There is a perfect cup of tea. An Englishman knows it can occur most easily at 4 pm (or, say, 8 am), when the solar system is aligned in a particular way. When in a foreign country, he looks around hopefully at five minutes to 4 in case tea is beginning to appear, but he is often disappointed. The mark of a true gentleman is that he gives no outward sign of his disappointment.
The perfect cuppa—lower and middle classes call it “a nice cup of tea,” upper classes just “tea”—is not too strong, not too cool, and it doesn’t have a thin layer of scum floating on top that has to be surreptitiously removed with a spoon. I won’t enter into the sophisticated problem of whether to pour the tea on top of the milk or vice versa (I have been worrying about this my whole life). I do know that tea without milk is not tea. Iced tea is a contradiction in terms. And the worst thing you can do with tea is throw it in salty water. This is how America was lost to us in 1773.
The urgent question is whether, having been lost over tea, America can be regained over tea. By this I don’t mean the Tea Party movement, nor am I referring to some plot being hatched at my place around 4 pm.
The English Tea Ceremony is a para-liturgical event of some significance. My wife and I joke about “the English sacrament” but really it is a “sacramental.” It does not, like a sacrament, communicate the grace it represents, but it does represent (and illustrate) that grace, which is the blessing of community through an exchange of gifts in an atmosphere of courtesy. If it does (performatively) establish such a community, for a few blessed moments, then that remains an analogy. Only the presence of our Lord can make it an experience of heaven.
How can a Tea Ceremony save the soul of the United States of America? What will save the world is Beauty, of course. (Dostoevsky gave us that much—although the famous quotation is buried in indirect, reported speech and surprisingly hard to find in The Idiot.) Traditional gestures are merely examples of how this is done: one sip at a time. Beauty requires delicacy. It requires a richly woven fabric in which such gestures make imaginative sense. There is something crude about the manufacture by massive machinery of a delicate fabric for mass consumption. At the very least, it presupposes the existence of an original created in a very different way—the old-fashioned way, or something closer to it.
The original itself is eloquent. It speaks of the source of salvation. We have lost our way. Salvation is finding the way home—for what is home but the answer to the question “why”? Our home is with the one who knows why everything was created. Traditional customs and practices, from the crafts to our forms of worship, whether in the kitchen or the cathedral, once reminded us of this. Yet we did forget, and the customs themselves were forgotten, and now the soul of America requires, among other things, a nice cup of tea. Preferably at 4 o’clock.