Sunday, February 15, 2009

Column: The Leaven of Trust

I missed baking bread while on the Long Retreat - these loaves are oatmeal - my own recipe. The first thing I cooked when I got home was pizza with homemade crust.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 12 February 2009]

And with the dough which they had brought from Egypt they baked unleavened cakes, because the dough had not risen, since they had been driven out from Egypt without time to linger or to prepare food for themselves. — Ex. 12:39

Mike swings into the kitchen, and in a glance takes in my apron, the flour on the counter and the warming oven. “Fresh bread? Sweet! You know, you rock, Mom!” I learned to bake bread from my father, who learned by watching my great-grandmother, and so the rhythm of mixing, kneading, rising and baking always remind me of how each generation feeds the next. If Mike is around, the first loaf out of the oven won’t last long enough to cool.

The first step is always proofing the yeast, stirring life into the spoors with warm water and sugar. In all the years that I have baked, I’ve never once had the yeast fail to come to life. Proofing for me is a ritual of wonder. I enjoy the show, marveling at how those tiny dry balls can create such a mass of foam, but I have no doubt the bread would rise even if I didn’t ask for the proof.

For my great-grandmother, the ritual was one of necessity. There would be no sense in using up all that flour — to say nothing of the time and effort — if the yeast could not make the bread rise! And sometimes it could not.

The canister of yeast in my refrigerator is something that the Israelite women fleeing Egypt would have considered a treasure more precious than gold. Their bread was leavened with a bit of unbaked dough saved from previous batches, carefully nurtured from one generation to the next. In their flight, they baked all of their dough, killing all the yeast. They must have wondered if they would ever eat leavened bread again. What would they have given for my jar of guaranteed leavening?

I marvel at their trust in God. Yeast is ever present in the environment. If you leave water and flour around, eventually some yeast will take up residence and you have the makings for a loaf of bread that will rise. But you must wait, likely a long time in a desert, and trust that once again you will have leavening.

To abandon your bread starter, not knowing how or when it will return to life, is to me an act of trust even deeper than that of marking the door lintels so the angel of the Lord would pass over. Medieval English bakers saw this patient trust as something so entwined with their trust in God’s loving care that they called their leavens “Godisgood.”

The desert fathers knew of this struggle to trust in God’s provident care. They tell of two monks walking by the sea. Young Abba Doulas is thirsty, so Abba Bessarion says a prayer and bids him drink from the sea. He drank his fill of the now sweet water, then went to fill his bottle. When Abba Bessarion asked him why, Abba Doulas replied, “Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on.” The older man was puzzled, for “God is here, God is everywhere.”

Like the yeast, God is everywhere. Trust can be harder to come by.

I’m not certain I have quite the courage of the Israelite women or the faith of Abba Bessarion, and so have not tossed out my canister of yeast or failed to refill my water bottle when I have the chance. Still, it makes me wonder what other things are on my shelves that lead me to put my trust, not in God’s faithful presence to me, but in my own pre-measured, stockpiled sensibilities. As the desert of Lent looms, perhaps it is time for me to open some cupboards and look to see what God invites me to trustingly leave behind, all the better to know He is everywhere.

O God, you open wide your hand, giving us food in due season. Out of your never-failing abundance, satisfy the hungers of body and soul and lead all peoples of the earth to the feast of the world to come. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.


  1. Monday is my day to bake bread with students (in the winter). I am at home today. Soup planned for dinner. Can you read my thoughts?

  2. Stratoz, I smell bread baking! I made soup last night while I was cooking dinner, it's in the fridge, hopefully it will last until dinner!