Editor’s Note: Darleen Pryds is a professor history and spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in San Diego. She researches and writes on the role of lay women and men in the Franciscan tradition. In this blog, Darleen reflects on the prayerful process of preparing for the Incarnation and how it often nudges us to slow down and pay attention.
During Advent do you find that preparing for Christmas is a different process from preparing for the Incarnation?
The most obvious preparations for Christmas are the decorations we display and the gifts we select for others. The process is often filled with excitement, fun, and at my age, a bit of nostalgia for Christmas as a child. But preparing for the Incarnation is a different process altogether. How do we settle down our souls and hush our busy lives so we may experience the Incarnation with that gentle awe with which we meet a newborn baby?
For me it takes me time and concerted awareness to still my soul and quiet my mind. As a teacher, I tend to be preoccupied during the month of December advising students on term papers and then grading those assignments. That work is about the school year. Getting gifts for family can often be rushed and tends to make me anxious and worried. Those tasks are about Christmas.
What brings me to preparing for the Incarnation is baking. And that is a process that takes days of attention, intention, and care.
I have come to appreciate that baking at this time of year is a spiritual discipline, precisely because it’s a process that can’t be rushed (well, it can be, but the outcome is usually unfortunate). The non-rushing part is especially true when baking bread.
One of my family holiday traditions is to make Finnish Coffee Bread, also called Pulla. It is a yeast bread filled with cardamom. Just the memories of baking the bread with its cardamom scent filling the house bring a smile to face and make my mouth water. The bread is really that good. But it is the process of preparing the bread that I embrace now as an adult as part of the process of preparing for the Incarnation.
Setting aside a full day or two for the entire process from start to finish is usually the first test for my tendency to overschedule and overcommit. Scheduling time to bake offers me that first nudge to slow down and pay attention.
Preparing Pulla involves grinding cardamom seeds. Sure, I could buy ground cardamom. But taking the seeds out of the shells and grinding them with a pestle in a mortar releases a scent that is qualitatively different from the store-bought, pre-ground spice. It’s another nudge to slow down and pay attention.
There are several steps along the way before I reach my favorite part: kneading the dough. There is an art to kneading. While I can’t say I’ve mastered it, I do appreciate the care involved and sensation of bringing a pasty mess into a smooth, round ball of dough that is ready to rise. This stage reminds me how messy life is. The transformation of the dough takes time, additional flour, and patience. Another nudge to pay attention and be present to what is right there in front of me.
Having adjusted the temperature in the house to create a cozy, warm environment for the dough to rise, all I can do is wait. Here is yet another gentle nudge—a reminder there is nothing to do, but wait, slow down, and pay attention. The waiting is an important part of the process. Disturb the dough too soon, and the bread will be too dense. Wait too long, however, and I can tell you from experience that sometimes the dough grows into a loaf the size that is reminiscent of a classic episode from I Love Lucy! Pay attention while you wait.
The dough is then divided and braided into loaves. While it is not difficult to braid dough, it does require attention and is best done with care. I’ve been known to occasionally braid the dough with little care or attention. I can become bored with the process of making this bread because it takes so much attention across two days. Knowing that about me is why I continue to practice this each year. Can I stay with the full process of baking the bread with attentiveness and watchfulness? Braiding offers that final reminder to slow down; attend to the task at hand with care; and be present.
As the braided loaves bake, the house fills with the aroma of cardamom and bread. This delightful smell invites me to sit and notice: am I any different now than when I started this process? Sharing the bread with family can sometimes be humbling when the loaves are funky in size or shape, but that too is part of the process: preparing for the Incarnation just by being who I am and accepting what I have done. This process of baking bread is humbling, as is this incarnated life we live and this Incarnation that we celebrate soon.
I invite you to contemplate with me this Advent season in preparation for the Incarnation by praying through the process of baking bread. Accept the nudges to quiet your mind and to enter the messiness along the way. You may just find the space and stillness to experience the Incarnation through the process.
Pulla/Finnish Coffee Bread
2 ¼ tsp. yeast
¼ C warm water
¾ C sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 C lukewarm milk
1 tsp. ground cardamom
5 C flour
¾ C melted butter
Dissolve the yeast in warm water.
Combine the sugar, salt, cardamom, eggs. Then add lukewarm milk. Add yeast to the mixture and beat well.
Add flour one cup at a time, beating well. After the 3rd cup of flour, add the melted butter. Beat well and add remaining flour.
Let stand for 10 minutes covered. Then turn it out on a floured board and knead until smooth as elastic.
Place in a greased bowl and let rise, covering with a towel until it is doubled in size.
Punch down and let rise again.
Then turn the dough out on a board and shape into braids. Please on a cookie sheet or in loaf pans. Let rise until double in size.
Brush with 1 egg yolk and a few Tablespoons of milk and a little sugar.
Optional: Sprinkle with granulated sugar and almonds.
Bake in over at 375-400 F for about 25 minutes.
Darleen wants to know how your Pulla turned out! Please post photos of your bread or comments to this reflection in the Comment Line or send them directly to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Pioneer Woman.” I Love Lucy, created by Marc Daniels, performed by Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance, written by Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Davis and Jess Oppenheimer. season 1, episode 25, CBS-TV, 1952.