I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom. -- Ecclesiastes 2:3
In the early nineteenth century a beautiful church was erected to honor Saint Jerome in downtown Holyoke. Aside from ministering to the regular needs of its congregation--marriages, funerals, baptisms and guidance in daily life--it also served the community at large in the capacity of emergency shelter and soup kitchen. Thus was it both spiritual fortress and neighborly social place.
Because of its proximity to the heart of the city, and that several days a week free dinner was offered to all who wished to eat; and because the stomach so influences world affairs, there were always at least a couple of people milling around the doorway outside the rectory. These were mostly street folk, among whom were a fair number of winos, one of which was a particularly good natured man named Chet.
He could have been an old thirty or young fifty as far as one might have guessed his age, and he was so fastidious about his fashion that but for his greasy hair, grizzled beard and ever present brown bag in hand, any passerby could as easily have mistaken him for student, professor or banker.
Having lived all his life in Holyoke, he knew it in and out like the knuckles on his hands; and having passed so many hours of so many days and nights imbibing there on the steps of Saint Jerome’s, his discovery of the sacrament of the Eucharist was inevitable. He made it one lazy summer evening when both his flask and pockets were empty, and not being one to pass up free wine, went in ostensibly to worship. He patiently listened to the sermon on Daniel and the lions, enjoyed the story, and never forgot it, but all the time was anxious for the part of the mass for which he truly had come, and smiled with delight when at last it was announced. But the moment he was in line between the pews he was overcome by the hundred imagined pairs of staring eyes, and bowed his head not in prayer, but in shame. He immediately regretted setting foot where he felt he didn’t belong, and wanted to vanish in that instant; but was immobilized by his own self-consciousness, while the line slowly inched him closer to the priests.
Finally he was next, and the distance between he and the father seemed an impassable gulf, as though they gazed at one another from adjacent mountain peaks. He was giddy with trepidation as he warily crossed the red carpet. Then he noticed the other priest refilling the holy chalice with wine, and suddenly could have reached his end in a single leap of the heart. He restrained himself, yet nonetheless completed the last few steps with great confidence, and muttered within himself--yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s on with it!--as the wafer was placed on his tongue and blessed as transubstantiated into the body of Christ.
He hastened on to receive his share of the blood, and as the rim of the vessel was pressed to his lips, softly inquired: “How much should I take?”
“As much as you feel the need,” came the whispered reply.
Thereupon he took a deep draught of the rich, golden wine, and as the glowing warmth flowed through him head to groin, filling him with exhilaration, he grasped the bottom of the cup, and without inhibition tipped the rest into his mouth. He returned to his pew under the dismayed gaze of all who had seen him drink so copiously, and passed the rest of the service in distraction, relishing the incredible feeling that no other wine had ever filled him with before. From that day he was hooked, and began looking forward to the communion rite with the same childish anticipation that his mates greeted the approach of check day.
For many months he kept the sacrament wine a secret from his friends; and though there were many times he wanted to ‘spill the beans’ when he had to slip away from them abruptly without explaining where nor why, he maintained his secret mostly from fear of their ridicule. Moreover, every time the wine was actually on his tongue, he was seized with the urge to return to the end of the line for a second sip from the chalice, which temptation he resisted for fear of public scorn.
His secret was revealed and the temptation triumphant in a fell swoop one brittle autumn evening. Chet hadn’t tasted a drop of any wine in three days, and was in desperate need of its warming virtue, and fired by the vision of his reward for sitting through a sermon, entered the church openly, and after announcing to his friends that he was about to have a taste of the top shelf wine ever fermented. They watched him go in wonderment; he proceeded to seat himself in the center of the first pew, where he patiently drifted in a reverie during the sermon on Paul’s scriptures of love. When that was finished and the time for receiving the sacrament finally come, he was on his knee at the altar to receive his wafer before the rest of the congregation had even begun to form a line. He swallowed it whole and hurried onward to the cup, which, having been freshly filled by Father Brian, afforded him a long and satisfying drink of the hot, golden blood. He craned back his neck and rolled his head, staring at the majestic ceiling while enjoying the dizzy ecstasy that spread from his heart to the ends of his fingers and toes, and even into his hairs. Then the elderly man who was next snapped him out of it with a nudge, and driven by Father Brian’s hard eyes, Chet hurried away.
He passed right by his pew with purpose, and positioned himself squarely at the end of the file, to proceed directly for a second taste of the body and blood of Christ. As it happened, there was precisely one wafer in the bowl for each mouth in the congregation, so that the last was served to the young girl just before him. This was all the better for Chet, who was glad to bypass the superfluity and cut straight to the cup.
He bent his knees, and Father Brian looked down, gave him a quizzical look, and pausing the cup inches from his lips, softly said: “Haven’t you already taken the sacrament this evening?”
