Editor's Note: This is the transcript of a talk originally delivered at the Clapham Institute in Annapolis, Maryland on October 12, 2017. It is published here for its meditation on the meaning of giving and receiving gifts, a subject of continuous interest to our loyal readers.
As you know, my talk is titled “God, Wine and Maryland.” But I believe that the best way to approach these rather vast ideas is by reflecting on the concept of gift. When we take this notion in its broadest sense, it provides a particularly fruitful insight into the essence of what lies at the center of human life: the divine, community and place, or to speak more specifically: God, Wine and Maryland.
The Person: God and Community
We commonly refer to life as gift. We reflect this understanding with phrases like “the gift of life,” or with the congratulatory words and gestures that we give someone when something momentous happens, like having a child. But our language and customs reflect this in even more fundamental ways.
On one level, we give gifts to one another to express our appreciation and perhaps to get some pleasure from the flash of excitement that we see in the eyes of our beneficiary upon receiving our gift.
More importantly, however, gift lies at the heart of all human relationships.
To have and sustain any interaction with another person, we must be willing to give of ourselves, to disclose and share. We must be willing to receive and accept the other person giving of themselves. Persons must be willing to “give all.” This is the original meaning of the word forgive, which comes from the union of “give” with the Proto-Germanic prefix “for” that means “all.” Literally, to for-give means to give everything. This is also true of its Latin synonym, pardon. “Par” means “all,” and “don” comes from the Latin “donare,” which means “to give.”
Experientially, it is easy to recognize the centrality of forgiveness for human relations.
Since we are young children, our parents teach us that we must know how to give and receive forgiveness. After offending someone, which comes quite naturally to us, we learn to ask for forgiveness and to receive it. After being offended by someone, we learn to forgive.
From the most basic friendships to the closest erotic love, forgiveness is present as that which enables the continuation of the relationship in the face of the inevitable conflicts that arise. It is only in the failure of forgiveness, when we feel like it is impossible to grant it or that it will not bring about the desired effect of social reconciliation, that we resort to a judicial system.
At a more fundamental level, however, forgiveness represents the complete giving of oneself that human life requires. We can primarily observe this in our relationship with the divine. God, as we are told in Scripture, for-gives. He does this by for-giving through the incarnation. Christ is the quintessential example of the complete giving of self. The incarnation is the giving of the only truly innocent life for the forgiveness of all.
However, the incarnation is only the continuation of the original giving, of the gift of creation itself.
In this sense, all of creation is for-giveness. It is the giving of all that is—including the selves that receive the gift. When God is creating, He is for-giving in the most fundamental sense – in the sense of giving everything.
Being a person, therefore, consists in the radical generosity of giving all to God and to others, and in the inexhaustible gratitude that allows us to receive all from God and from others. Being a person consists of navigating the divine and social economy of gift, whose first gift is the ability of giving and receiving. The person itself is the primordial gift.
Just like we experience the self and the other as gift, we experience nature as gift, and nowhere is the generosity of nature more apparent than in wine.
Without giving ourselves to extravagant metaphors, we can say that wine is the summit of nature’s bounty. If Christ was like an olive branch from God to humanity, wine is its perpetual reminder. This is why wine occupies such a central role in the sacramental remembrance of our communal bond with God.
Wine is the symbol of our relationship to the divine in every single way.
To obtain it we need to travel human history from its prelapsarian origins all the way to the possibility of salvation. We are often reminded of the hardship of our condition when we toil the earth and try to anticipate all the different forces that might bless or curse us—from the behavior of enormous weather systems and the sun to the behavior of minuscule yeasts. But we are also reminded of the miraculous possibility of our transformation through the miraculous process of the transformation of must into wine, which culminates with the divine vision of its enjoyment.
Well, perhaps this was an extravagant metaphor.
Yet, it is one that, I think, is not without truth and merit. We accept the gift of creation by putting our labor into it. We carefully (even obsessively) look after vines, harvest (often by hand), destem, sort, press, crush, ferment, age, filter, bottle, drink.
This last, as most will probably agree, is indeed the most important one, because it is the one that most radically discloses what is human in us.
Wine, in a way, marks the beginning of civilization. It was only the moment that humans settled and called a determinate part of the world their “place” that agriculture became possible; or rather, it is only with the development of agriculture that place is made possible.
But wine is not just agriculture. It is not just hard work and ingenuity. It is also the fulfillment of our resourcefulness and our capacity to enjoy it. For it is only when humans turn their gaze away from the immediate demands of survival, from that which we share with animals, that we can begin to be truly human.
