Feeling guilty about drinking? Well, ask the saints

Pious drinking. Walter Dendy Sadler via Wikimedia Commons

(The Conversation) Each year the holidays bring with them an increase in both the consumption of alcohol and concern about drinking’s harmful effects.

Alcohol abuse is no laughing matter, but is it sinful to drink and make merry, moderately and responsibly, during a holy season or at any other time?

As a historical theologian, I researched the role that pious Christians played in developing and producing alcohol. What I discovered was an astonishing history.

Religious orders and wine-making

Wine was invented 6,000 years before the birth of Christ, but it was monks who largely preserved viniculture in Europe. Religious orders such as the Benedictines and Jesuits became expert winemakers. They stopped only because their lands were confiscated in the 18th and 19th centuries by anti-Catholic governments such as the French Revolution’s Constituent Assembly and Germany’s Second Reich.

In order to celebrate the Eucharist, which requires the use of bread and wine, Catholic missionaries brought their knowledge of vine-growing with them to the New World. Wine grapes were first introduced to Alta California in 1779 by Saint Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brethren, laying the foundation for the California wine industry. A similar pattern emerged in Argentina, Chile and Australia.

“Monks in a cellar” by Joseph Haier, circa 1873. Image by Joseph Haier/Creaive Commons

Godly men not only preserved and promulgated oenology, or the study of wines; they also advanced it. One of the pioneers in the “méthode champenoise,” or the “traditional method” of making sparkling wine, was a Benedictine monk whose name now adorns one of the world’s finest champagnes: Dom Pérignon. According to a later legend, when he sampled his first batch in 1715, Pérignon cried out to his fellow monks:

“Brothers, come quickly. I am drinking stars!”

Monks and priests also found new uses for the grape. The Jesuits are credited with improving the process for making grappa in Italy and pisco in South America, both of which are grape brandies.

Beer in the cloister

And although beer may have been invented by the ancient Babylonians, it was perfected by the medieval monasteries that gave us brewing as we know it today. The oldest drawings of a modern brewery are from the Monastery of Saint Gall in Switzerland. The plans, which date back to A.D. 820, show three breweries – one for guests of the monastery, one for pilgrims and the poor, and one for the monks themselves.

One saint, Arnold of Soissons, who lived in the 11th century, has even been credited with inventing the filtration process. To this day and despite the proliferation of many outstanding microbreweries, the world’s finest beer is arguably still made within the cloister – specifically, within the cloister of a Trappist monastery.

Liquors and liqueurs

Equally impressive is the religious contribution to distilled spirits. Whiskey was invented by medieval Irish monks, who probably shared their knowledge with the Scots during their missions.

Monk sneaking a drink. Image scanned from The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black/Wikimedia Commons

Nor was ingenuity in alcohol a male-only domain. Carmelite sisters once produced an extract called “Carmelite water” that was used as a herbal tonic. The nuns no longer make this elixir, but another concoction of the convent survived and went on to become one of Mexico’s most popular holiday liqueurs – Rompope.Chartreuse is widely considered the world’s best liqueur because of its extraordinary spectrum of distinct flavors and even medicinal benefits. Perfected by the Carthusian order almost 300 years ago, the recipe is known by only two monks at a time. The herbal liqueur Bénédictine D.O.M. is reputed to have been invented in 1510 by an Italian Benedictine named Dom Bernardo Vincelli to fortify and restore weary monks. And the cherry brandy known as Maraska liqueur was invented by Dominican apothecaries in the early 16th century.

Made from vanilla, milk and eggs, Rompope was invented by Clarist nuns from the Spanish colonial city of Puebla, located southeast of Mexico City. According to one account, the nuns used egg whites to give the sacred art in their chapel a protective coating. Not wishing the leftover yolks to go to waste, they developed the recipe for this festive refreshment.

Health and community

So why such an impressive record of alcoholic creativity among the religious? I believe there are two underlying reasons.

