October 11, 2007

As the Bush administration, with the full-throat support of our unhinged media, whips up the public for a looming war with Iran, a sober citizen’s thoughts run naturally to the Apocalypse. One’s next thought, inevitably, is of absinthe.

Absinthe was invented as a medicinal tonic in the ancient world. It was recommended by Hippocrates the physician as a cure for rheumatism, Pythagoras the mystic as anesthesia for childbirth, and by Pliny the elder as mouthwash. In its modern form, spiked with alcohol, absinthe is said to be the concoction of Dr. Pierre Ordinaire”€”a refugee from the Reign of Terror who apparently decided to avenge himself on the revolutionary French by addicting their most talented writers to a green, brain-eating liqueur. What few Christians realize is that this liqueur is also connected with our most important book of prophecy”€”the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse. I’ll explain how in a minute. But first, a little history of the stuff.

In the late 19th century, after the grape phylloxera epidemic had destroyed 2/3 of the vineyards in Europe, the price of wine skyrocketed while its quality took a nose dive. So Bohemian artists turned to other beverages. Such as absinthe, a licorice flavored liqueur which is cheaper than wine, stronger than beer”€”and oh yes, it’s a hallucinogen. Artists who wanted to expand their “€œvision”€ soon learned how to buy delusions by the glassful. The drink was most popular among the so-called “€œdecadents”€”€”most of them REALLY bad Catholics”€”such as Charles Baudelaire, Henri Toulose-Latrec, Paul Verlaine and Ernest Dowson. A famous fan of the “€œGreen Fairy”€ was the deathbed convert Oscar Wilde, who wrote of the drink: “€œA glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world. What difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset?”€ To which a doctor might reply that sunsets are not quite so toxic. I know this first hand. In the spirit of investigative journalism, I spent an evening downing authentic Sazeracs made with actual absinthe”€”and woke up 16 hours later convinced someone had shot off the back of my head. (This is more fun than it sounds.) While Wilde may have opined that “absinthe makes the tart grow fonder,” I’m never tempted to put his words to the test.

What makes this drink so visionary? Here’s where the Bible comes in. Absinthe’s active ingredient is Wormwood. As St. John the Evangelist recalled the events of his really scary prophetic dream in the Apocalypse:

And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. 
(Apocalypse, 8: 10-11)

Kind of makes you wonder what gave people the idea to start drinking the stuff….

You might also wonder what exactly the Apocalypse is doing in the Bible. It’s true that the book is full of exquisite imagery and profound metaphors of the mysteries of the Christian faith. Written during one of the most savage Roman persecutions of the Church, this divinely inspired book holds out hope to Christians in times of affliction, promising that even the most universal catastrophe must yield, at last, to the regenerative power of God.

The book is popular today; it’s the favorite spiritual uplift for a certain type of Protestant”€”for instance, those who keep track in their Covey Planners which neighbors and family members are “€œunsaved”€ and liable to be “€œleft behind.”€  (Some “€œred-state”€ Protestants are fond of bumper-stickers like “€œIn Case of Rapture This Vehicle will be Driverless.”€ This seems a little presumptuous to me; I prefer my own slogan: “€œI Brake for Apparitions of Mary.”€) But many Catholics avert their eyes from this book of inspired scripture, averring, “€œWhat the BLEEP does it mean?”€

I’m not exactly sure; maybe it means St. John was drinking absinthe. (That would explain all those references to man-eating locusts….) The Apocalypse has been the source of endless misunderstandings over the centuries; when Church Fathers were deciding which books belonged in the Old and New Testament, this prophecy barely made the cut; prominent churchmen wondered if it was really divinely inspired, while St. Jerome famously called it “€œtoo trippy.”€ (A loose translation by the author.) The skeptics were voted down, and had to settle for placing the Apocalypse at the very end of the Bible, no doubt in the hope that weary Catholics might never get that far. This plan backfired”€”since lazy readers tend to skip to the end to find out how the story turns out. (Not to spoil things for you, but… Jesus wins.)

