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Kyle Eller: Can the perfect cup of coffee lead us to God?

Nov 13, 2017

I’ve become a bit of a coffee snob. I’m not the rude kind — if you offer me a cup of ordinary Folgers, chances are I will gratefully drink it. But left to my own devices? It will not be drip coffee — I use an Aeropress or a French press depending on my mood.

I know what temperature the water should be. I know just when to grind the beans and what grind I want for my chosen method. I will pour the water in a particular way. I will warm the mug and the brewing devices so the finished cup will still be nice and hot. I will likely be timing the steep.

Kyle Eller
Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

There’s more, but you get the idea. I know how to make an excellent cup of joe. I’ve read about it, watched YouTube videos, experimented with different techniques, tweaked my routines. Walk in on me preparing a cup of coffee nowadays and it almost looks liturgical.

Now, if someone were to say to me I would have spent my time better praying or doing works of mercy, that’s a fair point, and I’ll come back to it. But I see it as a small, simple pleasure. For a fraction of what I would spend at a coffee shop, and with just a little extra work that I enjoy doing, I get this simple luxury and make the best out of this beautiful gift of the coffee bean.

And I have come to think there is something in that quest for the perfect cup — and in the other areas where people do similar things — that is more spiritual than it first appears.

There are countless examples of this pursuit. Sometimes I like to watch the America’s Test Kitchen shows on PBS. Behind the scenes, there’s an actual test kitchen, meaning that the cooks run countless variations on a recipe until they get it just perfect. The pumpkin pie recipe (or whatever) that we end up seeing on the show is the result of that detailed background work.

There are artists, writers, and musicians who find it hard to release new material because it never quite gets to the point where they feel it’s good enough. They want it to be perfect. Pope St. John Paul II captured the sense of it in his beautiful “Letter to Artists”: “All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit.”

Or take “audiophiles,” the people who are always pursuing the perfect sound reproduction when they listen to recorded music. They may spend thousands of dollars on equipment such as studio quality headphones, gold-plated cables, unusual audio formats, and more.

Audiophiles are often the butt of jokes, because in double-blind tests, while there are a few basic things that make a big difference, many of the things they do apparently cannot be discerned by the human ear.

Surely something similar is true with my coffee. Some of the things I do definitely make a difference in the taste, but would I be able to tell a difference between two cups just based on how the water was poured? Almost certainly not. After a certain point, the returns on our efforts toward perfection get smaller and smaller, and the wise person knows where to leave off.

But still, the pursuit of perfection points beyond itself. You don’t have to take my word for it. St. Thomas Aquinas listed the argument from gradations of perfection, that things are more and less perfect, as one of his arguments demonstrating the existence of God.

If we can discern what’s more or less perfect in a cup of coffee or, especially, in created things like rocks and plants and people, it points to a sense that there is a “best,” a “maximum” in everything that is good and perfect that is also the cause of all the good we find in created things.

What could that be, of course, but God? He is the unfathomable height of all perfections, and the source of every approximation of it in his creation.

Being made in his likeness and image, we should not be surprised at our yearning for perfection. I suspect it’s just one of those infinite longings God has placed in our hearts so that we will seek him.

And given that, we might also listen again to John Paul II, who points out our greatest work of art, saying that “all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”

So yes, pursuit of that masterpiece of a life is far more important than pursuing the perfect cup of coffee. (I still say coffee sometimes helps.)

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at keller@dioceseduluth.org.