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.

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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  • Marc L

    This is a beautiful reflection on the positive influences of Catholicism in a place I didn’t previously imagine it existed. Would be great if there were links to further resources on the topic.

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  • aearon43

    very nice

  • Carolyn

    Can you point toward the sources used for the information in this article? Thanks!

  • Karen Anderson

    I tried to post this earlier today, I hope it doesn’t post twice! Here are a few of the sources I used, but there are many more. If you research any of the main characters, you will find a trove of information, more than I could fit into the article:


  • Grant

    Thanks for this article. I lived in Japan for many years but never witnessed a complete tea ceremony. I was aware that that tea-ceremony had a quasi-sacramental quality for the Japanese: one Anglican writer pointed out its parallels with the Anglican “Holy Communion”. Later I read somewhere how the tea ceremony in the 16th century had been influenced by the Mass, but was unaware of the details until I read the above article just now.

    (I’m in Jakarta now: in the cathedral stands a prominent statue of St Francis Xavier holding a cross up high in his hand. I shall remember him this Sunday. I drink tons of tea here; mostly iced.)

    BTW, there is a story of a disciple of a tea master painstakingly sweeping the path to the tea-house clear of dead leaves. When the path is completely clean he shows it to the master. The master shakes his head, picks up a handful of dead leaves and scatters them in picturesque fashion upon the path.

    • fernando machado

      Very nice! Thank you.

  • GrahamCombs

    In a world of coffee drinkers I have always preferred tea. One of the more discouraging statistics of recent years is that Starbucks is turning England into a nation of dessert coffee consumers. In South East Michigan tea shops have not done well. Yet I can’t imagine drinking coffee at this point in my life. It may be all those Kurosawa films, but I have always found Japanese culture aesthetically pleasing; perhaps because it is so alien. It has an ascetic and monastic existential quality, quiet and visually spare, that invites thoughts of God and God Himself. During the great tsunami and earthquake, Japanese Catholics (about a half million I believe) raised their profile and acceptance by their good works in the aftermath. Japanese Catholics certainly have the best of East and West. Then again as the old Episcopal hymn goes, “In Christ there is no East nor West.”

  • I always used to await with eager expectation the tinkle of tea cups in the weary afternoon at office. I always thank the attendant profusely for the cup that revives ‘my drooping spirit’. These days its been replace by paper cups so I miss the sound. Jose

  • fernando machado

    I was indeed very pleased to read your execelent article. As a portuguese and Aikido teacher I have been interested in the portuguese cultural influence in Japan. Portugueses were the first westerners to como to Japan. I was aware of the messe rituals in the japanese tea ceremony. But you do put it in in the cultural context in a delightful way, if I may say so!?
    You mentioned João Rodrigues but there is another portuguese that came much latter and was passionated by Japan is name is Wenceslaw de Morais . He wrote several books and a special one dedicated to Cha no yu or Chado. This was in the 19th and he was the portuguese consul. He actually died in Japan. His way of writing about Japan and the japaneses is unic and full of passion. I do recommend it.
    Thank you again for your excelent writing.
    Fernando Machado