Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Catholic in a Coffeehouse

So, as I type this, I find myself perched in a corner of America's own pseudo-cultural hubs, the creature known as Starbucks.  I don't make it to Starbucks often, which is odd considering the facts that I love coffee, they sell coffee, and they have about as many coffeehouses in the US as the Catholic Church does parishes.  However, the occasions I do get to go to Starbucks are quite interesting, for a variety of reasons, most notable of which is the similarity that Starbucks bears to the Catholic Church.

That got your attention didn't it.  Now, allow me to explain myself.  I know about Starbucks' support of gay marriage and whatnot.  I'm not saying that Starbucks and Catholicism are the same.  But they are very similar, and here's why.  

They march to a war on naps.
Walk into any Starbucks, and you'll notice that they all bear a striking resemblance to each other.  You can go to nearly any Starbucks and know what sort of environment, what sort of menu, what sort of service, what sort of experience that you will find.  They all have similar layouts, similar furniture, similar atmosphere, and similar process to each other, and from all this, we tend to gleam a sort of reassurance.  We like Starbucks for a variety of reasons, but mostly because Starbucks gives us the same experience no matter where we are.  When we want expensive coffee and free wifi, we know that no matter where we are, we can go to Starbucks and find it.

Now look at Catholicism.  No matter where in the world you are, the Catholic Church has a string of consistency.  You can walk into a Catholic Church and expect the same experience day in and day out.  Mass at St. Patrick's in New York will be the same as Mass in Sts. Peter and Paul in San Francisco, singing many of the same hymns with much of the same smells and bells and what not.   We all have a variety of reasons for being Catholic, and among them prominently is its widespread consistency.  When our souls hunger for prayerful silence and Heavenly Liturgy, we can go to a Catholic Church and find it.

Now, hang in there with me on this one.  Starbucks, for many, is a place of worship.  I can assure you, Starbucks is not just about coffee.  If it were, I could buy a cheap coffee maker and generic coffee, put it on a cart, sell it for 50 cents and be way more successful than a Starbucks.  A cup of coffee is easily $2, and yet Starbucks are more common than acne on the face of a 15 yr old.  Why do people go to Starbucks if not just for coffee?  Well, as mentioned previously, it has to do with the atmosphere.  People like Starbucks, not because its coffee and wifi, but because its trendy coffee and wifi.  Each cardboard-wrapped cup of joe comes with a sense of unspoken prestige, an aura of cool.  Starbucks is artisan, its earthy, its cool.  A styrofoam cup of Folgers doesn't convey the same message that a paper cup of Starbucks does, and that's why we'll drop mad cash for a Venti Mocha Abomination (I take my coffee black, thank you muchly).

And what a devout band of worshipers
we are...
Starbucks is a place of worship, like the Catholic Church, but it worships trendiness.  We don't go to Starbucks for coffee, we go to Starbucks for really cool coffee.  I'd argue that if modern pop culture, especially amongst young adults from middle class upbringing, had a religious denomination, it would be the Almighty Starbucks.  My age group is, despite the demographics, very religious.  Our ancestors worshiped in grand churches and basilicas, and they gave their souls to a God that their eyes could never see.  My generation worships in coffeehouses and shopping malls, and sell their souls to gods they can only see with eyes.  My heart, when it soars in prayer, can be overwhelmed by grace eternal.  My generation cannot commune with trends; we can only empty our wallets at its feet and pray that another cup of coffee will make us happy for a few minutes, or plead that these new shoes will put our anxieties at ease.  Problems that our hearts are afflicted with and illnesses that our souls are stricken by are hopelessly abated with Ugg boots and North Face jackets, all gathered in the vain hope that when we have everything we want, we will still want everything that we have.

Starbucks, as a concept and as an institution, is a stark reminder of a very fundamental truth of human nature:  we are a species seeking purpose.  The human race exists, and yet, uniquely enough, we know that we don't have to exist, and that causes us to seek a purpose, a cause for our existence.  In something as simple as an overpriced and over-stylized cup of coffee, we seek to further settle the dispute in our soul.  We tell ourselves "If I had just one more venti mocha beverage, then I'll be ready for today" or "I'll be happier with a grande cappuccino" recognizing that we're not ready for today and we're not happy.  I have nothing against coffee, I love the stuff in fact.  But we cannot be honest and think that we haven't given trendiness and fashion free reign over our lives.  We coat ourselves in brand names and designer labels, clutching our mocha with both hands.  Why?  Because in a small corner of our heart, we think that the North Face will save us, that Sperry's mark the path to inner peace, that Louis Vuitton wants us to have life to the fullest, that at the bottom of our latte, we might find God.

Human life isn't so cheap that it can be valued in cups of coffee and fashionable accessories.   We want so many things, and when we get them, we find ourselves still wanting, because we never wanted them in the first place, just the satisfaction that we hoped they would bring us.  We don't want (insert trendy item), we want happiness, and have convinced ourselves that (aforementioned trendy item) will bring us one step closer to happiness, ultimately leaving us with coffee stained teeth and a landfill full of paper cups whose emptiness matches that of our hearts.  We were made for more than trends and fashions.  We were made for eternity.

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