Concerning Bugs and Beer

We were discussing John the Baptist, who lived as an anchorite until he began his active ministry. One of those present asked:

What are anchorites?

I explained that anchorites are persons who have retired into seclusion for religious reasons. I also mentioned that the Scriptures inform that John the Baptist lived in the desert on a diet of locusts and honey (Matthew 3:4), which was not an uncommon diet within the Essene community.

One might wonder at how a person could survive on such foods. Well, apart from the support God may have provided His prophet, honey includes every substance necessary to sustain life, even water.

What about locusts? Surely fried bugs can't be all that nutritional. Wrong!

In biblical times, locusts were eaten during periods of drought. Grasshoppers have ten times the iron as their equivalent weight in beef. One hundred grams of dried insects have 50-75 grams of protein, compared with 34 grams in the same amount of dried beef. They are also rich in fat and fat-soluble vitamins. Rosevear suggests that locust consumption would have helped prevent anemia--Beatrice Trum Hunter, in an online review of the book Nutrition in Biblical Times by Ruth S. Rosevear


St. John the Baptist spent long years of solitary musing on the things of God, till his soul kindled into irresistible ardour, which drove him forth among men to plead with them to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. During the hot months it is a land of scorpions, lizards, and snakes, so that his experience readily supplied him with a comparison for his wicked contemporaries, whom he denounced as "a generation of vipers" (Matt 3:1,5-7; Luke 3:3,7). Wild bees make their combs in the hollows of the limestone rocks; the aromatic thymes, mints, and other labiate plants, sprinkled over the face of the wilderness, furnishing them with honey, which is more plentiful in the wilderness of JudŠa than in any other part of Palestine. They thus provided for him a main article of his diet, while in one wady or another, or in some cleft, there was always water enough to quench his thirst. Locusts, the other article of his food, are never wanting in this region, and, indeed, are to this day eaten by the Arabs in the south-east of JudŠa, the very district where John lived; by those of the Jordan valley; and by some tribes in Gilead. - Cunningham Geikie D.D., The Holy Land and the Bible (1887), chap. 18,

To this day, I enjoy the occasional glass of cool buttermilk, but not the kind I drank as a kid. Back then, buttermilk was thin--looking almost like milky water--with flakes of real butter. It was what was left after churning the butter out of whole milk. What I prefer today is called "cultured buttermilk," which seems to me to be nothing more than thin plain yogurt. The "culture" is the product of bazillions of probiotic bacteria known as acidophilus. Bacteria!? Not to worry, this is good stuff.

Acidophilus: Helps to prevent chronic constipation and improve digestion..Acidophilus is a probiotic bacteria. By producing organic compounds, this type of bacteria promotes good digestion and increases immune functions by increasing the acidity in the intestine thus increasing resistance to infection.--Acidophilus

While a person could live a long time on a diet of locusts and honey, it would be a truly tiresome cuisine. Within the strictest of the Catholic monastic communities, which imposed severe limitations on the way monks lived, dietary variety was permitted. Though the monks may have enjoyed drinking buttermilk, their daily ration usually included alcoholic beverages. Even the Rule of St. Benedict permitted Benedictine monks to consume a half-bottle or more of wine per day. The Trappists, considered to be among the most ascetic of monastics, developed some pretty potent recipes for beer, a monastic food.

Monks who follow the Rule [of St. Benedict]are generally called Benedictines, and after their training (novitiate) lead a life of work, prayer, study, and contemplation. Some are cloistered, living entirely within the walls of a monastery. Others live outside the community while remaining obedient to the Rule.

In time, some monks came to feel that some of the fire had gone from the Benedictine movement and that life in the abbeys was becoming a bit too comfortable. In the year 1098, St. Robert of Molesme founded a community of reformist monks in the French city of C"teaux (in Latin, Cistercium), the root of a pair of orders now known as the Cistercian orders. The original Cistercian order was strict indeed, its vows including the observance of nearly complete silence, but as time passed this order too was "modernized," not entirely to the satisfaction of all. Another reformer, the abbot Armand-Jean le Bouthillier de Ranc, founded the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance in 1664 at the abbey of La Trappe, in Normandy. To all of the old rules, including the daily manual labor, the silence, and the seclusion, was added an abstinence from meat. This practice is no longer followed as strictly as it once was, but Trappists still occasionally refer to the Cistercians of the Common Order as "meat eaters."

Until this century, beer or wine (depending largely upon climate) was generally drunk with meals in preference to water, primarily because it was much safer to drink than the water from open wells and other sources prone to contamination. Monks had an additional reason to prefer beer in that it provided a degree of nutrition during the Lenten (and other) fasts. Because the Trappist order had abjured meat, they had perhaps a yet more pressing reason to find beer attractive, and the brewing of beer was carried on at abbeys, along with baking, cheese-making, and the growing of vegetables.--Martin Lodahl, Belgian Trappists and Abbey Beers, Brew Techniques e-zine

Gotta love those Catholic fasts. And some of those who observe them have shown themselves to be so innovative in discovering ways to work around the slight dietary inconveniences of fasting in the Catholic manner. Fasting was not so difficult if one stayed about half-tanked on beer and wine while abstaining from other foods. I feel so deprived. When I was growing up Catholic, beer was not provided as an alternative to whatever Mom decided we were giving up for Lent.

Home | More Questions | Catholic Stuff | My Delphi Forum
(C) 1994-20010 Ron Loeffler