“I almost blew it last night”

As we approach the end of 2012 we often reflect back on the year that has been- on what went well but also on those things that we could have done better. With spirit of reflection and contrition in mind, I share the following story.
I have often been struck by the similar roles played by priests and bartenders. In many ways our jobs are the same. We both listen to people talk about their problems, we both offer advice and mediate disputes and we both try to give folks a sense of comfort. It is not at all uncommon for someone in a bar, upon learning about my vocation to begin unburdening their soul to me.
It is worth noting that this pattern of behavior is not limited to bars, it happens in the park, at the grocery store and waiting in line at the DMV too. Once, a car salesman all but abandoned his efforts to sell me a car in favor of telling me about his pain and longing to be a musician. Anyway, the bar/confessional scenario happens frequently enough that I have to wonder if we wouldn’t get a higher participation rate if we just pulled the confessional out of church and set it up next to the jukebox instead. But onto the story that inspired me to write this…
The other night I was enjoying a few beers and ran into someone that I knew but hadn’t seen in some time. After alternating catching up and discussing the various craft beers that were available (Oskar Blues, Erie and Brooklyn- I liked the Brooklyn 1). But then out of the blue my friend said, “I gotta tell you, I almost blew it last night.” I asked what they meant. Apparently they were at a party and ran into an old flame. This is significant because they are soon to be married and moreover, their finance was out of town. According to the story this was not just a meeting… as it turns out, the old flame came on hot and heavy. My friend was tempted but did not succumb.
I must confess that I was surprised… not because my friend was tempted but rather because this is never the kind of confession I get to hear. In fact, it is really gratifying to be pleasantly surprised by one of these impromptu confessions. Much more often, they end up making me sad and tired and just generally detracting from the enjoyment that I hoped to get out of my trip to the tavern. That doesn’t mean that I resent hearing them or will refuse to hear them in future… it goes along with the job, even when I am off the clock. People will always need to get stuff off their chest and sometimes the bar is just the place to do it. I know it won’t be long till the next time someone tells me their sins or troubles over a pint.
As we wind down this first year of “So This Priest,” I want to thank you all for your support. I look forward to 2013 and a full year of sharing thoughts, stories and reflections about the blessings of beer.

Saints of the Suds, Part II: Columbanus.

Saint Columbanus

St Columbanus

This is the second 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 get to the saint.

Saint Columbanus (543-615) was an Irish-born saint who helped bring Celtic monasticism to the continent. There are two associations connecting him with beer. The first is a story and the second, a quote. Legend has it that Columbanus came upon a group of men in the town of Bregenz (in modern day Austria) who were sacrificing a vat of ale to the god Wodan. Angred by this act of idolatry Columbanus breathed upon the vessel which promptly shattered and spilled the beer upon the ground. Columbanus is then reported to have then told the now frightened Wodan worshippers that good ale is wasted on false gods. He then explained that the Christian God also loved beer but only when it was drunk in his name. The result of the miracle and Columbanus’ attractive (and beer-friendly) theology brought about many conversions.

Even more famous is this quotation,

“It is my design to die in the brew house; let ale be placed to my mouth when I am expiring, that when choirs of angels come they may say, ‘May God be propitious to this drinker.’”

While this may bring a chuckle, its real significance lies not in its humor but in the fact that for Columbanus did not see any disconnect between love of beer and a life devoted to God. For too long in the country we have suffered under the weight of our Prohibitionist legacy. It is high time we recognized that it does not represent all of Christianity. Indeed the Celtic strain of the faith emphasizes the goodness of creation and so naturally fosters a love and appreciation of the blessings of life,  beer included.

Of Pubs and Pints Glasses, Part 2

The glass in question on my bookshelf

The glass in question on my bookshelf

In my last post I wrote about my “acquisition” of a Guinness glass from a pub in Ireland.  Last summer I found myself in similar situation in London, yet this time it not only yielded a fine glass, it also gave birth to a teaching moment.

When we decided to go to London (it was to be my first trip) I was of course looking forward to immersing myself in the culture and history but also in the beer.  The one beer I was particularly advised to seek out was Landlord from Timothy Taylor.

