A few months ago, a Christian retreat center contacted me, asking if I was interested in giving a one-day tea retreat since I seemed to be so into tea, and I had also co-authored a book, Quiet Journeys, which is about the value of guided silent retreats.
Before that, the “blending” of my tea hobby with my religion, (I’m Methodist), was a very personal affair, something that I alluded to in my earlier post about Tea and Meditation. I wondered if other Christians would judge me for organizing such a retreat – would it be perceived as too “new-age”/ “heathen”/ “non-Biblical,” given tea’s historical connections to other religions?
At the same time, I did not want to “force” Christian applications out of the tea ceremony. Upon discussion with the fortunately open-minded people at this Christian retreat center, our “Tea & Solitude” retreat ran like this: Preparing for the tea retreat. Each participant gets her/his own gaiwan.
- The tea component would only take place in the morning for a few hours. The rest of the day, the participants would be left on their own to reflect or had the option of meeting with a spiritual director.
- The tea ritual is presented as a neutral platform that helps one to be present to the present. I touch on the Camellia Sinensis plant, talk briefly about the nutritional properties of tea, and make special mention of L-Theanine and its calming properties. I also discovered in my research that 16th and 17th century Jesuit missionaries in Japan learnt the tea ceremony and adopted it into their meditative practices. Christianity and tea aren’t such strange bedfellows after all!
- To make the Chinese tea ceremony as accessible as possible, the participants were given simple white ceramic gaiwan tea sets to practice on, and later bring home for their own use.
- The focus was on how the rhythm of a ritual such as a tea ceremony could be useful in getting you out of yourself (leaving behind one’s anxieties and distractions). The consistently deliberate and slow steps in brewing tea was not about following rules for the sake of it, but paying more attention to the details and being sensitive to the nuances of touch, taste and smell (even the flow of water being poured into the gaiwan was looked into.)
- Another interesting point that was brought up during this tea retreat: spiritual experiences do not happen in a vacuum, and that solitude is not about being more isolated, but actually being more connected with God and what is happening around you. Somehow, while preparing tea for the participants, it actually struck me as to how “connected” tea is to the natural environment as well. Its production involves all the elements – earth (where the plant grows), water (to infuse the leaves), air (altitude), and fire (heating up the water).
- The funniest moment of the retreat was when a lady admitted, with all honesty, that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd brew of a Taiwanese red tea she prepared seemed to taste exactly the same, “How is it you mentioned things like how it tastes like ‘longan’ and ‘caramel’? To me, it just tastes like tea! Do you have a special tongue or something?” At that point, the retreat director interjected and said that our senses can be cultivated to be more sensitive if we practice being slow and deliberate in everything we do. That was an unexpected life lesson for me – while I’ve been very thoughtful with my tea brewing at home, I’ve not been as patient and focused in all the other areas of my life.
In the end, this tea retreat was also a good time for me to re-examine a lot of my thoughts and actions as well.