By Anthony Maranise, OblSB
Images used with permission from the Benedictine Order
"For the King of Kings, I would wish a lake of finest ale."
~ St. Brigid of Kildare
"The Good Lord has changed water into wine, how then, can drinking beer be a sin?"
~ Sign at the Entrance to a Belgian Monastery & Brewery
As a Benedictine myself, I am personally thrilled to write this article. It is, after all, my religious order (of which I am an Oblate), the Order of Saint Benedict, which abides by the motto first taught by our founder, St. Benedict of Nursia, long ago. That motto: “ora et labora,” literally translated, means “prayer and work.”
The story begins somewhere between 504 – 540 AD in Italy… in the Lazio / Umbria region to be more specific. It was there that a twenty-something nobleman, seeking to become closer to God in this life, chose to forego all his forthcoming inheritance and sought out to become a hermit. Believing life in the cities would distract him from prayer, meaningful work, and study, this young man – St. Benedict – retreated into the countryside, into the mountains near a place known as Subiaco.
For the next several years, the young Benedict lived in isolation – dedicating his every waking moment to prayer, manual labor, and study of the scriptures and early Church Fathers. Eventually, persons from nearby towns, having seen him in passing or having heard about his intense dedication to holiness began coming to him seeking advice as to how they too could grow in spiritual maturity.
The visitors to the young Benedict were unrelenting. As much as he desired to be left in isolation, he felt pity and compassion for those who came to him asking for his spiritual guidance. Eventually, other clerical and religious townspersons became jealous that members of their congregations were seeking spiritual advice from the young man in the wilderness so some attempted to tempt and to ruin him. Choosing to distance himself from these new temptations rather than to subject himself to them at all, Benedict left Subiaco and founded twelve monasteries throughout Italy with those who came to seek his guidance.
Thus, the Order of Saint Benedict (the Benedictines) was founded, and has existed as spiritual, intellectual, and hospitable “powerhouses of holiness” since the 500s. My introduction here is brief and omits much of the brilliance of the legacy of St. Benedict. I would be entirely remiss were I not to direct readers to learn more about this remarkable person. It is, after all, only for the sake of some semblance of brevity that I have left out so many details. To learn more about St. Benedict and his remarkable life, click here.
Now, while the Benedictines pride themselves in their dedication to prayer, there is more to this order than simply chanting the Psalms day-in and day-out. Benedictines the world over are also renowned for their intellectual proclivities (even though the Jesuits think they’re the smartest… haha, just kidding, SJs… but seriously). In fact, when much of the Western World (Europe at the time) was being sacked by the Visigoths (aka Vikings) in major cities, it was Benedictine monks in isolated monasteries out in the countryside that the Vikings never thought to ransack, who were copying and preserving Western literature, and thus, Western civilization as a whole. To that end, it was primarily the Benedictines who were responsible for saving and preserving Western Civilization.
Despite these many spiritual and societal contributions, we seem to have avoided – to this point – one major aspect of Benedictine life and spirituality: “labora” or “work.” Do not be misinformed… This “work” isn’t just their intellectual study. That is more of a bonus to what the followers of Christ through Saint Benedict do besides prayer. They also put in hours and hours of manual labor each day. And, for many communities of Benedictine monks, this intense manual labor produces some pretty sweet results, with the larger whole of society being the beneficiaries of such hard work and manual labor.
Let’s shift now from the 500s to the 1600s. Quite a time-hop, I know, but I digress. During this time, a group of monks from Bavaria undertook the manual labor of brewing beer, but not for sale or wide-audience consumption as would seem standard in modern culture. These monks brewed the beer for personal consumption! I know, I know… really taking their vows seriously, right?
Well, actually, yes they were. They engaged in the laborious (and take it from someone who has home-brewed a few batches of beer before, it is tough work) task of brewing beer in order that they could participate in a strict “liquid-only fast” for Lent. Now, what could they possibly drink in the 1600s that had protein, carbs, and umm… oh yes, general nutrients to sustain life? Yes, you know where this is going. The answer… BEER!
These pioneering and innovative monks brewed beer and drank it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the entire forty days of Lent. Believe me or don’t, friends. They did. Maybe I should try this… Hmm, maybe you should? Should we together? I think so.
Here’s the catch: These monks didn’t “bloat” or increase in size because of the “old-school” manual labor actually brewing the beer as well as their other work activities which included caring for the monastery grounds, etc.
Were these monks from the 1600s the first to brew beer as their “work”? No, of course not, but they’re the earliest “beer-brewing monks” of which we have certain record. Consider this: If wine could be fermented and produced in Jesus’ time (2000+ years ago), so could beer. Just the simplest application of logic will tell us that.
Nevertheless, let’s turn to present day. Give me credit, that’s less of a time jump than from 500 – 1600.
Regrettably, around Halloween 2016, a large earthquake struck the area in which the Monastery of Saint Benedict in his hometown of Nursia, Umbria, Italy is located. According to the abbot (leader of the monastery), the earthquake was both the strongest to have hit the country in some thirty-six years and also had “flattened” the basilica, or main church of the Benedictine Monastery. This earthquake was actually a larger aftershock of one which had struck the area in late August 2016, killing more than 300 persons. Fortunately, the aftershock, that flattened the monastery, did not result in any casualties.
Following the first quake in August, the Benedictine monks at Nursia began brewing beer for sale, in order to help their neighbors more profoundly affected by the quake than they were. Then, when the end-October quake rocked the monastery, though they were incapacitated for a moment, townspersons from Nursia, who had been helped directly by the monks months earlier came to the aid of their neighbors and spiritual leaders.
Today, these beer-brewing monks continue to repair and rebuild the basilica, but now do so with the help of worldwide sales. The incredibly flavorful Birra Nursia Bionda continues to both be brewed and well-sold from the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Italy.
Just under a month and a half ago, I personally ordered two cases. It is incredible. Of course, I didn’t order these cases just to help the monks and townspersons… I did this, of course, but moreover, ordered it because it is, quite possibly, (and I’ve been to England and Ireland where “pup culture” finds origin) the best beer I’ve ever sampled.
Yes, I know. I’m a Benedictine so I’m going to try and puff-up any effort of goodness by my own order. Well, yes, of course. But, in this case, as a connoisseur of all that is beer, let me offer this review:
The Monastery of Saint Benedict’s Birra Nursia Bionda is a fantastically golden, crisp, and refreshing ale. Offering to its drinker scents of light hops and hazelnut; its taste is undeniably smooth and contains hints of lemon citrus as an aftertaste as well as dry-wheat and some light pepper. I would suggest, if imbibing this libation with food, you do so with a lighter fish like salmon (freshwater) or red snapper (saltwater). Furthermore, this beer pairs well with sharper cheeses due to its lighter flavor. Recommendations include: smoked gouda, Havarti, or baby Swiss.
Without doubt, these monks take their prayer seriously, as it constitutes more than half their day, and is spent praying not entirely for themselves, but for others in their own community as well as around the world (including us). Because work is so inextricably connected to prayer for the Benedictines, each and every moment and movement they spend brewing beer is not only a productive enterprise, but is also, a prayer in and of itself for all those they pray for… a means of “glorifying God with one’s hands.”
As they say at St. Benedict’s Monastery, Ut Laetificet Cor; that is “That our hearts might be gladdened.”
Today, when you have your pint, say a prayer and let their motto be yours!
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Anthony Maranise is editor of The Galleon and is with the Master of Arts in Catholic Studies Cohort at Christian Brothers University.