St. Benedict and the Fermentation of Culture

The summer feast of St. Benedict is celebrated on July 11th, and as a Benedictine Oblate, there are many things that come to mind when I dwell on this happy occasion. However, my mind being what it is, two things particularly pop up in my head: death and beer. Let me explain.  

We rightly laud St. Benedict for a whole host of attributes: the founder of Western Monasticism, the Patron of Europe, a New Abraham, and a light in the Dark Ages among many others. His Monks are seen as the protector of the Liturgy, the Papacy (just look at how many Popes were Benedictines!), Classical literature and learning, agriculture, and (very important) beer. There is so much we have to thank him for, it is beyond the scope of any one post to do him proper honor. Alas, with Rod Dreher spearheading the talk of a "Benedict Option" for the church in the modern world, the Internet is doing its best to significantly up the number of blog posts mentioning this great saint's name! Folks have a lot to say about it (A LOT a lot!). 

Beyond the fact that I am overjoyed to see St. Benedict accruing intellectual shout-outs across the interwebs (and the same with Alasdair MacIntyre, one of my favorite philosophers), I am excited to see people turn to the legacy of the Benedictines once more in the hopes of reinvigorating Christian practice in our day and age. In fact, I find myself participating in multiple ventures that I would characterize as examples of the Benedict Option. To begin with, as an Oblate at Clear Creek Abbey (who are teeming with monks and need money to build more rooms!), I don't know how much more Benedict Option you can get. This July 17th and 18th, I will be speaking at the Inkling Festival here in Wichita, KS (put on by the noble Eighth Day Institute), and two days of Lewis and Tolkien, pipes and pints (quick beer plug: Hopping Gnome's fantastic Earl of ESB will be there!) surely qualifies. Finally, the organization this very website is about, Catholic Beer Club, seems to me quintessential Benedict Option--but more on that in a bit.

Understandably, folks have been weary of certain portrayals of the Benedict Option (if not the concept itself). These critiques often fall into two camps. The first is a surface complaint criticizing the lack of precision by adherents of the option. The more substantial critique worries about notions of withdrawal tied to the concept, a troubling prospect precisely when our culture needs committed Christians more than ever. Indeed, I share their concern. However, there is a central reality at the heart of the Benedictine order that answers both critiques, and perhaps makes the "Benedict Option" make more sense.

Blessed John Henry Newman, in his "Mission of St. Benedict," "divides" the  "elements of the Church's intellect" into three parts, and assigns a representative religious order to each one. To the "Practical" he assigns the Jesuits, and to the "Scientific" he assigns the Dominicans. Most importantly for our purposes, he assigns "Poetry" to the Benedictines, because "Benedict, entrusted with his mission almost as a boy, infused into it the romance and simplicity of boyhood." Sure, this is by no means a definitive argument of Theology or Church History, but there is much to draw from this simple statement. I would argue it gets something essential about the Benedictines and their various successes throughout time.

First of all, Monasticism is not in a certain sense practical, as it is certainly not for everyone to simply go out and replicate. Additionally, it is not fundamentally scientific, as it is not reducible to a set of propositions that anyone can simply adhere to in an abstract way. Instead, the work of the Monks provide a poetic knowledge for the society in which it dwells, opening up a horizon in the moral imagination in which the City of God begins to be seen as a real possibility here amongst the City of Man. Therefore, the first complaint about the Benedict Option, that it is not specific enough, misses the point entirely. The Benedict Option is not either a practical or scientific stratagem or methodology, but a vision that must by definition remain more an outline than a manual. It will consist more of myriad examples than formal instructions, images rather than arguments.

As for the second critique, a "poetic" rumination on the life of St. Benedict and his monks is in order. In addition to all the accolades given to this Saint at the beginning of the post, St. Benedict is also known as the patron of a good death. This largely stems from the 37th chapter of St. Gregory the Great's account of his life, where he not only predicted his own death, but traversed his way to heaven on "a magnificent road covered with rich carpeting and glittering with thousands of lights." This patronage is reflected in the prayer said in conjunction with St. Benedict's medal: "The Cross of our Holy Father Benedict. May his presence protect us at the hour of our death."

