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Essay

God touches us with a touch that is emptiness and empties us.

                                                                —Thomas Merton

 

Genuine development of virtue, when it does exist, must feel like a lessening.

                                                                —William McDavid

 

I ARRIVED IN THE BOURBON CAPITAL of the world at about eleven at night on a Sunday in October, so I did not expect things to be lively. But I did permit myself some disappointment that the streets of Bardstown, Kentucky, were stone dead. Still, the deserted lanes of this classic American town beckoned me. A woman, locked up for the night in a hotel that advertised itself as haunted, shouted from a balcony that I had missed all the fun. There wasn’t even a drugstore open where one could pick up a plastic flask of cheap bourbon. But I was about to find one anyway.

As I ambled past a closed bakery, I came upon some guitar-playing locals who were swigging Old Fitzgerald. A baker, a chef, and two out-of-town visitors were a few hours into a music set of their own creation, and they weren’t about to let a stranger pass without inviting him to join them. They poured me some whiskey, and the baker unfurled an arsenal of harmonicas that instilled beguiling gusto into the guitarist’s throaty ballads. The two of them were remarkably good.

The set list that night was comprised chiefly of John Prine songs—the kind that lament the effects of strip mining on the Kentucky hills. Sensing in our conversation my penchant for theological topics, the lead singer broke into a smile as he began Prine’s ballad “Sam Stone,” building up to the chorus:

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.
Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.

It was about as good an introduction to bourbon country as anyone could hope for, especially because Prine’s lyrics prepared me for something I would witness the next day.

Driving through the hills, I stopped at what seemed at first sight to be a charming country thrift shop but turned out to be a storefront stuffed with what was basically trash, run by an emaciated woman who was probably fifty but looked closer to seventy-five. She desperately sought to sell me anything for a dollar. Her looming grandsons laid on some additional pressure. I purchased a trinket in haste and drove away, realizing I’d just had a brush with the opioid epidemic—the Bible belt removed and fastened around the arm to isolate a vein.

But Kentucky was not about to permit these developments without a fight. The imposing Basilica of Saint Joseph in the center of Bardstown was standing watch. Someone had even modernized the Stations of the Cross with labels that mentioned new epidemics, including violence, abortion, elder abuse, spouse and child abuse. It was as if the church were responding directly to John Prine’s audacious chorus. I was immediately welcomed by a proud parishioner and showed around. Long known as the “cathedral in the wilderness,” Saint Joseph’s was the first Catholic cathedral west of the Allegheny Mountains. The diocese has since centered itself in Louisville, but Saint Joseph’s once oversaw a territory so vast that one astonished missionary described it as “very much larger than France and Spain combined.” Indeed, the Bardstown See comprised territory now spread over not only Kentucky, but Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri as well. In short, the spiritual life emanating from Saint Joseph’s Basilica is a reminder that before it was whiskey country, Kentucky was—and remains—holy ground.

An aged wooden pillar from the original structure can still be glimpsed through an interior glass window built to reveal the cathedral’s humble frontier origins. Now, however, the church is enhanced with a neoclassical façade, in the style that Catholics long ago adopted to show they were just as American as everyone else—but it was still a marvel for the frontier. “This is no other than house of God and the gate of heaven,” reads one confident inscription. The Ten Commandments are still emblazoned on the red brick exterior, one for every Palladian window bay.

Prominent statues betray that this is no Protestant church, even while one historical marker proudly boasts that Protestants helped pay for and construct it. The statues include Mary, Joseph, and Jesus exposing his sacred heart, alongside the venerable nineteenth-century Kentucky bishops, the Right Reverends B.J. Flaget (1763–1850) and M.J. Spalding (1810–72). Considering the hardships they suffered, it is understandable that they face the Barton bourbon distillery, visible just a few hundred yards away.

