Why is it that tea becomes my beverage of choice on silent retreats? Perhaps it’s its calming nature and subtleness that fits with the mood on retreat. The thing is, at home, tea is just not quite the same. Even when I buy my favourites like Earl Grey or Sleepy Time, or more recently, lemon ginger, they just don’t taste the same. They don’t provide the same comfort as when on retreat.
It turns out that it may be that my tea tastes better when part of the ritual of retreat. A new study found that food tastes better when part of a ritual. Experimenters had groups taste a chocolate bar. One group had to break the bar, unwrap it, eat half, and then unwrap and eat the other half. The other group just ate the chocolate without any preceding ritual. Similar experiments were performed with carrots and lemonade. The researchers found that those who performed a ritual involving the food found it more flavourful than those who didn’t. Consider the blowing out of birthday candles and cutting the cake before eating it. Or the pouring, sniffing, and swirling of wine before consuming it. Ritual enhances the moments of our life.
This makes me think of the importance of Eucharist and liturgy. The ritual involved in liturgy leading up to the Eucharistic meal truly enhances the experience. The study’s researchers even learned that ritual hand gestures have just as much effect on enhancing flavour and experience. Perhaps there really is some deeper benefit to making the sign of the cross before prayer. Saint Ignatius always said making some act of reverence—like a bow, a pause, or a gesture—before prayer sets us in the right mindset.
But the study also notes that the experience is enhanced even more when you yourself perform in the ritual, rather than just observing someone else. The retreat house I most recently visited had several teapots you could borrow so you could make your tea and just refill your cup wherever you chose to sit. Every afternoon after lunch I took a teapot, dropped in a tea bag, filled it with hot water, sliced a lemon and dropped it into the pot, added some sugar, put the cover on, took a teacup, and went to a cozy chair to pray. This daily ritual gave me much enjoyment and I would say that the tea not only tasted better but my prayer felt more meaningful.
Participation in rituals is so important not only for our everyday lives but for our spiritual lives as well. And, when done with care and in the context of faith, rituals can spiritualise those everyday moments.
The full research report here.
Listen to an audio version of this post…
Music by Kevin MacLeod