A modern holiday, an old saint and magnificent beer

If the mail arrives on time, you’ll be reading this column somewhere right around St. Patrick’s day, which falls on March 17. That might not be a big deal for you. It’s certainly a big deal in my parish. Not because this Reformed campus ministry in Waterloo has begun venerating saints, but because St. Patrick’s day is the occasion for the school year’s most epic party at Wilfrid Laurier University. Every year, regardless of the weather, Ezra Street is packed with some 5,000 or so green-clad student revelers. The police keep an eye on things, the booze flows and profs mark a lot of absences in their class lists. Usually on the 6 p.m. news there’s an interview with a soused student or two, who slur “thish is what Laurier is known for woooooo!” Across campus, university administrators – who’ve solicited millions of dollars to boost the renown of the business school or the music program – smack their faces into their palms.

There’s a dark side to all this revelry. Campus binge drinking culture is strongly linked with the sexual violence problems that plague our campuses. There are fights and vandalism, too, and one landlord tells me about two of his tenants – Muslim students – who were assaulted by drunken louts a couple years back. These sorts of stories rarely make the news.

I suspect St. Patrick would have been quite bemused that this all happens in his name. Pious, ancient Christian that he was, he would’ve likely been fasting during this time. The 17th of March typically falls during the Great Lent, and alcohol, meat and dairy wouldn’t pass his lips until Easter Sunday.

Knowing as little as I do about the man – he seems to be largely obscured by hagiography and legend – I won’t speculate on what else he’d have to say. It would be nice to have some inspiration for a Christian response, though, because it can be tricky. Some see fit to abstain; some participate in moderation; some join right in.

I can’t help but be particularly inspired by another saintly fellow from Patrick’s tweedy, verdant isle.

A way of serving
In 1759, Arthur Guinness bought an old dilapidated brewery in Dublin on the plot of land that had for centuries been the home of St. James’ church. He got to work making beer during a boozily-fraught time in the British Isles. The “gin craze” was in full swing, and alcohol consumption was off the charts. Over in London, every sixth house was a “gin house,” often offering a homemade variety of the spirit. Crime, vandalism and all sorts of other depravity abounded. Gin was fed to infants to get them to stop crying, to children to conk them out at bedtime, and consumed by adults morning noon and night to the point of serious intoxication.

Arthur was the son of a sturdy protestant father, and the Godson of the Archbishop of the Church of Ireland. He was steeped in the strong Protestant ethos that challenged the old Catholic separation of secular and sacred vocations. He knew that all work had the potential to be holy work; it wasn’t just the role of the clergy to connect heaven and earth, vocationally speaking.

And so he set out to make magnificent beer. Not just because magnificent beer is a wonderful thing on its own, but because it was a way of serving his creator, from whom such gifts came, and a way of serving his people, who were suffering from a lack of healthy, potable water and the cheap, dodgy gin on offer in its place. The beer he worked to perfect was an especially rich porter, an ale brewed from a dark roast barley and plenty of hops. It was relatively low in alcohol, filling and crammed with whole-grain nutrition. It caught on, and as Arthur’s business grew, he became an influential member of Dublin’s merchant class. He endowed hospitals, repaired old churches, started Sunday schools for poor children and worked ardently to patch relationships between Catholics and Protestants. His descendants – ministers, evangelists, businessmen and brewers (of course) – followed in his footsteps, leaving a legacy of benevolence that still shapes the city.

Maybe venerating an old saint isn’t your thing. I suspect joining the revelers on Ezra Street isn’t either. There’s still yet good reasons to enjoy a pint of Arthur Guinness’ stout ale on March 17, though. Not least of which is the way it can encourage us to be creative culture-makers in a world that’s bent out of shape and in crisis. Watch the glass as it’s poured; rushing rivulets of bubbles ascend up the sides, uniting the dark, earthy beer below with its heavenly, frothy head. There’s a metaphor in there. Feel free to say grace, to give thanks for the small communion you’re about to receive with a good Christian man who loved beer, his country and his Lord.

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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