To my mind it makes perfect sense that the patron of a happy death would have numerous monasteries associated with the production of beer. Or perhaps better put, with the process of fermentation. No, I do not plan to give you a lesson in the chemistry involved (science is for the Dominicans, right?), but a poetic look at fermentation provides a rather poignant image of the Benedictine spirit.

While it is certainly true that everything you eat was once living, and must have died before you could consume it to live (a sobering thought), the process of fermentation is a stark image of the interplay between death and life in the natural world. It seems only fitting that the creatures God would save to life through death would also be the ones to harness the almost resurrecting powers of fermentation. Mankind, saved from death by the Cross, is the master of bringing rotted food back from the dead through fermentation (you will never eat cheese or kimchee the same way again!). Surely most fermented food and drink was discovered by accident, but once harnessed, these items became the shining pride of human cuisine. If there was anything this side of the Easter Exsultet that deserves the description "Felix Culpa (Happy Fault)," surely it is beer!

What does this have to do with the critique of withdrawal on account of the Benedict Option? Beyond the use of clumsy definitions while everyone wrestles with this concept, my guess is that folks look at the necessarily enclosed nature of the monastery, and get the wrong idea about an option that highlights Benedict as its exemplar. Putting that next to the admittedly pessimistic tone struck by most advocates of the Benedict Option, it is no wonder this can truly begin to sound like escapism of the most romantic and defeatist stripe.

But in my typical fashion, my contention is that the advocates of the Benedict Option simply aren't pessimistic enough if they are honestly arguing for withdrawal from our culture. Instead, I am arguing for something more drastic: the fermentation of our culture! It seems to me counter-productive to imagine there is anywhere left to run and hide from the hyper-flattened secular age the likes of Charles Taylor and James K. A. Smith describe. On the other hand, I do not see much left of this order to conserve, the roots mostly pulled from any ground that could give us stability. We are living in the dead husk of a formally living organism, much like St. Benedict did in the carcass of the Roman Empire. So be it.

But is this any reason for Christians to lose hope, and embrace defeatism? Surely not! So what is one to do with a pile of rotted grain? Fermentation. It's time to start brewing a new civilization out of the old one. And the only place to start is wherever you are at.

And just like brewing, this fermentation will take many forms. Some folks use barely, others use wheat. Some brews are IPAs, and some are Stouts. Some Benedict Options will look monastic, some will look positively evangelical. Some will involve the political process, some will ignore it completely. The craft brewing culture in the United States did not reach the point it did today because folks waited for a blueprint, nor because they went off into hiding. Some brave folks started brewing, as ridiculous as it sounded to take on the likes of Coors and Budweiser. But lo and behold, others (made bold by their example) followed in their footsteps, in their own particular way. Slowly but surely, even the largest beer companies had to take notice.

Here at Catholic Beer Club, this is what we are trying to accomplish in the cities where we are taking root. There is no formula, only a bold attempt to create community in a world where such coming together (especially for young adults) is difficult. But that is no reason to hang our heads in despair, nor to wait quietly while someone comes up with a better way. The only solution for the problem of culture is the fermentation of a new one off the remains of the old one. This cruciform natural process is the chief poetic image of the Benedict Option: life reborn through death. Our job is not to save this culture, but to bring life out of death. Our job is Resurrection. The only ingredient missing is a catalyst like yeast to add to the old grain to start the process boiling, and my friends, that agent of change is you. 

Start brewing! 



I recently read another blog post from (a great URL and website!) discussing our societal preoccupation with our smartphones. In their defense, they are a great tool that can be extremely helpful! But the danger of becoming overly occupied with our phones is that we lose our sense of the here and now, and most importantly, the people who we are present in our lives…Easy enough to argue against, and I think we can all easily identify moments in which we’ve fallen prey to this trap.