First, the conditions were right for it. Monastic communities and similar religious orders possessed all of the qualities necessary for producing fine alcoholic beverages. They had vast tracts of land for planting grapes or barley, a long institutional memory through which special knowledge could be handed down and perfected, a facility for teamwork and a commitment to excellence in even the smallest of chores as a means of glorifying God.

Historically, alcohol was seen to be promoting health. Image by Fritz Wagner (1896-1939)/Dorotheum/Creative Commons

Second, it is easy to forget in our current age that for much of human history, alcohol was instrumental in promoting health. Water sources often carried dangerous pathogens, and so small amounts of alcohol would be mixed with water to kill the germs therein.

Roman soldiers, for example, were given a daily allowance of wine, not in order to get drunk but to purify whatever water they found on campaign. And two bishops, Saint Arnulf of Metz and Saint Arnold of Soissons, are credited with saving hundreds from a plague because they admonished their flock to drink beer instead of water. Whiskey, herbal liqueurs and even bitters were likewise invented for medicinal reasons.

And if beer can save souls from pestilence, no wonder the Church has a special blessing for it that begins:

The Conversation“O Lord, bless this creature beer, which by Your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and may it be a health-giving drink for mankind.”

(Michael Foley is associate professor of patristics at Baylor University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.)

About the author

Michael Foley


Click here to post a comment

  • Anyone who knows Sandi knows she’s not very literate regarding the Bible. Protestant fundamentalists love to wave it, not read it.

  • Again, you really do not know what Christ said. Hearsay, a half of century after the fact, will never hold up in Court.

  • I am a convinced Catholic and I agree that drinking was never forbidden by the Bible nor by Jesus himself, nor by the Magisterium, nor by the Holy Tradition.
    Still, the “be sober” of Saint Paul rings in my ears. As Catholics, as Christians, I believe that we are all called to be very moderate in our use of alcohol. Alcohol is quite quickly addictive. Taken regularly, it is easily able to prevent us from having a sustained daily prayer life; it definitely can alter the alertness with which we are called to watch with Christ.
    I love my Church, and I thank God daily, together with my family, for our Catholic faith. But I have to say that it is not because the monks and religious sisters made all this alcohol along the centuries that this necesserally was right and that it necesarally pleased God.

  • Yes just another heretical Calvinist. They ignore that Christ’s first miracle was turning water into wine and instead blather on with their dogma.

  • The wine was too sweet, it would have never sold on the market, but then again, it was just his first miracle.

    Grace Communion International: “One of the first mentions of wine in Scripture is by Melchizedek, priest of the Most High God at Salem (Jerusalem) during the time of Abram, whose name was later changed to Abraham. Melchizedek “brought forth bread and wine” for Abram and his companions (Genesis 14:18). The Hebrew word translated wine in Genesis 14:18 is yayin. This word is used over 130 times in the Hebrew Bible to mean fermented wine, not grape juice.”

    New Testament instruction
    “John the Baptist did not drink wine (oinos in the Greek) or any other form of alcohol because it was prophesied that he wouldn’t (Luke 1:15). However, Jesus Christ did drink oinos (wine) (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). Jesus did not preach against the use of wine; instead he did like most other Jews of his day. He drank wine in moderation. In ancient times it was normally diluted with water for drinking, and was one of the principal beverages at that time”

  • Are you supposed to admit that learning about the bible is boring?

    You wrote “Christ didn’t say to emulate Christians. He said to emulate Him”

    My response was to highlight that the fact that that is a selective, and perhaps somewhat shallow, understanding of a complex and confusing collection of writings. In fact, I can’t recall anywhere where the bible says that Jesus told people to be like him; no doubt you can enlighten me.

    As to my ability to understand scripture – I spent too many years wasting time every day carrying out Scripture Union exercises in addition to daily prayers and bible readings at home, church twice on Sunday and Sunday School/Crusaders on Sunday afternoons (just in case I found something fun to do between Matins and Evensong)! I doubt your knowledge of, and about, the bible is much greater than mine; mine, however, is not blinkered by irrational ideas as to the origins, sanctity and value of its contents.

