Tea and Liturgy

While traveling through Wisconsin, I saw a sign on the door at Starbucks that read, “Take comfort in rituals.” I’d been working on this essay about spirituality and the ceremony of tea for the past couple of weeks, and Starbucks seemed to have beat me to the punch line. In one simple slogan, they pinpointed our innate spiritual need for liturgy. But would a daily visit to my neighborhood franchise satisfyingly fulfill my need for ritual? Or is it a signpost that we were made for something more? 

I grew up as the youngest of five boisterous kids, and liturgy was not a major part of our family culture. Church was formal, but relegated to Sunday mornings. Impulse was our modus operandi; ritual was the exception. These days, I maintain that improvisational lifestyle. I don’t have a daily commute. In fact, I don’t drive the same route twice if I can help it. (This used to make my husband crazy when he was first learning his way around Nashville.) A singer-songwriter by trade, I don’t even play the same set list two nights in a row. But in my mid-twenties, I took up the habit of afternoon tea.

At Room & Board Studio in Hendersonville, TN, 2006, recording "Gravity | Love," and perfecting the art of English Tea during breaks. (L to R: Craig Young, Peter Collins, Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb, Brady Blade, and Ray Kennedy) Photo: Jordan Brooke HamlinI learned about High Tea from my friend and British record producer, Peter Collins. Peter taught me how to warm the teapot before you pour the water, how to use loose-leaf tea with a strainer, and how to achieve the ideal balance of whole milk and honey to round out the perfect English Tea flavor, or flavour, if you will. Tea-making is much like cooking, and although I am not a great cook, I know that all this tinkering and tasting, steeping and pouring is a form of art. 

My dear husband of nearly ten years is deeply habitual. He has rarely reversed his order of tooth-brushing, showering, and drinking morning coffee in all the time I have known him (although the addition of coffee to his routine is a recent, post-children necessity). Through his example, I have come to see that certain rituals can be heartening. In practicing a regular sequence of behaviors, it’s as if I am saying to myself, “Yes, indeed, I am alive. I’m here for something today. I was who I was yesterday, and today I am becoming someone new.” Talking to yourself, as it turns out, may not be such a crazy idea after all. It’s like when the Psalmist said to his soul, “Soul, why are you downcast?” (Psalm 42:1). Soul-talk, when combined with honest reflection, can bring a self-awareness that makes us poised for what Wendell Berry calls “the practice of resurrection.” 

I have learned to love Sabbath-keeping by reading Marva Dawn. I have learned to love a weekly celebration of the Eucharist with real bread and wine from my Anglican friends. I have learned to love the agricultural practice of crop rotation from Wendell Berry. And I daresay that tea, in its proper form, can be a kind of spiritual liturgy as well. Bringing the water to a full boil, setting out the china, the cups and saucers, tiny silver spoons, whole milk, honey, and often biscuits or cookies is important just because it is beautiful and good to do so. It slows me down. Clears my head. It makes space for thought and conversation right there in the middle of a busy day. 

Afternoon tea at Tea and Sympathy in the Little Britain neighborhood in New York City.One of my favorite tea quotations is from the Victorian British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, who wrote this in 1865: “If you are cold, tea will warm you; if you are too heated, it will cool you; if you are depressed, it will cheer you; and if you are excited, it will calm you.” I love this partly because it is true in my experience of tea but also because it is true in my experience of the gospel. We might say that the grace of God, like tea, changes you no matter how you come to it: “If you’re weak, it will make you strong; if you’re proud, it will humble you.“

Within the very teacup itself there is a hidden metaphor of character in the making. Bone china is fired to the utmost heat as it’s being formed, nearly to the point of breaking, but not quite. This process gives it strength, purity, and translucency. Our adversity, shot through with redemption, produces in us beauty and resilience.

Humanists, Teaists (a religion of aestheticism), atheists, Starbucks corporate slogan-writers, and all manner of religious and non-religious folks have adopted these ideas about ritual because they spring from the truth that is written on our hearts. They beg the questions that we were made to ask: What was I made for? What gives meaning to my days? To suffering? To the things that keep me up at night?

Tea on its own proves too feeble to answer these looming questions, but it can be a doorway into understanding these essential human dynamics. We delight in conversation with God because He made us, and all things, for His own glory. We delight in each other because we were made to be in relationship, like the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. And we delight in the earth and the leaves of the tea plant because God made them with imagination and beauty. These are pillars that affirm we are made with a body and a soul. Like the beauty of creation, drinking tea can be a means of grace. It is a hush. A reminder to listen. To enjoy. To ask. To be.

My neighbor Kari is a self-made woman, an incredible cook, and an old soul. Since she is Jewish, we celebrated the Jewish New Year together with another friend, Alice. We had mid-morning tea with fresh tomatoes from Alice’s garden and lemon cream cheese on toast that Alice’s mother made. As we conversed, Kari shared about her Jewish heritage and Rosh Hashanah and how she spends 10 days before the New Year reflecting on the previous twelve months and preparing to start fresh. In this simple exchange, we sampled the emotional range from tears to laughter, and closed our time together with prayer for renewal.

Paying attention to something as small as a teacup is an exercise in humility. And sharing that ritual is an exercise in friendship. Kakuzo Okakura, Japanese Teaist and author of The Book of Tea writes, “Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.”

Afternoon tea at Tea and Sympathy in the Little Britain neighborhood in New York City.As the water boils and the afternoon sun calls out the evening shadows, a new space opens up for us to listen to each other, and to meditate on less urgent but more significant matters. As we wait for the tea to steep, the unspoken, dried out thoughts within us are now able to expand like the leaves in the warm water. And when the fragrant tea pours into our cup, the nourishment begins to set in. In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott speaks about the business of writing. She persuades us that the best part of being a writer is not the thrill of success or book sales — it is the joy of writing for its own sake. She draws a parallel with tea: “While you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”

I need a little more ceremony in my casual life. I don’t want to wear heels and lipstick every time I go to the grocery store, but I could possibly use less digital banter and more face-to-face connection. I want to live in a place where a slow-cooked meal doesn’t mean a Crock-Pot. I want to write love letters with a paper and pen. I want to make house calls. I want to waste time on things that matter. On things that leave a mark in this world and the next. I want to carve out time to stop and boil the water. To bring out the china and the silver. To ask good questions of myself and my neighbors. And to listen patiently for the subtle answers. I want to live a life of love and liturgy.

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And while the bubbling and loud hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.

—William Cowper, “The Task”

Sandra McCracken is an independent singer-songwriter whose smart, soulful blend of folk, pop, and gospel is as progressive as it is timeless. A founding contributor to the Indelible Grace projects, McCracken's contemporary settings of classic hymns are sung in congregations across the country. Drawing inspiration from Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, and U2, McCracken crafts songs that wed razor-sharp hooks with incisive, confessional lyrics to create a transcendent portrait of the human spirit. McCracken currently lives, writes, and records at her home in East Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Derek Webb, and their two children.

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