The Virtue of Fortitude with Fortified Drink -- (De Bibendo, Secunda Pars)

[Forgive me for the lateness of my post--I had technical difficulties over the weekend. I will make this post brief--I owe you guys a shorter one anyway after the mammoth reflection I wrote last time. Here's to a wonderful New Year! - Bo]

Make your way in by the narrow gate. It is a broad and a wide road that leads on to perdition, and those who go in that way are many indeed; but how small is the gate, how narrow the road that leads on to life, and how few there are that find it! - Matthew 7:13

Fortitude, the virtue better known as courage in modern parlance, is rightly associated with fear. The only problem with this association is that most folks think of it as the opposite of fear. Instead, as I will repeat often anytime I bring up virtue, courage is a mean between an extreme and a deficiency, therefore courage cannot simply be the opposite of fear, although the two terms are correctly intertwined in our imagination.

We can clear this up by thinking about the opposite of the brave person, and for most people, that of course would be the coward. Why is a coward someone we rightly say is lacking in courage? The temptation would be to say, because they feel afraid, implying that the brave person lacks all fear. But the better answer is that the coward reacts to fear too strongly--which strangely implies that there are those who do not feel fear enough! And these people very much exist--Aristotle calls them the foolhardy, and if we stop to think about it, we know plenty of people who fall into this category, especially when it comes to drinking. Foolhardy people come to vicious ends precisely because they do not fear what they should--for instance, the Grand Canyon.

What this means for fortitude is that to obtain it, one does not avoid, ignore, or repress fear. Bizzarely enough, it tells us that to have courage, one must come to a good relationship with fear. This may sound alien to Christians, who are told in the Scriptures that "perfect love drives out fear" (John is very insistent on this point!). Is not the one who fears lacking in trust and faith? Yet, the Scriptures tell us as well that fear is the root of wisdom, and that we should work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Does the Bible contradict itself in this regard?

One way people side step this issue is to say we are commanded to fear only God, and nothing else. Others try to claim that fear is the basis of the Old Testament way of spirituality, but the New Testament eradicates this attitude. St. Paul, however, throws out both possibilities. St. Paul's letters make up a great portion of the New Testament, and all the while, he points out the importance of fear (and not only of God) throughout his letters. Suffice it to say, we cannot easily dismiss this calling to fear.

How do we solve this impasse? I contend that a distinction is to be made when speaking about fear. It is surely the case that courage has to do with how we react to the raw feelings of fear--but in what way do we react to the fear that we feel?

On one hand, someone who is afraid could be considered anxious or worried, and they are usually anxious or worried for or about someone or something else. In this regard, they allow the fear to eat away at them, agitated at those things they wish they could control, wasting their energy feeling afraid, but doing little about it. On the other hand, one can feel fear as awe. Awe (or even terror) is what occurs when some has a fear of something, and that something is usually greater than the one in fear--God, Salvation, our significant other, etc. Fear that is encountered as awe takes the stunning reality of that which is other than one's self seriously, realizing the beholden nature of our relationship toward the thing we are holding in awe.

In order to be courageous, the brave person feels awe at whatever creates the feeling of fear (be it a battle or trying to ask someone out on a date) and responds accordingly, with the proper respect of that thing in mind. The coward feels anxiety over the thing they face, and flees out of worry, or is paralyzed out of dread. The foolhardy person ignores or is insensitive to both awe and anxiety, and proceeds irrationally, lacking a proper respect for what they encounter. In this way, we can rightly say we should fear particular things, but fear them in the proper way.

Hopefully, the application for drinking well is obvious. For people who binge drink and the like, foolhardy lack of respect for alcohol drives them to abuse that which they should fear. In terms of anxious fear, this usually drives people to drink to avoid or escape that which they are worried about. For we who would drink virtuously, let us drink out of awe, respecting the great and dangerous good that is all wonderful things God has made, but particular the creature that is fortified drink.

By doing so, we will attain the narrow road. Unlike the foolhardy, who attempt the narrow road without fear, we will not underestimate our need for help along the way. Unlike the anxious and worried, we will not settle for the wide road because it is easy. Instead, we will hold all the goods that God gives us in awe, and use them gratefully as we walk toward the narrow gate.


