catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 2 :: 2012.01.20 — 2012.02.02


The spirituality of the Chemex

Each morning, my wife and I perform a sacred ritual. It involves several dedicated vessels; a special kettle for boiling water, and a molded glass container that looks like a wine decanter. The focal point of this practice is a specially harvested and prepared bean found only in remote, exotic climes. At the culmination of the ritual we sip water that has been permeated with the essence of the bean. When the process goes right, the aspect of the whole day before us changes instantly, and we are suddenly lighter, more focused, and more ourselves than we had been just moments before.

The process I am describing is that of making coffee using a Chemex. The Chemex is a simple, but marvelous device. It was invented in 1941 by the German-American chemist Peter J. Schlumbohm, and has ever since been hailed not only as one of the finest methods for brewing coffee, but also as a paragon of simplicity and innovation.

The Chemex provides a total experience involving all of the senses. Instead of processing the coffee grounds in the bowels of a machine, the Chemex presents them before the eyes like bouquet of flowers. In fact, when using a Chemex it is advisable to pour a small amount of hot water into the coffee grounds and briefly allow them to “bloom” — that is, to expand, giving off excess carbon-dioxide before brewing begins. Instead of allowing the coffee to drip into a musty-smelling pot on top of a searing hotplate — as with conventional coffeemakers — the Chemex immediately begins to release the pure fragrance of the coffee as it drains and gathers, turning the light that passes though it a rich amber color. Also, the Chemex does not issue the gurgles and coughs of a conventional coffeemaker. It makes a soft sound like a gently running faucet. The coffee it produces is best when drunk black, as the Chemex is known for brewing coffee that is extremely high in flavor clarity. There are no moving parts to break, no on/off switch to forget to turn on or off, no clock to set and reset. It is just a single, ingeniously designed piece of glass that works every time.

The ritual of making Chemex (and I won’t deny that its religious character for me is all too real) has recently made me think about the idea of divine simplicity. For generations, Christian thinkers were very concerned that God be understood as simple. In other words, they were convinced that God, being perfect, could have no moving parts. To be perfectly honest, I have never liked this little theological footnote. It always made God seem hopelessly distant and abstract. I couldn’t get my head around the idea that God could somehow be relational and, at the same time, more simple than a lichen or a molecule of water.

However, I feel as though these daily rituals with the Chemex have given me an education in simplicity. This process — as well as the coffee it produces — could very rightly be called simple. But this simplicity is not the enemy of complexity. In fact, it is only because of the complexity of the coffee that I don’t need to add cream or sugar (and certainly not whipped cream or caramel sauce, or any of the other things you will find at your average coffee shop).

If there is one lesson that simple things like the Chemex can teach us, it is that simplicities can be difficult. In a time in which societies around the world are talking about cutting back, using less and implementing austerity measures, it is encouraging to remember that simplicity is something very different from mere austerity. An economist might be able to prescribe budget cuts, but he cannot offer simplicity, because it is much more than the negation of the things, possessions and luxuries. It is a positive force. It allows us to experience levels of richness and plenitude that certain kinds of complexity only remove us from.

This understanding is all the more easy to miss in a time of increasing income inequality. It is natural for those of us who are experiencing austerity to become convinced that we are being deprived of the good life, and, at the same time, for those who have more than enough to continue on a mad quest for plenitude and richness by way of excess. But, if we continue in this way, neither group will find what it is looking for.

In a time like ours, it might be helpful to meditate on a few of the ideas and actions of one of the greatest masters of simplicity who ever lived: St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was extremely fond of what he called “holy poverty,” to the extent that it was often said that he had “married” poverty. Francis understood something that we do not. He understood that by embracing the simplicity of poverty he would get the whole world back. He famously declared, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.” Poverty, for him, was the gateway to all other virtues, and even the greatest force for peace in the world. His poverty was not about shame or mere self-denial, rather it was a strategic decision about what it meant to experience life the way we were meant to experience it. The simple pleasures of food and warmth must have held more richness and joy for Francis than most of us could imagine.

Wealth, I would suggest, is a lot like light pollution. When we are surrounded by the blinding lights of luxury, we forget what it is like to see the stars. And just as there is no such thing as a private light — one that I keep to myself that is invisible to others — there is really no such thing as truly “private” wealth; my excess might be the very thing that blocks my neighbor from enjoyment and vice-versa. But now that the lights are dimming, little by little, we can learn how to see in new ways. Perhaps this is where the practitioners of holy simplicity are most needed now: to be those who can point out the stars amidst the pollution.

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