This column was the featured column on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality forum on March 12, 2007.
During Lent this year, I’ve decided to learn how to make bread.
Although I’ve always been comfortable in the kitchen, good bread is something that continues to elude me, and I suspect this is because I have always lacked the kind of patience required to allow the dough to rise without interfering with the work of the yeast.
This is a problem that goes beyond bread making. Like most modern Americans, I am uncomfortable relinquishing control of my life. I am constantly wired, seamlessly connected, vertically integrated, and plugged in without respite. I don’t take enough time to sit quietly by while the yeast of life rises, working magic in the world around me. My hope was that making bread during Lent would provide an object lesson that would help me to trust the Spirit to lead and sustain me through the parts of life over which I have no control.
I started my bread making journey by picking up a bread cook book by Father Dominic Garramone, OSB (it turns out that a lot of monks and mystics bake bread). Impatient to create wonderful loaves, I started by trying to make the most interesting and complicated looking bread in the book. Thanks to my inexperience, the bread ended up being denser than a bagel and uglier than mud.
Humbled, I went to the beginning of the book and cooked the easiest white bread recipe I could find. It took a few tries, but now I’m confident enough in my boring white bread that I’ve made it for use on my church’s communion table. It’s not bad, but my yearning is for something a little bit more satisfying.
The bread I’m trying to perfect has the kind of crust and crumb that makes you want to wear a beret and smoke Gauloise cigarettes. It makes you want to spend a year in Provence, pondering life in all of its angst-ridden complexities while swilling Chateauneuf de Pape and painting impressionists landscapes of lavender fields in bloom. I’m in search of bread that makes you want to ask, with a slightly protruding lower lip, “Oú est la fromage bleu?” but it can’t be too French because I’m from Northern California; to my palette, any bread worth its yeast must be made with sourdough. The bread I’m trying bake, my bread, the bread that reflects the longings of my soul, must be, at the same time, domestic and exotic: San Francisco goes to Avignon.
I’m still a long way from achieving my goal, but each time I bake a batch of bread I get a little bit closer to my elusive loaf. I’m currently using sourdough made from wild yeast gathered on my back patio (I, who seldom have caught a live fish, somehow managed to capture and nurture a colony of microscopic organisms). I’m reading and learning about methods for bread making that utilize a slow rising technique to produce bigger bubbles in the crumb. My last batch took three days to make.
As I wait for the dough to rise, I’m learning that it’s OK to be slow, OK to make mistakes, OK to let the yeast work on its own. I’m figuring out that sometimes a person must be humble enough to follow the easiest of directions with unwavering faithfulness, and sometimes the same person must experiment a bit, using the recipe like a guide post on a journey of self-discovery.
These lessons migrate easily from bread making to life. The Spirit moves in us like yeast, causing us to grow, bringing flavor and beauty to our lives. Baking bread this Lent has helped me to relax my controlling grasp of life and let the Spirit work without my interference.
And maybe, someday, I’ll eat that long awaited loaf.