so many of our cultural woes.  These are folk who, after falling victim to the religious intolerance of their mother country, flee and set up their own colonies in the New World.  But do they learn from their harsh experience?  Hardly.  As unpleasant as it may be for us to admit now, at one point in their history the New England colonies (with the notable exception of Rhode Island) were theocracies of the sort that would make the Taliban proud.  In simplest terms the Puritans held that all earthly pleasures were BAD which of course included alcohol.  Their intolerance managed to seep into the collective subconscious of our culture where it still lingers even today.

The Methodists (a denomination that I respect to whom I mean no offense) also played a hand.  Founded by the brothers Wesley in response to profoundly deteriorating social conditions in the industrialized cities of England in the 1700, this movement did a lot of good for the people it tried to serve.  However, since abuse of alcohol was one of the chief social ills it sought to remedy, they too tended to demonize the drink.  As Methodism spread to the colonies and territories, they brought their morays with them and it definitely helped instill the view that alcohol was ungodly or immoral into a fair percentage of the populous.

Perhaps even more importantly than either of these socio-religious influences was the socio-economic influence of Prohibition which firmly established the rift we see today.  Driven by ethos like those of the Methodists, groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (my grandmother was a member)sought to eliminate the social evil of alcohol from our society.  Alcohol became illicit, both in terms of its legality and in the minds of the public.  It was something to be enjoyed only in speak-easies, something associated with the criminal underworld and with vice and corruption.  Although this was short lived in terms of its legal life the impact on our culture was very long ranging.  We see it still today in the limitations on beer and liquor advertisement, in blue laws and in dry towns and counties that are scattered across our nation (Don’t even get me started on Utah).

As a result of all these factors beer has been relegated from its rightful place as something that was once an assumed and natural part of life to the realm of vice.  None of this is to deny the truth that there are some people who have a problem with drinking.  Alcoholism is a very real addiction and it has tragically destroyed far too many lives.  But contrary to the intent, demonizing alcohol does not eliminate this problem.  It could be argued that such an approach actually increases the percentage of drinkers who abuse alcohol.

If we are ever going to re-establish a healthy relationship with beer, we need to completely reassess how we view and understand  it.  It begins by accepting that alcohol is not new.  Fermented beverages have been cultivated and enjoyed for 10,000 years and by virtually every culture and people.  For most of this period beer, wine and all other sorts of indigenous hooch had a rightful and respected place in daily life.  In many places around the globe it is still enjoyed that way… I have see it first hand in my travels in Ireland, Germany, France and Japan and if you turn on any episode of No Reservations you can watch as Anthony Bourdain is offered all kinds of alcoholic concoctions as he samples daily life all around the globe… it is as natural and automatic a part of his welcome as the food he is offered.

I am not saying that unless you drink daily you are somehow repressed.  But there is no need to see beer as being only appropriate for the weekend.  Therefore, we should stop feeling awkward or embarrassed about ordering a beer with lunch or having a beer or two with our supper.  The fact is that when compared toe the rest of the world our culture’s perspective on alcohol has been skewed.   It is time we allowed beer to regain its place as positive and even an essential part of our daily lives.

“…a godly, righteous and sober life”

It was the morning after attending the 2nd Annual Philly Craft Beer Festival.  As I knelt on the cold tile of the church floor and said these words (which come at the end of our confession of sin) I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony.  There I was at 8:05 am, still slightly green around the gills from many hours of sampling craft beer the day before, and I was praying that God would inspire me and help me to lead a “sober” life.  Did I really mean what I was praying for?  How does one define a “sober” life?  This got me to thinking about what it means to find an honest balance between one’s spirituality and one’s love of beer (or wine or scotch or whatever your drink of choice may be).

The answer is not nearly as poetic as the circumstances that inspired me to reflect upon it.  Beer (or any alcoholic beverage) is the product of the fruits of the earth combined with human imagination, ingenuity and labor.  As with any human creation it has the capacity to be abused.  Even though it was made with the intention of enhancing life and of bringing joy, it can also has the potential to damage our bodies, our psyches, our relationships and even to maim or kill.  Everyone, regardless of religious belief (or lack of the same), could therefore agree that abusing alcohol is a bad thing.  So the problem lies in our definition… how do we distinguish between enjoyment and abuse?

