Of Concupiscence, Wheat Beer, and the Princess Bride

(photo: Image Credit: “cyclonebill”, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

And where sin abounded, grace did more abound.
St. Paul

There’s a Baptist Church around the corner from where I live, and their street-side kiosk is a perpetual source of both amusement and inspiration for me. Although it occasionally announces events or lists worship times, it usually features punchy one-liners that speak to biblical themes.

A couple weeks back, the captions were particularly memorable. Going southbound on Miami Street, the kiosk read, “God can take broken pieces and turn them into masterpieces.”  Northbound drivers got a slightly different message: “Only God can take you from broken to brand new.” I know these were just drive-by faith soundbites, and thus quibbling about their theology is probably a petty and futile exercise. Nonetheless, every time I drove past—first north, then south, then back and forth, again and again—I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast between the two seemingly similar propositions.

On the one hand, the southbound version—God transforming broken pieces into masterpieces—is entirely consistent with Catholic faith and experience. With regards to our brokenness, the Church uses the language of original sin, and it’s the one Christian dogma that few would attempt to refute—the supporting evidence is so overwhelming, who’d even try to deny it?

Yet, there’s also plenty evidence that our brokenness can be healed, that crummy sinners like you and me can be transformed in Christ—that we can become God’s masterpieces, as the kiosk claims. Here, too, the evidence is boundless—look at the lives of the saints. Regardless of location or circumstances, epoch or encumbrances, the constellation of broken men and women (and children for that matter) that fully experienced God’s healing power is vast, and each of them subsequently became his instruments of healing in the lives of others. That’s what we’re called to as well—to sanctity and divine utility, not simply a sneak past the Pearly Gates.

So, isn’t that basically what the Baptists were also asserting on the northbound side of the kiosk—the “broken to brand new” metaphor? Not quite. There’s a big difference between a saved sinner becoming God’s “masterpiece” and a saved sinner being made “brand new”—something that even baptism can’t accomplish. Here’s the Catechism on that point:

Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle (405).

That “weakness” is what the Church calls “concupiscence”—the lingering post-baptismal effects of original sin. Think of it as a constitutional susceptibility to iniquity—almost like moral scar tissue that covers an otherwise cured lesion. The healed area is not really new, and it will always be weaker than normal skin, but at least it’s intact, contiguous, and infinitely healthier than an open wound. Only the Blessed Mother, conceived without original sin, was spared this scarring—she was never broken, so she really was (and remains) ever “brand new.”

The rest of us though? Concupiscence, evil proclivities, lifelong spiritual warfare—again, just like the saints! Read between the lines of all those saint stories, look closely at the stained glass and statuary, and you’ll see plenty of scar tissue on God’s holy ones. “Since concupiscence ‘is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ,’” reads the Catechism quoting the Council of Trent. Then, quoting St. Paul, it goes on to assert that “an athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (CCC 1264), and we’re each of us competing—not against each other, of course, but rather against our own penchant for cosmic rebellion.

And real competition is never neat and tidy.

I got to thinking about this recently as I indulged my preference for wheat beer—a habit my Germanic friends disdain. They’ll order translucent pilsners and lagers when we hit the beer gardens; I’ll order a murky Weißbier, despite their objections.

Anyway, this time around I was enjoying an Unfiltered Wheat Beer from the Boulevard Brewing Company, and I glanced at the label. Here’s what it said:

In time-honored brewing tradition, we’ve added a small amount of yeast to this beer just before packaging to produce a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The yeast, which settles naturally to the bottom of the bottle, encourages further maturation and contributes to the beer’s complex flavor.

I held up the bottle—cloudy as a November day in Seattle. It was opaque and meaty, and the yeast floated around like an alcoholic lava lamp. Sure, I like the taste, but I also like the mystery and intrigue. As the label said, there’d been ongoing fermentation after the bottles shipped—totally out of the bottler’s control, unpredictable and unregimented. Thus, my little cloudy beer was like an adventure in a glass, with all its unfiltered wildness exposed to the world. It had its own story—anything could happen!

That’s the nature of spiritual warfare and our efforts to overcome concupiscence. Do we get discouraged by our daily setbacks and habitual sin? Do we find ourselves confessing the same venial transgressions every time we go to confession? Buck up! It’s our own version of ongoing fermentation—the sanctification process doesn’t conclude once we’re baptized and receive the sacraments.

Instead, conversion is a slow and steady process, with continuous turns toward grace as we struggle against sin. The cloudiness of our lives won’t clear until after our deaths—and, more likely than not, not even then. “He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end,” writes St. Gregory of Nyssa. “He never stops desiring what he already knows” (CCC 2015). God knows our stories aren’t going to be linear and detour-free, but do we?

It’s like my favorite scene in The Princess Bride (1987). Fezzik and Inigo discover the Pit of Despair and the lifeless body of Westley, a victim of the evil Prince Humperdinck. “He’s dead,” Fezzik declares. “It just is not fair,” says Inigo. Then, you hear a boy’s voice (“Grandpa, grandpa, wait!”) as the scene transitions from the Pit of Despair to the boy’s bedroom:

Boy (Fred Savage):  Wait, what did Fezzik mean “He's dead?” I mean, he didn't mean “dead.” Westley's only faking, right?

Grandfather (Peter Falk):  You want me to read this or not?

Boy:  Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end. Somebody's got to do it. Is it Inigo, who?

Grandfather:  Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.

Boy:  You mean he wins? Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?

The boy rejects the cloudiness of the fairy tale, whereas the grandfather accepts it at face value, with all its bewildering twists and turns. The grandfather is seasoned by life experience, no doubt, but he also has the advantage of knowing how the story ends—as do we! It’s right there in the Book of Revelation:

Keeping the same rule of life, believers share the “blessed hope” of those whom the divine mercy gathers into the “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (CCC 2016).

That’s our story’s end as well—count on it! For now, though, we face the muddiness of our daily moral scuffles. We work and pray; we live our vocations and receive the sacraments. Most of all, we “flee” to the “bread of heaven,” as hymn writer William Chatterton Dix put it, to that “intercessor, Friend of sinners, earth's Redeemer,” who is the source of our hope. Let’s take heart that He passionately wishes us to join Him forever in that translucent paradise, “Where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.”