  • The one thing you lack – His Holy Spirit

    Matthew 11:29 ESV
    Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

  • Why, are you going to raise the millions of unwanted children born every year. There are 7.5 billion people on the planet today, and living longer than ever before. They did not need birth control in Jesus time, as a large percentage of children did not make it to the age of 10, and the average man lived to be 35 years old.

  • I could say- disease, cancer, plagues, pestilence, droughts, famines, floods………
    But in reality, God is a concept and not a physical being that created everything in the universe in six days. If you have contradictory evidence, please post it.

  • John 13:34. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Also, see John 15:12.
    Regrettably, most people that say they are Christians are too full of themselves to emulate Jesus’ love.

  • Well said Annie……Nadab and Abihu Aarons sons dedicated to the priesthood, disrespected their role and died suddenly.
    Immediately after the act, the command was given forbidding priests to drink alcohol beverages when serving God in Holy places…..
    How many would be guilty of that even today.

  • I had this in the back of my mind but the same mind brought up Matt 5:18 and I decided not to go there.

  • Why do you not produce evidence to support your contention instead of asking people to disprove yours.

  • This is an argument used to get people to believe free sex is a virtue. If people followed the Laws of God, your point is then mute.

  • 3 of the 4 gospel writers and Saint Peter, who wrote Acts of the Apostles all were disciples or apostles, who witnessed what is written in bible and other historical documents.

  • If you think someone lacks a gift from God, then pray that God gives the person the lacking gift. Satan is laughing at how “Christians” compete against and often villify each other. There is nothing God like (mimicking God in His mercy) in the evil being perpetrated in this comment chain. May you all and myself included, learn to continuously offer all to His Most Precious Blood. Amen.

  • The only way to receive the Spirit of God is to become a Christian – renounce your sin, turn to Jesus and follow Him.

  • You’re right about one thing,”peepsqeek”: Almighty God ISN’T a physical Being,so your point is…what?

  • If you claim that you have an elephant in your pants, it is up to you to prove it. I know there is no elephant in your pants base on simply logic, math, physics, etc., but I simply ask you to prove your contention by dropping your pants.

  • Then you must be paying for your sex! You have to know that nothing is free in this life, as we pay or reap rewards, one way or another, for everything we do.

  • Boston University Study-
    The Gospel of Mathew was apparently written in the mid-80s. The traditional point of origin is Antioch in Syria. — that is over 50 years after Jesus death, and not in Judea.

    The Gospel of Luke appears to have been written about the same time as Matthew’s, although later revisions are very possible. The text, written in Greek, probably originated around the Aegean Sea or in Asia Minor. — Modern Turkey.

    The Gospel of Mark is anonymous. Early Christian tradition ascribes it to John Mark, a companion and interpreter of the apostle Peter, even though most modern scholars are doubtful of the Markan tradition and instead regard the author as unknown. — Therefore, where this Gospel was written is unknown.

    Please think before you post. And Jesus was most likely taken in the Jewish tradition and buried as soon as possible, instead of the fantasy of resurrection.

    What is your primary source of factual and historical documentation of the New Testament? And why do [only] Christians believe that God, the Almighty, the all knowing, all loving, all forgiving God would have his only begotten Jewish son, born of a Jewish mother, tortured, humiliated, and murdered in such a gruesome fashion? Jesus was just a blip on the screen as the Romans crucified thousands of trouble makers as they continued to conquer the Middle East and North Africa for the next five hundred years.

  • It is only ego or fantasy that allows someone to say all other faiths are wrong, and only a Christian can have the [true] “Spirit of God”. Are you too brained washed to see how lame that sounds.

