The Beer House
There’s a monastery atop a mountain plateau somewhere in Upstate New York. If you wish to visit, you must agree to silence. If that’s fine with you, and you’re fine with them, you may find yourself lodging in a log hermitage upon a rocky cliff above a long narrow lake, overlooking a forested mountain ridge across the shore. There are only eight hermitages, and the sisters don’t take drop-ins. Some years ago, I would take a handful of collegians there every October on the conditions that they were not afraid of solitude, silence, darkness, wild animals and nocturnal noises. Anyone who met these criteria, believer or non-believer, was free to come along. First come, first served. I drew a cartoonish map of the monastery with commentary. The map explained that, if you look slightly to the left over the cliff to where a creek empties into the lake’s northern end, you’ll see a slope of fungal rocks and dark conifers rising from a murky fen. Haunting sounds echo from that region at night. If you hike there (during the day, of course), you will ascend from the damp fens and fungi to a moderate rocky incline, as the pines give way to a tall deciduous forest along the mountain slope. Here begins a trek into the “Enchanted Ring.” The “Ring” is a circular realm of seemingly endless forest, fern and rock, without notable landmarks. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle. Incongruent and surreal emanations of sunlight dancing through translucent deciduous leaves will disorient you. Hikers lose all sense of direction, distance and time. At first, you won’t know that you’ve entered the Ring. But after about ten minutes or so, you’ll begin to ask yourself, “Where have I come from?” and “Where am I going?” and “Where am I now?” It’s like life in general. Whatever causes this vertigo – perhaps it’s the effect of an unknown magnetic field, or the refractions and reflections of sunlight playing off between two forested mountain ridges above a lake, or a cocktail of fungal vapors arising from fen and forest, or some primeval blessing or curse from God – few who venture into the Ring arrive at what might be called the Ring’s “Eye.” The Eye is a serene and peaceful sanctum of solitude in the Ring’s center where you feel as if you’ve entered Paradise. Inaudible movements of love will seem to beckon you to a world beyond this one. There are no fears, worries or anxieties in the Eye. No vice is possible. Fallen nature is suspended. You’ve become pre-snake Adam or Eve.
If you so happen to make it through the Ring of Enchantment and into the Eye, which is highly unlikely, you will approach (probably from behind) a wooden cabin in a grove of Eastern Hemlocks, with a propane tank by the back wall. If you walk around to the front, you’ll see a little statue of the Virgin Mary, from which a trail of stepping stones leads to the front door, upon which hangs a sign that says:
Welcome to the Beer House.
Enjoy your time here.
But stay not too long. Nor drink too much beer.
The door is never locked. You may enter freely. You’ll find an open but cozy room with five bistro tables, each with two chairs and a propane lantern. Few people find it, so you’ll probably have it all to yourself. But don’t think for a minute that no one is watching. To your left hangs a fading 19th century print of St. Joseph. To your right is a framed yellowing print of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A small crucifix hangs against the back wall near a propane-powered refrigerator, which is connected to the tank out back. Attached to the refrigerator is a sign that says this:
Whoever opens this box is free
To help themselves
To one, or two, or three
But whoever takes none less than four
Shall be lost in these woods forevermore.
Open the fridge, and you’ll see that it’s filled with bottles of beer, no two of which are the same or even familiar to you. It’s not commercial beer. The labels are all written in what looks like ancient runes. Unless you can decode the runes (which is not likely), you’ll have no idea who makes the beer, where it’s from or what kind of beer it is. However, you may relax and drink one, or two, or three bottles – but no more – at a bistro table. The beer will “inebriate” you but not “intoxicate” you. In other words, it’ll make you joyful, carefree and give you a romantic sense that “all will be well.” But it’s not toxic. It has no deleterious effects. It will not make you drunk, pie-eyed, unreasonable, rowdy, imprudent, unchaste, sick or give you a headache. The after effects will be charity, prayer, peace, calm, forgiveness, mercy, chastity, self-control, honesty, longsuffering, modesty and humility. It’s the “Beer of Life.” So, when it’s time to take your leave from the Beer House, it’s always polite to leave a $5 tip on the table, though the Beer of Life is free. It would be an insult to even think about paying for it. But you’ll have a dilemma: You have to go back again through the Enchanted Ring. It’s best to leave before sunset. If you’re not through the Ring by dusk, forget it. The Beer of Life cannot guarantee your safe return.
