Merry or Drunk? A Catholic Reflection on Drinking

You are sitting on the bus on your way home from work Friday evening. It’s been a long week.

You can’t help overhearing, across the bus aisle and behind your seat, an exchange going on between several unregulated, youthful voices. They’re talking about drinking. You say to yourself, “How old are these kids?” and discreetly glance behind you. High school, judging by the ungainly limbs and street-smart attire. Not just talking about drinking, they are purposefully setting out to get drunk. They’re laughing about what they don’t remember from last weekend. You feel a sinking sensation in the pit of your stomach. You think about your own children who are not yet out of grade school. You think about these teenagers’ parents….

Eventually, your stop comes and you wearily get off the bus.

On Saturday morning, your wife informs you, over your cup of coffee, that she wants you to clean up the corner of the pantry where you have your ‘bar’. She thinks the alcohol would be better kept in a cupboard in the basement; it’s cooler down there and out of the way (–her way, she might have said). You consider the pros and cons of this proposed scenario, but, rather than open negotiations before your coffee is fully drained, you acquiesce to your wife and only plea a few minutes more repose before tackling the transference of your liquor store.

As it turns out, you have more bottles than you knew. You immerse yourself in the task at hand and an inner dialogue commences: “Now where did this one come from? Oh, yes, Roger and Deb brought that over for Christmas…was that 2009? Hm. Should be pretty good by now.—Hey, I thought I had used up the last of the marsala at Easter. This is great! I can make that Italian custard for tomorrow…. Oh, I’d better not let Isabelle see how much scotch is left; she might not get me a new bottle for Father’s Day….”

In time, your musings bring you round to the group of teenagers on the bus. Why was it you felt so distressed when you associated them with alcohol, while here you are with a box in your arms—balancing yourself against the wall as you walk carefully down the unfinished wooden steps of your basement, trying to recall whether the light switch is on the left or the right side of the doorway—filled with bottles of wine and spirits, and a song in your heart as you remember occasions of festivity that you had not thought of in years? Same substance, different experience. Why?

Alcohol is the natural product of fermentation. Time out of mind, it has been utilized all over the world for manifold purposes. Anthropologist Dwight B Heath lists the key roles of alcohol “in different ways in various cultures”: “a tranquilizer, appetizer, disinfectant, anaesthetic, food solvent, and economic commodity, as well as a potent symbol”. Even a cursory glance at this list clearly indicates that this simple chemical compound has an ambivalent place in our society. Heath calls it a “biopsychosocial phenomenon,” meaning that it cannot be analyzed from one perspective only, but requires insight from biology, psychology, and sociology. We add a spiritual dimension to these more empirical modes of knowledge, for the soul of man is also affected by his use of alcohol. Indeed, we find the issue with alcohol in the heart of man, not the thing itself; for, if alcohol itself were intrinsically bad, Jesus would not have turned water into wine at Cana. While great scholars like Mr Heath tackle the manifold questions surrounding alcohol, we who live in the world need to establish common sense means of discernment in order to walk the line between the teetotaler and the lush. How can we distinguish between the negative ‘getting drunk’ and the positive ‘making merry’? How can we both militate against drunk driving and chink our wine glasses with a dear friend?

Blaise Pascal said, “Too much and too little wine. Give him none, he cannot find truth; give him too much, the same.” Let’s use this pithy statement as our guide along the narrow way.

Pascal highlights that the virtue of moderation—neither too much nor too little—is a means to truth. Alcohol (and all things) should facilitate the pursuit of truth, beauty, goodness. If one’s use of alcohol does not bring one farther along the way to truth, it is not moderate and must necessarily be vicious, leading away from truth.

The Inklings (from top left, clockwise): J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield

The Inklings (from top left, clockwise): J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield

The question of finding truth is best discerned in company: “Will this next martini clarify or cloud our conversation?” (It is significant that a serious sign of destructive alcoholism is drinking alone.) In a social setting alcohol can be a great enhancer of discussion because it tends to soften reserve and loosen inhibitions. We love to picture the Oxford Inklings filling the Eagle and Child pub with their debates and conversations that gave rise to some of the 20th Century’s greatest English literature. One Inkling reminisces,

…we sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter…back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in the original to make a point…Tolkien jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon.

Once at the point of ‘too much’, however, one’s higher mental functions become impaired, and there is little likelihood of saying anything really intelligent, and even less of remembering it. Which means you should probably take some strong coffee and go home to bed; this is real life after all, not Plato’s Symposium.

But we must not misunderstand moderation! This particular issue has led to many tragic contentions within society and within families. Pascal has given us the proper focus: moderation is a means to truth. Unfortunately, we commonly think of temperance, one of the four cardinal virtues, as repressing or curtailing a desire. Thus the ‘temperance’ movement of the early 20th Century that proved as ineffectual as it was unpopular. The real definition of temperance, however, implies not a limiting but an ordering of desire. To our surprise, Christian temperance is actually a passion—the passion for the perfect ordering of the human person toward happiness in the Beatific Vision. This sounds abstract, but, in fact, love of God is the motive force of all our life, not excluding that decanter of wine on your dining table.

Or perhaps tonight you will indulge in a glass of that scotch you had forgotten all about.