  • “When I open the bottle, I shut the book of Numbers. There are two reasons for drinking: one is, when you are thirsty, to cure it; the other, when you are not thirsty, to prevent it. The first is obvious, mechanical, and plebeian; the second is most refined, abstract, prospicient, and canonical. I drink by anticipation of thirst that may be. Prevention is better than cure. Wine is the elixir of life. ‘The soul,’ says St. Augustine, ‘cannot live in drought.’ What is death? Dust and Ashes. There is nothing so dry. What is life? Spirit. What is spirit? Wine.”
    —The Reverend Mr Portpipe in T.L. Peacock’s Melincourt (1817), Chap. XVI.

  • If people followed the Law of God…they could own and beat slaves.

    A healthy sex life is a wonderful thing.

  • Yeah…that came and went with the Advent and Ascension of God the Son (Jesus the Christ,1st chapter of the Gospel of John, primarily)…??

  • You have been mislead.

    This is not the opinion of most of those who study the period. the names were marketing labels.

    As to “other historical documents” – apart from the generally discounted reference in Josephus (added later, different style – Eusebius?) what documents are you referring to and why are there no references to the ministry or the phenomena allied to the stories of the Crucifixion in any of the dozens of local and contemporaneous journals that were written.

  • That statement comes from ignorance of the natural laws that offer each animal, insect, virus, bacteria, and plant, the opportunity to multiply in terrific numbers. Humans have the ability to control when and where they choose to have their children because your God, fantasy or fiction, has given us the free will to do so.

    Your fantasy Bible says for you to go forth and multiply, which was fine for its time, but today, in a world with 7.5 billion people and we cannot even keep up with waste management, the destruction of natural wilderness, the encroachment on indigenous species, and the fowling of our most precious fresh water systems, it is time to slow down. As you also believe, this fantasy God has given us free will to do something about it the damage those who came before us have left us.

  • Humans have evolved into problem solving machines. My point is God is a concept like Santa Claus, but it is real humans that have to put toys under the Christmas tree. And don’t get me wrong– I love the concept of Santa Claus and a Christmas tree to brighten up the darkest days of winter. All great inventions!

  • “The wine was too sweet”…Wow,peepsqueek; I just caught that:YOU WERE THERE!!! What else did you experience while you where there? What DID Jesus actually look like? I await your reply! ?

  • Seriously, “Givethedogabone “? Have YOU read these supposedly…”dozens of local and contemporaneous journals that were written”…during that time?(send examples please.)–?

  • You’re going off the rails here, peepsqueek…a fantasy, as you label it (whatever you’re talking about) can’t “give”anyone anything,since it doesn’t exist.So…what exactly are you going on about?

  • If you do not get what I have posted, then you have put an emotional wall up so high that you cannot climb over it.

  • Oh,please…spare me the armchair pyschobabble and write more coherently; THAT’S the problem. You’re not privy to my or anyone else’s supposed “emotional” state…get over yourself and write within your pay grade. ?

  • Seriously, Givethedogabone? It always baffles me how atheists can so blithely discount the fact that the Advent and Ascension of Jesus the Christ shifted the entirety of human history from that time to this, especially what is referred to as “Western Civilization”, and keep bleating about “evidence”. What’s wrong with you people? The impact that embracing the Savior has had on literally billions of lives(Currently over 2 billion living human beings, from the lowliest peon to some of the most brilliant scientists and philosophers) simply cannot be discounted by any honest person who has, or is,studying history secular or ecclesiastical. The effects of Jesus’ Advent and Ascension is literally interwoven within Western Civilization like an expensive sweater—So, deal with it,because that history CANNOT be refuted or repudiated.

  • You misunderstand cause and effect.

    The history you refer to is not evidence for your chosen story – it really is that simple.

    If the act of embracing something is evidence that that something is real then the sun goes round the earth, 3 million Americans have been abducted by aliens and witches, demons, fairies, trolls etc. exist.