The moment of making wine marks, on a first instance, the movement from toil to leisure. It marks the moment when through the bounty of nature we break the natural cycle of survival, and we lift our gaze from the work of our hands to each other’s eyes, and say cheers or salúd or santé. And we open up the possibility of giving ourselves fully to the other and of fully receiving the gift of their presence. We dance and form friendships and open our hearts and fall in love and converse. This opening is the source of the ancient proverb – in vino veritas – regarding the “truth of wine” or the “truth in wine,” and it is in this truth-sharing wine parties or Symposia that the most fundamental questions of Western Civilization were first articulated.
Much like God, after His six hard days of work of creation, we sit back to enjoy the product and say, hopefully, that it is good. At this moment, at leisure, when the first sip of wine, like an indented capital letter marks the beginning of a new paragraph, we are touching the fulfillment of our nature as part animal and part divine, as human persons. Therefore, we feast, for feasting is the only proper response to the fact that we experience the world as good and superfluous, as overflowing the brim of necessity, as gift.
This is how we have experienced Maryland.
We come from a distant land and used to know little to nothing about this state. It was in fact only through getting to know Annapolis, because of my sister’s “discovery” of St. John’s College, that we first came to this part of the world. After that, it is a typical love story: part will, part fascination, part coincidence, part hard work, mostly mysterious.
After the birth of our first daughter, my wife and I began to try to set roots. We basically wanted our children to grow up the way we had – close to God and to nature, and as part of a wholesome community. Thus, in Maryland we found our place: our community, our home, where we hope to live and die.
But there was one more gift that we had not yet received.
We didn’t have a house. So one autumnal afternoon, on my wife’s birthday, we decided to visit a home in the Eastern Shore. Our trip out there was just like you would expect: the beautiful landscape of the Chesapeake Bay with farmlands, historic towns and low rolling hills, the anticipation of a young family curbed by the terror of a potential mortgage – excitement and reluctance. Then we arrived and that was the first time we saw the Almshouse and the vineyard, where we now live and work.
Built in 1847, the Almshouse was a house and farm of charity for the poor and the mentally ill. Before becoming obsolete in the 1940s, it was private endeavors of this sort that would care for those who needed the most in their communities. Our home has a long history of giving. It was a gift for us in the sense that it provided a place. It was certainly not a gift if you consider that we had to exchange all of our savings for it. But, most importantly, it was a gift in the sense that its long tradition of giving was entrusted to us with the task of creating a winery, of crafting a product whose essence is to celebrate the gift of life. The vineyard allowed us to fulfill an enduring dream that my brother and I had since our days in California: to make excellent wine together. This was the soil where the seeds of would begin to germinate. As a witness to the essence of our conception of life as gift, we named the winery Casa Carmen.
“Casa” because it is the source of hearth, where we first encounter the radical reality of sharing, giving and taking. And “Carmen” because of its original Hebrew meaning, “God’s vineyard.” This is also, not coincidentally, the source of the name for Mount Carmel, where Elijah brought his people to realign themselves with God.
But Casa Carmen also appeared at a crucial moment. Its founding coincided with the fact that the Maryland wine industry has been in the most important moment of its history. After decades of legislative impediments, the Maryland Winery Modernization Act (2010) liberated the industry from excessively restrictive laws, resulting in an unprecedented renaissance of the sector that is creating culture, community and jobs.
Although Maryland had some of the oldest vineyards in the American continent, restrictive legislation had hindered its organic development for hundreds of years. While our state had only 10 wineries in 2010, today we have over 80.
But our industry is a very particular one.
Though it may seem like a contradiction in terms, we are in a business whose goal is leisure, our competitors are partners, and we sell a product whose essence is gift. Rather than competing with neighboring wineries, we collaborate by sharing facilities, knowledge and resources. And rather than treating customers as buyers, we want to treat them as friends.
So, strictly speaking, we have not started a business. Or perhaps we have started a business, but it is one whose aim is to subvert the very essence of busy-ness.
We are busy, but always with the purpose of providing a place in which one can abandon the busy and be still, where we can be at leisure. It is only in this leisure and stillness, in the enjoyment of the gift of nature, that we can truly see each other and give all and receive all. Wine is the gift that lifts our gaze from a world of toil to a horizon of leisure and community. It is the gift that reminds us of our primordial communion with one another and with the divine, and the gift that commemorates the radical generosity of our condition.