At the end of this past summer, my husband and I served as chaperons at a college student retreat in the peaceful woods of southern Indiana. The students stretched across four years of college life—from seasoned seniors to slightly apprehensive first years. About one hundred students attended, all of whom shared an interest in developing their faith and serving the Church. This in itself is a hopeful sign for the future of the Church.
One component of this retreat involved—as many retreats surely do—witness talks. The students were asked to share their “journeys of faith” while at our four-year university, and we were impressed with the students’ stories and their poise in relating them. One young woman’s witness particularly struck me: she described her evolving vocation and sense of herself as a person of faith by relating her love…for baking.
Her hobby of creating delicious balances of butter, sugar, flour and eggs has become, for her, a vocational journey in which she has worked to craft foods which are delicious and delightful (she is currently perfecting her recipe base for cream pies). Her love for this good work has led her to assist at her hometown’s professional bakery—a rare coincidence of skill, interest, and passion of which many of us continually dream. Yet, this young baker did not interpret her work in her local bakery shop as simply random or good luck; she saw the invitation to practice her craft as a gift from God and an affirmation of her work as a Christian person.
I was impressed with this young lady because she has found a practical way in which her work and her spirituality could intersect. Creating good (and edible) work was a delight, utilized her interests and creativity, and served her fellow-bakers while providing a service to customers at the bake-shop. But what have cakes, pies, and cookies to do with liturgy?
When our apprentice baker was recounting her journey, I found the words of Dom Virgil Michel (1890-1938) beating in my ears:
“How many readers of Orate Fratres will grant offhand that there is or can be a most charming connection between the liturgy and cakes?”
When he posed this question in Orate Frares [now Worship] nearly ninety years ago, Fr. Virgil was responding to an article he had read about the custom of baking particular confections to accompany various feast days throughout the liturgical year. He was delighted by the idea that the “joy of the Church’s worship” could be “carried to the family hearth” and wondered if the “spirit of Christ’s liturgy” could ever be brought back again “to home and shop” (Editor’s Corner, Orate Fratres 1, no. 9 : 282-283).
While Fr. Virgil’s words might remind us first of Benedictine spirituality (prayer and work), his interest in connecting spirituality and daily labor also resonates with other social reform movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, being fulfilled by one’s labor and applying oneself to work which was beneficial to society (including the making of delicious baked goods), reflects the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Advocates of this Movement, such as interior designer William Morris (1834-1886), were responding to economic and social hardships brought about by the mass-production of modern industries. Morris and others promoted improved working conditions for workers, sought to revive the making of hand-crafted goods, and claimed that all work involved artistry and craftsmanship that could ennoble the human spirit.
The philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement—be it making beautiful and useful chairs or baking delicious baked goods from fresh ingredients—also resonates with efforts of liturgical renewal in the twentieth century. The specific notion of linking work with spirituality would be developed by persons such as Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and Ade (ah-DAY) Bethune (1914-2002), and the coordination of daily tasks like baking and cooking with the liturgical year would be embraced by later liturgical pioneers, such as Florence Berger (1909-1983) with her cookbook, Cooking for Christ in the Liturgical Kitchen (National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1949). But, the possibility of daily tasks being shaped by the “spirit of Christ’s liturgy” is also articulated through the reformed Liturgy following the Second Vatican Council.
The Liturgy seeks to teach us that our little work of active, intelligent participation is something much greater than saying a response, listening to the lectionary, or singing a hymn. These tasks we take on during liturgy (and there are a lot of them!) teach us to be active, intelligent Christians in the world. As Sacrosanctum Concilium describes:
The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration (SC 48).
By doing more than standing and sitting, the People of God are gradually shaped and drawn, “day by day into ever more perfect union with God and with each other, so that finally God may be all in all” (SC 48).
Through God’s goodness, and the work of our hands, we may participate in liturgy with awareness and intention. The Liturgy serves to teach and train the faithful to be active in their lives of faith. In turn, living a life touched by the Liturgy means to live a life in which all our work is done with an awareness that we are serving God and those around us—that all work might allow us to use our own particular skills and passions to work for Christ and for our Neighbor. Certainly, our young baker’s neighbors have enjoyed the fruits of her labor! But, there may be more to her baking than simply making cakes. If daily labor and the liturgical life truly feed one another, then, when our young baker is perfecting her skills and mastering her cream pie recipe, she is also perfecting her work in the Christian life.