While researching Drinking With the Saints, I was looking for what drinks I could recommend on certain feast days of the liturgical year. What I did not expect to discover was a lesson in how to drink them. That lesson can be distilled into five key points. To drink like a saint—that is, to enjoy alcohol the way it was meant by God to be enjoyed—one must drink…
Moderation is not only the morally responsible thing to do, it is also the more pleasant. The Epicureans of old were moderate in their appetites because of their commitment not to virtue but to maximizing their physical pleasure, for they knew that excess would rob them of the carnal goal they sought. Christians are free to profit from this insight, for God wants us to derive pleasure from his creation.
Moderation is also important because it fosters health, which is one of the reasons the Church has historically tolerated and even supported the consumption of alcohol (think of the medieval religious orders and their production of beer, wine, whiskey, and liqueur). In the Middle Ages and beyond, alcohol purified contaminated water or served as a substitute for it, and it also acted as a medicine for different ailments. To this day, when Carthusian monks in the Grand Charterhouse (located high in the drafty French Alps) catch a cold, they take a tablespoon of their delicious herbal liqueur, chartreuse.
Lastly, moderation is key to fostering fellowship. Drinking just enough to relax the tongue but not enough to have it reel away from dispassionate thought is highly conducive to good conversation and camaraderie. As the poet Ogden Nash puts it in his poem “Reflections on an Ice Breaker,” “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.”
Moderation is also an expression of gratitude to God for the goodness of the grape and the grain. As Chesterton puts it: “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” Gratitude is a much-ignored virtue these days, as we fixate more and more on our rights and entitlements and less on what we owe to others. Indeed, for some modern philosophers such as Kant gratitude is a bad thing, a threat to our autonomy, for it implies that we are in someone else’s debt.
But for the Catholic, it is a joy to give thanks to the God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us and to see his beneficence in all the goods around us, including those in our glass. Note the gratitude fermenting in this statement by St. Arnold of Metz, a patron saint of brewers: “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.”
Catholic piety is centered on the Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving,” and hence an attitude of gratitude permeates all aspects of Catholic life. But the Eucharist is also a memorial, a fulfillment of the command to “Do this in memory of Me.” Gratitude requires memory, specifically, the memory of the good things undeservedly given to us.
One of the key differences between healthy and unhealthy drinking is whether the imbiber is drinking to remember or drinking to forget. Consider the difference between the drinking that goes on at a truly good and noble wedding and the drinking that often goes on at a bar. At a good wedding, multiple generations gather to celebrate the triumphant and honorable nuptials of a faithful man and a faithful woman; they gather to celebrate the love of this new couple which, God willing, will only grow over the years and lead to more children and more love. And when they do so, they also remember the love in their own marriages, the love in their parents’ marriages, and on and on. They remember a great chain of love, and they raise their glasses to it.
Contrast this picture with that of a middle-aged man at the corner of the bar drinking alone. He laments his loneliness, his dead-end job, his lost youth. The man orders round after round not to remember the good but to forget the bad. Such a use of the drink falls far from the fine art of Catholic quaffing.
Another way to consider the difference between healthy and unhealthy drinking is to reflect on the notions of “fun” and “merriment.” “Fun” implies a form of entertainment that is not necessarily bad but is usually superficial and can usually be enjoyed alone. Perhaps a young man would have more fun playing video games with his friends, but it is conceivable that he can still have some fun playing the game by himself.
“Merriment,” on the other hand, necessitates fellowship. People usually do not make merry alone in a room; they make merry at a festival or a great banquet. At least to my mind, merriment presupposes strong community and a truly divine and memorable reason to celebrate: think of how absurd it would be to say “Merry Administrative Professionals’ Day.” But “Merry Christmas” still has theological meaning, and not just because Christ’s Mass is mentioned. When we wish someone to be merry on Our Lord’s birthday, we are hoping that they will have more than just a good time.
Of course, all of this involves risk: there is an obsolete term in English, “merry-drunk,” that suggests as much. But as Josef Pieper points out in his work In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, all festivity contains “a natural peril and a germ of degeneration” because all festivity carries with it an element of lavishness. But just as lavishness need not involve decadence, “wet” merriment need not involve drowning.
Pieper’s book calls to mind another aspect of merriment: ritual. “The ritual festival,” Pieper goes so far as to assert, “is the most festive form of festivity.” How? Because true festive joy cannot exist without God and without a tradition of celebration involving ritual praise and sacrifice. Without religious ritual, Pieper concludes, a holiday becomes not a “profane festival” but something worse: a contrived and artificial occasion that becomes a “new and more strenuous kind of work.”
We pious drinkers can appropriate Pieper’s wisdom with two simple practices. First, our celebrations should be grounded in the liturgical year, that grand recurring narrative of the mysteries of Christ and His saints. Catholic liturgy, Pieper writes, “is in fact ‘an unbounded Yea- and Amen-saying’ to the “whole of reality and existence,” and each saint’s feast day is both a celebration of a saint’s having said Yes to God and an invitation for us to do so as well.
Second, there should be some ritual component to one’s celebration, no matter how humble. The easiest way to accomplish this goal is with the ritual of a toast. Toasting is about as old as drinking itself and has deeply religious roots. The original “libation,” along with uttering some invocation to the divine, consisted of pouring out the first portion of one’s drink to the gods. And according to one account, the custom of clinking glasses is a Christian invention, its tinkling sound imitating the peal of church bells driving away demons. Catholics should be natural toasters, for ritual is in our blood: we recognize that formality does not replace spontaneity or joy but completes it, channels it, enriches it. And the universal desire to toast to someone’s health finds new meaning in the high Christian aspiration for more than a mere absence of bodily ills. All it takes is one toast to make your amorphous get-together an event, perhaps even a holy one.
In the same work, Joseph Pieper quotes with approval a Nietzschean aphorism: “The trick is not to arrange a festival, but to find people who can enjoy it.” With the age of post-modern nihilism upon us, the question is not whether Christians should enjoy a drink festively; the question is whether they will be the only ones left capable of doing so.
Editor’s note: The image above depicting a Cistercian monk was painted by Eduard Grutzner.