“Yes Father, I have,” was his rehearsed, mechanical reply; “but I have sinned so horribly this month that I need a second cleansing.” Like Napoleon crowning himself emperor, Chet promptly tipped up the holy vessel and emptied all the remaining wine into his throat, moaning: “Aaaah...”
“What’s the matter?” Chet replied innocently, gazing up at the priest with wide eyes.
The priest casually set the cup down and sternly whispered: “Your behavior seems most inappropriate at the moment.”
“What? Taking the sacrament?”
“But Father,” he said suavely, “if you know what I’ve been doing and with whom, you’d understand how desperately I need His blood at this time in my life. My recent sins are immense.”
“I know you,” Father Brian answered, slightly raising his voice, though it was still hushed. Then he shrugged away the stares of the other church officials, and ignored those of the members of the congregation, all of whom were ready and waiting to move on to the benediction. “I’ve seen you many times on the steps of this church with a bag in your hand, and I’ve noticed that you only come to worship on the days the sacrament is offered. I’m not one who claims to have the power to read the hearts of other men, but I can make an educated guess....”
Chet felt like a cornered animal, but having sensed a hesitation, seized the moment to take the offensive. “Good Father! Are you doubting my intentions?”
Father Brian paused to contemplate for a moment, then responded: “Only you and God know what they are, while I know only what I can see, which is often wrong, but it is written in scripture that drunkards are among the unholy who shall not attain the kingdom of heaven, excess of wine being one of the worldly desires that sets the flesh against the Spirit. That is the word of God written in the book on which I, and my fellow priests, and all our brethren here base our beliefs, which book also says that our works testify of themselves. And that is my answer to you.”
“Well Father, here’s my answer to that,” he replied. “I’ve learned a little about that book in these past few months I’ve been coming to Saint Jerome’s to take the sacrament. To what did Christ change the water at the wedding in Cana? Was it orange juice? Chamomile tea? Castor oil? Beer? No! It was wine! Very fine wine! In fact, as I recall, a better wine than the host was serving to his guests before he ran out and called on Jesus in the first place! And what was the affect of that wine Jesus made by the finger of God? It inspired the levity and merriment that enabled that marriage celebration to be just that--a celebration. And what did Christ serve to the apostles at the last supper? Was it mint julep? Coffee? Lemony soda water? No! It was wine, sacred and holy, with which he both purified they who would carry on his good work while establishing the sacrament we have just partaken. It fills me with warm joy to have his blood coursing through my veins, and at this particular juncture of my life I needed a second cup. God who made us knows we who frequently drink too much are not all bad people, and if you reckon what I have done a sin, then feel free to cast the first stone.”
Father Jeremy came over and said: “Is there a problem here? We’re all waiting to resume mass.”
“He took the sacrament a second time,” Father Brian said.
“Okay, I did, but I also explained why I had to do it,” Chet responded.
“Well, why don’t you return to your pew so we can get on with the service,” Father Jeremy calmly suggested.
“Because I’d first like to settle this little conflict,” Chet replied with respectful indignance. Both priests were taken aback, so he continued before they could interrupt the flow of his inspiration. “As I understand it, Father Brian is implying that I am somehow condemned by my fondness of wine, and to support his belief he produced a couple of quotes from the Bible; but I see it differently, and can also cite scripture to my purpose, as I already have. For example, what says the book of Ecclesiastes? According to my reading it tells that all our fleeting days under the sun are numbered even before given to us by the Lord, and being in such limited supply, to be cherished. Therefore Ecclesiastes does not instruct us to shun the good gifts of the earth that God has provided for our enjoyment, but rather says: ‘Eat your bread with happiness, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for God has already approved your good works.’ Which verse can also be applied to the taking of the sacrament, I do believe.”
“You’ve articulated your point quite well,” Father Jeremy politely said, “so if you would now return to your seat, there’s a whole congregation patiently waiting to continue worship, as you can see.”
Enervated by the wine, Chet continued unabated. “Anyone who’s ceased their prayer because you’re taking time to speak with me probably wasn’t worshipping in the first place. Now, the trappist monks of Bulgaria brew and sell beers among the finest the world has ever known, and have been doing so for centuries. There must be some reason they are the very best, and those holy men can’t all be damned because their blessing is abused by a few unworthies. My point is this: those monks see in Ecclesiastes what I believe you’re missing, that wine is to be drunk with cheer and a smile, not funereal solemnity. Therefore I suggest that you take a lesson from them and start bottling and marketing the sacrament wine. Call it Christ’s Blood, and make it available to the masses for daily consumption. Every sip I take fills me with the glow of the Spirit of the Lord; it makes me feel fantastic! If a lit candle is not placed under the bed but on a lamp stand, that it gives light to the whole house, why then do you hide such vintage bottles in the vaults of the church? Share it with the world! Let everyone taste it, and tell them what it is, so sweet on the tongue and satisfying to the soul. You’ll spread the word of the gospel around to your own, as well as to those who don’t know anything other than the bad wine they’ve been drinking all their lives, and who’ll all surely recognize its superiority as quickly as I did. You can even put some of your favorite Bible quotes on the label. And beside that, the church could make a tidy profit--it can’t be averse to that, as attested by the rather large plates you pass among the pews. So give the people something more for their money than this beautiful house they have built but must journey to appreciate; let them have it in all their homes to enjoy at their leisure, and to be constantly reminded that the Lord is with them every moment. What do you say? A bottle of Christ’s Blood on every dinner table! I know it’ll fly, and I’ll gladly help you write the business model and design the labels.”
