The Agony of the Leaf
We know God’s will for all of us:
“It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will. His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 51).
But what about God’s will for each of us? Few have received God’s call as clearly as Mary or Joseph; for most of us, God reveals himself in glimpses and seeds planted throughout our lifetime. Be wary, however! Glimpses may happen when we least expect it, and those seeds may appear in places we least suspect. For me, these things came about in the most unlikely of things: a tea leaf.
In the Summer of 2017, after I was called into the Catholic Church before I began RCIA, I entered into a deliberate self-reflection period, reevaluating my life. I began sifting through my past, hunting for those seeds, searching for those glimpses. When I recalled my days in Scotland half a lifetime ago, a great longing for tea came over me. It was something at that time that had been such an essential part of my daily life, and I wanted to put my mind back in that time of happiness. I could not have anticipated what that longing would reveal to me, but that’s usually how things go: if you are open to God’s calling, he may reveal himself in the smallest of things. Tea was something I simply enjoyed, I didn’t know it would come to occupy a significant portion of my life.
I decided to start selling tea myself, and it completely consumed me. The more I studied it, the more I loved it. Its history and culture; in the West wars have been fought over it, intellectual revolutions in the East have been triggered. The people in the industry were just as multifaceted as any other, with the soulless corporations on one end and on the other people fighting to protect small farmers from them. Nevertheless, when I began studying the tea leaf itself, how it is processed, how it is prepared, and how it is savored, a change took place in me.
What surprised me the most: all tea comes from the same leaf. It’s how the leaf is processed that determines what type it will become. One tea, in particular, captivated me. It is a type of tea that, after it’s harvested, it is then sorted, shaken, tumbled, bruised, cooked, rolled, dried, then rolled again and again until it reaches its final form, a tightly rolled ball; and after that, they still weren’t done with it, they roasted it as well. I remembered preparing this tea for the first time and being mesmerized at how this tiny little ball unfurled back to its original size. As it unraveled, the leaf began to reveal itself, with all its wrinkles, bruises, cuts, and tears. I remember cradling one of these leaves in my palm, looking at it with great compassion, thinking, “you poor thing, look what you had to go through.”
There is an expression (primarily British) in the tea trade used to describe this unfurling: The Agony of the Leaf. When the tea leaf rehydrates in water, it softens and begins to uncurl; with hot water, the leaf looks like it is convulsing like it is in agony. In this agony, the leaf begins to release its nutrients and lets loose all its flavor, color, and strength. It is a beautiful sight, watching the tea leaf return to life; but it was a new life, one where a lowly leaf reaches its true potential. Through this leaf’s agony, its transformation, where we are rewarded with something that for us is so nutritious, so comforting, so enjoyable.
I was a few months into RCIA when these revelations were happening. At this time in my conversion, I was re-orienting my entire self toward God, and as simple an act as making a cup of tea suddenly has a profoundly deep meaning to it. Not coincidentally, we were then studying the Passion of Christ, which began with the Agony in the Garden. Through the Passion and subsequent Resurrection, we gained access to the Father and became “sharers in the divine nature.” Jesus Christ suffered in a way none of us will ever experience, but it was necessary. Christ was without sin. Both human and divine, thus making his sacrifice Holy and all-encompassing. We have to make a sacrifice as well, but are we prepared for what that involves?
At the time, I could not grasp the agony and suffering of Christ, and I still can’t fully. I know if I do, it would tear me apart, shatter me into a thousand pieces, and I cannot claim that has happened yet. A tea leaf though, helped me reach a better understanding of that sacrifice. When the leaf is harvested, it then goes through a torturous process where it is effectively killed, then it gains a new life with water, fully transformed. We must share in Christ’s suffering: we, too, must be fully transformed. God gave me a glimpse of what that sacrifice entails in a tea leaf, and yet I know it pales in comparison to even what I have to go through to fulfill His will for me. A life chosen in service of God will - to say the least - not be easy.
However, we must choose it and choose sacrifice daily for the sake of our precious Lord. The greatest lesson that the tea leaf has taught me is that there are only two lives to live. Either you fulfill your basic biological function, wither, die, and return to the earth; or, before you return to the earth, you are harvested, suffer, die, transformed, and gain a new life, where your potential is fully realized. I remind myself daily, that I must choose the latter. I pray for the courage to endure the same The Agony of the Leaf, and be continually transformed by Christ.
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