With Bread

With Bread

Food should be treated with respect. Since our Lord left himself to us in the guise of food.

—Dorothy Day

Last week at a Lebanese restaurant in Portland, the waitress brought out enormous circles of pita bread fresh from the oven, still bellowing with hot steam. She placed around the table small dishes of zaatar (olive oil with ground sesame seeds and thyme) so that all seven of us could easily dip our torn pieces of bread. Both the bread and the dip were delicious, and we were soon laughing and sharing stories from the day’s events. The warm, chewy bread whet our appetites before the mezzos came — mixed platters of falafel, lamb, and grilled vegetables. Two women in brightly colored head scarves sat at a nearby table, chatting, dipping, sipping their tea. It all felt very biblical, despite our being downtown in a modern city. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a shepherd walk in the door.

What is it about bread that draws people together with such abandon, complete strangers or close friends, at a summer picnic or crouching near an open fire? Perhaps because bread is so satisfying and humble, so comforting and portable. Shapes and textures unique to each culture on earth, yet common as flour, water, salt. Bread is often mentioned in contrast to something more elegant and luxurious — bread and chocolate, bread and tulips, bread and wine (films are made with such titles). We speak of work as earning our bread and butter. We pray to be given our daily bread. Rather than view it as superfluous, we honor bread as sustenance. 

* * *

In centuries past in certain monastic traditions, people would often ask a priest or abbess, whomever their spiritual counselor might be, to “give me a word” — a special word to ponder in meditation or prayer, a touchstone for guidance throughout the year. I was intrigued with this idea, so last spring I too asked for such a word. And I believe I was given one. I cannot rationally explain the exact process of discernment I followed, but as soon as I heard it, I knew it was my word. And it’s been haunting me ever since: companion. It keeps cropping up all over the place in what I read, in print and online. Pay attention to this, pay attention to this, like a blinking light. But attention to what? 

Being a good child of the Enlightenment, my first response was, naturally, to try to figure out what it means, what I should be doing with this word. I thought immediately of two family members with very real needs and then reflected on my own efforts to be a dedicated companion to them in recent years. Successful or not, covertly weighing the worth of my role in terms of the outcomes I hoped for each of them. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and all that. But like those monastic pilgrims before me, I’m slowly, grudgingly learning to just sit with my word and let its meaning evolve. When what I really want to do is evaluate, manipulate, and possess my one mysterious word. 

Company. Campaign. Champagne. Champion. Companion. Familiar words that sound so alike because they all spring from the same medieval French and Latin roots. “Com” = “with” and “Pan” = “bread.” “Camp” (champ) = “open country or field.” These words are cousins in etymology and function. To be a companion is literally to share bread with someone. To share bread with someone is to keep their good company. To keep their good company is to be their champion. And to be their champion is to be their defender, to walk among them and eat with them. A circular loop of relationship that sounds like the way Jesus interacted with his friends and disciples, as well as with tax collectors, thieves, and prostitutes. And who, coincidentally, called himself the bread of life. 

One of the primary reasons I chose to become Catholic, some ten plus years ago, is the weekly Eucharist. Weekly eating the bread of life with the church. I love the fact that the Eucharist will happen every single Sunday, regardless of how I feel or whose turn it is to preach. I love the fact that a single sermon, profound or boring, need not be the focal point of each service but rather a complement to the gathering of the saints around a sacred table. This is not a ploy to convert anyone; it’s just my story. It’s where I’ve ended up after restless decades in other places. Though I knew it by a different name (Communion) as a child in a slew of Army chapels and Baptist churches of one persuasion or another — where once a month a silver tray was passed with tiny cups of grape juice and cubes of snow white Wonder Bread — the Eucharist has become for me an entirely new, transforming experience. 

Something powerful transpires by merely getting up and moving in a great procession toward the altar. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us, we sing. I often find myself weeping for no apparent reason, or looking on the faces of those I barely know with inexplicable affection. When we share in the elemental drama of the Eucharist we break bread with Jesus, and He with us.

* * *

One of the best memoirs I read earlier this year was written by a young American woman who spent a recent year in Syria, impossible as that may sound in light of the magnitude of suffering endured by the Syrian people today. Stefanie Saldana was a student on a Fulbright scholarship, renting a room in the old Christian quarter of Damascus as her base, but traveling frequently (and freely) to other parts of the country, especially to an ancient and beautiful monastery built into the side of a cliff. Mar Musa is a remote and holy place; in fact, it is the oldest Christian monastery in that part of the world. 

Saldana had come to Syria to study the role of Jesus in the sacred writings and culture of a major Islamic country. She learned Arabic, made friends with many kind and curious people, struggled with faith, fell in love. Then she wrote this remarkable book full of lilting, poetic Arabic . . . and many references to bread. Like when she tells us about the shopkeepers in Damascus who would offer her warm round loaves as she passed by. Or about her startling desert dreams of an angel who walks beside her and carries a basket full of bread. In the dream, she is exhausted and stumbling. Get up and eat, the angel keeps saying. The road ahead of you is long

* * *

My daughter and I have just returned from a Goodwill outing ravenously hungry and found three Hebrew National All Beef stashed in the freezer along with some whole wheat buns of dubious origin. No matter. After scraping off some obvious moldy spots, into the toaster they went. Then a little butter (on mine only), sweet pickles, mustard, and the hot dogs. Our meager meal would not have been complete without those buns. What would hold all of the condiments? So we laughed and talked about how we like to dress up our hot dogs and hamburgers. Ketchup on this, but never on that. 

Bread works like music. In whatever form we receive it, bread fosters ready conversation and companionship. That word again.

I think my word has something to do with trust and hospitality and vocation, though not necessarily in that order. But I can’t be sure. I have other thoughts about it, yet must content myself with not thinking too hard about it. Only listening and letting it rest. Just this week I listened to an interview with Jean Vanier, the beloved founder of the L’Arche communities for disabled adults. Krista Tippet, the interviewer, was asking him what he felt about being called a living saint, compared to Mother Teresa no less. He replied quietly: “Well, you know, sanctity is a big, important word. But I think you just have to try to be a little friend of Jesus, that’s all.” 

On a Jesuit retreat site, I read that the spiritual life is about becoming a companion of Christ. And this morning I opened an e-mail to find a lovely poem written by a friend on her web page, only to see my word staring back at me near the poem’s end. There's something both simple and sublime in breaking bread together,  as companions. So in that same spirit, I offer you this simple recipe for basic pita bread. Consider it prayer. Share it with someone you love.

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