Letter to Robinson K. Russo, continued…
Alcohol. Tricky stuff. My last installment was designed to make you slightly paranoid. Everybody is being watched in our times. The problem is that priests and those who aspire to the priesthood are interesting. The world values sex and money. You are entering a job field in which aspires to little money and NO sex. This intrigues and even angers people. You are eminently watchable. If people can catch you in an act of stupidity, it makes them feel so much better about their own stupidity. Nothing will make you stupider than alcohol. We were told in the old days that alcohol weakens the will and darkens the intellect, which is why we drink the stuff. A little is a fine compliment to a good meal, has some health benefits can mellow one out after a long day of sweating over a hot altar. A lot will make you a topic of discussion at family dinner tables. People love it when father is one of the guys. Even more they love to tell everyone when he falls off the bar stool.
Alcohol is a big deal in the priesthood. You will serve in communities where alcohol is THE problem. For a priest to drink publicly can be hurtful in such a community. When I was first ordained, I was assigned to a poor community that was riven by drunkenness and drug addiction, I caused a lot of scandal by insisting that the Catholic Faith did not prohibit the moderate use of alcohol. Men who had a serious drinking problem would go home and say, “The priest said it’s alright to drink.” I wonder how many wife beatings I am responsible for by my insistence that moderate drinking was not sinful. When people have no experience of moderate drinking you are a fool to pretend they do. You are a shepherd and a Father. Think of the sheep before you think of your own rights and freedom.
Alcohol plays a large role in the priesthood. Wine. It’s part of everyday when you say Mass. You need to know your relationship with alcohol very early on. There are tests on line to determine if you are an alcoholic. Don’t panic. You probably aren’t. Even if you have overdone it now and then, you are probably just young and stupid. The problem is not so much young and stupid. It is old and stupid. (Remember? The job title is “Elder.”) How was alcohol handled in your family? Is there a history of alcohol or substance abuse in the family? There is a saying that “The ability to hold your liquor isn’t a blessing. It’s a symptom.”
Alcohol is the byproduct of a sugar solution and yeast. Yeast is a single-celled microorganism, a member of the fungus kingdom. “Fungus Kingdom” sounds like one of those games your kids play. When I was young we played with whatever sticks and bones we found at the mouth of the cave. Where was I? Oh yes, Alcohol. Little one-celled fungi swim around happily in a sugar solution belching and excreting until they die in their own waste. And we then, bottle it, slap a label on it and drink it, commenting on its delicate bouquet and its certain presumptuous “je ne sais quoi.”
Why some of us become addicted to yeast #@!$ (colloquial term for excreta deleted) is a mystery to me. The euphoria caused by a toxin as it kills brain cells can have its purpose, but when it takes away our freedom, we are in trouble. Christ is all about freedom. This is something the world doesn’t understand. They think we are slaves to rules and some overwhelming institution. It is quite the opposite. They are slaves to their desires and passions. They are told to buy this and drink that and drive a certain car. All this, because if they don’t have the proper accoutrements, they will not be appealing sexually, not fully human. And here we are saying, “No thanks I’m not buying the premise.” They say that the purpose of life in the world is acquisition. “The person who dies with the most toys wins.” (“Toys” include the intimate “partner” whom they treat as a thing, a possession.) We are saying that the purpose of life is sacrificial love, not acquisition. We are saying that the purpose even of intimacy is the giving of life. We hold that intimacy is meant to be sacrificial. In order to love, we must be free.
In his amazing book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis riffs off the verse from First Peter, “The devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” (1P5:8) Lewis says that God looks at humanity as potential sons and lovers. The devil looks at us as cattle, food prepared for the table, the stronger will devouring the weaker.
Nothing softens one up like too much alcohol. Think of it as the devil’s own tenderizing marinade. Get pickled and you will be devoured. If you lay aside your free will, the Evil One will have his way with you, Father. You will not be in this business very long until you find out that there really is a devil, and he is not very nice. He wants you to do something stupid so that you will be morally crippled and unable to do battle.
Believe me. The priesthood really is a battle. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ep 6:12) The devil will want to take you out so that you cannot defend the sheep who look so tasty in his evil eyes. Resolve now to be a free man, able to overcome the snares of the enemy.
Next week: more on alcohol, the devil, freedom and things I have learned from exorcists about this stuff.