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To Raise a Glass is to Make the Daily Grind Divine



J. David Nolan - published on 07/29/15

Celebratory feasts (and cocktails) recall the promise of heaven

Drinking With the Saints: The Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour. Michael Foley. Regnery Publishing, 2015. 400 pages.

After the last spring snow melts in New England, the dandelion is one of the first plants to put out fresh greens. My grandfather tells stories about being sent out to collect them, the freshest food they had eaten in months. Such seasonal liturgies―seasonal customs marking “this time” from “that time”―have become less important.

In the Church calendar, too, the contemporary world has brought major changes to liturgy: no longer do we recognize the penitential Ember days and no more do we share a year-round Friday abstinence from meat.

Imagine forty days without meat only to carve a lamb’s leg on Resurrection Sunday, or weeks without any alcohol only to pop open a bottle of bubbly in celebration. As our fasts have become less austere, our feasts have become less recognizable, if for no other reason than a lack of lived contrast between penitential seasons and festive ones.

Contrast of seasons, plus obvious and symbolic turning points, allow for solemn fasts and joyous feasts. Every kid is attached to his family’s particular practices, and if a year goes by without a search for the pickle ornament on the Christmas tree or the placing of baby Jesus in the crèche after the Christmas Eve Vigil, something’s not right. We all still have some of that kid in us, and that’s a good thing.

Throughout these seasonal changes the highest liturgy―the mass―stays the same. The rest of our familial and communal liturgies point us toward that highest meal. The meals we make together point toward our divine manna; the wine we share, toward that life-giving blood.

Our practices around meals mirror truths about the source of our eternal sustenance. Fasting helps us see and experience the insufficiencies of mere earthly food. Celebrating food and drink confirm us in our camaraderie and offer us some basic pieces for the construction of a Christian culture in the home, a gathering of host and guests.

Even as the particular practices around the changes of seasons for anything besides clothing has disappeared, we still long to form little liturgies. And these little liturgies can remind us that Christ should order every aspect of our lives.

Here is an example. On All Soul’s day, you could have friends over for cocktail party centered on Last Words—a delightful cocktail that is a mixture of gin, green Chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur, and lime juice. The name of the cocktail implies death and the last things. It may even evoke darker yet more hopeful words, the words of Christ on the Cross.

The story of the drink is brighter than the name. The Last Word was concocted in Detroit in the 1920s and enjoyed some popularity through the 1950s before it fell off the menus of most bars. In 2004, a Seattle bartender rediscovered the recipe, and since then, the cocktail is showing up again in America’s major cities.

If something as apparently frivolous as a cocktail can fall out of favor only to be rediscovered and again made popular, we can hope for the same to occur with feasts and fasts.

Besides the universal solemn days that every Catholic parish celebrates, many parishes still recognize special feasts with high masses and following that, potluck dinners in the parish hall. These local celebrations provide good starting points for building up a fuller celebration of the Christian calendar, in which the very passing of time becomes a means of reflecting upon God, his work in history, and his saints. In this way, any saint’s day can become an opportunity to show gratitude to God, through familial and local liturgies, for the good things of the earth.

This, in part, is one of the aims of Michael P. Foley’s entertaining new book, Drinking with the Saints: A Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour.

Organized according to the church calendar, this book is equal parts Catholic party planning guide and a collected “lives of the saints,” plus a dash of exhortation to conviviality. Foley aims to teach refined drinking (a lost custom, actually)—how to make and appreciate the broad offerings of delicious beverages brought forth from this earth by the work of human hands. Foley wants to help us organize this shared merriment around the saints and feast days of the Church, for there are no better days by which to order the year.

Striking the balance between the teetotaler and the intemperate, he follows Chesterton’s insight: “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” But we should drink some of them, at least a couple glasses.

Celebrating a mass in honor of a special saint, sharing a drink with friends and family, raising a toast in thanksgiving for holy examples—these activities prove that time has begun to be sanctified, that the daily grind can become more infused with the divine.

A celebratory feast requires a host to prepare for hours if not days; the final, heavenly banquet is getting prepared for us right now. We can get glimpses of it, however, as we sit around a table with friends and enjoy the good things of this earth, knowing that it is possible, with the grace of God, that we will be gathered permanently again around an eternal banquet where God will be all in all.

J. David Nolan, completing a two-year fellowship as assistant editor at First Things magazine, is entering the Dominican novitiate atSt. Gertrude Priory in Cincinnati this month.

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