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Decaf: Coffee, Caffeine and Catholicism

3 minutes

During a recent medical exam, my physician recommended that I cut coffee from my diet. Apparently, he considered my life exciting enough without the added caffeine stimulus. This was no minor suggestion, as coffee had come to represent a significant facet of my life.

With the myriad of coffees, macchiatos, syrups, espressos, and double shots, some people are intimidated to go to coffee bars. I’m not. I’m the one you want to go with. Even with all the choices available at a typical shop, I routinely order “off the menu” and guide the baristas how to produce arabical brilliance in a cup. Over the years, I’ve become what is called a “coffee snob.” I smugly dismiss those who call themselves “coffee drinkers,” yet have the temerity to drink supermarket-bought coffee. I once found myself insulted when I brought a bag of coffee beans to the checkout at my local coffee store, and the woman behind the counter asked me if I wanted them ground (as if I didn’t own a coffee grinder). I’ve even given serious consideration to roasting my own coffee beans.

Suffice it to say that giving up coffee was not exactly something that I had planned on doing. (And there is some question as to whether the local coffee shop would have expanded if they had known.) But since my doctor assured me that I could still drink de-caffeinated coffee, I thought I would give it a try. Specifically, he recommended that I cut my caffeinated coffee intake by one-half every few days until eliminated to zero. I assured him that this was a mathematical impossibility, but being a “spirit of the law” kind of guy, I played along.

So the next day, I went in to the local coffee shop and ordered a “half-caf with half and half.” I quickly discovered another mathematical formula: one-half plus one-half plus one-half equals one: one headache. As the following days wore on, I noticed something else: it’s a bit emasculating to order decaf coffee. Nobody’s proud to order it. In terms of masculinity, ordering decaf coffee lies somewhere between ordering diet soda and non-alcoholic beer. If you order diet soda, people consider that a wise decision. If you order decaf coffee, people wonder what’s wrong with you. So you start saying the word “decaf” in kind of an under-your-breath, or throat-clearing way: “Could you make that a (cough) decaf?” It’s probably still better than ordering a non-alcoholic beer, but not by much.

Even my 14-year-old daughter has informed me that making decaf coffee is against her religion. (Yes, she’s Catholic.) And if you think about it, she has a point. It seems unnatural. You’re drinking something, but it’s based on a lie. You tell yourself that you’re drinking coffee, but you know that what you are drinking is not the fullness of what coffee has to offer.

As the following week ensued, and my headache started to dissipate along with my caffeine intake, a funny thing happened. I didn’t need coffee any more. I used to get coffee headaches, meaning that if I didn’t have a cup of coffee by ten o’clock in the morning, I’d get a headache. Getting a good cup of coffee every morning , regardless of circumstance, is not always an easy thing to do: sometimes it is almost impossible. Some days, it’s not fun to race to the coffee shop—it can be a real inconvenience. But a week after my coffee purge began, I noticed that I no longer needed it.

Because my beautiful, oft-pregnant wife has turned me into the kind of person who finds a spiritual meaning in any circumstance, I began to recognize something: this coffee story serves as a microcosm of Christianity. Eventually, we have to give up attachment to everything—everything except God. Before we can meet Christ, we have to free ourselves of all those things that separate us—habits, thoughts, sins. We have to desire what the Sacred Heart of Jesus desires…and nothing else.

It’s not the coffee that gives you freedom—it’s the lack of coffee that gives you freedom. Now it’s certainly not a sin to drink coffee, and there are many things that are worse than coffee. Recent medical findings even suggest that there is some benefit to coffee drinking. But that’s really not the point: the point is that attachment to so many things has to be given up. In the Eastern Liturgy, we pray for the grace to “set aside all earthly cares.” This prayer signifies that it’s not just the sins that often hold us back, it’s the worldly things that may not be sins, but may be distractions, whether it’s golf, television, or the Internet.

Maybe the lesson is that we have to “de-caf” our lives. If it won’t be in heaven with us, maybe we should stop paying so much attention to it now; and if it will be in heaven with us, maybe we should pay more attention to it now. There is no golf, television, or the Internet in heaven; but there is love, there is family, and there is God. Fathers, as the new school year begins, remember that the sacrifices you make are for those things and those people that will be with you in heaven. Let’s all pray that we remember that lesson when things get hard.

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And please pray for me for strength the next time I pass Starbucks.

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About John Clark

John Clark
John Clark is a homeschooling father, a speechwriter, an online course developer for Seton Home Study School, and a weekly blogger for The National Catholic Register. His latest book is “How to be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford a Decent Cape.”
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