Not by Beer Alone

Last year writer and brewing expert J. Wilson published Diary of a Part-Time Monk, which tells of his Lenten fast: subsisting on nothing but water and beer. Wilson had heard the legends of the Benedictine monks of Neudeck ob der Au, who were said to have developed a particular beer style — the doppelbock — that is rich in carbohydrates, vitamins, and calories, to sustain them through periods of Lenten fasting.

Wilson was sufficiently intrigued by this legend and he decided to embark on 46 days of beer-and-water for Lent. In the process, he lost nearly 26 pounds, and gained some significant insights into self-discipline, physical and mental rejuvenation, and plenty of media attention.

It goes without saying that such odd and extreme forms of fasting aren’t what the Church envisions for the observance of Lent. Anyone who embarks on a diet entirely free of protein and fiber for 46 days is inviting medical problems. It’s also very unlikely that the 16th century monks of Neudeck subsisted solely on beer and water; more likely they saw the rich beer as a helpful supplement during Lent, but probably not on strict fasting days. In the 16th century, fasting likely included abstention from meat, dairy and eggs, with complete abstention on Fridays. It would have been odd to consume beer on those Fridays, when alcohol was generally forbidden.

Connecting with God

Although I think the idea of monks subsisting solely on beer and water is mostly legend, as a homebrewer I do find something spiritual about brewing my own ales. There’s a unique transformation that happens when simple natural ingredients — water, grain, hops and yeast — combine in ingenious ways. This transformation is nearly magical. The end result is literally intoxicating. For much of human history, it was also a way of preserving water without pathogens.

The process of brewing always reminds me of the words of the liturgy: fruit of the earth (or the vine) and work of human hands. Brewing, like cooking, takes simple, natural ingredients and adds human ingenuity to make something entirely new. It is participating in the work of Creation. Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as saying, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” That’s more than a little ironic, since Franklin was both a notorious agnostic and notorious alcoholic.

Brewing, like cooking, takes simple, natural ingredients and adds human ingenuity to make something entirely new. It is participating in the work of Creation.

And there’s the rub. Brewing — like any participation in the work of Creation — is not without risks. Beer, consumed in moderation, is pleasant and morally neutral. Consumed in excess it can lead to loss of moral inhibition (see “beer goggles”), drunkenness, and a litany of social ills. We human beings have a tendency toward sin that leads us to take something pleasant and beneficial, and carry it to sinful extremes. Traditionally we’ve called this concupiscence (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1264). This, specifically, is what our observance of Lent (prayer, fasting, giving) is intended to address.

I wish J. Wilson well, and I hope that the insights he gained on his beer fast are enduring and helpful. But I won’t be joining him. For me, Lent isn’t boot camp, and it’s not about radical, unsustainable life changes. It’s a time to do those things that draw me closer to God, lead away from sin, and put me in right-relationship with my fellow human beings. These things, good in themselves, are intended to prepare us to celebrate the Paschal Mystery (Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection) at Easter. And when we finally arrive at Easter, I’ll probably celebrate by raising a pint or two.