Another time a vessel of wine was brought [to Scete] from the first fruits of the vintage, so that a cup of it could be given to each of the brothers. And a brother saw that they were drinking wine, and fled up on a roof, and the roof fell in. And when they heard the noise, they ran and found the brother lying half-dead. And they began to abuse him, saying: “It has served you right, for you were guilty of vainglory.” But an abba embraced him, and said: “Leave my son alone, he has done a good work. By the living Lord, this roof shall not be rebuilt in my time, as a reminder to the world that a roof fell in Scete because of a cup of wine.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.54

I am somewhat surprised that it has taken me this long to write a reflection about sobriety. The fathers commend its value often. Sometimes they are a little extreme in their rejection of alcohol, but I think it would be a misreading to say that they opposed it in principle. Even the most vehement condemnation is more a prudential matter. As another saying goes:

They told Abba Poemen that a certain monk did not drink wine. And he said to them: “Wine is not for monks at all.” (4.31)

First, it is clear that the monks who told this to Abba Poemen found it exceptional that this “certain monk did not drink wine.” Second, Abba Poemen does not make an absolute statement about wine but a conditional one: “Wine is not for monks at all.” Not for monks … so more for the rest of us! right?

Well, yes and no. It is bad enough that “a roof fell in Scete because of a cup of wine.” How much worse the carelessness that can result in the world? Hangovers, fits of anger, depression, embarassment, fights between friends, fights between enemies, unchastity, unwed pregnancies, and the like—most of these are well known. Of course, it would be extreme to simply blame these on alcohol, as if the persons involved do not act out of free will. But the alcohol doesn’t help.

As the expression goes, all of these acts become more likely “under the influence.” It is something that must be handled with maturity and moderation. If used responsibly, then the words of Scripture are quite true:

Wine … makes glad the heart of man. (Psalm 103:15 [104:15 MT])

Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. (Proverbs 31:6)

Wine drunken with moderation is the joy of the soul and the heart. (Ecclesiasticus 31:36)

So why sobriety? What’s the point? Why would Abba Poemen say, “Wine is not for monks at all”? Well, following the Latin, there is another passage that might lend some clarity:

I thought in my heart to withdraw my flesh from wine, so that I might turn my soul to wisdom and avoid foolishness, until I might see what is useful for the sons of men, what they ought to do under the sun the days of their lives. (Ecclesiastes 2:3)

The message of Ecclesiastes always emphasizes the limits of such efforts, but nevertheless I think something along these lines is intended. Wine can gladden the heart; strong drink can ease the pain of those who suffer; but drunkenness is an impediment to prayer.

Sobriety, understood rightly not as the mere absence of something positive (alcohol), is true clarity of mind. Furthermore, embracing purposeful periods of sobriety helps one to maintain the moderation by which wine can be “the joy of the soul and the heart.” Like all asceticism, it is about putting things in their place and embracing reality. Perpetual drunkenness is a flight from reality and ultimately a distortion of it. It is no way to handle the anxieties of life.

In my own experience, for a variety of reasons, I did not drink until I was 25. I do not mean this to be a recommendation for everyone, but it was a good idea for me. For one thing, my early twenties were hard enough at times—how much worse might they have been if I added alcohol to the mix? Second my family does not have the best history with alcohol, so I wanted to be careful. I had more friends who drank moderately by the time I was 25; it was a better environment. And last, I was more mature as well.

In the meantime, however, I endeavor to follow the rule of the Church when it comes to alcohol. When we fast, among other things, we also fast from alcohol … or try to. So every Wednesday and Friday, all through Lent and for the last half of Advent, I maintain sobriety, unless it would be rude to a host offering me hospitality. There are important exceptions as well: special days that happen to fall on Wednesdays and Fridays and all Saturdays and Sundays.

Embracing this rule has been an additional aid to me. And it prevents me from falling into bad habits, like grabbing a drink every time I am anxious, for example. Instead, it is for special occasions, warm company, or restful evenings. Sobriety liberates me to enjoy alcohol on these occasions.

More than that, however, sobriety, as I said, is a positive state of being, a state of clarity. It is the best state of mind for prayer. It is a state of mind in which certain passions cannot be ignored, and we can place them before God in prayer.

Alcohol, on the other hand, can dull our self-awareness to the point where we only notice the passions that enslave us once they have grown larger than we can handle. When people, then, drink from fear, out of a desire to avoid facing their troubles, that is when those troubles become their masters.

Yet there is hope even for those who cannot function unless they are “under the influence.” While the guidance of a spiritual director and a moderate rule of asceticism (and professional help if the problem has gotten that bad) are a good step in the right direction, there is another way: through another, stronger influence. “Do not be drunk with wine, which is dissipation,” writes St. Paul, “but be filled with the Spirit.”

The Spirit of God liberates our souls and brings clarity to our minds. Through the sacraments of the Church, especially baptism and chrismation (i.e. confirmation), and through prayer, the Holy Spirit purifies our hearts, purging it from the passions that mar our hearts’ great worth, as dross to gold.

Why did that brother flee when he saw the monks drinking wine? We could say he was scandalized, but perhaps he simply knew the weakness of his own heart. Such “a good work” requires great courage for the one who suffers in that way, a courage that must seem, if not actually be, supernatural. Better for one’s body to be “half-dead” than for one’s soul. Better to have clarity of mind, self-control, and to be under the influence of the Spirit than to abuse God’s gift of alcohol, ignore the cares of life, and flee from reality.

Total abstinence may not be an imperative, but sobriety can be a gift of strength to those who are willing to accept it, even just a day or two each week.