At this point in my journey to bourbon country, I was overcome by annoyance. Why had the several ostensibly knowledgeable lovers of bourbon I have known never mentioned this extraordinary connection between bourbon and the history of American religious life? Did they not know of this background to America’s spirit? Did they not care? Amid discussion of the French-oak-staved distillation process that leads to Maker’s 46, was it not worth pointing out that the distillery stood right next to the Loretto Motherhouse, a famous and still active convent? Or was that deemed irrelevant? As one guidebook describing the bourbon trail puts it:

Today, multiple religious orders base themselves here, and landmark religious sites draw the faithful. For many more, however, the spirit they think of when the towns of this region spring to mind is amber-colored and comes in a bottle.

I wanted to scrawl in the margin: And some Americans find the need to choose between these spirits absurd!

 

The Barton distillery sits on a spring that hasn’t failed since the distillery opened in 1879. I was part of a small group given a complete tour of their bourbon-making process, from the grains brought in from surrounding fields to the mashing, the unleashing of yeast, distillation, and, most importantly, the aging in oak barrels. Standing in one of the Barton rickhouses, we saw barrel after oak barrel of maturing bourbon, each lid carefully labeled, in stacks reaching seven stories high.

The arrangement was precarious enough, in fact, that one of the rickhouses collapsed in the summer of 2018. Bourbon from damaged barrels flowed into a nearby waterway, bringing Willie Nelson’s “Whiskey River” to a strangely literal fulfillment. Most of the barrels have since been salvaged and returned to the rickhouse, where the aging process resumes. With the heat and cold of every passing season, these barrels expand and contract as if slowly breathing, imparting an increasingly rich oak flavor to the evaporating contents within.

It was time, though, to drive deeper into the hills. Within an hour of my visit to Barton’s, I was saying afternoon prayers with the monks of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, one of the many monasteries emanating from Saint Joseph’s that dot this once gargantuan diocese. The Trappists were carefully lined up in oak pews, just as they were decades ago when Thomas Merton knelt among them. Their sisters in the Loretto Motherhouse do the same. Like those aging barrels of bourbon, these monks and nuns also mature in annual rhythms, their prayers expanding and contracting with the celebrations and austerities of every liturgical year.

 

To liken the traditional stages of the mystical life to the creation of bourbon might seem forced. But I wouldn’t be the first to do it. Jesus famously used yeast and alcohol as illustrations of the kingdom of God. A recent book on early Christianity has been aptly entitled The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. In his book length Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, moreover, John Henry Newman related the process of doctrinal development in Catholic history to the process of making liquor. Such forays, I hope, offer sufficient precedent.

It should go without saying that no competent guide to the interior journey would ever claim that its three classic phases—purgation, illumination, and union—form a neat progression. They are no more linear than that other classic guide to Christian contemplation, the labyrinth. Nevertheless, the traditional order has its uses, especially when drawing parallels between the making of spirits and the spiritual life.

 

The first stage of the mystical life is purgation, extraction from the world, or—in the language of the New Testament—repentance. If they had a say in the matter, the corn, wheat, barley, and rye used in varying combinations to create good bourbon might prefer to enhance late summer fields with color, soaking up sun and soil, lazily tossed by the wind. But to become bourbon, these unassuming plants are ripped from their comfortable homes and crated away to be pulverized by a hammer mill in the distillery.

As if this weren’t enough, the traumatized grains that constitute this mash bill are then boiled in Kentucky’s naturally limestone-filtered water, a process which plays a dirty trick on the grain. The water and heat manage to convince the plants that they are in the ground, growing again. And just when this deception is successful enough to cause the grains to release their natural sugars, a ravenous strain of yeast is unleashed upon these bewildered plants. This feeding orgy lasts for three dizzying days, at which point the fermentation is finally complete.

The process reminds me of young converts who think that faith will satisfy rather than devastate their egos. “He alone can refine us,” wrote Thomas Merton from the Abbey of Gethsemani, “and separate us from the slag and dross of our selfish individualities to fuse us into this wholeness of perfect unity that will reflect His own Triune Life forever.”

