The Coffee Prayer

I’m a coffee drinker. This was not always true, but I learned the benefits of the sacred bean while working the Ancient Ways Festival summers at Harbin Hot Springs. After a very late night of ritual, drinking, and ritual drinking, nine o’clock staff meetings were (for me at least) brutal. Fortunately, I had friends to teach me the art of drinking coffee (sometimes with a pack of hot cocoa mix added in) to substitute for proper sleep and self care.

Since those halcyon days, I’ve learned to drink better coffee. I buy whole beans and grind them myself. Usually, I make the stuff in a french press. A touch of real heavy cream and fake sugar, and I have a steaming cup of Liquid Awake to help me launch my day.

Like a number of Pagan-leaning people, I’ve developed a semi-tongue-in-cheek, lightheartedly spiritual attitude towards my caffeine addiction. I and many others have dedicated early morning, day-after-ritual prayers have been dedicated the goddess Caffiena.

So there I was, the other morning, having prepared my morning elixir, I felt moved to pray. It was an abbreviated Javacrucian Rite:

Prepare your first morning coffee. Face east, and salute the rising sun. Take a long sip, and intone:
God, I needed that!

That isn’t the only one, though. There’s also the Dune-inspired mantra, by Mark Stein:

It is by caffeine alone I set my mind in motion. By the sacred beans of Java, the thoughts acquire speed, the hands acquire the shakes, the shakes become a warning. It is by caffeine alone I set my mind in motion.

As I took a moment to decide between these two, it occurred to me that there are many spirits involved in the production of coffee. There’s a whole history there–generations of farmers, harvesters, and roasters. The spirits of the land on which it grows, the spirits of the waters I boiled to make the stuff. And, of course, the coffee plant itself has a spiritual presence.

So, I improvised. I raised my cup in thanks to the spirits of the earth in which it grew, the rains which watered it. I raised the cup again, and thanked the workers who planted and harvested it, who dried it and shipped it, who roasted and packed it. I thanked the possibly apocryphal Ethiopian herdsman and his dancing goats who first discovered the magic these beans could work. I thanked the spirit of the coffee tree, and said a word for anyone I might have missed.

And then I took my first sip.

God, I needed that!

The point of this is to keep up a good relationship with the forces that shape my life. Sure, standing in my kitchen and praying thanks to the places my coffee came from isn’t the entirety of the relationship–arguably, the details of what I buy and where I buy it are more important in terms of physical world effect–but I can’t maintain a relationship of which I’m not aware. And, hey, who doesn’t like to hear “thank you” every now and again?

If I wanted to put together a more formal prayer to go with my coffee, there’s a lot that goes in there, so let’s unpack this a bit.

One legend is that an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi noticed his goats getting hyperactive after eating wild coffee beans, and tried them himself. In another, an exiled Sufi named Omar tried the beans while starving in the wilderness, discovering the process of roasting and then boiling them while trying different ways of cooking the beans. In Yet another, Sufi mystic Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili noticed the flight of particularly energetic birds, and found that they’d been eating wild coffee beans…

It’s worth noting that in all of these tales, there are two themes: learning something from observing nature and Sufi mystics (the first person Kaldi shared his discovery with was a Sufi monk). My grasp of Sufism is loose, at best, so I don’t pretend to know what it means to them, but as a devotee of a god primarily known for giving a magic mind-altering drink to humanity, this puts coffee solidly in “gift from the gods” territory for me.

Now, I don’t know who the gods of the Oromo people of Ethiopia were, back in the day, but the Oromo discovered the properties of the coffee bean in what is now southern Ethiopia, so I can thank those people and their ancestors, and the land of Ethiopia, for this gift.

Of course, Coffea arabica itself doubtless has a spirit to be thanked, praised and venerated. I’ve been drinking Death Wish Coffee recently, which takes its beans from India and Peru, so there are two more lands to thank, and the growers and their ancestors as well. For that matter, the coffee traders and the workers at the Death Wish Coffee Company deserve recognition, as well.

Since I live on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, I get my water from the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (East Bay MUD). The water that comes out of my tap comes from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, fed from the Tuolumne and Mokelumne rivers. Those rivers drain lands occupied by the Plains Miwok before Europeans came to California. Again, I’m not familiar with the religion of the Miwok beyond what Wikipedia tells me, so I wouldn’t want to give insult by addressing their spirits in an unknowingly disrespectful manner. Still, my life here, let alone my morning coffee, would not be possible without these waters and their spirits, so I owe them some thanks, as well.

