December 04, 2014
He is the most interesting man in the monastery. During Papal visitations, the Pope kisses his ring. At the end of his prayers, a voice from heaven frequently responds, “Can I do anything else for you?” Around him, Protestants genuflect, puritans imbibe, fundamentalists appreciate ambiguity, and nuns develop peculiar habits. His dogs are named Poverty, Chastity, and Guess Again. He does not always drink beer, but when he does, he drinks Chimay. And he frequently ends services with this benediction: Stay thirsty for righteousness, my friends. Amen.
His name is Armand Veilleux. He is the Abbot of Scourmont Abbey in Belgium, a monastery known more for its beer than its piety. Scourmont Abbey is my Mothership. Some people travel halfway around the world to bend over backward to kiss the Blarney Stone. I travel halfway around the world to bend over frontward, genuflect, and place on my lips the sacramental bottle called Chimay. Knowing that one of the best beers in the world is brewed within the cloister walls of a house of prayer somehow makes everything right with the world. Here the doors are locked at dusk and visitors observe silence along with the rest of the brothers—that is, when they are not engaged in the fervent worship of the Source of all creation, including barley and hops.
My patience, persistence, and prayers eventually paid off. On my final afternoon at the Abbey, Brother Jacques told me, through our Canadian translator, that the Abbot would meet with me after supper. I asked where I would find him. Brother Jacques looked at me like I had just asked him where I would find the casino, and said, through the now animated Canadian, “He will find you! You just stay right where you are.” Of course, one does not approach the most interesting man in the monastery, he finds you, in his time, on his terms, in his way. Reminds me of the One for whom he works.
He found me alright. And he led me beyond two sets of double doors, into his inner sanctum, to a place off limits to most pilgrims and all tourists. I knew at that moment how those Levitical priests must have felt whenever they entered the Holiest of Holies. I wanted to genuflect. Or kneel. Or buy him a beer.
He asked me to be seated and said he would return momentarily. I was nervous. I felt like an awkward adolescent on a first date, with the hottest girl in school, at a fine French restaurant, where I did not speak the language. When he returned, all of my anxieties melted away. He was carrying a Chimay tray, and on it were two Chimay beers, two Chimay glasses, one Chimay bottle opener, and a bowl of potato chips. Immediately, I knew what he was up to. After all, I own a bar. He was plying me with salty snacks so I would order more beer. Still, I played, and drank along.
He began to tell me the story of Chimay and Scourmont Abbey. As it turned out, the story neither began nor ended as I had anticipated. That is true of most stories about holy people and holy places. He pointed out that in that part of the world beer has been the beverage of choice for centuries. “In Belgium as it is in heaven,” I chimed in. He said that there is nothing unusual about drinking beer and serving God, or even about brewing beer and serving God. One man’s “weird” is another man’s “normal,” he proclaimed. Not wanting to be weird, I proceeded to drink my beer.
He told me about a favorite abbot who had preceded him some time ago. The surrounding area at the time was quite poor, and the majority of the neighbors were considered to be ignorant peasants by some. This particular abbot made it his priority to establish educational programs at the monastery so that the locals would learn all the skills they needed to find God and to find jobs, not necessarily in that order. Then the monastery began to assist the local farmers in establishing farming cooperatives. They proceeded to broaden their concern to become a center for all types of social services. Over time, Scourmont Abbey became a veritable Department of Education, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services, not unlike the ancient Celtic monasteries, which may not have been all things to all people, but were many things to many people. This is how monks roll, how they discern God’s will for their ministries. If something needs to be done to help people and no one else is doing it, the monks do it! Works for me. But what about the beer, I wondered.
About fifteen years ago, he said, the monastery realized that, with the brewery, they possessed a huge economic power, producing revenue far in excess of what the monks would ever need to carry out their local ministries. So, they made provision for the brewery to be spun off as a nonprofit foundation with the same philosophy concerning the importance of hard work and the value of human relationships. Specifically, the foundation was to focus on the needs of the economically disadvantaged, not only locally, but globally.
The brewery is still on the grounds of the monastery; he asked if I had even noticed it. I had not. It is in the background, he told me, and that would become his sermonic theme: Beer in the Background. The quality, he bragged, was the same as it ever was, although modern technology is now utilized in the process. He said that sometimes people are disappointed that the monk’s mysticism is now infused with action and engineering advances and marketing ploys, but brewing beer is much harder work than anyone realizes.
