Among friends and family, I’m known for being an amateur barista and coffee aficionado. It’s not that I’m a connoisseur — far from it — but I have high standards when it comes to the quality of my coffee, and I try to stay informed on how to achieve excellence in every sip. Knowing this, my sister-in-law sent me an e-mail not long ago, asking for my advice on how to buy and brew the good stuff.
I sat down and wrote out for her the specific requirements for proper espresso, the type of coffee that is not only the most potent, but the most robust and complex in flavor — the “soul of coffee,” as some like to call it. I detailed some of the essentials regarding the best type of machine; the quality of the water; the required freshness, roast depth, and age of the beans; the best grinder type and grind settings; proper dosage of grounds; the necessary brew temperature; the parameters of shot timing; the way to detect proper color and smell and taste of a good shot; and the technique for foaming milk for those who, like me, don’t usually prefer straight espresso.
As I wrote it all out, I realized that, to the uninitiated, there are a number of steps that require a seemingly ridiculous attention to detail. It was not long ago that I felt the same way, and now I could only imagine how silly and complicated it must sound to someone who was used to throwing coffee grounds into a filter, adding tap water to the machine, and flipping a switch. In my instruction, I was being far more demanding: “do this,” “time that,” “watch this,” “pre-heat that,” — in espresso-making, there’s no such thing as “set it and forget it.”
Good coffee, I realized, has rubrics. Unless they are followed precisely, the coffee will suffer. Improperly prepared, it might still provide a similar amount of caffeine and at least something like the desired flavor, but it will not yield anything like the rich, delightful experience of a meticulously prepared cup.
This is where I begin to wax theological. It seems that God, in His infinite wisdom, ordained for some of the best created things to be fully enjoyed only after they are obtained through a certain kind of labor — the fruit of rules, process, and procedure. These natural rubrics are essential to the very nature of the thing itself, and by disregarding them — for whatever reason — the innate qualities of the thing will elude you.
Like coffee, though certainly in a much more profound way, exquisite liturgy can only be experienced if one follows all of the necessary steps. Accepting a rubrics-optional approach to liturgy is akin to drinking inferior coffee simply to get the caffeine. Bad liturgy is endured by the faithful because they need the Eucharist — but many have never known what it is to really be delighted by it, to savor it, to sample its subtle complexity, to experience worship that is truly excellent and uplifting. Alas, the person who has never experienced good liturgy has no basis upon which to recognize poor liturgy; he just doesn’t know what he’s missing.
I don’t mean to belittle the Mass by comparing it to something profane, but I believe that on a simplistic level the analogy stands. Some of the most striking supernatural lessons are learned in the most ordinary ways. God infused things like the coffee bean, the grape, and the grain of wheat with a hidden nature that can only be experienced through something formulaic, even rigid. Whether roasting and brewing coffee, fermenting wine, or baking bread, man acts as a sort of priest over nature as he carefully oversees their transformation. Thus, if he is properly disposed, he will have an insight into the supernatural role of the ordained priest who consecrates bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Our Lord, thereby allowing us to experience and to adore His hidden nature.
God imbues a sacramental order into the things of this world to help us grasp these higher concepts. In writing down the detailed instructions that would help my sister-in-law make good coffee, I became aware of the presence of implicit ritual — ritual that was not the result of desire or personal taste, but of necessity.
I was immediately reminded of watching a priest celebrate the traditional Mass, which is also often accused of having too many steps, too much complexity, and too rigid a ritual. A friend of mine from the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter once told me, quite proudly, “I am a prisoner of the liturgy.” As priest, he is compelled at all times to give his body over to the postures and gestures and actions of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, through which his vocation is fulfilled.
God infused the world with order and beauty and goodness, and the paradigmatic expression of these attributes in created things takes place every time a Mass is said inside a church. We know from our kitchens, tables, vineyards, bakeries, art studios, and writer’s desks that all truly good things are to be prepared with care. Once this is accomplished, they are then to be savored and protected and enjoyed.
It is therefore only fitting that we thank God both after meals and after Mass. Maybe even after coffee.
This column originally appeared on April 9, 2008.