I love to bake. I bake summer tarts with stone fruit, custard tarts topped with berries, and gooey molten chocolate cakes. During the holidays, I bake with my sister, Joanne. For Easter, we make carrot cakes and Polish rum babkas. For Thanksgiving, a pecan or pumpkin pie and apple crumble will do. Christmas cookies are a steadfast tradition, and my sister and I go bigger and more creative with each passing year. For Joanne’s baby shower, I even surprised her with a towering Kransekake cake: rings of marzipan stacked precariously on top of each other and decorated with pink and white frosting.
During this pandemic, however, I find myself turning more often to the baking of bread. Deceptively simple, bread is made through a long, multi-step, and at times complex process. It can be temperamental if not given the proper treatment, time, and care.
While the steps are detailed, I know that my dedication to the process makes each and every loaf I bake truly special. I make loaves for my husband and me and also give fresh-baked bread to our parents, family, neighbors, and friends. Sometimes, I go through several bags of flour in a single week.
The ultimate comfort food, bread is such a basic staple that even Jesus included it in the Our Father when we say “our daily bread.” Wholesome and filling, most every culture has some form of it. Both popes and prisoners, princes and paupers eat of it. It is truly an equalizer.
Spending so much time kneading dough during the pandemic improved my breadmaking skills, and it also gave me time to reflect on baking’s spiritual takeaways. Here are four life lessons I learned from the process of breadmaking.
A great result needs quality ingredients
I’ve experimented with different types of flours and yeasts to find just the right ones for a great loaf — a soft, supple center and crisp, flaky crust. If we seek a good end result, then we need to make sure that what we put into it is first-rate. Do we desire a profound relationship with God, for instance? Then we probably need to devote the ingredients that will make our relationship fruitful: time and effort to engage with his presence. Even more so, we need to be attentive in our time and effort with him.
For example, I say the Divine Mercy Chaplet regularly, but my mind can wander during prayer more frequently than I’d care to admit. When this happens and I refocus, my prayer becomes even more intentional. Five minutes of purposeful, concentrated prayer (whether formal or conversational) is more real to me than five hours of mindless recitation. I’ve found that if you desire something, like bread or loving God, then you have to put in the effort to make it excellent.
Good things take time
You can’t bake bread quickly; it needs to rise, and the loaves I make need to rise twice. An initial 12-hour rise is tastier in my opinion than an eight-hour one. Such is life; all the best things take time and preparation. We cannot rush them. Plans sometimes prolong; hurts need time to heal.
Living life is like bread rising: Even when it might seem like nothing’s happening, the yeast is still there, slowly creating the air bubbles needed to fluff up the dough. The yeast’s “background” work is like God’s grace in our lives. While we may not realize that he is there, or we may even think that he is absent, God has a plan for each one of us. We only need the patience and prayerful understanding to wait for it to unfold.
Bread, like life, is best shared with people you love
When the bread is finally fully risen and scored, it is baked in a hot 450°F oven. After 40 minutes of cooking and 30 minutes of cooling, it is ready to eat. This is the point where I’ve learned that bread, like life, is best when shared with the ones you love. It doesn’t matter what you put on the bread—plain butter, jam, ham and cheese, lox—what matters is that everyone is eating of the same loaf. We are all united in this simple act and delicious food.
My husband and I have had many wonderful dinners of bread and wine in our garden. We have also had family brunches centered around the bread topped with radishes, cucumbers, and young garlic fresh from our own garden to create a rustic feast. But it wasn’t the bread that really mattered here: It was the fact that we were all together, joined more by love of each other than love of food.
The living bread of Jesus is essential to our lives
Lastly, what I’ve realized most from my bread-baking adventures is that we as Catholics are so fortunate and blessed to partake in eating of the living bread every time we go to Mass. The Eucharist is unleavened bread that, in each and every Mass, becomes Jesus’ body. How loved we are by our Father to have access to him in living form in the Mass! It was only through a pandemic year away from the Eucharist that I realized how essential receiving the body and blood is to my faith and spiritual well-being. The fact that every Catholic Church around the world holds the consecrated living bread within its tabernacle is an astonishing and incredible witness to our interconnected faith. Our church is universal; it knows no boundaries. It’s no surprise that Jesus chose bread, then, for this miracle of transubstantiation.
Jesus knew — just like I now know — that bread unites. Bread is what brings everybody together to the same table. And his living bread is the best and most fulfilling bread of all, infinitely better than anything I can ever bake, for the bread of Jesus prepares us for eternal life in him.