Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
~ Hilaire Belloc (1870 – 1953)
The television was on in the service center waiting area—Katie Couric was introducing her next guest. I was the only one there, and normally I’d just turn off the set rather than endure daytime programming. But I wasn’t going to be long—just waiting for a key to be copied—so I left it on. Besides, the show’s topic caught my eye: Why Women Drink.
Author Gabrielle Glaser was the guest, and as soon as she started talking, I remembered reading an excerpt from her new book, Her Best-Kept Secret, in the newspaper. Fascinating stuff—all about the differences in drinking patterns between men and women, the intentional marketing of wine to women after World War II, and how women are coping with rising levels of alcohol abuse.
According to Glaser, the solution for most women isn’t necessarily complete abstinence—that sobriety can be achieved by restoring appropriate levels of alcohol intake. This isn’t the case for the vast majority of men, for whom an all or nothing approach is often required. In any case, regardless of which strategy is most appropriate and when, this gender difference is revealing of something essential to alcohol consumption.
It’s this: You can drink without getting drunk. Really. Chesterton implied as much when he wrote, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” St. Paul condemned full-blown drunkenness in the strongest terms, lumping it in with fornication and idolatry. Yet, he also wrote to Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”
The fact that you can have a beer or glass of wine without becoming inebriated does indeed set alcohol apart from dope and weed. Sure, booze can make us boozy, but recreational drugs are classified as “mood-altering substances” for a reason. Responding to an article in the WSJ about marijuana, Greg Pilcher of Oregon put it this way:
What seems to be continually confused and misconstrued in the marijuana debate is pot’s parallel to alcohol. Alcohol is like marijuana only if the objective of the drinker is to detach oneself from reality by overindulging. One does not have to have that objective if one imbibes a moderate amount of alcohol.
This is good because, among other things, we use alcohol as a Sacrament—at the Savior’s command—so it’s no small irony that drunkenness has been a stubborn problem in the church from the get-go. Apparently it even plagued the early church at worship, for Paul had to admonish the Corinthians to keep a lid on their Agape feasts. “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk” (I Cor. 11:20-21).
Liquor confounds us as both Sacrament and sin—or at least a major temptation to sin. Intemperance is what we call it. Lack of sobriety. What’s more, it’s a vice that’s both complex and heartbreaking, an addiction that has moral dimensions tangled up with mental illness. Devastating.
All the more intriguing, then, is the popular fourteenth-century Latin prayer that refers to inebriation as a divine gift: The Anima Christi. Here’s one translation:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Your wounds hide me
Separated from You let me never be
From the evil one protect me
At the hour of my death call me
And close to You bid me
That with Your saints I may be
Praising You forever and ever
I memorized this prayer decades ago, and I recite it every day as I prepare for Holy Communion. And, every day, I slow down when I get to that line about inebriation and linger over its meaning. Simply put, we’re to get drunk on Jesus—in fact, it’s a plea that He Himself would do the intoxicating.
But inebriation was something I grew up fearing—and not just because it was a sin. My father was an alcoholic, and he struggled with the bottle off and on until the day he died. As a result, my childhood was framed by chaos and uncertainty, and even though Dad wasn’t a violent drunk, his erratic behavior made for a bumpy upbringing. Overindulgence, especially around holidays, caused great pain for my mom and my family, and the idea that inebriation could be integrated into a prayer of devotion was disorienting at first.
Presumably the anonymous medieval author of the Anima Christi was well aware of the Bible’s condemnations of drunkenness, as well as the constant battles against it fought by laity and clergy alike. So what did he intend by including that line?
I think Jean-Pierre de Caussade offers a parallel insight here. The 18th-century Jesuit wrote a book of spiritual counsel, entitling it Abandonment to Divine Providence—itself a metaphor for what the Anima Christi implies. No holding back, in other words. A complete surrender. As if to underscore this connection and interpretation, de Caussade himself incorporates an image of imbibing with liberality:
As you know nothing pleases God more than a complete contempt of self, accompanied by an absolute confidence in Him alone. This God of all goodness, therefore, does you a great favour in compelling you, often against your will, to drink from this chalice so much dreaded by your self-love and corrupt nature.
De Caussade’s chalice is of a bitter vintage—filled with troubles and temptations—for it’s the one we share with Christ Himself.
Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.’ So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, [he] did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew).
That’s a lot of wine, and it’s on top of the jars the revelers had drained already. It’s almost as if Jesus was saying, “Party on!” Just so, for the wine here of course represents Jesus and the New Covenant. No need for a designated driver when our beverage of choice is God Himself. Cut loose and drink deep!
So, we’re called to get tipsy on Jesus, even blasted. To what end? In vino veritas, “in wine there is truth” goes the old Roman saying, and that applies here I suspect. Our guard is dropped, our masks are removed, and we come before Him completely uninhibited. Perhaps, then, He can do something with us. Maybe even turn us into saints.
Saints? Us? Me? Yes, even me. And surely my dad as well. As I ponder the Anima Christi every day, I also think of my father and pray for him. When it came to drink, he made some bad choices, but I don’t blame him. Dad’s generation knew nothing of depression and bipolar illness and self-medication. He drank beer because it made him feel a little better. It’s no wonder that he thought even more beer would actually make him feel…normal.
Matt Talbot, too, was a drunk, but he took the pledge and really turned his life around. In fact, he’s on the path to being declared a saint, and he is already invoked around the world as a patron of alcoholics. So it is that I take heed his words of sympathy for folks like my dad: “Never look down on a man who cannot give up the drink,” Talbot said. “It is easier to get out of hell.”
Recovering alcoholic Heather King made a similar point at the end of her memoir, Parched: “Only a God of inexhaustible love, infinite creativity, and a burning desire to count every last one of us in could have taken a broken-down wreck like me and made something useful out of her.”
Those are hopeful words—aren’t we all broken-down wrecks?
So, yes, Lord. We’re sick and sober. Heal us. Save us. Inebriate us.The Catholic Gentleman.