Like I said, I had technical difficulties this week, and did not have time to research for a beer recommendation. But there is a place called Courage Brewery, so I think that is recommendation enough to give their beers a try. Enjoy!


The (Bad) Beer Truce of 1914

The following post is from a good friend of mine, Eileen Wittig, who attends Benedictine College with me. She, too, is a blogger and a good one at that. After a conversation or two, we both thought it'd be a good idea to have her do a guest post for CBC, and I have to say, she didn't disappoint. I particularly enjoyed this post, and I hope you do as well. If you'd like to see more of her writing, you can go to her personal blog here

Before I go, I'd like to wish you all a Blessed and Happy New Year! I have a birthday on the first of January, and will be celebrating my 21st birthday with friends, blackjack, and of course, beer. (And a happy birthday to my younger brother, Brennan, who shares my birthday on New Years). 


By now we’ve all heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914, whether because we were cultured and learned citizens, or because we saw the amazing Sainsbury’s Christmas commercial. And because we are all cultured and enjoy edifying ourselves, we know the general events that started and continued the truce (in case you partied so thoroughly you forgot, the reason was that both sides wanted to celebrate Christmas, and they were sick of the trenches. Solid reasons). But for a reason I can’t for the life of me figure out, no one has really talked about the best part of the truce—the beer.

This is how one polite, occasionally-poorly-grammared soldier described it:

“The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill [the British Company Commander] if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assure him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another’s health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches

…The two barrels of beer were drunk, and the German officer was right: if it was possible for a man to have drunk the two barrels himself he would have bursted before he had got drunk. French beer was rotten stuff. […]

During the whole of Boxing Day [December 26] we never fired a shot, and they the same, each side seemed to be waiting for the other to set the ball a-rolling. One of their men shouted across in English and inquired how we had enjoyed the beer. We shouted back and told him it was very weak but that we were very grateful for it. We were conversing off and on during the whole of the day.”

We all already know the magical communal powers of beer. You just can’t help but liven up a party by a factor of 10 by rolling out the kegs, and the sense of community can’t help but increase in a direct correlation to the amount drunk.

But there is something that can connect people even more, and that is bad beer.

You know it’s true. Beer is great, but people prefer some kinds over others, they want something different depending on what they’re eating, they’re not in the mood for one or another, so there’s still a bit of separation in a room full of people drinking beer. But when everyone, everyone, agrees that the only beer available is rotten, then there is a new sense of community. Everyone agrees that it’s awful, so it becomes a shared interest. But obviously everyone’s going to drink it anyway, and everyone sympathizes with everyone, because everyone understands. It’s a party.

The truce of 1914 was a Christmas party, literally on the front lines of a war. You’re not going to not drink the beer. That doesn’t turn bad beer into good beer, but there is a feeling of camaraderie as everyone suffers through the beer together, trying to celebrate as properly as they can.

Naturally this camaraderie extends to the ones who have been drinking the nasty stuff for a while now and the ones who gave it to you, i.e. the Germans across the mud. It even sparks another day full of conversation and not bullets. The two armies have been shooting and shelling each other for five months from water-logged trenches in a country neither are from, watching their companions die of disease as well as battle wounds, fighting the “war to end all wars.” Yet they call the whole war off for a day to celebrate Christmas together in no-man’s land with something they mutually enjoy, the effects of which carry over to the next day. The shared beer brings the two sides together even more, adding another element to turn the individual festivities into a shared experience.

That’s how connective beer is. Especially when it’s weak. And made by a people neither you nor your enemy likes. After all, the enemy who agrees that my beer enemy is bad at making beer is my friend.

And why the Brits nicknamed their commander “Buffalo Bill” I will never know.

De Bibendo -- Prolegomena (How Drinking Will Save The World, If It Is Done Beautifully)

De Bibendo -- Prolegomena (How Drinking Will Save The World, If It Is Done Beautifully)

My contention is this: if we reflect on what it means to drink virtuously, and implement our findings into the way we drink "in but not of" the world, we will find a practical means to "give flesh" to our Life in Christ. To modify the words of a hymn, they will know we are Christian by the way we drink.