Bread: Soul Food
Mary H. Reaman
Today when people speak of “breaking bread”, for the most part they are talking about dining. However, the original meaning of this seemingly simple phrase, which dates back to Biblical times, actually referred to the physical act of breaking bread. Even in antiquity, bread was considered so essential to the maintenance of human life that there was no act more social than sharing one’s bread with others.
In those days, bread was never sliced, it was literally “broken” – or torn apart – to be shared. In time, the sharing of bread became an important social and cultural ritual, and by the time of the reign of the first Kings of Israel, complex rituals had evolved as to precisely who would be the first at a table to break bread, about sharing one’s bread with friends and strangers, and even one’s enemies. Breaking bread with another became the symbol that an acquaintance had become like family, that a stranger was welcome, and an enemy had become a friend.
So important in the Middle East was this food staple, and the rituals involved in eating it, that we find no less than 600 references to bread in the Old and New Testaments, and at least eighty such references in the Koran. Bread remains a staple of life and has come to be associated with sustenance and nourishment.
It is true that over time, as Christianity grew, breaking bread became a distinctly Christian symbol. With the re-enactment of the “Last Supper” in Christian worship services the world over, bread became the primary symbol for the Christ. In the Roman Catholic tradition, we were taught that the bread, in the act of sharing it, actually becomes the body of Christ.
And yet, the ritual of breaking bread did not originally have religious connotations. It was a social and cultural symbol of being willing to share with another the very thing that sustains you, provides nourishment, and gives life. It’s this idea – that bread is a symbol for the things that sustain and nourish us that I want to explore with you today.
Whenever we talk about a symbol we are talking about something that speaks to us on more than a physical and material level. Symbols speak to us on an archetypal level. That is, they speak to our inner life. And this is where I part ways with materialists… I believe we have an inner life of thoughts, ideas, feelings, beliefs, and imagination that is not separate from, but not entirely dependent upon the material. We are more than just physical machines, more than flesh and bone and chemistry. I believe the saying that is now popular, but originated from Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
When I talk about a spiritual life, I am talking about how our “inner” life aligns with our “outer” life. Spirituality concerns the dance or relationship between inner and outer, between seen and unseen, between what we know and the Mystery in which all knowing takes place. Unfortunately, all too often our inner life gets neglected.
We can so easily give into discouragement or forget our vision and our dreams when we don’t take time to tend to our inner life and make an effort to integrate our outer world with our inner world. Consequently, many of us live fragmented lives that leave us feeling unsatisfied, empty, and alone, instead of drawing together all of the pieces into a wholeness that gives our life meaning, satiates us, and provides us with energy to further engage life in all its dimensions.
Too often we disregard our inner life for seemingly more urgent aspects of daily living. Making money, paying bills, going to work, running the kids to their after-school activities, watching TV, playing on the computer, and on and on. So many other things take precedence over tending to our inner life that though we seem to be flourishing externally, we are dying of starvation internally.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “The spiritual poverty of the Western World is much greater than the physical poverty of our people [in Calcutta]. You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness.
They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.”
Mother Teresa called it “God.” But I think we could call it by many names – Life, Connection, the Spirit of Life, The Great Mystery, the Universe, or Meaning itself. Whatever you call it, what I think she was getting at, and what I know I struggle with myself is cultivating a lasting sense of meaning, believing that my life matters, that I’m not wasting the life I have, and that the way I contribute and the things I have to offer humanity and Life itself are valuable, meaningful, needed and worthy of being shared with others.
Cultivating spirituality, or congruency between the way we live externally and the values, beliefs and philosophy we hold internally is one of the ways we can feed ourselves. Sustenance comes from taking time to reflect on the very ordinary parts of our day, looking at them with some distance and objectivity, and celebrating them in the depths of our being by pausing to acknowledge that the Web of Life that makes them possible, is immanently present, always active and inviting us into a deeper love and relationships. Soul food comes in different forms for all of us, but they are the things, people and rituals that nourish us spiritually and tend to leave us feeling more alive, awake, and ready to face the world. I think this is what JC was getting at when he broke bread with his friends and claimed it was his body. It was his body of work – sharing life with others, taking time for solitude and reflection, welcoming the stranger, extending the boundaries of belonging, and being a force for healing and forgiveness, and a reflection of wholeness for those who had come to believe their life was nothing more than bits and pieces. These things are the bread of life, the things that, sustain us, feed us and unite us. These things are food for the soul.
When I think on the times that I have been starving, when my spirit has limped for lack of nourishment, like Joyce Rupp describes in today’s reading, the things that brought me out of that famine were the things I think JC was using bread to symbolize – knowing that I am loved and loveable, sensing that I am connected to something larger than myself, having a sense of belonging, being forgiven, and forgiving, and being reminded that even when I feel broken or broken-hearted, that I am whole… Lao Tzu said, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” In other words, being loved and loving deeply is soul food because it sustains life, gives us strength and strengthens our will.
This means that we can be bread for each other! We are bread for each other! And still, there are things we can do, on our own, to ensure we get the soul food need, even when it is difficult to find externally, in our relationships, work, or family. It’s called spiritual practice. Ritual, reflection, meditation and sacred leisure – the things that allow us to take time to pause and look into our own heart of hearts to perceive what is happening there and then comparing or making connections between what is happening internally with what is happening in our “outside world” – the events, circumstances, situations and relationships of our lives – is how we knead the raw ingredients of our lives into dough, a life-giving substance that once integrated, is “baked” into the bread of life.
Taking time to reflect, make connections and ask questions of ourselves can be the piece of bread we need to stave off our hunger. But we have to be willing to ask penetrating questions like – “What is “this” saying to me about who I am? And the “this” could be the circumstance we find ourselves in, the way we’re relating to someone or something, or the attitude we’re holding. A second question is, “How is this relationship, circumstance, or way of being affecting my growth as a person? And, “What are my values and beliefs and are they evident in what has been taking place?” Questions like these help us look beneath the surface of life to the hungers that often go unnoticed until a crisis or pain forces us to pay attention to them.
But don’t mistake a piece of bread for the whole loaf! Cultivating reflection and tending to our own spiritual life is only part of getting our daily bread. It is not enough to feed oneself alone.
Sharing our life with others, participating authentically in community, asking for what we need and being available for others is the only way for that piece or morsel of bread that comes from spiritual practice to become a loaf, or ongoing source of sustenance, not just for ourselves but for others who hunger for meaning, connection, and belonging too.
We gather here every week to participate in ritual, engage symbols, and be challenged in heart and mind. In short, to be fed. Hopefully TLCUU is feeding you. But coming here on Sundays isn’t enough. That’s like eating only one meal a week.
Find other ways to feed your soul! Create your own rituals. Contemplate the symbols with which you surround yourself. Consider your connection to Life! Do whatever it takes to get fed! Find your passion and share your gifts and I promise you – you’ll find a source of soul food that promises to nourish you for a lifetime!