On Sunday we held a memorial tea in honor of Brother Joseph Keenan.
Brother Keenan was a member of the Christian Brothers and a professor of religion at La Salle University. In the 1980s, he became interested in tea ceremony and began studying at the New York branch of Urasenke, and spent a year studying in Japan. He was so passionate about tea ceremony that he convinced the university to allow one of the historic buildings on campus to be converted into a tea house, for which the Urasenke headquarters in Kyoto and the branch in New York donated the labor, the construction supplies, and the utensils. In the following years, hundreds of La Salle students and several dozen more members of the public got a chance to learn tea ceremony thanks to the university’s tea program, and countless more experienced demonstrations either at the university or performed by members of the tea program.
I was one of the La Salle students who took his class, and so he was my first tea teacher. I’ll never forget his sense of humor. It’s traditional at the end of each lesson to thank the teacher; he always used to joke that we had to thank him “whether you want to or not.” He started tea late in life, and after a while he had to have a knee replacement, but that didn’t stop him; he just sat on a hassock and kept going. He even took on extra hours of teaching and bought tea utensils with his own money to keep the program going.
In 1999, Brother Keenan died, the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. Teachers and students banded together to keep the program alive, and even after the university decided to end the program in 2007, we moved to Shofuso and kept whisking.
This year was the 10th anniversary of Brother Keenan’s death, and so we had a memorial tea for him. There were a number of students we couldn’t find, but our first guest was one of the early teachers at Urasenke La Salle, Yumiko Pakenham, and another one was the first student, Mariko Ono.
The gathering was very similar in format to a normal tea gathering, except that the tokonoma (the alcove where the scroll is hung and flowers arranged), there was no only a scroll but a portrait of Brother Keenan. On a small stand in front of the photo there was a vase with a flower arrangement and some space where tea and sweets would go later.
It was raining early in the day as everyone gathered. We started with hanayose, in which people who knew Brother Keenan came up and took flowers from a tray, arranging some in the vases that lined the tokonoma. We skipped the formal arrangement of charcoal in front of the guests (although we did use charcoal for the fire) and went straight into the food. Once the guests had eaten, there was a short break, and the sun actually came out! The air started to warm up and dry all the puddles, and it turned into a beautiful day.
After the break, Taeko-sensei made koicha (thick tea). The first bowl was presented to Brother Keenan (placed on the stand in front of his picture) and then she made tea for the guests. After koicha, usucha (thin tea) was prepared by Mariko-sensei, with some extra whipped in the kitchen by the assistants.
At the end of the gathering, we all took a little time to share memories of Brother Keenan before we went our separate ways. It was wonderful to be able to spend the time with some old friends, and also to share the memories. Without him, there would be no tea ceremony in the Philadelphia area. I hope he was looking down on us today and happy to know that the tradition is still strong.