 

When the voracious yeast has finished glutting itself on the mash, the distiller is left not with bourbon, but with a heavily fermented sourdough slop that barely qualifies as beer. Accordingly, the next stage of the mystical life is illumination, an expansion of understanding that is never in this life complete. The slop is cast down through a tall steel column perforated by horizontal plates. Heat is blasted into the column as the beer falls through the slats. During this dramatic descent, the beer evaporates—which is to say, it is spiritualized—and the liquid that condenses after this transformation, sometimes traveling through a traditional worm coil, is called white dog.

White dog is a liquefied harvest. Fully drinkable, it’s a pungent liquor comparable to ouzo or sambuca. In a way, it has not become something else as much as it has become a more fully realized version of the original grain—the essence of corn, wheat, and rye having been, through trauma, finally revealed. As Merton puts it, “There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.”

But just as illumination cannot be mistaken for the end of the spiritual process, white dog cannot be mistaken for bourbon. Self-discovery is just the beginning. Instead, explains Merton, “we become contemplatives when God discovers Himself in us.” Accordingly, the white dog is now placed in a charred oak barrel for at least two slow years of finishing, the last stage in the mystical threefold pattern: union.

 

As the white dog is poured into the barrel, it is as clear as vodka. Like a new believer whose knowledge of God is as yet unrefined, it has no coloration, and not much subtlety either. That will come only with years of meditation inside the white dog’s round wooden cell. Just as tea leaves infuse their essence into heated water, the oak of the barrel gradually imparts itself to the white dog. The translucent liquid offers itself to its arboreal home, slowly borrowing its brown. This means that essentially, when drinking bourbon, we drink oak.

And here is where the varied Kentucky climate makes its contribution. In the sweltering summer heat, the liquid rushes into the expanded wood, sometimes even permeating the barrel to drip onto the rickhouse floor. But in the fall and winter the liquid returns to the center, pulling oak sap and resin with it. Each successive season in the life of an active barrel could be compared to the consolations and desolations of the spiritual life most famously charted by Ignatius of Loyola. The expansion and contraction continues and the flavor intensifies, but with a cost. More and more of the liquid evaporates. After six or seven years half of the original contents will be gone. Sometimes the barrels, when finally opened, are completely empty.

Merton, still writing from Gethsemani, continues:

We must “empty ourselves” as He did. We must “deny ourselves” and in some sense make ourselves “nothing” in order that we may live not so much in ourselves as in Him. We must live by a power and a light that seem not to be there. We must live by the strength of an apparent emptiness that is always truly empty and yet never fails to support us at every moment. This is holiness.

Such is the paradox of bourbon: The less there is of it, the better. As a truly great bourbon reaches its peak, the amber liquid increases in richness, hue, and complexity while decreasing in quantity. The greatest sip of bourbon must therefore, necessarily, be the barrel’s last solitary drop. Emptiness is perfection.

“The next step is not a step,” writes Merton of advanced contemplation, displaying a downright Lutheran discomfort with facile notions of spiritual progress. “You are not transported from one degree to another. What happens is that the separate entity that is you apparently disappears and nothing seems to be left but a pure freedom….” It was a theme he returned to frequently: “There are no levels,” he insisted. “Any moment you can break through into the underlying unity which is God’s gift in Christ.” In the same way, commenting on Galatians 2:20 (“it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”), Luther wrote, “This ‘I’ Paul rejects; for ‘I,’ as a person distinct from Christ, belongs to death and hell…. Indeed, Christ Himself is the life that I now live. In this way, therefore, Christ and I are one.”

As the white dog and the barrel permeate each other, it is increasingly difficult to determine where the bourbon ends and the barrel begins. “In the end,” counsels Merton, “Praise praises. Thanksgiving gives thanks. Jesus prays. Openness is all.” Likewise, Luther exclaims that by faith, “you are so glued together to Christ that he and you are one person, which cannot be separated but remains attached to him forever and declares, ‘I am Christ,’ and he in turn says, ‘I am that sinner who is attached to me and I to him.’”

To push my analogy to its limits: just as mature bourbon and charred oak are fully united, individual effort in Christian life is mysteriously made one with Christ’s once-and-for-all achievement on the wood of the cross. And the less bourbon—or ego—there is at the end of this process, the better the taste of what remains.

