November 19, 2017

Adam McHugh, Official IM Wine Theologian: Blood from a Stone

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Note from CM: Internet Monk now has something no other blog has, to my knowledge: our own official Wine Theologian. That’s right, we have given this title to our friend Adam McHugh, who will write regularly on the subject for us (word has it he may branch out to cover beer for us as well, which will make the Lutherans happy). Adam is well qualified to fill this position. He lives in the wine country of the Santa Ynez Valley, where he works as the general manager of a small winery in Lompoc and as a wine specialist at Whole Foods in Santa Barbara. Adam has degrees from Claremont McKenna College and Princeton Seminary. Adam has also received a spiritual direction certification through the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Plus he is a wonderful writer, as you may know from reading his previous posts here at IM.

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Christ_the_True_Vine_icon_(Athens,_16th_century)Blood from a Stone.

In 2010, inspired by Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence, I spent a week in Provence, in the south of France. I was eager to tour the papal palace in the stone-walled, water-wheeled city of Avignon, home to Pope Clement V after he relocated the papacy from Italy to France in the early 14th century.

But let’s not kid ourselves. I didn’t go to Provence for the history. I went for the wine.

A day after the palace tour, things got serious as I stood in the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the “new house of the pope” in honor of the French papal era. There, surrounded by rows of vineyards hanging thousands of clusters of the Grenache grape, are the ruins of the Avignon popes’ vacation home. With the half-collapsed structure in the backdrop, our wine guide explained the unique feature of the soil in the appellation. A layer of large stones sits atop the clay soil, absorbing heat and helping maintain moisture, and the appearance is that the vines sprout miraculously out of rocks. He then said this: “You can now understand the local expression that making wine is like squeezing blood from a stone.”

Blood from a stone.

Never has a phrase so captured my attention. I lost track of what our guide said for the next 10 minutes, as the long tendrils of the phrase curled around my mind.

Blood from a stone….A heart of flesh out of a heart of stone….Blood dripping down on Golgotha…Water out of a rock….A letter written not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts….A stone rolled away to allow Life to burst forth.

This is dramatic, but for me it was nothing short of a conversion. This was my Damascus road, my Augustinian “take and read” experience, my holy shit moment.

Blood from a stone is not just the story of wine. It is the story of humanity. It is the story of God, pressing stony hearts to produce lifeblood, raising a cold, hard corpse to blood-pumping resurrection life.

Blood from a stone is my story.

After that trip, wine was no longer my hobby. It was an irresistible call. Vineyards would be my sanctuary, wine pilgrims my congregation, and the fruit of the vine my everyday sacrament. I knew that my days as a pastor were numbered. But perhaps wine is not the abolishment of ministry. Perhaps wine is the fulfillment of ministry.

Life and ministry for me up to that point had been strangely disembodied. I was a floating head. Sure, I had a body, but I dragged it along as the necessary housing for my brain and that was about it. And my brain pulled off some great things. My brain is hot. It got me lots of scholarships and degrees, it wrote a good book, and it won me some awards. But my body had no voice. You’ve heard of extra-sensory perception? I had under-sensory perception.

The normal sequence is that youth is lived bodily, a time for physical exuberance, and that growing older slowly moves us into our minds as our bodies become less reliable. Well, I’m 37 and my brain just isn’t doing it for me anymore. It seems intent on protecting me from pain and on mind-blocking me from intimacy. It is time that I meet my body and experience myself as wholly embodied. If I’m going to love God with all of myself, then I best become acquainted with all of myself.

Wine is largely considered a heady thing, reserved for elitists, pretentious snoots, and those who aspire to elitism and pretentious snootiness. For me, wine has become a way that I am getting in touch with my sensuality. The nature and complexity of a great wine is so transcendent that we must experience it with our most basic, earthiest senses.

jesus-vineThe discipline of evaluating a wine is really about getting all your senses involved. I behold the color and transparency of a wine with my eyes. I swirl the glass not only to unlock the aromas but to hear the movement of the liquid. I stick my nose as far into the glass as I can to root out the layers of aromas – the blackberries, the violets, the damp earth, the toasty oak. I allow the wine to linger on my tongue and I pay attention to how it hits every part of my palate. What does it taste like? What does it feel like? – the “touch” of a wine. I notice the warmth at the back of my palate and the lightness it brings to my body.

