Coffee and Ritual


(This is a simul-post with Ignitum Today)

In virtually any country outside America where coffee is part of the culture, it is accompanied by a certain kind of ritual.

As part of the morning routine, the coffee is made–a process and ritual in and of itself, especially in places like Italy, where “coffee” means “espresso.”  As it brews, the aroma is savoured.  It is then poured and drunk slowly, with both the taste of the coffee and the beauty of the fresh new morning being enjoyed together.

In America, however, coffee is frequently reduced to a mere utilitarian tool: “I need my coffee or I won’t function.”  To-go cups are everywhere here (look for a travel coffee mug in Colombia.  Go on, I dare you) and it’s not remotely uncommon to see someone walking down the street holding a Starbucks cup in their hand (though the primary issue here is not so much moving with one’s coffee as clearly not understanding good coffee in the first place, but the issues with Starbucks are a whole ‘nother matter).  Caffeine is absorbed, not just in coffee, but in energy drinks as well–and even pill form.  (Caffeine pills can kill you, by the way.)  The drug of choice for many, caffeine has become divorced from its most intense natural source–coffee–and simply turned into a means to an end.

This cultural drift towards self-centered instant gratification and “grab-and-go” conveniences (along with the excuse of “I just don’t have the time for this!”), in our fast-paced, constantly-busy, work-obsessed society, has consequences for virtually every aspect of our lives: no-strings-attached sex, decline in Mass attendance, illicit general absolution services when not necessary, increased abortion rates, and so on.  Each of these points could be embellished further (and yes, they are all very important), but this post will focus on the liturgical repercussions of this tendency.

With the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, which has been grossly and wildly misinterpreted time and again (just like the Bible), the reverence of the liturgy was compromised in many areas.  Granted, there had been some underlying issues in many parishes and dioceses, and certainly many of these issues were merely drawn to the fore after the Council was put into effect, but Vatican II became an excuse and justification for these abuses.  “The spirit of Vatican II” is now a progressive catchphrase, causing many Catholics to cringe.  Rather than a reverent focus on the Lord’s Ultimate Sacrifice, the focus is often on the people and their accomplishments and “how God works through them,” all too often leading to self-idolization (and if you don’t believe me, visit the Diocese of Rochester some time).  The Church’s tradition and ritual are treated as if obsolete in certain areas, replaced by feel-good quips and relativistic “everything’s good!” comments.

The sudden decay of the ritual in the Mass, as well as the gradual decrease in overall Mass attendance, are symptoms of the culture as a whole, of which grab-and-go coffee is merely another manifestation.  Relativism has replaced absolute truths in the minds of many, causing the reasons behind the instituted rituals to be widely considered “old-fashioned” or “obsolete” and exchanged for touchy-feely “anything-goes” rituals which mean little and change according to whim.  As for Mass attendance… well, Sunday Mass, on average, takes about an hour, though it can be shorter or longer depending upon the speed at which the priest speaks, the length of the homily, the length of the aisle, and whether or not there is a Sign of Peace, among many other factors.  However, many people–often young people who start this habit early and then allow it to follow them–skip even an hour on Sunday, claiming that they “don’t have the time.”  Like a diet or an exercise regime, once you’ve skipped it once, it’s easier to skip it again.  And so an overly-busy life “prevents” many from attending Mass (even though “being too busy” is not written into Canon Law as a legitimate excuse for missing Mass).

None of the points are intended to imply that Mass attendance is higher anywhere else just because they take the time to enjoy their coffee in the morning–in fact, Italy’s Mass attendance hasn’t been doing so well, and they are renowned for the ritual of the morning cappuccino.  In contrast, Poland’s Mass attendance rate is, allegedly, something like 80% (though I’m basing this upon hearsay and the fact that one of my high school teachers was in Poland relatively recently and informed us that on every corner is a Catholic church and at every single Mass every weekend, every single church is so packed with people that they have to have speakers outside), and they’re primarily known for their booze (are there any rituals which involve vodka which don’t include jello shots, blacking out, or both?).

In short, utilitarianism is killing us spiritually.  Coffee has no ritual around it; it is nothing more than a means to an end.  Mass doesn’t mean anything concrete; it is irrelevant.  I could be spending my time working instead of at Mass; I won’t waste a whole hour doing that.  And so on.  It expands easily into such horrors as, “I can’t have this child now, I have a career” and, “But it makes me feel good, and that’s what it’s for, right?”  Utilitarian coffee and neglect of the liturgy both manifest the same hollow spirit which eats away at so many aspects of our life and culture. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.