Tea as spiritual discipline

At the risk of seeming overly precious, I have a confession to make: the act of drinking tea plays a small but edifying role in my spiritual life.

It is a part of the routine that I rely on to regulate my days. I wake up, I feed my baby, I make a cup while straightening a few things up and maybe washing a dish or two. The tea is brewing. The entire quiet, peaceful ritual leads me to the point of sitting down and doing my Bible reading. The tea, insignificant in itself, lends an extra air of sweet pleasure to the act of sitting down to read. It makes me feel that waking up was a good thing, that the tasks of the day can wait, that even the baby, who is sometimes literally attached to me for a portion of this reading time, can have a breather while I do.

The tea is not significant in itself, but it always seems like just the right thing at the right time, and I’ve come to associate it with the feeling of the pages opening, or the ESV Kindle app clicking open.

I also associate it with British women who live in a rural area of a country that is not their home.

Why? Because this is how I was introduced to British style tea. The first time was in Italy. I was there as an Au Pair to a British couple, who lived in a small country town called Force, in a mountainous region miles from any kind of major city.

It was November when I arrived in their home. The house they lived in was perched on the side of a hill, three stories tall and skinny. It was a terra cotta house with a fireplace on two floors, and vents that heated the rest of the house from those two fireplaces. It was a cold winter there. I was so cold, and so homesick, that tea found me in that little house just when it was most needed.

This couple kept large bags of Tetley’s black tea, along with milk from a neighbor’s cow. The stove, which had to be lighted by hand, was boiling water almost perpetually. It was the first time I’d tasted hot tea that wasn’t from a Celestial Seasonings fruit sampler, with sugar. They brewed their tea in the mug, with milk poured in first and a teabag sitting in the milk.

Soon, I was having a cup first thing on waking, standing as close as possible to the fire, while their two little boys were getting ready for school. Soon I was having another cup after I finished chores, a cup in the afternoon, and a cup at dinnertime. I was piling clothing on top of clothing to ward off the bone chill. I would do jumping jacks and squats and situps before taking a shower, also to ward off the cold. And I was going for long walks whenever I could, coming back to more tea.

But this was not a restful time. The house was tumultuous, even with the five of us spread over three floors. John and Karen, my hosts, were unmarried hippies who cited Jonathan Livingston Seagull as a spiritual influence and who were accepting government support from not one but two countries. Karen vacillated between rigid pacifism in her parenting and fits of rage that reduced her “naughty boys” to tears and kept a steady flow of adrenaline in my system.

She and I tolerated each other, keeping that somewhat stilted peace that often exists between housewives and the women who are hired to help them.

I went home after several months and a season of travel in the cities of Italy that I wanted to see. With no more cold, no more homesickness, and no more Tetley’s, I didn’t drink black tea again until a few years later.

This time, I was a guest in another British woman’s home. It was an oddly familiar sensation. I was back in a rural area—this time in Tennessee, an hour outside of Nashville—and there was a kettle always on. But here, tea was not a way to keep out the cold and the stress of a tense home. In the home of this Christian lady, all was warmth and peace. It was there that I began to associate tea with good fellowship, times of personal quiet and reflection, and the Christian spiritual disciplines.

The tea she kept on hand was Yorkshire. That is my brand now, by default, to this day. But the process is the same as in Italy: teacup, milk, bag, boiling water. Two minutes (or until you remember). I’ve been known to nurse the tea until it’s cold and then microwave it. This, in turn, reminds me of my mother, who used to keep one cup of coffee going for five hours in the morning, periodically sending one of us kids to microwave it for exactly 45 seconds.

These routines are sweet to me. But they are sweet because of the grace bestowed from God through Christ. I think of the same motions I went through in Italy—of waking, brewing, sitting, and sipping—and the turmoil that I still experienced in those acts of calm. In contrast, these motions are rendered sweet by my soul’s rest in Christ. My joy in the cup is only derived from the joy of reading his word and responding in prayer, the joy of relationships set in order and repentance practiced regularly, the joy of knowing in the very marrow of my bones that God’s purposes are sure and that nothing can happen to me or my family but what he wills.

Even if the a day comes when our budget gets so tight that tea is no longer part of it, and I find that creature comforts like these get sliced and diced out of my life as part of God’s plan of sanctification, the joy will remain. Because the joy came first, and the tea came after.

And I’ll still be able to say, with honesty, that my cup runneth over.

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