Alcohol impairs judgment and the more one drinks the more impaired one’s judgment is going to get.  Obviously if one gets to the point where one can no longer stand up, stay awake or remember what one did, then one has passed beyond the point of responsible enjoyment.  And as all experienced drinkers know, the more you drink, the greater the likelihood that you will say or do something that you would not have said or done had you been sober.

Therefore, if you want to enjoy your beer as God intended, then you need to both know your limits and control your circumstances.  Unfortunately, most of us only get to know our limits by exceeding them once or twice but only a fool (or an alcoholic) fails to take the hard lessons of pounding hangovers and doing the Technicolor yawn to heart.  IOW, once you learn your limits, you must make sure you stay within them.  However, even if your limits are untried, you can still control your circumstances.  That means you can take steps in advance, when your judgment is still sound, to make sure that no injury (be it physical, emotional or relational) results from your indulgence.

Physical safety is rather obvious… don’t drink and drive (or pilot a boat/jet ski, etc)… for that matter don’t drink and operate un-motorized vehicles like bikes, skis or skateboards either.  The latter point about damaging relationships is a little trickier to define, but still important.  Basically what it means is that if you’re going to drink more than a couple, you are best off in the company of people you know and trust, particularly if they are people who can accept the fact that your are going to drink.  Such people are more likely to be forgiving if you say or do something less than intelligent.

For the sake of illustration let’s look at my outing to the Craft Beer Fest.  First, we worked very hard in advance to make sure we had vans and sober drivers.  Thus the concerns for physical safety were taken care of.  Second, I knew I was hanging out with fellow beer lovers.  Many of them I knew well, though a few I was meeting only for the first or second time.   However, even though they all knew I was a priest, and even though, in the case of some of them, I was actually their priest, none of them were expecting me to perform priestly functions like hearing confession or offering counseling that afternoon.  And so for those few hours I was freed from the normal expectations of my vocation and allowed to be nothing more than one of fourteen beer-loving companions. And although my language got a little bluer than usual as the day wore on, no one thought less of me for it.  Since my moral authority was not compromised, I was able to stand up at the altar and lead some of the very same people in worship the next day without any hesitation.

So was I a hypocrite to utter those words as part of the confession?  I don’t think so, because although all indulgence creates the opportunity for sin, it is possible to occasionally enjoy beer in greater quantities without sinning.  And so I will continue to pray that God helps me to live a life that is “godly, righteous and sober” while at the same time giving thanks for all the blessings of this life, including the rich and wonderful blessing beer!

Saints of the Suds: German Monks

This will be the first of a small series of sporadic entries dedicated to saints who loved beer.  While there are a number of authentic accounts of saints who personally imbibed, praised or otherwise promoted beer, they are a minority when compared to the number of saints who went on record condemning our favorite beverage.  Of course to me this makes them only all the more interesting.  But enough of the prologue… let’s move onto our first entry.

Ok, so this is a pretty broad and impersonal grouping to qualify as a “saint.”  Then again, I could probably do a whole series in this column just on the contributions that monks have made to beer.  No experienced beer drinker needs to be reminded of the contributions Belgian monks made to the cause of expanding our palettes.  But in this season of dopplebocks and starkbiers, it is really the German brothers that demand our attention.  Many, if not most, of the German breweries (particularly in pious Bavaria) were founded by monks.  Some, like Andechs, are still monastic operations today.

Yet the creation of the dopplebock arose, not out of a desire to create a new style of beer, but rather out of the necessity for sustenance.  In past centuries monks took their observance of Lent VERY seriously.  Now for those of you who may not be familiar,  Lent is the 40 daylong season that leads up to the celebration of Easter.  By tradition it is a penitential season and believers mark it through acts of contrition and self-deprivation.  Even today lots of people choose to give up some sort of vice (like smoking) or pleasure (like chocolate).  Many Roman Catholics observe Lent by not eating meat on Fridays.

But those monks of centuries past were hardcore.  They didn’t just give up meat.  They gave up food altogether.  Yet their fasting was not just for one day a week, it was for six (they got to eat on Sunday because long ago the Church decided that because of such nutritional hardships, that Sunday’s would not count as part of Lent).  Yep, you read it correctly, no food for six days in a row.  While the human body can survive it (we can go up to as much as 14 days without food), such fasting would still leave one greatly weakened and prone to illness if the body did not get its needed nutrients some other way.  So the monks found a loophole.  They were fasting from food, but not from liquid.  If they could not eat their bread, they would drink it.