My quest to explore the flesh and blood of wine grapes is also my quest to explore my own flesh and blood. Wine is introducing me to my body. I am learning to pay attention to its desires and to listen to its voice. It is surprisingly talkative these days. It turns out that the things I have often given it are not what it needs and the things I have neglected are what it craves. I am exercising and lifting weights. I am sleeping more. Long walks are no longer merely a setting for deep thoughts; they are exercises in paying attention. I stop to pet the horses and donkeys on my way to work. I am spending less time with people who make me feel heavy and more time with people who make my body feel lighter. I am learning how much touch I need in order to feel loved.

When it comes to my body, blood is slowly being squeezed from a stone.

Comments

  1. “It is the story of God, pressing stony hearts to produce lifeblood, raising a cold, hard corpse to blood-pumping resurrection life.”

    Love it!

  2. Jacob C says:

    Which is really more spiritual – to put up a Berlin Wall between what we consider the physical and the spiritual, and to disdain the physical while professing to be extra spiritual, or to receive a “merely” physical gift like a glass of wine with thanksgiving?

  3. “Wine is largely considered a heady thing, reserved for elitists, pretentious snoots, and those who aspire to elitism and pretentious snootiness.”

    It’s not just wine, my friend. For many Americans, *any* food more complicated than a take-out, fresher than a week in some freezer or vauccm pack, or for any purpose than filling the time or keeping the breath in our bodies, is “elitist”. IIRC Rod Dreher mentioned this in his book “Crunchy Cons” – that one of the most controversial things he did at National Review was shop at a farmers market. Personally, I found out that a lot of the food I HATED as a child (veggies, fish in particular) taste entirely different when bought fresh and prepared in other ways besides boiling/frying them to death.

    All this to say, one more proof that Americans are far more gnostic than we realize.

    • Drena (@DrenaBlanc) says:

      Wow… if being gnostic means boo to fresh fruit and veggies, ESPECIALLY since I live in Canada and can only get that stuff at most 4months of the year… Count me outta that version of Christianity.

      • Don’t worry drena, it’s just the pretentious, middle class, Anglo branch of Christianity.

        Doesn’t Canada import fresh veggies and fruit from South America during our winter months?

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          “Doesn’t Canada import fresh veggies and fruit from South America during our winter months?”

          Why bother? What the US gets along these lines is overpriced and under-flavored. We have about two more weeks of strawberries where I live. When it comes to locally grown strawberries, I am an enthusiastic advocate of wretched excess. Then we will have a fleeting moment of sweet cherries, followed by peaches for the rest of the summer, and apples in the fall. (I am connected to the underground economy and have a source for unpasteurized cider.)

          This covers about seven months of the year with excellent local produce, in varieties bred for flavor rather than durability for shipping. I will sustain myself over the winter with imported apples, which actually hold up pretty well, and citrus, which while imported is at least in season. But I am completely spoiled for imported plastic strawberries and rocklike peaches.

          • Danielle says:

            “Rocklike peaches.”

            Never was so much promised and so little delivered. It really ought to enter day to day parlance. It should mean something like, “That dog won’t hunt.”

          • Robert F says:

            Unpasteurized cider? Believe it or not, such cider was an annual fall delight of my childhood and young adulthood in Northwestern New Jersey; now, I can’t find that nectar of the gods. Regulated away, I suppose, and I sadly have no underground connection like yours, Richard. Alas, sigh….

          • Richard Hershberger says:

            @Robert F: If you find yourself in Maryland, look me up. i know a guy who knows a guy, if you know what I mean.

    • Robert F says:

      It does seem unfair to characterize those who like comfort foods, or junk foods for that matter, as gnostics; not all tastes are equally developed, nor are all pockets equally deep. Anyway, no self-respecting ancient gnostic would be caught dead eating fast food. Many were vegetarians.

  4. Drena (@DrenaBlanc) says:

    Wow, I didn’t know it was possible to get that much out of something like drinking a glass of wine. I haven’t acquired the taste for wine yet but I can understand of the analogy.

    God’ Story is of turning stone into flesh, darkness into light, exiles/slaves into free people, and hopelessness into hope isn’t it? But even more breath taking for me… is God’s Story is of pure deity becoming incarnated in pure humanity. Instead of God doing what I guess we can say God does, He did what no one thought either Yahweh of Israel, nor the gods of their neighbours, would ever do.

    Instead of turning stones into cushions or flesh, he let them direct his paths as we walked paths surrounding the mountains, let them threaten his life when put in the hands of an angry mob, and perhaps one injured His toe (God got a toe!!!) a few times. He turned water into a wine… and had a body that could get intoxicated from it. Instead of squeezing blood out of a rock, he let His own blood flow out of Him.

