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Joy of bread-baking leads to pondering God's works.

A few years ago I was part of a women's sharing group. We were asked to take home some clay and sculpt our image of God to share with the group the following week. Every day I would spend some time struggling with this task, feeling very inartistic and having no clue as to how to create my image of God.

Finally, out of desperation, on the morning I was to present my image to the group, I began to just play with the clay. I enjoyed the feel of clay in my hands and slowly what emerged was a woman bent over dough, kneading it into bread. "He told them a parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened'" (Matthew 13:13).

I have always been drawn to the image of bread. Bread being kneaded bread rising, bread baking in the oven, bread warm from the oven and sliced to share. For me, bread is like itself. So often bread is taken for granted and just expected to be there, easily bought at the store, its taste and quality little thought about or questioned.

Yet bread has been part of my life since I was 16 and made the unlikely decision to begin baking it. It wasn't a conscious decision really, and little did I know it would become a lifetime practice.

Both of my parents were ill at the time, and as I look back now I realize that I started baking bread as a way of making a home in the midst of terrible uncertainly. And I continued. I continued after my father died, when I was afraid for my mother's life, and I continued into a college and beyond.

My friends and family have come to expect my bread for parties or gatherings. And when I married, I especially loved baking for my husband, who discovered for the first time that bread fresh from the oven, spread with butter, is one of life's great pleasures. My bread-baking continued through our babies, who grew and grew. When my children were young, I included them in the mixing and kneading, with them eating more than they kneaded. And they love to tuck the bread in for its "nap," covering the bread with a towel for its rising. They especially loved it if I made sweet dough or shaped leftover dough into different shapes, such as teddy bears or edible hats.

A few times through the years I tried to make the baking easier by using a dough hook that comes with my mixer. The difference in the bread was incredible. It was slightly drier, had a different texture and just wasn't as good. I discovered that the touch of human hands on the dough affects the flavor of the bread. Many of my friends have recently bought bread machines and the same is true for their bread. Machine-kneaded bread is different.

The touch of human hands upon flour, water, salt, honey and oil is as old as humanity. And learning that the impact of human hands upon the dough affects the flavor and texture of the bread it becomes has taught me that the touch of human hands upon all aspects of life is critical. There is no substitute for time, care and human contact.

Bread is rich with imagery. There are over 300 references to bread in the Bible. We are not only taught that we cannot live by bread alone, but we are also taught that Jesus is the bread of life. Jesus broke bread and blessed it and gave it to his friends and told them this was he. Bread kept people from starving and also enriched their souls. For me, the baking of bread has become so much a part of me that I cannot fathom not doing it anymore.

As I think about it, baking bread teaches me much about life. The pace of life today is so fast, so frantic, that I think just the simple act of making a loaf of bread--of mixing by hand, of kneading for 10 to 15 minutes that sticky mass of dough and feeling the changes that take place in the short time, watching it rise and shaping the loaf and smelling its fragrance as it bakes nourishes my soul as much as eating the bread does my body.

Making bread has taught me that life cannot be hurried. Just as the dough is worked for a period of time and then needs time to rest or it won't rise, so we too must have time to work and time to rest and reflect or there will be no growth in our lives. How can we rise to God's work if we do not reflect, pray and just be with God? And baking bread throughout the years has taught can be found in the most mundane or what we think of as mundane.

Just the simple act of being aware causes us to realize that all is holy because all comes from God. So, baking bread helps me realize that life must be taken in stride, that life has a rhythm and pace that cannot be rushed or forced.

There is a lot of talk today about simplifying our lives. All the suggestions can be good, but how we determine what is right for our lives must come from within. We take so many of our clues in life from external sources that it's quite a transition to actually listen to what lies within. Simply slowing our breathing to meditate or pray, or sitting quietly, can be transforming. And such a simple act as a creating a loaf of bread also teaches the lessons of patience, of waiting and of savoring. Those are lessons that serve us for a lifetime.
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Author:Barthelemy, Nancy
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Dec 26, 1997
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