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coffee-or-teaI have written here about the salvation to be found in an English tea ceremony. Coffee on the other hand, I have always thought of as an American drink. I was introduced to great-tasting coffee a long time ago in Vermont, by a man who brewed it in test-tubes and fed it through an enormous filtering machine to make sure every molecule was just right. I know coffee is important in England too, but the differences are significant. The Scientific Revolution was partly founded on coffee, not tea. Both came from overseas, as valued imports traded across an evolving colonial landscape, but tea flourished in the intimate domestic setting of the upper classes, who could afford imported china to drink it from, whereas coffee was an urban and intellectual drink.

The first English coffee houses were opened in the seventeenth century in London and Oxford. By 1675 there were more than 3,000 of them around the country. Members of the Royal Society would sit around, vibrating with caffeine, and discover steam engines and gravity. Well, not quite like that—in the case of gravity it was more that a coffee-house conversation between Hooke, Halley, and Wren failed to solve the problem, and led them to send a letter to Isaac Newton, which got him working on the problem at home. But it has been said that the coffee-houses served a similar function to the internet today—a social network making possible the accelerated exchange of ideas (a network that the government of the time tried, and failed, to control).

G.K. Chesterton did not have a high opinion of coffee. “Mr Bernard Shaw’s philosophy is exactly like black coffee—it awakens but it does not really inspire.” But Chesterton may have missed something. Indeed, he may not have tasted great coffee. There is also a religious dimension to coffee that we need to be aware of. Long hours of research on Wikipedia revealed the following information.

The earliest credible evidence of either coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree appears in the middle of the fifteenth century, in the Sufi monasteries of the Yemen in southern Arabia. From Mocha, coffee spread to Egypt and North Africa, and by the sixteenth century, it had reached the rest of the Middle East, Persia, and Turkey. From the Middle East, coffee drinking spread to Italy, then to the rest of Europe, and coffee plants were transported by the Dutch to the East Indies and to the Americas.

Who were the Sufis—or rather, who are they? One answer is simply that they are the mystics of Islam, largely persecuted or hidden today, quiet voices of sanity and love drowned out by the more vociferous voices of fundamentalism. They represent the inner, civilized, loving aspect of religious faith. Like their coffee, the influence of their mysticism is everywhere. The most extreme was Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 913), who perhaps unwisely claimed to be God. This led to his being tortured, hung, crucified, dismembered, and burnt in that order. The Sufis, who were mostly poets and teachers, artists or craftsmen, wisely held their tongues after that.

If we take coffee as a symbol for the mysticism of love, we might say that it is even more necessary than tea. A society that is not permeated by mysticism—which I take to be the inner dimension of religion—will inevitably fragment, and this begins with a schism between Left and Right, between the two types of practical atheism, of secular humanism; the collectivist and individualist types. Everything in such a society tends to be given a political interpretation.

Chesterton, though he had no appreciation of Sufism (much less of Islam in general), put it well when he said, “Mysticism, and mysticism alone, has kept men sane from the beginning of the world.” (He himself was a mystic, according to Father Bob Wild.) It is the mystics that prevent us becoming ideologues, and thus falling into a kind of madness–the madness of modernity, ironically born in the coffee-houses of the Enlightenment, spreading like a contagion in the wake of European civilization.

Coffee, then, is acting here as a dual symbol, representing both the over-excited rationalism of modern science and, contrastingly, the supra-rational intoxication of mysticism. The fate of America is bound up in the ambiguity of a cup of coffee. On the one hand, the Enlightenment has made her into a madhouse. On the other, a more mystical, inward religiosity offers a return to sanity.

But is such a “mystical turn” in the cards? During the hippy movement of the 1960s it almost seemed so–at least to the hippies, who seemed to think sex, drugs, and music held the key to world peace and cosmic consciousness. Not any more. Most of the hippies have cut their hair and settled down. As for Christians in general, the robust statistics for churchgoing and religious activism render the need for mysticism invisible.

In any case genuine mysticism is not as superficial as it seemed in the 60s and 70s. It cannot be detached from particular religious traditions. Intoxication with the love of God cannot be imbibed through a pipe or ingested with mushrooms. It lies beyond the rational intellect (that part is true), but it isn’t anti-rational. The cultivation of the intuitive intellect is a precise science. Pope John Paul II promoted it most strongly in his encyclical on philosophy, Fides et Ratio. There he insisted that Catholic priests should be trained in a philosophy “of genuinely metaphysical range” (n. 83), a “philosophy of being” (n. 97). Mysticism is not metaphysics, but complements it.

Right after saying (in the Blatchford Controversies) that mysticism keeps men sane, Chesterton adds that the mystic is the one who “accepts the contradictions” (the paradoxes) of Christianity. These “contradictions,” such as the Trinity, enable the mystic to “laugh and walk easily through the world.” The non-mystic is the rationalist whose world is nothing but a mechanical clockwork or a drab delusion (that is to say, he adopts a philosophy of determinism or idealism). The mystic believes both in matter and in freedom–and the intellectual basis of mysticism is metaphysics, with its crucial distinction between levels of reality.

Look deep into your cup of coffee and see in its mysterious depths the fate of America. Ask yourself, is there a home here for mysticism or metaphysics, or only a culture war between mad men, rationalists whose philosophical assumptions confine them to a world of politics and economics, seeking material comfort rather than divine wisdom?

Books mentioned here may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. As Nasrudin might have said, Show me your erudition by your certificates, and I will show you my learning by my coffee.

  2. Brilliant. The reflections on mysticism are concise and spot on. When Eliot quotes the mystic Julian of Norwich right at the very end of his poetic output, and if we experience those words as we ought – perhaps even approximating Julian’s experience when she heard them – then all of the personal and corporate madness that threatens us tends to fall away.

    All things shall be well
    All manner of things shall be well

    And now for a cup of coffee.

  3. Thank you, Stratford, for an insightful article. Lots of great ideas here to graze upon over a steaming hot cup of coffee.

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