Spiritual Lessons from Bread Making

Forgive me. In my last blog post on December 18, I had said that I would post some thoughts on the correlations between bread making and the spiritual life. Well here it is one month later and I am finally getting around to writing the post.

As I had mentioned I am currently reading The Women in God’s Kitchen: Cooking Eating, and Spiritual Writing by Cristina Mazzoni. In the book she looks at various women saints’ writings throughout church history and the spiritual lessons they have learned through spending time in the kitchen. In the first chapter she looks at bread making, highlighting Saint Catherine of Genoa’s (1146/7-1510) specific insights into the spiritual life from bread making.

In her work The Spiritual Dialogue, St. Catherine “realized that the Spirit wanted it [Catherine’s humanity] to work with human misery as if it were kneading bread, and even, if need be, to taste it a bit” (Mazzoni quoting St. Catherine, p. 30). Mazzoni writes that St. Catherine does not explain what she means by this metaphor means.

The image is obscure and confusing at first glance. After all, I would never associate eating fresh baked bread with misery; there is no simpler delight than fresh baked bread and butter. But as I continue to think about the image, I believe that her image is somewhat profound and beautiful.

As Cristina Mazzoni writes:

Perhaps Catherine’s images suggest, it is the quality of patience, the act of endurance, the need for perseverance that bind kneading to compassion for others’ needs. Bread dough is difficult at first to knead, its different ingredients must be brought together—as in the unity of will that human frailty desires and does not achieve—in order for a unified mass to form. The mass is at first sticky, hard to manage, but as the baker incorporates enough flour the dough becomes more obedient, elastic, and even pleasurable to work with. At this point a consistent application of physical strength becomes important, in order to develop the gluten which, along with yeast, allows the dough to rise. (pp. 30-31)

Working with the despairing is not easy work. It takes patience and time to slowly reframe their paradigm. One must sit with them for long periods of time praying and believing that small steps are being taken in which they are developing the capacity/strength to withstand their horrible circumstances and see the Triune God at work in their life.

So the baker with his/her bread. He/she gently kneads the bread for a period of time in order to develop the gluten in the bread which will allow it to rise and become what the dough is supposed to be—namely bread. Before stand mixers and food processors, there were no shortcuts in this process. And if you have ever tried to knead bread, you know that it is not an easy process.

Cristina Mazzoni continues:

Perhaps tending to the sick and desperate, like kneading dough, is a process in which the human being is an active vehicle for the manifestation of a divine intervention. Perhaps making bread, like ministering to the afflicted, involves providing the hands and strength that allow something the human being does not control—the rising of the dough, the consolation of the afflicted—but for which human intervention is necessary, like that of the Gospel baker hiding her leaven in the three measure of flour. (p. 31)

This is what I simultaneously love/hate about making bread—there are certain variables outside of my control which impact the actual bread. I cannot control the amount of moisture in the air or the wild yeasts naturally in the air.

For instance, I was talking to Chef Gary the other day about making bread. He told me how at his old restaurant in Sherman Oaks, they were able to produce amazing sourdough bread, but to this day he cannot do it to the same degree at his house in Long Beach. The differing results have nothing to do with his skill, but everything to do with the environment.

One experiences the same phenomenon while working with the afflicted. No matter how much one cares and listens and is simply with the person, how that person will ultimately grow and experience God is not in the control of the other. Nor will the care-taker ultimately know and be able to control when and how God breaks into the life of the afflicted.

In making bread, I can be pretty sure of the results if I do the same thing time and time again. However, in working with people to help them see God in all things, I will always be surprised by the result because the living, relational, Triune God can never be reduced to a recipe/formula.

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