Tea and Christianity

Francis Xavier’s feast day is December 3. For those of us who love our afternoon tea, it is a feast we should well note. For the world’s most civilized habit owes a huge debt of gratitude to Xavier and his Jesuit missionaries who traveled to Japan in 1549.

Now, to properly appreciate this story, you must know that among the Japanese, tea is practically a sacrament. They don’t just drink it, they have an entire ritual and a philosophy dedicated to its consumption and appreciation: The Way of Tea. Perhaps better than anyone, the Japanese understand its paradox: Unlike other drinks and meals we share, tea is humble, yet so extremely gratifying!

One of the most beautiful descriptions of tea and the culture that produced it is from the Historia, written by Jesuit priest and missionary, João Rodrigues, who loved tea and wrote quite a bit about it. He and his Jesuit companions soon recognized that it was a deeply beautiful part of their culture that Japanese converts could wholeheartedly enjoy because it promoted rather than compromised their beliefs.

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Rodrigues waxed eloquent on its social, spiritual, and health benefits, noting that it improved digestion and opened one’s mind to the higher things. It encouraged quiet meditation, rustic simplicity, aesthetic judgement, appreciation of nature, and the significance of the present moment. It also necessitated “courtesy, good breeding, moderation in actions,” and purity of spirit.

One late autumn afternoon a few years ago, I was watching an educational documentary on the Daimyo—the “dual way” of Japan’s feudal warrior-poets. There is a section in the film where you watch, in almost complete silence, a man performing the tea ceremony.

The man symbolically washes his hands in a small basin. Kneeling, he holds the tea vessel up above his head in a prayer of thanksgiving. He bows down. His companion bows lower, leans toward him. He straightens up and drinks the tea in one act. When he is finished, he carefully wipes the rim clean. From across the room, I watched this in absolute amazement. My God, I thought, this looks just like the Mass!

It was too specific for there to be any doubt. If you have ever seen a Mass celebrated in the Extraordinary Form, (old Latin rite), the similarities are even more uncanny. Every tea ceremony I have seen since then confirms this with even more details.

How could it be so similar?

If you look deeper into the history of the Tea Ceremony, and especially of Sen no Rikyu, the man whose philosophy shaped the tea ceremony in the sixteenth century, you start to discover a few things: Three (some say five) of Rikyu’s seven disciples were devout Catholic converts. His wife was as well, and with her he attended a historic Mass celebrated in Kyoto, an experience that affected him deeply.

His philosophy of Zen simplicity would easily be recognized by students of western mysticism as “Christian detachment.”

The tea ceremony was shockingly egalitarian: It was to be offered by and to all classes of men and women, and one had to exercise humility in order to celebrate it properly. Tea houses had a low door that one could only enter by kneeling, and by first removing his sword if he carried one. Rikyu’s poetic vision of purposeful submission to higher things is amazingly in tune with Christian theology. In fact, he subsequently incurred the wrath of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, his temperamental Daimyo overlord, because he maintained his independence from Hideyoshi’s influence. Ultimately, Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu to commit ritual suicide in 1591. Six years later, he ordered the martyrdom of the 26 Nagasaki Catholics.

And the mystery further unfolds: If an observer wandering through a 17th century Japanese garden came upon a tea ceremony being offered in a simple tea house he would see the event in silhouette through the rice paper walls. Because the actions are so similar, he would not be able to distinguish it from the consecration at a Mass. And, as you might guess, during the Christian persecutions in Japan that followed, Masses were secretly offered in tea houses. Partly because of this, the Catholic faith in Japan survived underground for the next two hundred years.

And those quintessentially Japanese stone lanterns that are a focal point in many tea gardens? Some of them have the figure of the Virgin Mary and the Greek monogram IHS carved into the base part that is not visible, because it is buried. Many of those were grave markers for hidden Christians, in Japanese, “Kakure Kirishitan.”

To this day, around 4 o’clock every afternoon, tea preserves the sanity of beleaguered human beings all over the world who eagerly await its quiet civility. But its far greater achievement was to preserve Catholicism in Japan during two hundred years of persecution.

So if you love tea, raise a cup on December third to honor St. Francis Xavier and his brave Jesuits who gave the Mass to Asia, and the Tea to the rest of the world.


  • Karen Anderson

    Karen Anderson writes about art and culture. She teaches art history at the Regina Caeli Academy in Wilton, Conn., and is the author of A Fairy-Tale Christmas (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang; 2006).

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