  • Oh,well…I’m done with this Sisyphean futility, my friend. Like I said to a friend of mine the other day: “Sometimes we need to be freed from the bondage of our own opinions”. Those are your opinions; historical facts speak for themselves,even if they don’t correspond to whatever narratives you’ve concocted within your own imagination.At this point, let’s just agree to disagree, and move on…I won’t be replying to you again—PEACE IN CHRIST, ALWAYS! ?

  • You choose to interpret historical facts within an unevidenced belief system so that they become supports for those beliefs.

    Outside that belief system the historical facts have no rational definite connection with the narrative you seek to link them with.

    The point of our disagreement. it seems to me, is that you appear to be using (in this case misusing) facts to create support for your pre-existing beliefs, whereas my beliefs, such as they are, are consequent upon the facts,

    The facts do not support your beliefs. That does not mean that your belief is wrong, merely that this particular argument is invalid.

  • Nice try Laurence, but that was an obvious deflection. As for my writing, check your statement– “a fantasy, as you label it (whatever you’re talking about) can’t “give”anyone anything”. Brilliant! Now tell the readers what that means.

  • Sorry, peepsqueek, but I’ll give the readers more intellectual integrity than you’re willing to; I simply threw your incoherent nonsense back in your face. Why don’t YOU tell the readers what you were trying to convey…?

  • I was responding to a comment from someone who is against a woman’s right to chose. If you have not been following our conversations, just stay with what you know, and comment when you have something relevant to say.

  • Then stick with what YOU know, peepsqueek; Biblical hermeneutics and theology isn’t your forte, and you would do well to remember that…PEACE. ?

  • I repeat– If you have not been following our conversations, just stay with what you know, and comment when you have something [relevant] to say.

  • Well, I believe that God exists and has given ample evidence. I offer you, and all who deny Jesus, to His Precious Blood always and coninuously. I prefer to live in hope and truth. I also believe in the law” Thou Shalt not Kill,” which abortion violates.
    there is no reasoning that can be stated that will make you see the truth when you seek to bring others to your hurtful condition, denial of God. One day, when we die I shall see my God and you, I pray, will also be brought to heaven when you die.

  • Thank you for the kind words. The Ten Commandments say thou shall not lie in wait to commit “murder”. Ecclesiates says “There is a time to kill and time to heal”. It really does not matter who said it because it makes sense no matter whose mouth it comes out of.

  • I am an atheist, but I like the Jewish teaching that “all righteous men will enter the kingdom of heaven”. Which means that you do not have to believe as them to get in. Your idea is that you cannot get into heaven unless you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Therefore I have to join your exclusive club to get in. Can you see have divisive that idea is? Islamists believe that you cannot get into heaven/paradise unless you accept or submit to Islam. How is that different than your idea? Please be very specific and not quote from a book.

  • You need to clarify the word healthy. “Healthy” is subjective. Society needs rules to control sexual appetites to prevent the chaos of lusting after your neighbors wife, children, and bringing home unwanted problems to your marriage, which can destroy family unity.

    I get you point completely about following the Laws of God as stated in ancient texts. At the risk of repeating for the sake of “toTelltheTruth”– God is just a concept, and the ancient texts were written by ancient men vs modern interpretations.

  • It can be a sin if used in a manner that is abusive or used to hurt people.

    Sin– synonyms: commit a sin, commit an offense, transgress, do wrong, commit a crime, break the law…….

  • In that case..it would be a crime rather than a sin. Your use of the word sin is contextual for your religion. Religions have defined and then re-defined what is or is not sin in their history. Given that most people are not in your religion, most people do not sin…even though you are free to say they are.

  • It’s true that in many religions…what we have established in civil law happens to cover their idea of sin,….which makes sense….you need rules that say: “don’t harm others” whether you have a secular or religious society. In a secular society, the laws stem from the consent of the governed and/or societal consensus. In a religion, the sins/laws stem from Thus Saith the Lord.

  • Think of it this way. My God desires all to be with him. It is not that you must accept Him, but the rejection of Him that causes loss of Heaven.

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.