Inspiration by Coffee

Living in Rome, you quickly discover that a cup of coffee is quite a different concept than in the States. For starters, on your way to work or school, you stop in at a bar, which Americans don’t associate with the morning. Ordering the demitasse espresso, or a cappuccino almost as tiny, you accompany it with a cornetto, the Italian version of a croissant. Consumed in moments, it is a far cry from the 20-ounce wonders of coffee shops in America.

One of the elderly priests at my residence in the Eternal City enjoyed recounting the origin of the cappuccino and cornetto combo. The Turkish siege of Vienna lasted for two months in 1683, ending memorably on the 11th of September with the arrival of Polish King John Sobieski, who routed the vast forces of the enemy. As the Viennese and rescuing Europeans picked through the abandoned Turkish camp, they found sacks of coffee, which they then sampled. As the elderly monsignor tells the story, one of the Capuchin friars must have asked for a splash of milk in his, thereby inventing the cappuccino. Meanwhile, the bakers of the city, celebrating the European victory against the rising crescent, baked their pastries in the shape of the emblem on the Turkish flags, giving us the cornetto. “So every time you have a cappuccino and cornetto,” the monsignor would say, “you’re celebrating the Christian victory over the Turks.”

I am inspired by coffee in the early morning. Even in the late morning. It seems I’m not the only one. Purchasing Bible software several years ago, I watched as the splash page launched with an image of an open Bible … and a steaming mug of coffee. Pondering the inspired word of God is apparently best accomplished with a freshly brewed cup.

While later upgrades to the software have unfortunately removed the heartening opening graphic, the image of spending time reflecting on the Scriptures is a valuable one. To sit and muse over a passage of Scripture is to take it seriously, to allow it to have something to tell us today. It’s true that the original context of Scripture was communal. Both the texts of the Old and New Testaments were recognizable as being part of the canon by their being read in liturgy. If a text became a part of the readings in the synagogue or early house church, it was because it had been identified as being the inspired word of God.

Liturgy is still the fullest place of encounter with the Scripture today. Just as the sacraments are encounters with the risen Christ, so the biblical passages read in liturgy are privileged moments of hearing God speak to his people today. At a casual level as well, many Catholics have familiarity with different passages of the Bible because they’ve heard them at Mass. It is because the Church has such a comprehensive lectionary cycle that regular Massgoers are acquainted with as much of the Bible as they are.

The coffee mug at home can complement the readings heard at church. The sacraments themselves take root when we ponder them. Immediately following Communion, spending time in conversation with Christ is priceless. St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi said, “The minutes that follow Communion are the most precious we have in our lives.” In like manner, while the Scriptures in the liturgy address us, poring over them outside of the Mass allows them to be woven into our spiritual DNA.

Brewing up a pot of coffee isn’t such a bad image for a deeper reading of the text. Just waving a glass of water in front of a sack of beans doesn’t quite do the job. You have to grind the coffee, heat the water, and allow the steaming water to percolate for the full flavor to sink in. Maybe that’s the real reason why Jesus didn’t want us to be lukewarm. That would make for a terrible cup.

St. Jerome recognized how serious the need was for a Christian to be informed by the Bible. “Ignorance of Scripture,” he famously said, “is ignorance of Christ.” A Christian must continually be directed by this living word. People drink coffee faithfully because they enjoy it and because it gives them energy for the day. If we are going to engage the Scriptures daily, it would have to be for the same reasons: We enjoy reading the Bible, and it gives us strength for the day. Whether it is through a rereading of the daily Mass readings, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, or page-by-page reading through a book of the Bible, each day needs to be truly awakened.

Nothing prepares you better for the daily grind.

Father Avram Brown is a priest of the Diocese of Sacramento, California.