A careful reading of the Apocalypse reminds us that the early Church expected the Second Coming to hop along any day now, which is why St. Paul recommended people stay focused on God by embracing lifelong celibacy. (Might as well keep your bags packed and your pants zipped; the Old Testament calls this “€œgirding thy loins,”€ and it’s not referring to pork.) However, as the months passed on into years and decades, with still no sign of the End, St. Paul dismissed the taxi and the Church got down to business, seeking to sanctify a world that wasn”€™t going anywhere. But we have always kept in the back of our minds the fearful events warned of in the revelations given to St. John.

Over the centuries, theologians disputed as to how literally to interpret the Apocalypse:

“€¢ Would there really be seven trumpets and seven seals, as Ingmar Bergman insisted?
“€¢ Should Christians ready themselves to encounter these seals”€”for instance, by stockpiling fish?
“€¢ What exactly was meant by the beast with seven heads and ten horns?
“€¢ Who was that “€œgirl gone wild”€ riding on its back, dressed in LSU purple and gold with a go-cup “€œfull of blasphemies?”€

Early Protestants thought they knew. They identified the Beast with the Church that had baptized them, and the whore on its back with the pope. Catholic scholars replied that perhaps John was not predicting details of the future, but using metaphors from the present. When the Apocalypse was written, the Roman empire was a pagan tyranny that enslaved other nations, held gladiatorial “€œsnuff”€ shows, and persecuted Christians”€”in fact, it had crucified Christ. Still, “€œmillenarians”€ over the centuries took literally the notion that when the End times came, the righteous Elect would rule the earth for a thousand years”€”an idea which was appropriated by an infamous Austrian paper-hanger.

The picture isn”€™t pretty. It’s tempting, in the face of so many misreadings of this almost incomprehensible book, to leave the darned thing to the biblical scholars and the Pentecostalists. But as the multitalented novelist and artist Michael O”€™Brien reminds us, the Church included the Apocalypse in the scriptures for a reason:

There is always a battle over every soul. Even if our times prove not to be the times toward which St. John’s Revelation is pointing, each of us must go through a kind of small “€œa”€ apocalypse. Each of us certainly will be given a capital “€œR”€ revelation at the moment of our deaths when we experience our personal judgment, when all that we are, all that we have done or neglected to do will be revealed. The Greek word apokalypsis means a revealing or unveiling. During our lives in this world each of us will indeed face the beast, which is the devil, our ancient adversary, the enemy of our individual souls and of mankind as a whole. In some form or other we must learn to personally resist him and to overcome him in Christ.

We draw more from the Apocalypse than anxiety for the future; in it we find the doctrine that we will all be resurrected in the flesh like Christ, and live with Him on an earth transformed into a New Jerusalem: “€œAnd God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”€ (Ap. 21: 4-5)

Still, the events which precede this happy outcome are grim enough that the average Christian hopes that they are meant allegorically”€”or at least that he”€™ll be long dead before (for instance) fire-breathing horses with serpents”€™ tails kill 33% of the world’s population. I don”€™t need to see that, do you? Again, there are brother Christians who disagree with me here. In 2004, we learned that born-again Christians in Texas (where else) are trying to hurry things up a bit. As Rod Dreher reported in National Review, evangelical cattle ranchers have been cooperating with radical rabbis in Israel who want to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem”€”which cannot be reconsecrated without the sacrifice of a spotless red heifer. The rabbis couldn”€™t find such a creature, so the Texans are helping to breed one“€”in the hope that this will hasten the arrival of the Antichrist, the end of the world, and the Second Coming. Since building the Temple would require blowing up the third-holiest mosque on earth”€”igniting a war between a billion Moslems and a nuclear Israel”€”the secular government of that country is understandably jittery. So are we. Wasn”€™t it Christ Himself Who warned of these days:

“€œThen let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now”€”and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.”€ (Matt. 24:16-22)

Let’s take Him at His word”€”instead of trying to force His hand.

CELEBRATE: Prepare spiritually for the End Times”€”acclimatize yourself to the taste of Wormwood, by serving delicious (and possibly visionary) absinthe Apocalypsicles.

Recipe by Denise Matychowiak:
Absinthe Apocalypsicles

Yields 8 2 ounce pops

2 cups orange juice with pulp
¼ cup Absente (legal) or Absinthe (smuggled)

Combine ingredients and taste.
Pour into popsicle molds. Add sticks and freeze.

Excerpted by the author from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey and Song.


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