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!