Afternoon tea—that particularly English custom—is, I have decided, one of the best things in the world. Furthermore, I think that it is a custom well worth bringing back to the United States. First and foremost, of course, an afternoon tea and scone is simply delicious, especially if you elaborate it with cakes and thin crustless sandwiches. And I am sure that there have been scores of humorous odes to tea that praise its every feature, from the most serious to the silliest. But I do not mean to be facetious in this post. I believe that making a practice of afternoon tea, or something similar, can inculcate actual virtues. As Andy Crouch wrote in Culture Making, we cannot change the way we act in the world according to our beliefs unless we embed our ideas in specific practices. If we want to make virtues possible to carry out, we need practices that will support them. Afternoon tea is one such practice that it would be well worth picking up.
First, afternoon tea truly centers around community. You don’t have afternoon tea alone; you gather your friends and relations and all sit down together around a round-bellied teapot, overflowing plates of sandwiches, and a basketful of scones. It is by its nature a leisurely meal; it gives a long, relaxed chance to chat together and enjoy each other’s company. This is a terribly important point, I think particularly for busy Harvard students. In my upcoming senior year, what with writing a thesis, applying to grad school, and keeping up with all the thousand other things I have to do, I anticipate quite a lot of time spent working alone. I will need to make excuses for myself to gather together with friends, because there will always so much to get done that it would be easier just to never see them. In most cases, however, living a solitary life is not a good idea. There are, of course, some hermits who have been called to live alone, but for most of us the social arena is the one which provides both our greatest temptations and our greatest opportunities of virtue. Charity, generosity, faithfulness, kindness—all these virtues can only be exercised in the human sphere. Afternoon tea is one way of bringing people together, so that we can practice these virtues on each other.
Second, afternoon tea is an opportunity for rest. Unlike so many other meals, you cannot take it with you and eat it as you rush off to your next activity. The possibilities for disaster are enormous if you try to juggle a piping hot much of tea and a large scone overflowing with sticky jam. It just can’t be done. Likewise, you can’t have afternoon tea as you sit at your desk, typing a paper. Jelly-smeared computers are not a pretty sight. You have to take a rest from work, sit down, and make a conscious effort to relax, if only for twenty minutes or a half-hour. And the capacity for rest is surely a virtue that must be cultivated, especially in this hectic world of ours. Quite apart from the practical benefits (it is easier to work hard after a break), rest is enshrined in the Ten Commandments themselves. It is not the only reason for the Sabbath, but it is surely one reason. We were not made to work like machines. We were not made to be slaves to our labor. If we rest in the afternoon over good tea and good scones, we will better remember our humanity.