“The sacrament is a very sacred rite,” Father Brian answered, “and to command the respect it so worthily deserves, the affect of the wine used therein should not be cheapened by accessing it to the public through liquor stores. If you don’t like or agree with the way things are done in this place, maybe you should leave.”
“Is that what you would have?” Chet rejoined, raising his voice to be audible to all. “One less member in the flock under the roof? Yet again we differ on interpretation, for my understanding is that God would want one more--nay, three!” Thus emboldened, he walked down the aisle to the front doors and threw them open. “Hey fellows!” he called to his friends there on the outside. “Charles, Edgar, Russell...come in here for a moment.”
“Chet! What have you been doing inside that church?” Charles asked.
“Come over here, man,” Edgar said. “We just got two nice bottles of applejack.”
“Come on...have a drink with us,” Russell added, holding out the bag.
“I’m tired of that rotgut,” Chet replied. “Follow me, and I promise you’ll taste
the best wine that exists on the earth.”
“Really? The best?” Charles said, perking his eyebrows.
“Really and truly...better than anything you could ever imagine...but you have to hurry!”
Charles bounded up the steps, with Edgar and Russell hesitantly straggling behind. The winos had never seen the inside of the church around which they had spent so many hours of their lives drinking, and marveled in amazement at the architecture and artwork while also cordially nodding their heads and greeting the onlookers as they passed, saying: “Hello...good evening...how you doing...beautiful church you have here...thanks for having us....”
“Fear them not,” their leader announced boldly as they warily followed him to the altar. “You all know the angels rejoice more for the one lost sheep recovered than the ninety nine who never strayed from the field, and I have brought in three more.”
He took them to the empty wafer bowl, near which Father Jeremy was standing, to whom he said: “Do you have any more bread--wait! Nevermind! I have something that’ll do.” He produced a few crackers that he happened to have in his pocket, and asked Charles, Edgar and Russell to kneel.
“What are you doing, man?” Charles nervously whispered. “You said you were bringing us to taste some fine wine. What’s with these crackers?”
“Shh,” he answered. “The wine is coming, but first you must eat these.”
There was a remarkable calm upon the congregation, the result of shock. They all waited in patient silence, allowing their priests to handle the delicate situation.
Father Brian came over to the men, and said to Chet: “This is most unorthodox, and I think it might be best if you stopped right now.”
“Let them proceed,” Father Jeremy softly instructed. “Higher authorities will judge whether or not their work is good.”
“Thank you Father, it is,” Chet answered. He then ministered the crackers and blessed his friends. That done he brought them to the chalice, and asked Father Jeremy for permission to refill it with a look and a motion of his hand, to which the priest nodded consent. He did so and put it to each of their lips, making certain they imbibed only moderate mouthfuls.
“That is good! Real good!”
“Wow! Mm, mm, mmmm!”
“Where can we get a bottle?”
Chet looked down and pondered taking a third sip, but hastily put the cup away when he caught Father Brian staring severely.
Then Father Jeremy said: “Now, would you please take a seat so we may finish today’s service?”
“Yes, Father, we certainly shall,” Chet replied, giving the cup one last longing glance. “And we’d like to thank you again for your patience and understanding. You’re a good man.” He led his friends quickly and quietly to the front pew, where they sat down and listened to the benediction with their hands folded across their laps.
After the conclusion of the service, Father Jeremy came and took Chet aside. “You’re all always welcome here, and not just on days the sacrament is given, but I would ask one thing.”
“What’s that, good Father?” he replied. “Anything you want.”
“This is a house of God, and should be treated with every respect; and though I don’t particularly care how you dress for mass, your friends smell like they haven’t bathed in some time, which can be offensive and distracting to the rest of the congregation. If you need a place to wash I’m in the rectory behind the church for two hours before every service, and you’re all welcome to stop by and use my sink.”
“Some of us just may have to do that,” Chet replied, turning toward his mates. “And thank you again; you’re tolerant and wise, the way all men of the cloth should be. I may not have added three thousand to the rolls as happened at the Pentecost, but I have brought three to the threshold.”
“Ah, I see you’re at least somewhat familiar with the Bible,” Father Jeremy remarked.
“Yes, you have gotten some return on your wine,” Chet replied.
CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 2