Published June 21, 2007
You needn’t go to college to learn one of life’s big lessons. Just walk into the kitchen, roll up your sleeves and get to work baking bread.
Lesson one is this: You can use your own muscles to create some mighty fine things. Bread machines take away much of the pleasure of making bread, and kneading gives your arms an excellent workout.
Making bread also teaches you about humility. You don’t need costly or fancy ingredients to produce something that will bring whimpers of pleasure from friends.
Flour and salt are cheap, and water is plentiful. Add a sprinkle of rosemary from the garden, and you are on the road to ecstasy.
In the textbook on patience, there should be an illustration of bread. The yeast will work at its own pace to double the size of the dough. You cannot rush it.
Bread reminds us that some things in life take their own sweet time. It takes a solid half hour to make a really decent pot of rice. You can’t hurry the birth of a rose upon the bush, and babies need about nine months to develop fully in the womb.
Kneading dough calls us back to the present moment, where God hides. And while you are kneading, you can pray.
You can pray for all the people in the world who exist mostly on bread, whether they call it pan, pita or tortillas. And for the people in war-torn regions who would envy a quiet moment in the kitchen, with sunlight trickling over the dough.
Making bread beckons you to follow your heart. Some recipes tell you to knead for a precise amount of time, for example, as if bread making were a science.
But like so many things in life, bread making is an art. Each loaf from the very same recipe will turn out differently, depending on where the wheat for the flour was grown, how vigorously the dough was kneaded and how hot the ovens were.
Each loaf really is a work of art—and what artist can predict, with scientific precision, when a painting is completed? What person of faith can say just how many prayers are enough?
With bread, there is a moment when the dough grows supple and shiny in your hands, and you sense that the kneading is done. There is another moment, when you take the loaf from the oven and tap it gently to test for doneness.
You can’t pin down those moments with a formula, any more than you can explain to someone why, on some particular day, you walked into a church and got down on your knees to pray.
With prayer, someone bigger than us invites us, ever so gently. Making bread is a gentle process too. If you treat the dough with love, it will produce much more than you expected, just like prayer.
There is a mystery to bread. Yeast is a living, single-celled organism, which remains in the fridge until fed with sugar and water, and then somehow comes to life.
Bread reminds me of all the things we don’t understand. How did a friend know to call you on a day when you were feeling blue? How did a bird know to show up in your yard and dunk himself in the bird bath just when you needed a laugh?
Only one food is mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer, and not surprisingly, it is bread. When Jesus appeared after the Resurrection to his friends on the road, they had no idea who he was. They recognized him later, in the breaking of the bread.
Making bread links us to the Father, who provides sunshine and water for the wheat. It connects us to Jesus, who called himself the Bread of Life, and who gave us Eucharistic bread as his body to sustain us.
And since bread nourishes us and enriches our lives, it calls to mind the Holy Spirit, the giver of life.
Each day God gives us our daily bread. It comes in the form of real dough with a heavy crust. It comes in the form of answered prayers. And it also comes in a small wafer of heavenly bread, which through the mystery of love and faith, becomes Christ himself.
Lorraine V. Murray is the author of “Grace Notes. Embracing the Joy of Christ in a Broken World,” and two other books, available at www.lorrainevmurray.com. Illustration featured in the print edition is by her husband, Jef, who is the artist-in-residence at The St. Austin Review. Readers may e-mail Lorraine at email@example.com.