I can really identify with a fridge magnet that reads: “I’m not aging. I’m marinating.” Sometimes you hear a story that validates this hopeful proposition. Sometimes, like the wine at Cana, the best-kept secrets reveal themselves in the later chapters of our lives.
An hour’s boat ride off the southwest coast of Scotland lies the little Isle of Arran, where I discovered one such story. The island, like many other parts of Scotland, has a long and inglorious history of illegal whiskey distilling, finally regularized in 1995 with the arrival of a new and entirely legal enterprise. Its founder was a man whose lifelong passion reached its fulfilment in his retirement years.
After a long and successful career in the corporate world, he was inspired to create a very special small distillery on an island that is often described as “the whole of Scotland in miniature,” with its own high peaks, lonely beaches, small harbors and lowland plains. Such a miniature Scotland must, of course, have its own distillery.
Three ingredients make this island’s whiskey what it is. They might also help us to discover the pure spirit that God is distilling from our own lives. The first is the purity of the water on the island, flowing from deep natural sources over ancient granite. The second is the barley that yields the malt that is the basis of the brew. The third is yeast, the catalyst for the fermentation process. The rest of the recipe is intangible. It is the combination of nature’s time and human patience.
How pure is the flow of my life, I might ask myself—the integrity that springs from unseen wells and flows through the granite of my years? Is it clear or polluted with artificial additives like status, prestige and wealth? What grain is growing in the fields of my experience? Will I let it be harvested for the greater good of all creation? And will I allow the yeast of the Holy Spirit to break down my familiar assumptions and expectations and transform me into something new?
Out of these two simple offerings, the flow and the fruit of my life, God is constantly distilling the essence of who I truly am. The word whiskey originates from the Gaelic uisge beatha, which means “water of life.” Our own water of life can be distilled only when the fruits of our experience have been given time to ferment and take on their own particular flavor of wisdom.
As I listened to the story of this place, my mind kept returning to the intuition that sometimes God saves the best till last. Like the whiskey, we also have to bide our time in the casks of experience, allowing the aging process to bring out our finest flavors as we reflect on it, noticing the divine hand active within it.
Distillation happens in its own time, not according to our schedules. Could we be missing out on the finest malt of life in our frenzied 21st-century lifestyles? Could we be ignoring the wisdom that is vested in the elders of our society, the ones we dispatch to nursing homes, disregarding the riches their lives have distilled?
As we ourselves experience the aging process, we may feel that much of who we thought we were has been lost in the mists of time, leaving no trace behind. Whiskey has the same problem. As a cask ages over the 14 years or so that its contents take to mature into the finest of single malts, it can happen that up to 25 percent of it evaporates. This is known as the angels’ share. This may well account for the angels’ ability to fly, but for us it can amount to a great deal of frustration.
So much of our energy, passion, love, commitment and effort seems to evaporate in a similar manner, apparently wasted. Anyone who has given unstintingly of themselves to an unappreciative employer, a brood of thankless children or a querulous partner or parent knows how this feels.
In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola urges us to seek the grace to love one another with the same quality of love with which God loves us. This is the kind of loving that expects no payback, but is willing to let itself be spent, and become “the angels’ share.” It is a big task. It needs a large injection of grace.
So, as we raise the wee dram that God has distilled from our lives and offer the toast Slainte! (“Good health!”), let us listen carefully for an echo from heaven, as the angels respond “Slainte Mhor” (“Great health!”), blessing our waters of life all the way to eternity.