The shining of morning tea


In the dark days of winter it is all too easy to find oneself in very low spirits. The many obvious reasons for this need not, I'm sure, be listed but something important related to this should be noted. It is that many of us here today will feel, to greater or lesser degrees, that the religious and metaphysical certainties of the past no longer have an inescapably compelling hold over us and so no longer help us satisfactorily to answer that perennial question we ask at these moments: "What is the point of it all?"

Now the major reason we seek out a religious community of any description is to help us answer this question in some way. Not, I hope, in a solely intellectual and abstract manner but in such a fashion that the answer is made manifest by the way-we-are-in-the-world so that, as Jesus taught, somehow we shine:  

"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16).

But, as I have just noted, the traditional religious and metaphysical answers (revolving around a monotheistic conception of God) are for us no longer sufficient unto the day. So as a religious community seeking an appropriate way to be religious in a secular age what are we to do about this?

Without going into it at all deeply today - and I'll try slowly to expand upon what I mean in the coming weeks I think that, although a static monotheistic conception of God is unsalvageable, we can rescue something religiously relevant to our own secular age and understanding by appropriately adopting aspects of the dynamic and pluralistic Homeric understanding of the gods and the associated moods of wonder and gratitude. As some of you know I've been exploring these moods in various ways during Advent, Christmas and Epiphany under the heading of 'loving regard' or 'loving attention'. (Or as last week with Lew Welch's poem 'Theology' and in particular the line 'all the wonder of all the planets striking all your only mind.'

As a merest hint about what I mean one may helpfully cite Nietzsche here:

"Oh, those [Homeric] Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial - out of profundity"
(The Gay Science - Preface 4 cited in Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  164).

Related to this is a pressing need for us to perceive as Ishmael did in Melville's Moby Dick:

". . . that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country" (Moby Dick NCE p. 323 cited in Dreyfus and Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York 2011 p.  163).

(Here I should note my great indebtedness for these thoughts, not only to the work of James C. Edwards, but now also Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrence Kelly and their newly published book "All Things Shining".)

Anyway, during this dark and low time of year I simply offer a single down-to-earth (superficial in Nietzsche's sense) and I hope helpful thought that can contribute both to the brightening of your mood and to kick-starting the kind of profoundly secular religious project I think is for us required as a necessity requires.

Picking up on something suggested by Melville's words I concentrate upon the domain that centres upon my kitchen table at which, each morning, I drink my first mug of tea of the day.

When I wake up - whether on a dark winter morning or a bright summer one and whether my mood is good or low - my first activity is to go down into the kitchen to make tea. Firstly I fill the shiny silver kettle from the Franke mixer tap on the sink (a wonderful piece of Swiss engineering) and turn it on to boil. I then get my favourite mug (a large blue and white TG Green Cornishware mug) and inside it I pop a strainer. Then, from the shelf above, I take down my old cream tin tea-caddy (from Jacksons of Piccadilly), open it up and pull out the little aluminium spoon made by Messmer Tee in Frankfurt-am-Main Germany (which Susanna and I found in Wells-next-the Sea) and put one-and-a-half spoonfuls of fairly-traded tea into my cup. (This often encourages me to consider the tea-pickers and growers and whether they are receiving a fair reward for their work as well as the open question about the cost of transporting this tea around the world to the well-being of the planet). Immediately the kettle boils I pour the still boiling water onto the tea and then sit down at the little wooden kitchen table for five minutes and look out of the glass back door into the back-yard at the birds feeding on the bird-table and the statues of Venus and the Buddha who, gracefully and calmly, are greeting the light. After five minutes I take the strainer from my mug, get some fresh semi-skimmed milk (organic) from the fridge and add it to the tea along with a small teaspoon of fairly-traded golden-granulated sugar (it makes me consider similar questions as the ones I noted above about tea). I sit back at the kitchen table and, looking out into the back yard once again, take my first refreshing sip, savouring the bittersweet mix - it is almost always a shining moment - i.e. it shines out like a city on a hill and calls me, without mediator or veil, into life.

Now, it is important to notice that none of the things I have mentioned in this domain are reducible merely to generic forms. Everything here is storied and woven into my life. So, for example, something incalculable would be lost if I were to use in this domain a polystyrene cup instead of my blue and white TG Green mug. I should add here that in another time and place a polystyrene cup may well also be for me a storied thing - but not here, not in this domain. Anyway here, this mug which Susanna bought for me when we got married was purchased because she knew it shone strongly for me drawing out memories of childhood summer holidays with my grandparents in a little chalet-type hut at Mundesley on the North Norfolk coast. This mug not only shines with that memory but now also with the memory of Susanna's care and concern for me. The point here is to see that in this domain my mug is not merely a *resource* that could be replaced by a generic form of cup. If my mug were to be broken it would have to be replaced with something which was capable of drawing out its own appropriate associated meanings connected with this domain - I don't know, another mug with other stories or, of course, a new mug which, for whatever reason, had a shining quality when I saw it on sale. As Dreyfus and Kelly point out the moment I begin simply to treat the cup in this domain as mere resource I would also be beginning to treat myself as mere resource too (cf. ATS p. 217).