He paused to take a swallow of Chimay White, not quite in the same category as Chimay Blue which is aged for up to 15 years. He admonished me that this is not a beer to gulp but to enjoy, not a beverage with which to get drunk, but to savor—that Chimay is not about the quantity, but about the quality. Then he stopped preachin’ and went to meddlin’, calling American beer “cat piss.” That’s right. The Abbot of Scourmont Abbey called American beer “cat piss.” I was not going to argue, for he alone knew where our next round might come from.
All royalties from the brewery, 100%, are given away to charity. In fact, that is one major condition for being labeled a Trappist ale—that a majority of the income generated is given away for the good of others. The second stipulation is that Trappist ale must be brewed on monastery grounds. There are specific conditions and expectations that must be met if you are going to call yourself by a certain name or link yourself with a certain location. As in brewing so it is in religion. You can’t just brew any beer and claim that it is Trappist ale any more than you can do anything and claim that you are a Christian. Showing up at the monastery or the church and giving away most of your proceeds to the poor would be a good start for an authentic ale, as well as for a real Christian. He tells me that the true Trappist ales are Westmalle, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Achel, and Le Trappe. I now have my bucket list.
He settled into his chair, becoming increasingly aware that I was not out to steal his trade secrets, confiscate his beer, or try to portray him as something or someone he is not. He asked me about my life, my dog, my writing, my church, and my beer preferences. He told me a joke about a woman on an airplane that lands only to find that her dog is frozen. Something got lost in the translation, but I laughed anyway because I found it quite funny how much airplane humor had worked its way into the Abbot’s routine. I wondered if perhaps I had finally endeared myself to him, if I was approaching that level of intimacy reached by the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the one who put his head on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper. This apostle was thought to have founded the Celtic approach to Christianity. He was the one who listened for the heartbeat of God. I realized that even if he thought I was Peter, and I had come by way of Rome rather than Dublin, I had arrived. For he asked the question for which I had been waiting all my life: “Would you like to try a Blue?” Twist my stole.
As we slowly drank our Blues, he reiterated that he is not a brewmaster or a CEO, he is an abbot. He affirmed that his primary interests are prayer, study, welcoming guests, worship, outreach, education, and economic assistance. In the end, what he really wants to do is make the world a better place.
“One beer at a time,” I offered.
He told me that his secretary spends most of her time helping people get connected and improve their lot in life, whatever their need, such as the Algerian he has hiding in the monastery, even as we speak.
“Shh,” he whispered to me, as he held a finger to his lips. In the most shocking revelation thus far, he told me that beer was not a major part of his life, although he certainly liked beer, and if he was entertaining guests he would certainly have one.
“Or two,” I said, pointing at his Blue.
He told the story of a former abbot who was a large man and a diabetic and could not even drink beer, but he allowed himself to be photographed with a beer that became the most viewed photograph in Chimay’s history. Ironically, the teetotalling Abbot became the poster child for Trappist Ale! This is why, he said, he will not allow himself to be photographed with a bottle of beer and why he no longer grants interviews to journalists. “They will focus only on the beer,” he proclaimed, as he took another appreciative taste of Chimay Blue. I began to focus only on the beer since it was worthy of my undivided attention.
“I am a man of the spirit, concerned about spiritual things,” he added. He told me that even though church attendance might be dwindling, people are seeking an experience of God more than ever, for their number of seekers on retreat continues to rise. “People are hungry for God,” he observed. “And thirsty for beer,” I almost added, but refrained. His sermon drew to a close, reiterating that our ultimate quest is not about filling the gut, but satisfying the soul, not about squeezing the most profit from every barrel, but about brewing with great care and love, doing our very best, and giving the proceeds away to those who are truly in need. It is not about sitting on our asses and getting drunk. It is about getting off our asses and making a difference, utilizing whatever gifts and resources we have been given and giving back. It is about taking one down and passing it around. In the end, it is about sharing what God has entrusted to us.
I recognized toward the end of our time together, a time measured by only two beers (in American time, that would have been a case), that I had come to love and appreciate this man – his laugh, his sense of humor, his kindness, his depth, his wisdom. I appreciated his perspective, his priorities, his motivation, and his willingness to stand up, walk to the other room, and get me another beer. I thanked him profusely for his time, his story, his ministry, his beer.
“Just remember,” he concluded, with words that bordered on blasphemy yet rang so true that I will recall them for the rest of my days, “It’s not about the beer.”
It’s not about the beer.
WILLIAM B. MILLER is an Episcopal priest and the rector at St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church in Kauai, Hawaii. He is also a co-owner of Padre’s Bar, a live music venue/watering hole in Marfa, Texas. God and strong drink are two of his favorite things. Father Bill currently resides in Kauai with his dog, Nawiliwili Nelson.