Bread: Mystery and Gift

Bread: Mystery and Gift April 19, 2020


by guest writer Judy Bratten


One of my favorite gifts last Christmas came from our friend Paul in Kansas. Only four years earlier, I had given him a one-day, rapid rise course in whole grain breadmaking. Now he bakes his own breads from his own grain, organically grown on golden Kansas fields. The gift was a loaf of dark, moist bread and an article on bread making, the old-fashioned way, including instructions on producing homegrown yeast.

As I studied the article, I realized how far we have come from the days of scythes and flails and millstones. In my own twenty-five years of baking bread, I have particularly enjoyed the multisensory experience that baking provides, as well as the sense of being part of an age-old tradition. Yet my baking procedure is still a modern version of the ancient skill, dependent on machinery, electricity, and pre-packaged yeast. To produce three loaves of bread takes me about three hours.

But in the days before such technology, making bread required a daily commitment of time and energy. The wheaten lump which was to become the yeast had to be buried in a sack of freshly milled, organically grown flour; it had to be nurtured and cared for with motherly diligence. To ensure a regular supply of yeast, the process followed a repetitive cycle, a baker’s version of singing rounds. One had to stay with it; taking a few days off would prove fatal for the yeast and to those who depended on the bread as the “staff of life.” Just to provide this one ingredient of breadbaking required one to remain at home and live a simple, disciplined life.

What a contrast this rich, deliberate method is to modern breadmaking, especially the most recent invention: a breadmaking machine. This new “labor-saving device” mixes, kneads, raises and bakes the bread while the owner pursues other interests. The mysterious and sensual aspects of breadmaking have been replaced by convenience and speed, and I can’t help wondering if this same deterioration is taking place in the Church.

Christ came in mystery and in flesh, confounding the wise and scandalizing the practical, and bread has been a major symbol of this paradox. In the parable of the yeast, Jesus compares faith to a lump of leaven which mysteriously changes dough into bread. When Jesus was moved by the hungry crowd, he took five common loaves and mysteriously multiplied them to feed five thousand, and then did it again with seven loaves to feed four thousand. Finally, Jesus performs the greatest mystery in the awesome and incomprehensible gift of the Eucharist: “Take and eat, this is my Body.”

The sense of mystery which is part of ancient breadbaking and even of my more modern methods is totally absent in the machine, just as the sense of mystery is gradually being lost in regard to Jesus in the Eucharist, or even Jesus as “God.” With the Protestant disavowal of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist has come an accompanying disregard for the mysterious power of God in the world, as expressed in the Renaissance, the “Age of Reason” and the modern machine age. The ways of God have become knowable; the mystical elements of everyday life have become simply “laws of Nature,” laws to be comprehended and codified. The technological age is the obvious descendant of such ancestry.

But trivialization of the holy is not limited to our separated brethren. How often do we see lack of reverence shown to the Tabernacle in a Catholic Church? How often do we notice communicants pop the host into their mouths as if it were a potato chip? And how often do we see adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the local parish?

In addition to removing the sense of mystery, the breadmaking machine encourages one to think of productivity rather than process. The ancient act of baking bread required physical contact with the earth and the fruit of the earth. It required getting one’s hands into the dough, being sensitive to the change from stickiness to firmness. The flour on one’s hands, the smell of the yeasty batter, the heat of the oven, all became an integral part of each loaf of bread. This is all lost if one allows a machine to the do the work. Spiritually, we can see that the ancient disciplines which encouraged the development of holiness have been at best ignored, if not forgotten. Where is the fasting, the mortification that should be part of Lent? What happened to frequent confession and daily Communion? How many homilies encourage us to live holy lives by dealing with our vices and developing our virtues? Most of the time we are patted on the back and reassured that God is merciful, that Jesus is “a good Friend.” The process of sanctification has been replaced by a twelve-step-program.

There is yet a more subtle loss that comes with the demystification of breadmaking: the understanding of bread as “gift.” I realized this recently when a dear friend of mine told me she had received a breadmaking machine as a present. Since my friend is financially well-off and can buy anything she wants, the only gifts I had been able to give her over the years were my fresh loaves of homemade bread. The machine had diminished the value of those gifts and left us both poorer. It also makes unnecessary the breadbaking lessons I gave to Paul and others. The opportunity to pass on wisdom, to share insights and to create something beautiful together is lost, as is the opportunity for the unexpected, for the serendipitous moment.

When I lived in a small town in North Carolina, I had become close friends with the wife of the local Baptist minister. Elaine was blond and lovely and gracious, yet insecure in her abilities and her role as a pastor’s wife. I admired her soft, southern drawl and she admired my ability to bake bread.

“It’s not hard,” I told her. “I’ll teach you.”

As so we arranged a day when I could give her an official breadmaking lesson. She had all the ingredients ready when I arrived; the bowls and measuring cups were on the counter. She was as excited as a little girl going on her first carnival ride. As we followed the age-old process of blending water, yeast, flour, oil, sugar, and salt, we exchanged Biblical references to bread, stories about our baking failures and lessons we had learned from the daily routines of motherhood. By the time I left, she had two lovely loaves to put into the oven and had renewed her confidence in herself. Later that evening she called to tell me how her family had praised the work of her hands. Her voice sparkled as she thanked me for the lesson.

Not long after, Elaine’s husband took a new pastorate in another part of the state. She was heart-broken about leaving and anxious about making new friends in a strange town.

“What will I do?” she worried.

“You will be fine,” I reassured her. “The Lord will show you what to do.” I prayed that my words would be fulfilled.

A few weeks later, she called from her new home to tell me that she was baking bread and giving it to neighbors and members of their congregation.

“And I’m teaching others how to bake bread, just as you taught me,” she laughed. “I’ve been able to make many wonderful friends.”

The gift had become a gift to pass on, to bring warmth and love into lives I would never otherwise touch. Like the Bread of Life, we are meant to be broken and shared with others. We are called to see every human being as a gift and to become more like the great Gift of God Himself, Jesus Christ.

For me, bread has become a symbol of simplicity in my physical and spiritual life. Just as I am able to take the everyday elements of water, flour and yeast to produce an aromatic and nourishing food, I pray that God may take my ordinary traits and talents to produce a sweet and fitting offering to Him. Just as a good loaf of bread requires patience and skill, I pray that the Lord will grant me the grace and virtues I need to raise a faithful and happy family.

I am planning to start a lump of leaven the old-fashioned way. I am looking forward to watching the slow, mysterious process which will enable me to bake bread as my ancestors did. The cookstove will be chocked with dusty, chunky blocks of wood, the faint smoky odor blending with the sweet, nutty aroma of baking bread. No machine can duplicate that experience.

Be gentle

  when you touch bread.

      Let it not be uncared for, unwanted.

So often bread

    is taken for granted.

There is so much beauty in bread –

Beauty of sun and soil,

Beauty of ancient toil.

Winds and rains have caressed it,

    Christ often blessed it.

Be gentle

      when you touch bread.

— Author unknown

(This piece was first published in Caelum et Terra, Summer 1995. It is republished here with the author’s permission, at a time when suddenly everyone finds themselves baking bread, or trying to do so)


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