It occurs to me that I have access to the waters of these rivers mainly because they were dammed and diverted, which only happened after the European-Americans took power over those lands from the Miwok. This is a crime of my ancestors (the ancestors of my nation, if not of my blood family), and bears mention. Apologizing to the Miwok (living and dead) is only a very small thing, and doesn’t do much. But adding into this an intention to work to undo the damage colonialism did to native peoples is better, and really, cleaning up the mess my ancestors left behind is my responsibility.

My kettle heats on a gas stove, and natural gas comes from the remains of swamps and forests subducted into the hot, high-pressure underworld and simmered for millions of years. So I have the spirits of those lands to thank, the spirits of the layers solid and molten rock, and the human folks (living and dead) who bring the stuff out of the ground, sell it to Pacific Gas & Electric, and pipe it into my home.

Speaking of the kettle, and also my French press, my coffee cup, and the spoon I stir it with all came from somewhere. The plastic, ceramic, glass, and metal all came out of the Earth. Human hands (or, mostly, machines made by humans) shaped them. People shipped them, sold them.

And, of course, someone taught me to make coffee. Someone helped me learn to appreciate it. I should put in a word for them, too.

I wanted to share with you some detail in the process by which I write the prayers I use. So, looking back at the paragraphs above, distilling them to single lines, and playing about with the order a bit, I get:

Prepare the first cup, salute land, sea, and sky
Coffea arabica, tree from whom comes the beans from which comes coffee!
Gift of the gods, sacred plant whose essence eases my waking
Most esteemed spirit and ally, thank you for sharing your gifts with me!

Pour out a sip of coffee for these spirits
I thank the ancestors of the Oromo for this gift, for they first knew the gift of Coffee
I thank the soil of Ethiopia for nurturing this tree, and the rains of Africa for watering it
I thank the traders of Arabia for spreading the bean across their world
I thank the ancestors of the peoples of Europe for bringing it to America
I thank the African and Caribbean slaves who worked the first coffee plantation in America
I thank the workers in Peru and India, who grew the beans I now brew
I thank the traders and roasters and all the workers who brought the bean to market
I thank those friends who shared their love of coffee and their skill in brewing with me

Fire from the underworld, water from Tuolumne and Mokelumne, earth from the forge and the kiln, Thank you for sharing this gift with me!

I honor you, Coffea arabica, and pledge to always respect and never abuse your power
I pledge to the people my ancestors wronged that I might have this gift that the debts of my ancestors will be paid to your descendants

Drink deeply from the cup

Gods, I needed that!

If you’re like me (and I know I am), you’re probably at the point of wondering, “Yeah, that’s cool and all, but why did you just write 1000 words about where coffee comes from?” Yes, I did ask myself that after finishing the above passage. To the point:

We all live supported by a vast web of relationships, most of which are just too big and complicated to look at in their entirety. Awareness of this is further blunted by living (as I do) as part of a culture where coffee appears as if by magic on the store shelf, where water and fire appear when casually summoned to the kitchen, and I can so trust my brewing habits that I don’t have to be awake to make a cup of joe. It’s too easy to forget that my life is influenced by forces from beyond the walls of my kitchen.

Beyond that, these aren’t abstract forces. These are living entities, spirits whose lives are entangled with mine, who have their own feelings about all of this. To ignore this, and my responsibilities to these spirits, would be like bouncing around my house while ignoring that my housemates are more than abstract fancies of mine, disclaiming any responsibility for how my actions affect them, denying that their actions have any effect on me. It’s rude at best, more likely damaging to my life and theirs, and reeks of entitlement.

This isn’t about guilt, it’s about awareness. I can’t make better choices, or even know whether or not I need to make better choices, without keeping these relationships in mind.

About the Author

Lon Sarver is a Dionysian priest in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's been at this for 28 years, more or less, in the Midwest and California Pagan and Polytheist communities and is still functionally sane, or at least puts up a good front. Lon leads a devotional group, Thiasos Bakkheios, in monthly rites to Dionysos and annual public rituals at Pantheacon. He edits fiction and provides disability care for his paying gigs. His cat approves of his blogging activities, as it gives her more opportunities to climb up onto his shoulders as he tries to type.

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  1. I love this so much – what a great way to become aware of the complex web of relationships that create something as simple as a cup of coffee. I would also have to thank the cows that produced the milk that I put in my coffee.

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