Can beer and Catholic culture really go together? A monk, whose monastery actually brews beer, posed this question to me recently in response to my new book, The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday & Today. There are many objections to the connection, especially the frequent abuse of alcohol. Nonetheless, beer has been deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition, especially in the life of monks, who invented and perfected brewing as we know it today, including the use of hops as a flavoring.
One of my favorite ways to show how beer can be integrated into Catholic life is through the example saints. They show us how to put God first in all that we do, including our drinking, and to use beer as it is meant to be consumed: in moderation (tempered by fasting), to promote fellowship, and to honor God in festivity. I look at a number of saints in the book, but here are a few who embody the Catholic tradition of beer.
Brewing & the Church in Ireland
First, we can see how brewing grew up alongside of the Church in Ireland. St. Patrick traveled through Ireland accompanied by a brewer and two early Irish saints, Brigid and Columban, both performed beer miracles! Brigid brewed beer, performed beer miracles on at least four occasions, and famously prayed: “I’d like to give a lake of beer to God . . . and every drop would be a prayer.”
St. Columban brought the tradition of Celtic brewing with him in his missionary work on the continent. His disciples established many monasteries, which became not only centers of learning and prayer, but also of brewing. St. Columban performed three beer miracles: preserving the spilled cellar beer when a monk left the spigot running, multiplying beer in the fields for his monks, and destroying beer meant to honor the pagan god, Odin. He also mentions specific penances in his Rule for monks who spill large measures of beer, making up for it by drinking only water!
St. Arnold of Metz
St. Arnold of Metz (582-640), another patron of beer, famously described beer: “From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.” He had a remarkable life at the center of politics in the Frankish Kingdom, both as a layman and bishop. He served at the Merovingian court and acted as a military leader. He was married and through his son Ansegisel, he was the great, great, great-grandfather of Charlemagne.
Arnold and his wife agreed to pursue the religious life, after which he became a priest and bishop of Metz. He later retired as a hermit and founded a monastery. In the midst of an outbreak of plague, he told his people, “don’t drink the water, drink beer,” and he even blessed the brew kettle with his crucifix. They survived following his advice. Another miracle occurred after his death, as the people of Metz were bringing his bones back to the city in 642 from the monastery of Remiremont. Those carrying the relics became exhausted in the summer heat and one of them prayed: “By his powerful intercession the Blessed Arnold will bring us what we lack.” The small amount of beer they carried provided enough to supply the entire group until they arrived in Metz the next day.
St. Hildegard of Bingen
The medicinal qualities of beer attracted the attention of another saint—abbess, musician, artist, preacher, mystic, healer, naturalist, and now Doctor of the Church—St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). In her book, Causes and Cures, the remarkable Benedictine notes that “beer puts flesh on the bones and gives a lovely color to the face, on account of the strength and good juices of the grain. Water has a weakening effect. . . . Whether people are healthy or sick . . . they should drink wine or beer, not water.”
In another work, Physica, she speaks of the qualities of hops:
“It is warm and dry, and has a moderate moisture, and is not very useful in benefiting man, because it makes melancholy grow in man and makes the soul of man sad, and weighs down his inner organs. But yet as a result of its own bitterness it keeps some putrefactions from drinks, to which it may be added, so that they may last so much longer.”
Indeed, the preserving quality of hops is one of the reasons it is used in beer, along with its bitter taste to balance beer’s maltiness. She also speaks of using beer in a number of cures for both men and women.
A more recent patron can be found in St. Conrad of Parzham (1818-94), a Bavarian Capuchin brother, who served as a porter at the Marian shrine of Altötting. His duties included the supremely important task of supplying pilgrims with beer. This got him trouble with some though, as we can see in his canonization process:
One member of the tribunal asked whether it was very “saintly” for the Brother to serve a Bavarian girl two steins of beer and thereby risk the danger of getting her tipsy. Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of Munich came to the defense of the porter saying that if the lady in question could get drunk on only two steins she was certainly not a Bavarian farm girl.
Others questioned the propriety of his hearty invitation to “Come, have another stein.” But like the gospel cup of cold water, the stein of beer given by a saint was a gesture of holiness that would not go without its reward. . . . He was never happier than when he had plenty of bread and beer for his poor (see The Capuchin Way: Lives of Capuchins, vol. 2, North American Capuchin Conference, 1996).
The Capuchin province of mid-America took St. Conrad as their patron and will be releasing his biography soon for the two hundredth anniversary of his birth (https://capuchins.org/).
Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-24), a young man from Northern Italy, dedicated to the poor, embodies the moderate pleasure of enjoying alcohol festively with friends. One of his biographers, Cristina Siccardi, describes how “his sanctity gets through to young people today because of the concreteness of his life; Pier Giorgio faced the everyday problems of all young men: the weariness of study, the joy and enthusiasm of being with friends, playing sports, communing with nature . . . and then his healthy appetite, his desire to sing and have fun, his way of being authentic without pretense and hypocrisy, with a pipe in his mouth, and a billiard cue in his hand, and a glass of beer” (Pier Giorgio Frassati: A Hero for Our Times, Ignatius, 251). He knew how to have a good time, buying his friends a round of beer after a vigorous rowing expedition and rolling a large of barrel of wine down the street for a celebration. Frassati embodies the well-rounded and robust Catholic culture we need to rebuild today.
The saints provide us with a model of how to be fully alive. They show us how to enjoy the good things of life in a way that is virtuous and ordered to God, including how to drink beer like a good Catholic! As we enter into the festivities of Christmas, let’s keep the saints in mind, as we raise a glass in thanksgiving to God for the gifts of faith and family.
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