‘Fasting bread’ unites bakery, parishioners in concern for war victims

By Marian Cowhig Owen
Catholic News Service

GREENSBORO, N.C. (CNS) — Flour. Water. Yeast. Salt. With time and heat, a few simple ingredients can become a nourishing loaf of bread. And a community of Catholics in Greensboro is using that bread as an ingredient in a fulfilling spiritual life.

Workers at a Great Harvest Bakery franchise in Greensboro, N.C., prepare fasting bread Sept. 6 for local residents who want to participate in Pope Francis' call for prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. (CNS photo/Dave Vogrinc, Catholic News Herald)

Workers at a Great Harvest Bakery franchise in Greensboro, N.C., prepare fasting bread Sept. 6 for local residents who want to participate in Pope Francis’ call for prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. (CNS photo/Dave Vogrinc, Catholic News Herald)

Spurred by Pope Francis’ call for Christians worldwide to fast and pray for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world, parishioners of Our Lady of Grace Church and other churches in Greensboro are encouraging people to include fasting bread in their spiritual practices.

The use of fasting bread dates back centuries. When undergoing a spiritual fast, the faithful consume only bread and water. Fasting bread is intentionally simple but nourishing; those fasting will still feel hungry, but they won’t be harming their bodies by depriving themselves of nutrients.

“If you’re used to eating a certain amount every day, to eat only bread and water at certain times during the day is suffering,” said parishioner Barbara Markun, who took part in the Sept. 7 fast. “You’ll sacrifice what gives you comfort, for Christ. That propels your prayer to a different level — you’re taking it on physically.”

The parishioners are using bread made from a recipe on the blog Catholic Cuisine — http://www.catholiccuisine.blogspot.com. The recipe includes meditations on each ingredient, noting how each is mentioned in Scripture. Yeast, for example, symbolizes the kingdom of heaven, as mentioned in a parable in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.”

And like those few grams of yeast that had great impact when blended with flour, it was small things that came together to kick start this effort.

About the same time Pope Francis designated Sept. 7 as a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria and elsewhere, Markun received an email about fasting related to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Alleged apparitions there have brought renewed attention to fasting bread; Medjugorje visionaries say Mary has recommended fasting on Wednesday and Friday, and that the best fast consists of bread and water.

Then, a friend of Markun’s mentioned that she often followed a bread and water fast. That was the light-bulb moment.

“It just clicked with me,” Markun told the Catholic News Herald, Charlotte’s diocesan newspaper. Fasting bread “just seemed achievable.”

Soon other parishioners and neighbors became interested in joining the effort. Many told Markun they had been thinking about taking on the Sept. 7 fast, but they didn’t feel equipped to do it. Fasting bread gave a practical focus to their desire to participate in the pope’s worldwide call.

Though the original fasting bread recipe is designed for home kitchens, the group had some extra muscle: Our Lady of Grace parishioner Sheila Barth, who with her husband, Kevin, owns the local Great Harvest Bread Co. franchise. She made a few minor adjustments to the recipe and dug in, producing about a dozen large loaves for parishioners and friends.

Many of them have said they’ll continue the fasting discipline, and Barth plans to make the bread available each week.

“I felt completely uncomfortable all day,” Markun said after the day of fasting. “One slice of bread was tasty, but not all day. I was ready for the fast to be over, but I never felt bad — I felt great. I felt good all day, but I definitely was not happy about always having to reach for bread. At the end of the day, it felt like I got to focus on the prayer. It was so nice to say, ‘I’m offering this for you.’ It was really a beautiful, prayerful day.”

Barth said even though the bread is made in a commercial kitchen, it is imbued with prayerfulness. Each loaf is hand-kneaded, something that’s a Great Harvest trademark, and she believes a baker’s intentions come through in the finished product.

“People who are very hands-on with their bread say that there’s an energy there,” she said. “There’s something that is there in that process (of kneading).”

And people are responding to that “something.”

Markun and Barth both said that when they’ve mentioned the bread to friends — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — they get a response of “oh, that makes sense!” They hope this effort will bring neighbors and friends closer together in prayer.

“This could be a way to come together as a community,” Markun said. “Everybody coming together over bread.”

And, of course, that also makes sense. Bread consecrated as the holy Eucharist, the body of Christ, is the source and summit of the Catholic faith. Now, another simple loaf is being used to unite in solidarity with the people suffering in Syria and other conflicts, and may be a way to bring a community together in faith.

“By putting the word out and other people connecting,” Barth said, “something’s giving people the opportunity to latch onto something that will feed them.”

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Cowhig Owen is a correspondent for the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.