I've been led recently to recall what I think was the first sermon of Christian doctrine I ever heard. I was around twelve years old, maybe. A friend from the neighborhood invited me to the ecclesial community he attended with his family on Sundays. I must have gone more than once, because I remember having some kind of religious ed leaflet with a picture of a kid in the figurative 'full armor of God' and taking it back for another visit. So I must have gone at least twice.
On one of these visits I found myself in a smaller group of boys that was being taught by a man who must have been a junior preacher or a disciple of the main preacher or something like that. He was teaching on what had to have been 1 Corinthians 8. In fact, the illustration he used was pretty good. He said that he liked to have a glass of wine with dinner, but that if he was eating out somewhere in the neighborhood of the congregation, he wouldn't have any so as not to risk scandalizing any fellow believer. (Obviously this wasn't a Catholic church.) Though he had every right to his wine as a free child of Christ, omnia munda mundis and all that, he put the thought of injuring the faith of his brother ahead of his own preference. Anyway, for whatever reason, I've always remembered that. I wonder what that guy is doing today. I said a prayer for him this morning.
This bit of ancient personal history came to mind because I have found myself in a similar, though converse, position.
This is Italy, after all. One always has wine at meals. The regular wine we get here comes in a big bottle, a little bigger than an American 40 perhaps (to take up a standard measure of intoxicating drink from home). The brothers say that it isn't very good. But I don't mind it because I don't know the difference. That I don't know how to tell if the wine is good or bad is actually the result of one of my early failures as a Capuchin. A rather illustrative and seminal failure, perhaps.
You see, at one point during my religious formation, there was an ongoing opportunity to learn about wine, how to tell the good from the bad, obtain a working, if basic, knowledge of its critical vocabulary, etc. I, however, secretly refused to learn anything because I was bitter about the bad coffee we got at the time. I had complained about the coffee, but felt rebuffed. So, I said to myself, if the Order will not admit the existence of a critical vocabulary surrounding coffee, I shall refuse to learn one for wine. And I succeeded marvelously in my effort to remain ignorant.
So, perhaps you say, what's the problem? With my ignorance I can happily drink the bad wine. But it's not that easy. You see, sometimes on a special day, a Sunday or solemnity or someone's birthday perhaps, we get what is said to be better wine. These wines come in regular-sized bottles with fashionable labels, and the brethren sample them and praise them while the homely big bottle of the everyday wine sits lonely somewhere else. At first I kept going to the wine that's said to be bad even when the special wine had been put out. Since I don't know the difference, I thought, why should the good wine be wasted on me? Such seemed sensible and humble and charitable to me. But I was wrong. I was wrong because my behavior turned out to be scandalous to my brothers. What was wrong with me? Did I not care to celebrate the occasion at hand? Had I not seen the better wine?
So now--so as not to seem ungrateful or given to vainglorious gestures of false humility (which of course I am)--when they put out the special wine, I take it. And I still don't know the difference. But like my old friend the young preacher who followed the teaching of the Apostle by giving up his wine, I take the wine in the same spirit.