Tuesday, January 8, 2019

prayer, bread and music - part four

NOTE: This is the fourth of five reflections on my own personal spiritual practises. Starting on January 1, 2019 I began by noting that every one's inner journey by faith is messy, complicated, riddled with both pain and blessing. No one goes deeper in the Spirit simply; this journey always asks us to die to something in order for new life to be born. On January 3rd I posted that my conviction re: all healthy spiritualities and religions is that they strengthen love - a love that must be awakened and nurtured both within and beyond ourselves - for love is what brings meaning to our existence. On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, I tried to summarize why and how prayer matters: prayer trains us to rest in silence and mystery, it asks us to face our wounded and false selves honestly, and then to listen and wait for God's grace and healing presence that arrives in God's own time. Today I hope to articulate why and how bread became one of my spiritual directors in pursuit of truth, tenderness and trust. And later this week I will finish up writing about my encounters with music as a wisdom teacher.

Joy Mead writes a poem in my favorite book from the Community of Iona, The One Loaf, that speaks to the spirituality of bread for me:

Because bread won't be hurried
we have to learn to let be, 
to do nothing, to be patient,
to wait for the proving.
Because bread won't be hurried
and is a life and death process,
we find out in its making
that time is not a line
but a cycle of ends and beginnings, 
rhythms and seasons,
growth and death,
celebration and mourning,
work and rest,
eating and fasting,
because bread won't be hurried.

In a pyramid in Egypt

a few grains of wheat
lay surrounded by death
- dormant for thousands of years.
They waited quietly
until the time was right,
until the life impulse
was awakened by the good earth,
warmed by the sun
and ready to dance
in the bread of tomorrow.

Her description matches my experience - with bread and sacred living - it is earthy, crusty, messy, demanding and time-consuming and nourishing all at once. In fact, it would not be overstating the case to say that for the past year bread has become a spiritual director of sorts for me. Right now I am waiting for the "sponge" part of bread baking to occur. It is step one in the Tassajara Bread Book (my go-to guide since the early 70s) and takes a two full hours. Mixing lukewarm water with baker's yeast, honey and flour that has been sifted and stirred into the bowl one cup at a time, eventually forms a sponge. If said sponge is successful, it will double its size. If the yeast has been wounded in the process, however, it will die and you best start again. If it rises, more flour is added and kneaded at least 100 turns. More waiting, rising, punching down and repeating follows before the loaves are even ready to be formed and eventually baked.

It takes me 5+ hours to bake our bread. In-between there are bowls to wash, floors to sweep, hands to scrape and a lot of waiting. You have to become comfortable with so-called unproductive time if you want a good loaf. As noted elsewhere, this unproductive time is the overlooked and currently undervalued quotidian wisdom of the sacred feminine. Gertrude Mueller-Nelson distills it best when she says: "The tempo of haste in which we live has less to do with being on time or the efficiency of a busy life... and more to do with being unable to wait.. (for to us) waiting has become
unpractical time, good for nothing."

(And yet waiting) is mysteriously necessary to all that is becoming. As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth what is not whole or strong or even alive. Brewing, baking, simmer, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the feminine processes of becoming and they are the symbolic states of being which belong in a life of value, necessary to transformation. (To Dance with God, p. 64)

To learn how to rest in the silence in prayer, I needed to return to the forgotten feminine art of baking bread. Every week since last January, ultimately for one full day, I set time aside for bread. At first I tried to multi-task but wound up destroying the bread and getting sticky dough all over my computer key board. Because I am slow to learn and essentially stubborn, I kept trying different tasks while working on the bread: vacuuming, dusting, down-sizing my books and records, paying bills, running errands or taking Lucie for a walk. But my incidental activities kept getting interrupted by the quiet bread. It is an insistent instructor. So finally in about September, it became clear that I needed to set aside one day without much else to do if I wanted to learn what the bread was trying to teach me. Things like how to pay attention to the dough. Or finish one task before taking on another. Or how part of the rising process (90 minutes) is adequate for some writing, but anything less just muddles my concentration and violates the gift of waiting.

Waiting and patience are essential for compassion. And intimacy with the holy in our humanity. Call it mindfulness or contemplation, learning to be at rest in my self in real time is the only way I notice where God is - especially in those still, small voice invitations. Or in those people and places I can so easily overlook as inconsequential while I do my self-centered, important tasks. Stillness is how the Spirit teaches me to let go of not only my wounds but also my privilege as a bourgeois white guy. One of the Psalms says, "Be still and know... that I am God." And that you are not! And that the way of God, to paraphrase the prophet Isaiah, is not your way. Not the frantic, multi-tasking, obsessive and greed driven way of Western culture. "Let go and let God" is how some have phrased it in the 12 Step movement. Absolutely essential to live as a tender, non-anxious presence in this crazy world.


To be honest, I'm still not very good at it. Last weekend Di found herself in agony with a particularly virulent stomach virus. One thing led to another and we needed an ambulance to get her to the emergency room. I was trying to be present - and loving - and I kept hearing my fear come out like anger. That was, of course, the last thing she needed. And every time I heard myself sounding gruff I hated it. So I would work on my breathing/centering prayer as we sat and waited without any control over a miserable situation. And as one hour became two and eventually nine before the pain was addressed, there was a lot of time for me to practice. And blow it again. And kick myself and ask for forgiveness and try once more. "Be still... and know." Absolutely critical.