It is important that the mug is not something that just disappears into the background so that I don't notice it. Of course, I don't always notice everything about every thing used in this domain all the time - I'd never finish making my tea if I did that! - but the point is in the context of this domain everything in it is all capable of standing out like a city on a hill, of shining and, in shining, revealing to me the meaning and worth of life.

Over the years I have only slowly come to understand that making my tea each morning is a ritual not a routine - by which I mean it is a meaningful celebration of what it is to be-in-the-world and not merely a generic and meaningless performance of a function (ATS p. 219).

Now it is vital to observe that I don't, and have never needed to, figure out and *decide* what it is in this ritual, this domain, that helps me see what I care about (i.e. the things here which give my life real meaning). The point is rather that in practising this ritual (and others - including, for example, the conducting of this service) I continually *discover* through the shining of the things in it things about which I already care (ATS p. 216). They shine, I notice them and I simply know I care about them - about this there is no existential doubt - and consequently I find myself fully and directly in the world and, more importantly in a world full of meaning and connections.

For me, in this ritual, each morning I am simply and immediately grasped by these shining things and they pick me up strongly like a wave picks up a surfer and I am nearly always thrilled in small, but infinitely meaningful ways by this ride. But, as every surfer knows, every wave you riding will eventually break upon the shore and will no longer be able to hold you up. But I know, next morning I can, if I'm disciplined enough to regularly to practise this ritual - and I am, I can position myself so as to ride another such wave whenever it crests.

As I draw to close, a final point to observe from this is that in my tea ritual I discover not 'the' point of it all but single points of it all. My life of meaning is made up of the countless moments when I pay attention to the way things shine and I attune myself to their presence. Then we find, indeed, that divinity is present everywhere but not rooted outside or behind the world, but on the surface, in all the shining of things, places and domains.

It is not often that you will hear this in a church but I think the cure, not only for our temporary winter blues but also the deeper existential blues of existence, is to be found in lowering our sights, being more superficial and by acknowledging the local shining deities, - the genius loci - that is to say the living 'spirits' of things, places and domains, here and now.

You and all shining things are the light of the world. So don't hide, go look, go shine. 


slt said…
In the words of Bruce Cockburn, "I read the
Bible often, I try to read it right. but as far as I can understand, it ain't nothin but a burning light"
thanks for the post and
Blessings. BU
Greetings BU. I've managed to get to 45 and missed Bruce Cockburn. Just checked him out on Spotify and glad I did. Thanks for the shining lead.

Blessings in return.
Andrew Bethune said…
I love your morning tea making story! We need more stories in our religious life.

Not sure if the cure is 'lowering our sight' but maybe we have to look at things in a different way, and alter our expectations.

Today was the first day after the winter solstice when it was light as I stepped out the front door on my way to work.

We think it's normal for squirrels and hedgehogs to hibernate - so why not humans?

The symptoms I experience during the winter have been labelled as Seasonal Affective Disorder. But I find that an unhelpful way of thinking about it.

Instead, I try to relax into the darkness, spend more time sleeping ( e.g. on the bus travelling home for work), doing a lot of thinking, eating comforting foods like soup and stews, reading entertaining novels, mulled wine. The seasons of Advent and Christmas (now many weeks past) allow a rather indulgent focus on soothing rituals and familiar music - just what we need to ease us into the comforting darkness. I do worry about the things I can't summon up the energy to do - the website, the allotment, cycling, work...

But I'm sure that once the daylight returns properly, I'll catch up with all that stuff.

Is this a religious experience?
Glad you liked it Andrew. I add this reply only to note how important for our happiness I think it is for us to lower our conceit of attainable felicity to this world - by which I mean, of course, the need to leave behind a conception of a God 'out there' or 'behind' things. Even in the New Testament, where belief in such a God is clearly real, the angels in the Ascension story in Acts 1 ask the disciples "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?"

This is just another example of how the Biblical text seems to contain significant moments in which we are pointed away from chimerical ideas about the reality of another world to ideas which speak of the 'divine' as being wholly found in this world.

As you say we don't have enough stories in liberal religious circles and this ignored Biblical story which tells of our journey into this world (ignored by all but Ernst Bloch) is one we should be telling more often.