Cover image credit:

Gemma Myers


Gemma L Myers is a graduate of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. She and her husband live in White Rock, British Columbia.

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  • Elaine

    So, were you never young, Gemma?

  • Chris

    I’m not sure why you’d associate “young” with “needing to get wasted beyond all belief”. As I am and have been young, I have gone through a short experience with the “drinking to get drunk” idea of fun, and I can assure you that if I knew about the kind of moderation that Gemma was talking about, I would have traded my old experiences for what she’s talking about.

  • Elaine

    Am sure you are right Chris – just think she sounds as if she was born ancient, that’s all.

  • Elaine

    …and anyway – think she means ‘discreetly’ rather than ‘discretely’. Thought she might have know that as ‘a graduate of Thomas More whatever it was’.

  • JohnnyVoxx

    I like your writing Gemma Myers.

  • Topaze

    Elaine, Gemma using ‘discretely’ rather than ‘discreetly’ is hardly cause for you to make a public and rude comment about both her and her alma mater. We are all capable of little mistakes, as indicated by you typing “know” when you meant to type “known”. Perhaps, your knowledge would have been put to better use had you simply communicated the mistake to the editor and left it at that.

    As for Gemma sounding “as if she was born ancient,” well, if caring about virtue and the Beatific Vision means being ancient, here’s to all of us getting there quickly!

  • Riki

    Elaine Thought she might have “KNOW” that …. she might have “KNOWN” that :o)

  • JMC

    Being young has nothing to do with wanting to get drunk. In my youth, I never drank; I just plain didn’t like the stuff. When I was in the military, because I was a teetotaler, I became the designated driver for the unit (I also happened to own an old limousine I got for $400 bucks); there was nothing more boring than sitting around and listening to intelligent conversationalists suddenly become incoherent buffoons. To this day, I only drink on rare occasion, usually taking a few hours to sip a single shot of some sweet liqueur.

  • catholicexchange

    Actually, as Editor, I blame myself for not catching that–sorry all. I’m just badly educated, I guess. Fixing now!

  • Gemma

    Thanks for the comments and conversations, readers!

    Elaine, I won’t give a literal answer to your question, since that would be too obvious, but I will say that I hope all of us can remain young at heart–able to enjoy the fellowship and beauty of life, and full of spirit and verve for so doing! I am grateful to you for pointing out my orthographic error, though, it may be interesting to some that, etymologically, the two variants have the same Latin root. Spelling never was one of my strengths–c’est la vie!

    The point of the article is not youth versus ‘ancient’ sobriety, but, rather, to encourage us all in the pursuit of the golden mean where we find happiness.

    Is it cocktail hour yet? 😉

  • Elaine

    I pray for the young people in my life – that they will, above all, remain safe. But, above all I try not to patronise them. God loved us all so much that he gave us free will – to do right or to do wrong. And I think it is for us to extend that courtesy to others.

  • Elaine

    Appreciated your post JMC and agree with much of what you said.

  • My wife and I don’t drink at all, except for 1 glass of wine at Christmas and Easter. I have seen alcohol destroy way, way too many lives….for every alcoholic there are half a dozen loved ones who are gravely affected by their ruinous addiction. And it is usually the most innocent (children) who are affected the most.

    -Glenn Dallaire

  • Pogue Mahone

    I think alcohol is one of society’s greatest ills with drunk driving,alcoholism, binge drinking and under-age drinking only getting worse.Alcohol is a drug and just as harmful as crack.Something is wrong with a society that thinks you need alcohol to have a good time.

  • GG

    Good thinking Gemma!

  • Michelle

    Thank you so much for this article! As a person who regularly struggles with false shame and scruples, I was looking for an article like this to provide much-needed balance. God bless!

  • A tmc student

    Only a Thomas More student….

  • zarathustra

    If drinking is so bad why condone it by driving them.

  • John

    Wonderful article well written! Good Job. My name is John and I am an alcoholic. I have been sober 30 months. I have found it beneficial for me to abstain totally from any alcohol at all. I believe that I am allergic to alcohol and that after I take the first drink, I am no longer able to control the physical cravings that develop as a result of that initial drink. I also had a psychological/mental obsession with drinking as a way to cope with the difficulties that inevitably present themselves. These two phenomena coupled together to also damage my spiritual connection to God. The guilt, shame, and remorse, along with the restlessness, irritability, and dis-contentedness, were enough to drive me away from a loving relationship with God and my neighbor.
    God in His Goodness saved me from self-destruction. Today, I love helping others who suffer from alcoholism and or other addictions. There is hope. There is a solution. Thank you for raising the issue with your article.

  • 2b-in1hca4evr

    I posted a comment earlier and it showed up, but now it’s disappeared; what happened?

  • Fr.Duffy Fighting 69th

    It happens to me too. Sometimes I get double posted so it seems like I am ACD. It is fine, nobody is perfect. I find that alcohol abuse is a really big problem in the catholic community. Just stop by the local Knights of Columbus Hall on a Friday night. Alcohol is a curse. I have spent many hours discussing it with my 2 teen kids. I think they get the message. There is NO reason to engage in the consumption of alcohol to have a good time as a young person.