I’m not exactly the most obvious party guest. Introverted and one of the few people on God’s earth who is actually allergic to alcohol, I can typically be found on the edge of a group, listening in pensive silence as other guests debate the issues of the day.
These decided social disadvantages have nevertheless borne fruit: the kind indulgence of my friends has given me many a sober hour to consider the joys of wine—or rather, the ways in which wine enhances the joys of friendship. As with so much, I think Thomas Aquinas got it right.
St Thomas begins his extended discussion of charity in the Summa Theologiae by saying that in friendship
A certain mutual love is requisite, since friendship is between friend and friend: and this well-wishing is founded on some kind of communication.Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II.II:23:1
At its most life-giving, this communication involves a gathering of friends around the dinner table with good food, plenty of wine, and lively conversation. The core of our Christian faith is, not coincidentally, the re-creation of one such meal. But I would argue that it’s not the wine or the food or even the presence (as such) of our friends that produces joy, but the fact that all of these conspire to draw us out of ourselves.
True joy is always unselfconscious—it flows from and is directed towards something or someone outside ourselves. Perhaps this is wine’s place in our shared joy: it lifts the ponderous weight of self-consciousness, freeing the soul to push or to be drawn outward towards freedom and communion with those whom we love.
For joy is caused by love, either through the presence of the thing loved, or because the proper good of the thing loved exists and endures in it; and the latter is the case chiefly in the love of benevolence, whereby a man rejoices in the well-being of his friend, though he be absent.Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II:28:1
Or, indeed, though he be tipsy. This is the sober introvert’s joy at a party: rejoicing in the joy of one’s friends. Absorbing, in love and wonder and gratitude, the things they would not talk about—or at least not so freely, nor at such a depth—were their tongue not freed by wine. Such moments are gifts of God: invitations to allow oneself to be drawn into communion with those whom we love. They are a coruscation—a sudden, brilliant flash—of light from a better world, where joy is full to perfection and desire is at rest.
It is absurd to think of having friendship for wine itself, as St Thomas says. Yet I often wonder if one can have human friendships without wine—or something very like it—‘that maketh glad the heart of man’. There must be a mediator, even (or especially) for the perpetually sober. When that mediator is found, joy joins our gatherings; the cup runneth over, and we are filled.