Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed. ― Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
For the past five years I lived entirely in the warm equatorial sun of coastal Ecuador, a constant summer, absent of seasons, of winter, of falling leaves and snow encrusted trees. It was lovely and summery and succulent to the skin. But my tea was unhappy. Thoroughly discontented. Iced tea was popular, yes, but tea gets tired of being pummeled by hulking, utilitarian ice cubes and guzzled down in sweaty glasses that leave rings on the table. Tea longs for winter. In cold weather, tea feels happy inside delicate china cups, sipped and savored, as if the meaning of its life is fulfilled; for it knows that it is warm and comforting, a simple balm of tranquility to the drinker’s otherwise fretful day.
I recently returned to North America, to a cool New Mexico autumn, with only a few items--sadly not a teapot among them. Even before getting a stick of furniture for our apartment, I bought a teapot—first things first--and began brewing. My tea thanked me effusively. With studied delight, I reacquainted myself with that hot-drink phenomenon of soft white steam rising up from the cup into the cold light of a November morning. As I write, those graceful, dancing vapors look like contentment-in-motion, billowing up to the light of the desk lamp under which my tea cup sits. The tea itself sits in repose as still and quiet as a monk in prayer. And yet, from that stillness rises ecstatic molecular activity of hot meeting cold—tiny droplets of water drifting up in steamy swirls, leaps, and pirouettes, like so many ballerinas in the Nutcracker.
I am a tea drinker, an unabashed Anglophile, a believer in the whole ceremony of whistling teakettles and pre-warmed pots and tiny jugs of milk. Speaking as an American woman, surely I must appear as a throw-back to the Fifties when women wore pearls and girdles and had other women over for tea while their husbands entertained clients at three-martini lunches. We naturally deride the narrow box of those pre-feminist times, as we should, but why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Forget the pearls and the girdles, but don’t forget the tea. Perhaps our conversation could be more evolved and diverse and honest and subversive than in the old days, but the tea thing—well, we really lost something by giving it up in the revolution.
The lonely, unused teapot languishing in the old hutch can be likened to the quaint practice of church attendance, something else we seem to be tossing overboard these days--or storing away for weddings and special occasions. We find ourselves (especially over the holidays) celebrating life in the shopping mall, seeking meaning there. All this makes us feel so liberated, so secular, so . . . European! And yet, we are going to church--the Church of Consumerism—engaging in retail rituals, gulping down Starbucks drinks between purchases like Holy Communion, and purchasing expensive books on how to be spiritual all on one’s own. Maybe that’s for some, but for me, I guess I’m just hopelessly old-fashioned by believing that going to church (or synagogue or sangha or mosque or whatever your faith community may be) is still a good thing—especially if we liken the experience to a cup of tea: the warmth of fellow-travelers, the freshness of the sermon or message, the pure liquid of unfolding beauty in music or chant, all held within a lovely cup of comforting rituals that tether us to the past, to memory, to each other.
Hot tea in the colder months also reminds me that even when I am still and quiet as in meditation or reading or wool-gathering, I am still giving off something of value that is unconscious but oh, so real in our interconnected universe. I might seem solid enough sitting here in contemplation, but a cup of tea reminds me that I am actually made up of tiny droplets of experience unfolding in a universe of surprise and possibility, where everything influences everything else. So I must be careful with my thoughts and my prayers, for they make a difference to God and to the world. Truly, prayer itself is like the fragrant steam from a cup of tea, rising to mingle with the elements of the universe in ways of persuasion and love.
If we want to expand our souls, yes, become fat and beautiful souls, tea can be our teacher. A cup of tea interjected somewhere in the mix of meditation or prayer reminds us of the importance of keeping our interior selves warmed and alive and fresh and perhaps even boiling hot with passion for what we love and believe in. During times of stress, we can center ourselves in beauty with a single cup of tea. The very preparation of the tea helps us perform a simple task with deliberation, mindfulness, and ritual beauty.
If we take a moment to think of the tea itself, we imagine where it came from, the people, mostly in Asia, who picked, gathered, harvested, and cured the leaves, and how this cup supports their community and connects us to that part of the world in a very real way. And we wonder how they think and how they pray and we make a space for them in our soul. All this expands our sense of self-in-relationship. We are reminded of our earthly dependence on one another.
And now to the the teacup itself. It is good to offer tea in delicate china cups or, at the very least, a mug with some special meaning attached. No good ever came from second-flush Himalayan Darjeeling served in paper cups. If you’re going to drink tea, drink it with all the respect it deserves. For those of us steeped in the fragrance of theology, the cup can be like a chalice or a womb or an encompassing Presence.
Reach for your grandmother’s china cups from the old china hutch and use them. Drink tea alone or drink tea with a companion. A cup of tea can be an entire ceremony, a private ritual, a tether to sanity amid the chaos of a cold and scary world hell-bent on keeping us afraid and discontented and overly stimulated. It is a rebellious act to brew a cup of tea, to smile, to remain calm.
A cup of good tea, happy tea, tea accompanied by a book or a poem or a smile from across the table, opens the door to a quiet place of meaning amid the madness. It enlarges our souls as it calms the body. With every sip, I can imagine the comforting flow of divine companionship and divine feeling within my very taste buds.
Most of all, I like to think of a cup of tea as a study in contrasts: ever-changing fluidity nestled inside the solidness of divine love--a love which, like a delicate china cup, holds us tenderly in eternal care.