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14th Sunday, Ordinary Time, 2012


Yesterday, after baking rustic Artisan bread from Italy, Sister B. and I baked two loaves of Challah: no raisins, no sesame or poppy seeds.  This is rural Uganda after all.  Maybe in Kampala…

And every day for the past few days, and including today, loaves of Artisan bread have been made from scratch for the following morning’s meal.

It had been thought impossible to make bread in the wood-burning ovens, for homesteading in the 19th Century.

And now, plans are being made for the novices to carry on after the Benedictine sister and the visiting muzungu eventually leave.

Today, during the second reading at Vigils, the one from the Ecclesiastical writers, Saint Augustine reached me when he said: “…men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others.  They seek to criticize, not to correct.  Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others.”  How amazingly still true after 1700 years.

And yet:

Today, after Lauds, before breakfast, during Chapter, the second chapter of the Rule of Benedict was discussed by the superior.  And during his talk, he said something that stayed with me through my day.

He said, when a person worries about finishing first… it is called competition.  And when a person makes sure that everyone finishes the race together, even if together makes him last, it is called community.

And in a monastic community there can be no healthy competition, only healthy collaboration: or the community will falter, will wilt, will perish.

And I thought of Amos and Tobit and the Sermon on the Mount and Christ speaking of Samaritans and Prodigals, and refusing to condemn the woman caught up in adultery, and finding great faith in the pagan centurion, and no faith in his hometown, and no faith in the scribes in the long robes with the long prayers, all the while stealing from the widows and the poor.

And after Mass, Sister B. and I again made bread, and we cooked up a large pot of bright red tomato jam (about 3 liters worth).  And I scrubbed out the refrigerator, to be hooked up now that the solar is working again.  And Sister and I washed the kitchen, and had tea, and went to repose before Vespers.

Sister kindly offered to break me from my daily laundry, washing for me my work clothes with hers.

This is community.

This is trying to get to the other side, with grace, and hand in hand.

And the Challah, the bread my great grandmother used to bake weekly, but whose daughters were always too busy and too important to bake, but who were ready to buy down the street, the bread of my Jewish side of my family kindled interest and imagination into new possibilities in what can be produced on 19th Century wood-burning stoves, out on the range, in the flood plain out past Lake Victoria, in the dusty heat, of southern Uganda, not too far at all from the Tanzanian border, and a border town, Mutukula (a name that basically means they eat people around here).

To bake bread for a community of twenty plus men, plus visitors, plus farmhands, takes time out of each day.

It requires planning.  It requires firewood, lots of firewood.

It requires watching carefully over a long process.

And with ovens fueled by wood, drawing from only one side, without any thermometer, it requires attentiveness to what is intimately happening to each loaf: when to turn, when to turn again, and when to quickly take out.

It is a sacrifice of mobility.  It becomes a sacrifice of other pleasures… reading, for example.  (It is my hope to read through the newly published volume of The Book of Elders, but baking has slowed this down to a stall.  With grace, I hope to rearrange my time to allow this to take place, during moments throughout the month.)

Baking becomes a commitment.  Baking pushes one beyond professions of something (faith? theoria?) toward simple earnest praktika.

Making jam, with hot fires and sugar, is no different.

It is not a one-pot dinner for one (like it was in college).

It is not dinner-for-two, with candles and agenda.

It is not like cooking for a Sunday potluck after Mass, or for family and friends over the holidays.

Bread and jam are the staples of the morning meal, along with milky tea, and bananas, and sometimes avocadoes.

If baking does not happen, or if the bread is burnt, then there is no morning meal for twenty plus monks, plus visitors, plus farmhands, unless money is taken out of an already challenged coffer, not only to buy loaves from a baker, but for petrol: the nearest bakery is 60 kilometers away round trip, and the bread often stale; the better bakery with more consistent product is 160 kilometers of driving from the monastery.

Bread starts the day.

Bread is meant to be broken: to be shared.  In community with those one is close with, but also with those one may never get to really know.

“Eat thy bread with the hungry and needy…” (Tobit 4: 17)

And the two braided loaves of “Jewish bread”, out here, on the range, were welcomed and receivedas a promise of potential.  Challah is more finicky than the peasant breads of Italy.  Challah requires kneading, and it needs to be punched down and flipped, regularly, throughout its rising time.  And Challah does not bake at high heat; it wants a slightly higher than medium heat, which with logs and kindling and no thermometer is a bit daunting.  And when the cook, who sadly does not speak much English, wants to use the same fire to boil something for supper, and adds more wood but does not think to tell those baking, a loaf of Challah becomes a crucible: the surviving of which becomes an invitation to think of other possibilities of more.

On Wednesday is the Feast of Saint Benedict, important to Benedictines and to Cistercians of both the Common and the Strict Orders, and in three days we are going to try to attempt French deserts and/or Italian tomato sauce and/or Syrian or Mexican salsas… and of course some Guacamole.  One has to make Guacamole in Africa.  And Chapattis or bits of bread should work just find in place of Tortillas.

And… Sister B. and I may try to find a spot of time to work up a batch of Pineapple wine.

To be creative and to be in community: to be in concord with monastic rules and with the greater complex community… trying to get to the other side… side by side.

Tomorrow morning: I am back with the Sisters of Mary Immaculate in Ssanje, at their school for AIDS orphans, before shopping for apples and aluminum foil, and cling-wrap, and butter, in Masaka.

Tuesday morning: I begin teaching the novices in computer skills and researching on the Internet.

And in between: Sister B. and I will begin training the novices in baking.

Vespers… in seven minutes… and then: the Blessed Adoration.  Supper.  Compline.  Slumber.  And up for Vigils, again, at 3 a.m.  Process.  Becoming melting…

Peace.  Shanti.  Salaam.  Shalom.