    Combine wine theology with the above… I think I just recommitted myself to believing in the Gospel of Christ all over again that’s how Wow it is for me. Thanks for sharing.

  5. That. Exactly. “Exercises in paying attention.”

    Thank you Adam.

  6. Adams story of leaving traditional pastoral ministry to pursue the Call through the Vine is especially to the point after yesterday’s post on the coffee shop.

    Class, your assignment is to compare and contrast. 😉

  7. Found this article online:

    http://aeon.co/magazine/world-views/how-new-world-wine-resurrects-old-world-religion/

    Sacrament
    Wine is an elixir, a miracle-worker and shapeshifter – no wonder even the most secular of us hold it sacred still
    by Ross Andersen

    • Christiane says:

      a very ancient Hebrew blessing, this:

      “Baruch Atah Adonai,
      Eloheinu Melech ha’olam,
      Borei p’ri hagafen”

      Blessed are You, Adonai our God,
      whose Presence fills creation,
      Creator of the fruit of the vine

      • Yes, we said kiddush regularly ad nauseam before taking a sip of the even more nauseating Mogen David Concord Grape wine. 😉

  8. Bravo! Well written, and a sorely needed insight.

    wine has become a way that I am getting in touch with my sensuality

    To hell with Christianity, you had me at “sensuality.” Where do I sign up for this religion? …is it possible to do both at the same time?

    my Damascus road, my Augustinian “take and read” experience, my holy shit moment

    Your contrast of metaphors was simply too much. A badly needed chuckle for this morning.

    I hope things go well for you as a spiritual director. It looks to me like you bring the right perspective. May blood a plenty be richly squeezed from the cold, hard stone of us all!

  9. Let me know if you need a pot theologian.

  10. Robert F says:

    “Wine is largely considered a heady thing, reserved for elitists, pretentious snoots, and those who aspire to elitism and pretentious snootiness.”

    I’ve not known this to be true, unless of course you’re only counting the big dollar vintages.

  11. Hmm, would I be considered a worldly Philistine if I forgot all your spiritual points to ask you what you would recommend as a good communion wine, given the strictures about the wine being pure, being “red”, being sweet, being unmixed, etc?

    • Dana Ames says:

      Father, I hope Adam will answer you. In the meantime, I have found at least one red Moscato in my local Trader Joe’s. If that is not mixed, I think it would do nicely.

      Dana

  12. Adam,
    That was fabulous!!! You touched on so many deep truths. It occurred to me the other day, I’m not asserting positively but I think the Holy Spirit had something to do with this, that Paul’s suggestion to Timothy may not have had only to do with stomach ailments. I found that thought quite deviously humorous.
    There is nothing like ‘eating’ a good wine. It is a sensual experience that transforms into a spiritual one. I know you know what I’m talking about. Great stuff, thank you!
    Chris

    • When I say deep truths, I am mostly referring to the unity of body and spirit symbolized by bread and wine. Denying and hiding from the physical within the scope of the Christian life is one of the fundamental flaws that has lead to horrific dysfunction and stories of pain too numerous to detail. You touched on a very foundational way of being with ourselves and making the harmonious transformation that requires the whole man or woman. Everything is required. I guess we can’t blame Him asking for everything since He is leading the way in that department.

  13. Danielle says:

    “It is time that I meet my body and experience myself as wholly embodied. If I’m going to love God with all of myself, then I best become acquainted with all of myself.”

    There is a lot of truth here. One can jump off from that statement in any number of directions and land on something worthwhile.

    More tangibly, your essay is pleasure to read. It reminds me of many fine times splitting a bottle. I have to confess to not properly focusing on the experience – my husband and I used to drive out to a winery in southern Indiana (where we lived at the time) and write. But the change of scene and the bottle itself were pleasant intrusions into our endless stream of work.

  14. Christiane says:

    I have often thought about how when grapes are crushed and the juice comes, that in making the juice into wine, it is ‘preserved’ from being spoiled. That is quite a transformation. It involves the ‘fruit of the Earth’ and the ‘work of human hands’ to make wine. This symbolism runs deep within the celebration of the Eucharist.

  15. Upon listening to my ‘testimony/life story’ someone once observed that most of it seemed to have happened in my head. Not meaning that I’d imagined it, but – in the same sense as you write – that I have spent too much time thinking, and not enough ‘exploring my own flesh and blood’.

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