St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Daily Bread Can Be Spiritual Vision

The year 1989 marked the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.  To celebrate the occasion, Marshall Field’s – the grand old Chicago department store – sponsored a series of lectures and workshops with renowned French chefs.

Lionel Poilane, a famous French boulanger (bread baker) was one of the six cooks who came to Chicago. At age fifteen, Poilane cycled the French countryside in search of authentic old and rustic recipes. He was then working for his father, already a successful Paris Boulanger. Lionel went on to become famous throughout France and, really, worldwide for his country whole wheat loaves, which are still flown into big cities like Chicago and New York on a daily basis. His exploration of the history of French baking and breads resuscitated the industry and inspired bakers to return to earlier kinds of whole grain and natural leaven breads, to the pain de campagne of older days. Some would credit Poilâne with originating the new artisan bread movement. He was able to open up baking as a way of life.

Poilane died tragically in an air accident in 2002. His daughter Apollonia heads the firm today.

As a committed baker I virtually ran to Poilane’s lecture on a cold March day in 1989. We lived in Chicago then. When he stood up to speak, I knew this was a man completely full of his work in the very best sense. Intense, animated and vibrant, he spoke with deep passion and ardent love about his work.

I was enchanted and became aware that bread was at the heart of his spiritual vision as it is for me. It is also central to Jesus’ spiritual vision. Jesus spent much time at festive dinner tables with his disciples, in good Jewish fashion. His vision of God’s reign is of a great banquet or a wedding feast. I want only to be one of the bakers there.

When the lecture was over, we ate Mr Poilane’s different breads with cheese and wine. When he sat down close to me, I made bold to ask him about his spiritual vision of bread. He seemed genuinely pleased that someone had seen this vision, and he was eager to talk about it. He told me that he saw a logical and clear connection between Holy Communion and baking, which seemed rather natural since he was out of Catholic heritage.

Poilane saw his baking as a sort of extension of the sacrament – with himself as priest of the creation, if not of the church.

I learned several things that day. First, you can transform necessity into pleasure. We need our daily bread, but it should not be a burden. We can derive a great deal of pleasure from the taste, the smell, the texture, and the material of our daily bread. Since daily bread is a necessity, you might as well involve yourself in the process, embrace the necessity as a craft, and by so doing transform the experience from need to pleasure. Here is a lesson for all of life.

The opposite is unfortunately true: you can transform pleasure into necessity. The repetitive nature of many tasks of our life robs them of the pleasure they would give us if only we could approach them fresh each time.

Second, when all things are well with our hearts, it will be clear that the spiritual and the sensual belong together. They are married so that ordinary life bears extraordinary grace. The simplest things may, in fact, be most profound when you see them through eyes that wonder. “Give us this day our daily bread” reminds us to attend to the extraordinary nature of daily life.

June 2011