Breadbaking and spirituality

I once read in some magazine about a woman who listed “bread baking” as her most important spiritual practice. I’m trying to remember the context and place of that article, but I can’t. Probably must have been in the pre-google-era, though. At the time I found this statement beyond phony, and it made me think of Wiccan-style women in hand-woven frocks, sitting humming together around a fire.

I did already then, in my early 20’s, bake bread now and again, but I certainly wouldn’t have listed it as a spiritual practice. To me it was more a question of eating well and culinary enjoyment. If anything, the cleaning up afterwards had something of what I recognized as spiritual: it was hard; it involved bending my natural inclinations, and it had a strong element of repentance.

Many moons have passed since this, and my bread baking has moved from being a “special event” to one of the elements that hold together my existence. I’ve also discovered that I’m not alone: The Jesuit Brother Curry, gathered and shared recipes for bread–gathered from Jesuit brothers around the world– and presented along with them his spiritual insights on meditation through bread-baking.

In her book THE SPIRITUALLY OF BREAD, Donna Sinclair connected many traditions through stories and bread making. “Bread is identity. It helps us remember who we are,” Sinclair writes, echoing the Biblical Mordecai’s advice to Esther to remember her heritage when she confronted the king to save her people. “Indeed, bread demands peace; you cannot grow grain in a battlefield. But you can–oh yes–can distribute love with small gestures, like a loaf of bread, or smooth, white bowl to make it in.”

And maybe it is the discovery of how bread baking is connected to my identity that has moved it into to realm of spirituality for me.

The smell of bread baking in my oven brings back memories from so far back in my childhood that I have no language for them. It is the smell of happiness, of home and of safety for me. When I knead bread, I can close my eyes and see the hands of my Grandmother making the same movements, and if I keep my eyes closed even longer, I can even imagine other women whose face I’ve never seen and to whom this kneading gesture connects me. This feeling of tradition, continuity and connection is not much different from what one may experience in a church or a temple.

Bread baking is also an exercise in patience. The slow growth of the yeast in the dough, the fact that cheating by putting more yeast in at the beginning, is easily detected in the result, teaches me lesson after lesson. In an age where multitasking and being on the go constantly are held up as virtues, bread baking helps me find my natural breath again and teaches me that to connect to my inner self, I sometimes need to detach myself from distractions. I still have a lot of learning to do, though, as my family can testify: My experimenting with making my own sour dough left me with a blob of foul smelling substance, nothing like what would have happened if I had tuned in to the rhythm of the sour dough.

Bread baking is not all about tradition, however. I make a different kind of bread from the bread my grandmother made, and also different from my mother and father’s bread. I’ve lived in several countries and encountered different recipes and grains. In Tuscany people swear by unsalted bread, a tradition started when salt was scarce due to import tolls. In Denmark I learnt to like the dark and dense Pumpernickel rye bread, which needs to bake for hours and hours at a low temperature. My bread baking is in continual evolution, thanks to the people I’ve met and the grains they’ve taught me to use, and this constant innovation is also spiritual to me. It shows that I’m not only connected to the past but to my surroundings, present and future.

One lovely aspect of bread baking is the fact that unlike so many other baked goods, a bread-dough is very forgiving. You can forget about it in the hustle bustle of your life, find it has leavened way too much, and still be able to enjoy fresh bread after a careful kneading and addition of flour. This is a reminder that most things in life can be mended and made whole again, a lesson you’d never learn from making angel food cake for example.

As I sit down and share the joy of fresh bread with family around the table, I’m reminded of the spiritual nature of all community. I reach a better understanding of why a Sabbath dinner in a Jewish household has bread at its centre. And I’m reminded of how the Christian Communion isn’t only a symbolic ritual, but also about nourishment, and seeing holiness in everyday gestures.


~ by Hege on June 8, 2010.

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