Tea time and liturgical time: Finding grace in repetition

Katy Shevel's daily ritual of drinking tea provides punctuation and structure to her days — and reminds her that she is held within the broader design of God’s time.

Photo by Lidiya Pavlikova on Unsplash

How to ruin a cup of tea:

  • Use water that is too hot, or too cold.
  • Over-steep or under-steep the tea.
  • Use an oversized mug and only put one teeny, tiny little tea bag in it.
  • Use an under-sized mug and put several tea bags in it.
  • Dump a spoonful of loose-leaf tea into a mug of hot water and forget to use a steeping device. Mm, tea soup.

Brewing tea is something I do both very well — and very poorly. It depends on the day. The process remains consistent: Heat the water; steep the leaves; repeat. However, making tea well means embracing the types, functions, and different brewing methods. I can recall the exact temperature required to brew a Japanese Sencha without burning its delicate leaves. I’ve learned that jasmine pearl tea comprises intricately hand-rolled leaves that unfurl while steeping, releasing an exceptionally soothing scent and taste reminiscent of spring. I also know that herbal “tea,” is not actually tea at all. It’s a tisane, meaning an infusion of anything apart from the tea plant (Camellia sinensis.) Only black, green, white, yellow and oolong varieties are really and truly “tea.”

I have grown to love the taste of tea and the practice of making it. My cup has become my other appendage: at my desk, on my couch, at a staff meeting, or on a Zoom call. Even while I walk around the church building and greet church members on a Sunday morning, I usually have a cup in hand. Tea is more than a routine for me: it’s a ritual that provides structure and a cadence to my life.

Though I’ve come to learn quite a bit about tea, I’m no expert. I just want to enjoy my daily cup. Even so, I frequently miss the mark in my practice. Stopping what I’m doing to make a cup of tea is meant to infuse mindfulness into my fast-paced, hectic schedule. Creating a satisfying cup calls for my grace, patience and attention. It’s supposed to invoke a swell of gratitude within me for the little things.

Yet, when I’m honest with myself, I know that making tea hasn’t automatically made me into a more virtuous person. I show up to my beloved tea kettle distracted, clumsy and impatient. I would be embarrassed to know just how many cups in my life I have burnt. I often finish my tea at my desk after a barrage of emails, looking down into my empty cup with surprise. So much for a clarifying break!

How do I make sense of this little tea habit of mine? It’s something I do every day. Most of the time, I enjoy it. But sometimes, I don’t. Some cups are good; some cups are bad. My goal isn’t to become a master tea-maker. My goal is to make another cup tomorrow … and the day after that.

Repetition is something we know well in the church. We cycle through seasons in the life of the church, one after another: seasons of fasts and feasts, joy and penitence. We follow a yearly roadmap, the liturgical calendar, which starts with Advent and continues through Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Ordinary Time, ending with Christ the King Sunday. Then, it starts over again on the first Sunday of Advent. Each special season in the life of the church calendar shapes and molds us individually, and collectively, as people of faith. We live and breathe the liturgical year together as a community. Then we start all over again.

In his book The Power of Ritual, Casper Ter Kuile lifts the comfort he finds in the church’s calendar. Unlike our civic calendar, the church’s calendar isn’t quantifiable or always increasing. Liturgical time doesn’t “travel linearly.” We don’t gain “more and more” time. Rather, liturgical time is repetitive. Our liturgical calendar follows the unique shape of a spiral. No matter where we are in time, eventually, we will circle back to this moment again.

The point isn’t to practice liturgical time “well” or to do it “right.” The point is to live it over and over again — and to have grace with ourselves as we do so.

Ter Kuile writes, “I love knowing that however I succeed or fail in whatever venture or relationship, liturgical time, together with the season, will return again and again.” In other words, the point isn’t to practice liturgical time “well” or to do it “right.” The point is to live it over and over again — and to have grace with ourselves as we do so.

I believe that within the steady cycle and structure of liturgical time, I am cradled safely within the constancy of God’s time. This is not the kind of time that can be measured or quantified based on my level of achievement or success. It’s not a linear progression. I can’t succeed or “fail” at liturgical time. I am both made and unmade by it, torn down and built up again. Always, I am shaped by it. For whatever season of the church year I am in, I will return to this same moment within the liturgical spiral of time next year. We will be different than we were last year, and so will our experiences.

I am both made and unmade by [liturgical time], torn down and built up again.

Within the spiral of liturgical time, I see my daily tea ritual for what it is: a means of grace. This little ritual provides punctuation and structure to my days — and reminds me that I am held within the broader design of God’s time.

Today, I will make a cup of tea. This cup of tea will be different than my last one and my next one. Tea-making reminds me that I am fallible; it humbles me. Tea is predictable, like liturgical time. However, I am the opposite. I am a wild card. I am distracted, clumsy, and carry all of my baggage with me into my daily practice. Therefore, sometimes tea-making is satisfying; sometimes it is not. This doesn’t make my ritual any less meaningful, and my level of success with it doesn’t define me. I will make mistakes. I am constantly changing, as is the world around me. But God’s love for me never does. If I ruin my cup of tea, so be it.

Making tea is my little window into God’s mercy on repeat, for me. No matter my level of success, I can empty my kettle, rinse out my cup, and start again. My value is not measured by the linear progression of civic time. Within the spiral of liturgical time, I am nestled securely within the embrace of God’s capacious love. God’s time holds space for all of me and provides room for me to make mistakes. For whatever today brings, by God’s grace, tomorrow is another day.

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