Tea is a stranger to me. Coffee is an old friend. Coffee tastes like comfort and feels like being connected. Coffee smells like relaxation and looks like afternoon sunlight. This cozy relationship is a bit of a problem for me, however, because for health reasons I am supposed to learn to embrace a cup of herbal tea more often than one of coffee.
I didn't set out to love coffee. In fact, it took me several years, several lumps of sugar, and a lot of cream to warm up to its bitterness. My love for coffee is really a byproduct of a friendship ritual that started when we moved to California, and I was in desperate need of a friend to share in adjusting to life on the Left Coast. Almost as soon as we arrived in Berkeley, God sent me a beautiful, German-born soul named Birgit who made the meanest pot of coffee I'd ever met. We developed a weekly tradition of getting together in the amber-lit hours of the day for an afternoon snack, and always there was that cup of coffee. Savored together as our children ran around hunting for worms in the community playgrounds, coffee came to symbolize camaraderie for me, and I loved it.
A friendship such as I have described is the type I believe we need to have with our church. A real one. One that is supported by ritual, tangibly present, and that meets us in our need. As much as I believe we need inspiring homilies to nourish our minds and the Eucharist to nourish our souls, I also believe we need sensual, earthy experiences of church to bond us to God and to His bride, the Church. God can't just live in our heads, we need to love Him from our hearts, and feel Him with our hands too. I believe our hunger and thirst for God are satisfied in part through the smells of incense and Easter lilies, the sounds of bells and pipe organs, the look of sunlight filtered through stained-glass windows, rosary beads we can touch and holy days we can anticipate. All of these are important to a lived faith because we are, after all, creatures of this earth. We gather understanding through all of our senses and, especially when we are young, nonverbal experiences leave huge impressions on us.
Before they can understand a homily or receive the Eucharist, simply being at Mass introduces our children to Jesus who wants to be friend, comforter, and personal Lord and Savior to each of us. Why else would adults who may have strayed from the Catholic faith seek out a church and sit in its holy emptiness during times of trouble? They seek and sit because they are looking for something they lost, a Presence they may not be able to name, but Whose impression lingers on in their subconscious memory. The book of Proverbs comforts parents with this verse: "Train a child up in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it." How blessed are the children whose parents have brought them to Mass from the very beginning and who have, also, brought the faith home from Mass in order to live it all week long.
But, wait a minute. Stop the tape. What about the herbal tea? What if faith in Jesus and a real relationship with his bride were not impressed on us during childhood? What if we woke up as adults and found we'd fallen into unhealthy behaviors and bad relationships? What if we didn't know how important it was to take our own kids to Mass each week? Are we all doomed? Has the die been cast or is change possible? What will happen when my worm-hunting daughter shows up for snack time?
I must now add to my confession that I didn't leave my love of coffee behind when we moved back East. But, as the world turns, I took up the same ritual of getting together for coffee and conversation with new friends. Alas, I was recently told that coffee is replete with bad stuff and that for my own health I must leave it behind and take up with tea. Could I make such a change? Oh, the drama of it all!
Okay, okay, so maybe the hot beverage tale isn't really all that dramatic, but it represents a bigger question about human nature. If it is true that we feel most at home with the ideas, habits, and relationships we learned as children, can someone who is outside or drifted away from God's church be changed and drawn back in? If we have made God and faith strangers, but the trappings of this world good friends, is it possible for us to turn to the Church when these trappings fail us? Or will we seek ever more trappings? Unfortunately, we might, because unhealthy or not, old habits are comforting and die hard. Just ask a reformed alcoholic, a junk-food junkie, or me with my coffee. But, thanks be to God, there is more hope than all the tea in China for those who want to embrace a new, healthier way of living called Christianity, even if God has been a stranger for a long time.
One can hardly turn a page in the Bible without reading about change of heart and being born again. Change is what the Christian life is all about; dying to self and rising anew in Christ Jesus. The parable that gives us the nuts and bolts of authentic change can be found in Luke 11: 24-26: "When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first." In order to experience authentic conversion we can't just clean up our act, get rid of the bad, and remain empty. The temptation to regress will be too strong. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we must replace bad habits with good habits, bar buddies with AA buddies, perhaps CNN with Catholic Exchange as our Internet home page, and People magazine with Catholic Digest. We must fill our new lives with new rituals, join a Bible study, a Rosary group, an RCIA class, or a service group and thereby gain the support of the body of Christ. Active replacement is the key to authentic conversion.
My good California coffee friend, Birgit, now lives in Japan, half a world away from where warm fingers of sunshine caress my Cape Cod afternoons. As often as I think of our afternoons together and still desire a cup of coffee right around 4 p.m., I try to make a cup of tea instead. I am making progress, and I think there is real hope for the relationship between tea and me, because the other day my daughter came home from school and joined me in the dining room for a snack. Just four years old when we moved to California, this is the daughter who used to collect and bring buckets of worms to Birgit and me as we sat in the garden. Now sixteen, this daughter plopped down at the table, handed me a mug, and told me to drink. No, it was not worms, but Raspberry Zinger tea. I took a sip. Hmm. Teatime with my daughter. I think true conversion just became more promising, and a lot sweeter.