Monday, October 11, 2010

The Japanese Tea Ceremony and the Holy Eucharist

I've been teaching priest-craft to two seminarians this semester. I'm covering a lot of ground, but that is no excuse for skipping important detail of the sort they won't learn in class. I'm talking about deep body knowledge. There is a way to hold your body as a priest or deacon, a way to move through a space. A way to sit with parishioners and sip coffee. Craft is truth, too.

So when teaching a student how to prepare the gifts on the altar I start with the empty table and invite them to appreciate the emptiness that is there. Then, as they begin to make gesture of prayer through movement in that space, I mention the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Move with purity of purpose, unrushed, focused, calm.

I know, for a fact, that I am not the first person to notice a connection between the Japanese Tea Ceremony and the "manual acts" made by priests and deacons during the Holy Eucharist. Both, afterall, are formalized rituals of hospitality.

As a kid I used to watch an obscure, sub-titled Japanese docudrama series about the life of Oda Nobunaga produced by the national television network of Japan. Nobunaga is a very intriguing figure from Japanese feudal history (we're talking 16th Century) and was the principle force behind the unification of the country under a strong Shogun. He also was very interested in European Culture and was a patron of the Jesuit missionaries to his country. He even let them built the first church in Japan in Kyoto in 1576. Nobunaga was a great patron of the arts, as well, and popularized the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

Each episode of this series would start with a narrative historical preamble. One of these compared the traditional gesture of wiping the tea cup in the Tea Ceremony with a similar gesture made at the end of the Eucharist during the ablutions. The narrator then claimed that the Christians picked up this gesture from the Jesuit missionaries to Japan, who learned it by observing the Tea Ceremony. That claim sounds dubious to me, but I do think it makes sense that both ceremonies would arrive at similar gestures through independent evolutions.

It also follows that a priest looking to master the rituals of the Holy Table could learn much from the Japanese Tea Ceremony (and perhaps vice-versa). The aesthetic of the Tea Ceremony will be recognizable to anyone who has studied liturgy. The Japanese sought to embody harmony, respect, purity, and tranquillity.

Every gesture--an expression of some truth. There is something true and worthy of our attention that happens when we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist. Whether we chose to do this in a very simple fashion or a complex one, we should do it with intention and meaning. This take years of diligent practice to master, and the effort to do so can inform any other priestly skill from pastoral counselling to preaching to volunteer management.

Here is a video of part of a Tea Ceremony. Enjoy!



Jamie & Lauren said...

Really fascinating stuff Tay.

Tay Moss said...

I know priests that really suppress manual acts at the Eucharist, typically because they want to avoid any hints of gnosticism in the ritual (that is, priest as holder of secret knowledge with magic powers). That's a typically reformed kind of critique, but perhaps it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater? If the gestures are natural enough, then they don't particularly draw attention to themselves and certainly don't appear exotic in the way that implies magical thinking.

Which leads to another caution... As several people have pointed out, Western Christianity's forensic fascination with the "validity" of the sacrament leads to precisely the kind of magical thinking we want to avoid. Indeed, the anti-manual-acts argument seems to presume a certain amount of this "what makes it valid" framework as an antecedent.

In other words, if we worry less about "what makes it valid and what role does the priest have in that change" we are going to recontextualize the whole question of ritual actions into a framework that is both more organic and, I am persuaded, more in touch with people's lived experience of the Eucharist. I don't think our people really worry about validity. I think they worry more, in liturgy, about beauty.

Also, it's hard to avoid the anti-body sentiment embedded in the critique of manual acts. After all, these principles of intentionality of gesture might lead to very little gesturing at all. When I preside at the Contemplative Eucharist on Wednesday mornings, I barely do any manual acts at all! Yet I still regard the lack of gesture to be as important the presence of them.

Perhaps another objection to this kind of approach is that it seems to put emphasis on the wrong places. After all, shouldn't we be as concerned about the sermon? Absolutely, I say! I think you need to have exactly the same kind of intentionality, reflection, training, and formation to preach well. Same goes for the craft of pastoral care or even the art of arranging altar flowers (though this not a craft I have learned).