Bread baking is showing me how much I ache to be in control - even when I know that acceptance is all that is being offered. In this, bread is a quietly consistent mentor in the ways of humility. To date I have been successful with only two types of bread - a whole wheat loaf and a simple crusty white bread - as all my other experiments have failed. Interestingly, my failures are all related to not really paying close enough attention. One spectacular looking set of white loaves tasted like crap because I omitted the salt. The first few loaves were poorly formed because I had no idea that the size of the pan determines how high the bread will rise - and this matters if you're making loaves for sandwiches or breakfast. Too many times I either killed the yeast with water that was too cold or too hot. Sometimes I killed it with an oven that was too hot. None of those loaves rose - and had to become humble croûtons and bird food. 


Bread has taught me what previous spiritual directors had hoped I would learn: failure is essential to ripening. It is, in fact, how the Eastern Orthodox tradition interprets the story of Adam and Eve: we were created less than perfect so that we might learn from our mistakes and incrementally become more holy. St. Ireneaus insisted that what the West condemns as sinful is actually part of the divine plan for our spiritual maturation. Divinization is part of the formation of faith in that realm and makes a whole lot of sense to me. God knows I have been asked to learn a lot from my bread  - and that is the point. My friends in AA like to say: "If you always do what you've always done, then you'll always get what you've always got!" Baking has helped me become a little more accepting of missing the mark and a lot more aware that failure is a sacred part of faithful living.

Two other truths have become real for me in this year of returning to bread baking: first, beyond my inward and outward prayers, I am starting to see the whole baking process as a metaphor for living as bread; and second, how the bread of the Eucharist guides my hopes and dreams.  In her small collection of meditations on loving and transformation, Becoming Bread, Gunilla Norris writes: 

When a loaf of bread is taken out of the oven, it is hot and moist. It is laid on the breadboard and the kitchen fills with yeasty fragrance. Much has happened for this bread to have come into being - and more will continue to happen.  We smell the bread. We see its brown patina and touch the crust. Warmth comes to our fingertips. We experience the bread as we do our loving... with all our senses. To be here, on the breadboard, this loaf as gone through fire. Soon it will be consumed and give nourishment. And then it will be forgotten... we, too, must go through fire to become ourselves, to become sustenance for each other and for life itself. We are each a part of the mystery... love and bread. It breaks. It crumbles. It nourishes. We share it. Bread comes from grain, from earth, from rain, from summer and light, from labor and threshing. Bread of comfort, of necessity, of sorrow. Bread that brings life. Fresh bread. Stale bread. Bread crumbs. We are all of that. (pp. 4-5)

In my spiritual life, I have chosen to follow and embody the way of Jesus. There are many reasons including the hope I trust and have experienced in what some know as the Paschal Mystery (how new life often emerges out of the various forms of death in the world.) My commitment has been strengthened by the mystical, loving presence of Jesus within my heart. And it has been given shape and form by a rhythm of living that Jesus described for his friends when he said: I am the bread of life. This is the practice of Eucharistic spirituality. The late Henri Nouwen articulated it with clarity in his small book, Life of the Beloved. He writes that there are four, inter-related themes to living as bread for the world.

+ First, we are taken. Or called. Or invited or claimed by God. This happens before we are born. In God's love we are claimed as beloved. We don't earn this or own it. Many of us don't believe it. Or at least wrestle with its beauty all the days of our lives. But first there is God's love within us. Our life as bread is to be an instrument of tender compassion. Just as the Eucharistic bread is taken by the celebrant at Holy Communion, so our lives have been claimed by God, filled with love and invited to be a source of divine love in the real world.

+ Second, we are blessed. Our ordinary beings are loved profoundly by God, filled with Spirit and saturated with grace. We do not have to be special. Or powerful. Or rich or wise. In fact, it is in the small acts of sharing love. Not by our doing, but by God's love. When we trust this, we become like the bread raised at Eucharist, an ordinary body that can spread nourishment to the world. God's blessing within becomes an outward and visible sign of grace in the world. Without trusting this blessing within, we know only fear, shame and anxiety. 

+ Third, we are broken. All of us are wounded. Leonard Cohen sings that "there is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." Nouwen writes: 

The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it. The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity.

The bread of the Eucharist is torn in order to be shared. Our wounds are not only how we learn, our brokenness is how we live in solidarity and openness with one another. When we know the wisdom of our wounds, then our sharing is filled with healing and hope.

+ Finally, fourth, we are shared: given away to others - never to be hoarded - always to be gifts. When we have been called, blessed and made aware of the wisdom of our wounds, we are ready to live a life for others. One that brings us joy as we live sharing love in simple ways. An old Welsh legend recorded in Donna Sinclair's excellent The Spirituality of Bread says it well:


It seems that Christ went into a bakery and asked for some bead. The baker immediately put a piece of dough into the oven. But her daughter felt she was too generous, took it out, cut off half of it, and put it back into the oven. It immediately grew into an enormous loaf, while the inhospitable daughter began to hoot in surprise. She had been turned into an owl (a practice long associated with Demeter who was famous for changing those with whom she was annoyed into owls.) From this story, one could draw any number of conclusions:

+  If a stranger asks for bread, be generous.
+ Be kind to stray owls: you don't know whose daughter they might be.
+ Don't mess with bread that's already in the oven.
+ Obey your mother at all times - especially if she is the baker.
+ Keep your door locked if you're too rude to share.

But my favorite is this: be alert, because the sacred might be at your door. Or at your dinner table, where friend gather and talk and make a doorway into a world where our souls are honored. (The Spirituality of Bread, pp. 153/155)

In this past year of entering into the journey of retirement, I returned to a new commitment to prayer. I spent a great deal of time resting in silence - listening for the still small voice of the holy calling me towards new ways of tenderness - and renewing my connection to L'Arche, my loved ones, and making new music in a harsh and often cruel world. All the while I have been mentored by bread that speaks to me being taken, blessed, broken and shared by God for love in this crazy world.


pictures mostly from today's baking time: January 8, 2019 11:40 AM - 6:45 PM

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