It was in response to the need for sustenance that dopplebocks came to be.  They are loaded with all kinds on extra carbs and nutrients.  As a rule, they all end in with the suffix, “-ator.”  The most famous, and perhaps first, of them all is the Salvator, by Paulaner.  It means, you guessed it, “Salvation.”  And for those monks, it was indeed that… their savior from the near starvation of Lent.  If you have ever had the Celebrator, by Ayinger, then you know that these beers can indeed feel like you need a knife and fork to consume them.  Of the domestics, I have found none to rival the Troegenator by Troeg’s.

Having “ein mass” or two of either of these beers is more than enough for me.  Indeed, I can’t help but guess that a couple of dopplebocks, with their high alcohol content of 6-8%, must have given a decent buzz when taken on an empty stomach.  But I suppose if you have dedicated your life to God, and moreover, are going with food for 40-46 days for the sole purpose of drawing closer to that God, you are entitled to an indulgence or too.  Thanks to J.Wilson of Brewvana we no longer have to speculate quite so much.  In 2011 he picked up on this tradition of fasting and didn’t even eat on Sunday’s but went for 46 straight days on his own dopplebock and water.  His documentation of his experience lead to the book, Diary of a Part Time Monk and is well worth checking out.   So raise a glass to these ingenious monks and their 21st century heir.  We are the beneficiaries of their fasting.  And that makes them some very worthy Saints of the Suds.

“It seems that you see me more in bars than in church.”

I heard these words at the old Khyber Pass in Old City.  I was there in the company of a friend/parishioner  to see the venerable and awesome New Model Army.  The band’s sound check had just finished up and from across the room I saw another one of my parishioners waving at me.  After a hug and an introduction to her boyfriend, she said, “It seems that you see me more in bars than in church.” with a kind of sheepish laugh.  Although her statement wasn’t entirely accurate (between my kids, meetings, and just being tired I don’t get out all that much), I started to wonder what she was really trying to say.  The implication seemed to be that because she went to bars more frequently than she went to church that she had something to apologize for, or even be ashamed of.  It got me to thinking, just what is it about the interplay between bars and church?  For many people these institutions are bitter rivals.  But do they have to be?

Human beings tend to divide our lives up into two distinct areas: the sacred and the profane.  This is a false dichotomy and we need to stop buying into it.  All of life has the potential to be sacred (indeed all of it has been both created and redeemed by God) and so all of life is an opportunity for God to be present, known and active.

To that point, as I sampled some of the nice selection of drafts (Troeg’s Nugget Nectar is a hoppy delight and Laugunitas Lumpy Gravy was complex and very flavorful) I could not help but notice the fact that God was already present in that place.  Present in the camaraderie shared by friends, present in the energy of the music, and even present in the fellowship of the mosh pit (more on that in future posts).

But even more than this, what I saw that night was an incredible opportunity… opportunity for God to be even more present and active in that place and in the lives of those assembled.  I saw it in the desire for companionship, understanding and intimacy that motivated many of the patrons.  I heard it brilliant and uncompromising lyrics of the band, that expressed a deep longing for meaning and purpose (in addition to taking frequent shots at the hypocrisy of the Church).  Yet no one was there helping these folks make the connection between their needs and the presence of God that was already in their midst.  Instead, many of them, like my parishioner, probably felt that God was far away from that place, if they thought about God at all.

Not surprisingly, I expect few of the people there that night would turn to the church to meet these very basic spiritual needs.  No, when they want to feel connection and fellowship they go to the bar.  The Church would do well to wake up and recognize the reality; that these needs and opportunities surround us… at the show that night and every night at the hundreds of bars and clubs across my city, the country and the world, people are looking for the sacred and many times, they are finding it, even if they don’t use those words to describe it.  And so my parishioner did not have to feel ashamed or apologetic for being seen in the bar by her priest.  Despite our preconceptions, God can be found at the bar almost as readily as in church.  And if we want to find meaning or purpose, if we want to find the presence of God in our lives, all we have to do is open our eyes to sacred reality that is already all around us.