If you make it back to your hermitage, there’s one more thing you’ll need to know. Anyone who’s been in the Beer House or even laid eyes on it may never confirm or deny that they’ve been there. It’s a secret between you, your hiking companions and God. However, you may tell a priest. But he probably won’t believe you. If you tell anyone else, the Curse of Sister Amena will be cast upon you for the rest of your life. To be sure, Sister’s curse dissolves with death, so you can still get to heaven. Whatever the case, I may not tell you what that curse entails. Some have asked me: By telling this story, aren’t you implying that you’ve seen the Beer House? My reply: I will neither confirm nor deny anything.
I told college students about the Beer House while driving them to the monastery – and for good reason. Normally, guests there may not talk to anyone, except to the priest chaplain or to a sister. However, I would book all of the hermitages for those October retreats, so there was no one else to bother. I also told Sr. Amena, Prioress of the monastery, that Aristotle said, “It’s the mark of wise man to never demand more of thing than its nature allows.” We should not demand total silence from college students. Sr. Amena was amenable to Aristotle’s advice, so we agreed to allow students to talk from Noon until dark, as long as they didn’t bother the nuns. The Beer House search kept students occupied for hours.
Some searched alone. Some in groups. Some searched for over four hours. One guy searched for over six hours and returned at dusk, as I was getting worried. He photographed cabins and stuff he found in the woods. Lost, he asked a backwoods dweller if he knew the way back to the monastery. The guy didn’t even know there was a monastery. Upon returning, the young man was frustrated and a bit angry. Not at me, I don’t think. He said he was frustrated and mad that “there is no more adventure left in the world” and that “the Beer House doesn’t exist.” I asked him, “How do you know it doesn’t exist?” “I looked for six hours and didn’t find it,” he replied. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” I said. I went on, “Just because you spent six hours lost in the woods looking for something you didn’t find doesn’t prove or disprove anything. Besides, you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist. All this means is that you wandered in the woods for six hours.” He just stared at me. I continued: “You were probably lost in the Enchanted Ring. But J.R.R. Tolkien said, ‘Not all who wander are lost.’” And there I left him, in his blank stare.
At baptism, the desire for something like the Beer House was planted in your soul. At Confirmation, you were commissioned on an Adventure to find it. But you must embark upon the Adventure, which entails getting a bit lost in this world. The wise of ancient times say that Christ beckons you to the “desert” (Hosea 2:16) and the “wilderness” (Ezekiel 20:10) to journey in this “strange land” (1 Peter 1:17) in search of God’s Paradise that you may eat from the Tree of Life and drink the Beer of Life.
“God is bestowing a special favor on you by drawing you into the desert. The call is a matter of God’s free choice; you will only be able to persevere in it by his condescension. You will always remember how privileged you are that God should love your soul, and as time goes by you will appreciate this all the more. At the outset, in spite of what you have read and what you call your experience, you will not know what the loneliness of the desert has in store for you. There, as elsewhere, no two souls follow precisely the same path, and God never repeats himself in his creatures. Very rarely, if at all, does he reveal his designs in advance. Humble and detached, go into the desert. For God, awaiting you there, you bring nothing worth having, except your entire availability” (A Monk).
As you search and wander through life’s strange land, you might find a cabin or two with this sign out front: “Welcome to the Beer House. Enjoy your time here. But stay not too long. Nor drink too much beer.” Continue the search for what you cannot find but for what only God can show you. Your search is your availability to Him. I shall neither confirm nor deny anything else.