It is enough to make you wonder whether the endless debates between followers of Erasmus and Luther, between Jesuits and Jansenists or Presbyterians and Arminians over the role of free will in the Christian life might have been settled over a nice glass of bourbon. I’m not being entirely facetious. Certainly the circumstance that these factions did not share the wine of the Eucharist played no small role in their disputes.

 

But none of this is to suggest that the mature Christian life is to be sequestered on the top shelf to be occasionally sipped by the wealthy. Not in the least. Instead, all is to be poured out in service. The best medieval writers on the spiritual life saw that the path of purgation, illumination, and union always spilled over into neighborly love.

It seems that some bourbon makers in Kentucky have the same idea. At my visit to the Buffalo Trace distillery—almost a town in itself—I wandered to the upstairs tasting floor and attached myself to a tour being delivered to a stylish, moneyed group who had flown in from LA. After describing the last bottle of bourbon he enjoyed with his dying father, a wizened expert offered these words, with conviction: “If I take my best bottle of Pappy Van Winkle and offer it to a guest, and then wrench it back with disgust when they tell me they prefer it mixed with Coca-Cola, I’m sending a signal that I care more about the bourbon than I care about my guest.” It was an unexpected tutorial. We had gathered here to be initiated into increasingly exclusive inner sancta of taste, but we left with a lesson in grace.

 

As I headed home from bourbon country, my own budget relieved me of the temptation to stockpile some of the more high-quality bottles myself. Merton’s reminder helped as well:

I do not say that to be a contemplative one absolutely has to go without smoking or without alcohol, [but] there can be no doubt that smoking and drinking are obvious areas for the elementary self-denial without which a life of prayer would be a pure illusion.

I did treat myself to a quick stop in Louisville, however. A visit to Merton’s famous corner seemed in order.

This was the place where, on March 18, 1958, the secluded Trappist was moved to recast his monastic identity, expanding from a life of isolation to one of widening concern. “It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.” Years of aging in the Gethsemani rickhouse had done its work, and the highly refined liquor of Thomas Merton’s spiritual life began to be more generously poured out.

I was initially puzzled as to why it was so difficult to find parking in downtown Louisville so late at night. It turns out I had arrived at the conclusion of an Ironman race—a grueling swim, bike, and run triathlon. Not being the athletic type, it was also one of the least likely events I would have imagined myself attending. Witnessing the fitness ambitions of middle-aged middle-Americans was not the reason I had made this trip.

I had hoped to catch at least a glimpse of Merton’s corner and the plaque that marked the spot where he received his revelation, but the sign was annoyingly near the Ironman finish line. My moment of contemplation was therefore interrupted by crowds banging on makeshift barriers to encourage the runners in their final steps. The winners had already passed, so I did not see chiseled athletes but hobbling parents in the final steps of what may have been, for all I know, a lifetime goal. Happy squeals of “Mommy!” issued from small children who had stayed up late to watch their mothers make it to the end of an all-day race. I saw a gaggle of young boys and girls embrace their exhausted father as he collapsed at the finish line, weeping with accomplishment and relief.

There at Merton’s corner that night, as the cheers ascended for the remaining runners, I was wounded by the gratuity of human existence that has nothing to do with my likes, dislikes, or prejudices. The Kentucky Trappist had been “suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people,” and so—nearly sixty years later—was I. I even reached out my hands to slap fives with some of the runners, who interrupted their meticulously regulated breathing to say thank you. Earlier in my journey, I had encountered a suffering woman and two young men, and was touched only by concern for my own preservation. As I sped away, I don’t think I even managed to offer a passing prayer on their behalf. But somehow an unexpected marathon managed to pierce this aging barrel, and an amber stream of mercy trickled out at 120 proof.

Now, years later, I think about them sometimes, the addicts and the athletes, as I sip an evening drink—not any longer overcome, but still, I hope, traced with love’s tincture.

 

 


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