It was not an easy quest.  The first couple of barkeeps I asked looked at me like I was from Mars.  Eventually I turned to the web in order to find where it was being served.  I found it at a pub directly across from the British National Museum, not so creatively named, the Museum Tavern.  Anyway, since it was only a few blocks from our hotel on Russell Square, I wound up making several trips specially to get some Landlord.  I have to say it was a very good ale, especially when served from a cask.  So one night, my wife and I headed out with an old friend who I have known from nursery school days who now resides in London.  Eventually we wound up back at the Museum Tavern for more Timothy Taylor.  To make a long story short, once my friend stated that it was a common and accepted practice, I brought a 1/2 pint sized Landlord glass back with me.

This brings me to the teaching moment.  The next day, as we were getting ready to head out for the day, I discovered that my then 12 year old son had a trinket from the National Museum gift shop in his bag.  It was not a trinket we had paid for.  Of course he denied knowing how it got there and suggested that perhaps he had accidentally put it in his pocket.  As a parent I knew right away what had to happen.  But as I thought about his situation, I also could not help thinking of my own theft of a glass the night before.  So when I announced to my son that we were also going to take it back to the museum, I put the Landlord glass in my jacket pocket.  After stopping at the museum and depositing the item back in its bin,  I told my son that we had one more stop to make because I needed to return something as well.  We went across the street to the Museum Tavern. I went up to the barkeep (a pretty woman, who from her accent was from somewhere in eastern Europe) pulled the glass from the jacket pocket and told her that I had taken it.  She seem rather surprised and then thanked me profusely.  She confirmed what my friend had said, namely that glass theft was indeed common and rather accepted by the pubs and so she told me to keep it.  I bought myself a pint and my son a soda and tipped her very well.  For a few a minutes we talked about what he thought all this meant.  I think it must have been something of a relief to him that I was holding myself to the same standard that I asked of him (because in my experience kids always think that parents get to live by different rules, which I suppose is at least partially true).  Yet that was exactly the point.  What we took away from that experience of returning stolen goods was far more valuable and than any souvenir could ever be.

Of Irish Pint Glasses

I have been fortunate enough to travel several to the beautiful country of Ireland and,  God willing, plan to go many times more.  I have gone both out of religious interest and for  family vacation.  One of the truly unique and glorious features of Ireland is it pubs.  While rightly famed for their beer (although this distinction is sadly slipping away with the proliferation of mass produced American beer and the adjustment of serving temperature from the warmer traditional  temps to the near freezing American norms- but more on that in a future post) they are even better known for their atmosphere and their gregarious company.  As mentioned in my previous post on hospitality, what I loved about them is that you can just walk in sit down and, with the most minimal effort, strike up a conversation which leads quickly to the purchasing of rounds for one another and can easily turn into an evening long event.

The famous round tower of Glendalouogh

The famous round tower of Glendalough

While in ancient monastic town of Glenadlough (in the Wicklow Mountains about an hour from Dublin) I made nightly trips down to the single pub. One The famous round tower of Glendalouoghparticular evening I went down with our amazing guide, Kevin, and we joined a table full of his buddies who worked for the Mountain Rescue Squad.  As the name implies their job is to find and rescue stranded hikers and climbers.  Several pints of Guinness into the conversation I expressed my admiration for their glasses (which boast the Guinness logo on both sides of the glass as opposed to the one sided glasses found here).  One of our party said matter of factly,

“Then just take it when you go.” I protested that I did not feel comfortable doing that.  Someone else insisted, “Don’t worry, people do it all the time.”  I explained that I was a priest and didn’t want to steal.  Our give and take of encouragement and objection continued for several minutes.  Finally, one of my new friends ended the debate when they grabbed my momentarily empty glass and stuffed it into my windbreaker.  Against the odds I got it home in one piece and that glass sits in a place of honor upon my shelf to this day. The Guinness glass in question.

Now you can certainly question the morality of my action- there is no way to rationalize around the fact that it was stealing.  Yet there was also the matter of hospitality to consider and the question of offending my hosts.  I will pick this subject up next week so stay tuned.