Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
December 2014 - Volume 14, No. 12
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Breaking Bread

I’ve long been fascinated with the language and common act of “breaking bread” at meals. For most of us today, bread is either pre-sliced, or cut - hence that common utensil, the bread knife. But still it seems almost universal that when someone has a piece or slice of bread in their hands, they will tear or split it before eating.  

Most of us are familiar with the phrase, ‘to break bread together.’  Those of us with Christian origins know of it from its frequent use in the Bible, speaking of Jesus eating with his friends, the dining fellowship of those to whom St. Paul would write, and as one of the central acts in the ritual of The Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples.

I’ve had numerous experiences with a hard crusted loaf in my hand, or a smaller hard roll, where the act of breaking is necessary to get at ‘the meat’ of the loaf inside.  It has to be broken before we can eat it.  And even if a knife is present, it can also seem right to tear it open by hand. There’s always been something archetypal about that.  

When bread is just out of the oven, and the inside is still very warm, and there’s soft butter on the table - we know we’re in the presence of something sacred and ancient.  

A strangely parallel experience is seeing a carnivorous animal tearing open the carcass of a freshly killed prey.

What is bread?  

Bread is often referred to as “the staff of life.” Again, we may not pay much attention to the meaning of those words, but still it feels right. We know Bread has been a food staple or mainstay since the beginning of recorded time.  The words staff, staple, and mainstay all share a common etymological (language) origin (“stā-” generally meaning to stand).

For many in past times, a meal began with the blessing of the bread - sometimes marked with the sign of a cross. (We still eat hot cross buns on Good Friday, and Christian ritual language will refer to Christ as the ‘bread of heaven.’)

The current interest in “artisan bread” tells us that somehow just plain ‘Wonder Bread’ is no longer enough for us. We hunger for real bread.  


Here’s where the meaning goes deeper.  

One consideration is that in the absence of a knife, breaking was the only way to make the insides available to those at the table. But I’m not convinced. A man without a knife, especially a pocket knife, is only a modern phenomenon. And a kitchen without a knife has always been an anomaly.  

Breaking as Taming

To break something is to tame it. And to tame something is to ‘domesticate’ it, to make it useful for the common life of the people. Some animals can be domestic or domesticated, which means can become of use to people living in family, home, or some type in community or ‘enclosed’ life.

I think of taming a wild horse, the purpose of which is to make the horse useful for human community purposes. I’ve heard it said that the cowboys whose work it is to break these otherwise wild and beautiful creatures, have a great empathic sense of what the horse loses in the process, but nonetheless work to bring the animal into the family of human purpose and endeavor.  

There’s the taming of the land, breaking the soil, so that it can become a field or garden that produces food and beauty - for the sake of the people to work that land for the common good.  

The process of a maiden becoming a woman involves the ‘breaking’ or tearing of her hymen, by which she can now bear children for her and her husband to raise for the sake of the community’s well-being and future.

And there is the eternally classic “Taming of the Shrew” by Shakespeare, by which a ‘wild’ woman is broken/tamed for the purpose of a functional domestic relationship.  

It’s said that a young man must be ‘broken’ in military basic training, by which he can then become an ordered soldier, and then a citizen. A former client of mine spent many years as an Army drill sergeant, who cared deeply for the men and women under his care. We had many deep conversations about this. Sadly these days we have so few effective rituals by which a young man can mature from a wild and/or naïve adolescence to effective adult citizenship (as well as become a mature husband). 

Self Breaking

When the culture has no relevant options, people, especially young people, will come up with their own rituals of breaking. Over the years I have had a number of young female clients who were “cutters” - which is often a psychological pain-management ritual. And we’ve all known young men who with an almost purposeful carelessness challenge fate for the sake of attaining a meaningful elevation of self. Body piercing and tattoo parlors are kin to some of the same interpretations. The hunger for a meaningful life runs very deep.

Breaking as Re-wilding

For 30 years now, the poet Robert Bly and his friends have delved into the ‘deep masculine’ through the annual Minnesota Mens’ Conferences - one of which I was able to attend almost a decade ago. This has been part of a larger return to the “wild man” archetype - so missing in our area of passive and violent men.  

It may come as a surprise to many that violence is a form of passivity. Wildness and violence are not the same. Generally they are opposites, though the immature masculine is generally unaware of the difference. The ‘dead space’ in between is akin to the man who sits passively on the couch with the remote clutched tightly in his hand - his wife and children knowing not to disrupt him. The re-wilding of men is so that deep masculine energy becomes available both to himself and the vital relationships within his family and community.

A female counterpoint is Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ now classic “Women Who Run With the Wolves” (1992) - by which over-broken and over-tamed women can reclaim some of the energy of their own lost ‘wildness.’ But this also is for the sake of the community, reclaiming that which has been lost through the oppression of feminine gifts and energy - the bread parallel being a bland-crusted pre-sliced loaf of tasteless white bread. At least it can hold the peanut butter in place. 

In these cases, ‘breaking’ involves the breaking open of deadness, so that an inner aliveness can come forth and nurture all who are gathered. For many of us, it’s also the true essence of Easter language and ritual.

A Radical & Ancient Act

Breaking bread is a radical act. The hard crust must be broken, penetrated, in order that the sweet interior be accessed and shared. The Priest at the altar knows this implicitly. As do many who gather at the table. 

It’s a sacred act - done by our ancestors for thousands of years. Deeper and older than most of our current religious and spiritual structures.  

So when you take a loaf or even just a piece of bread (or a slice or a sandwich), break it (or at least tear or cut it). And know you are participating in an ancient ritual, by which is wrestled out a civilized order, people are fed, and a vital community is formed. 

The purpose of breaking bread is that Life may be shared. So that’s what we do. 

You may wonder why I’ve gone so far afield in this essay about breaking bread. Well, the subject took me there, and I followed. And that my friends, is also is one of the secrets of a Life fully lived.

Pay attention

Addendum:    Breaking and death

Let me add one more stretch of the subject. When something is broken, it also marks the beginning of a decline. When a loaf of bread is broken, it is meant to be consumed. It has been broken and “given” for those at the table. It is broken, given, and consumed. When each of us are ‘broken’ for the sake of nurturing those around us, we know we are declining toward death.  

Yes, the natural world knows death. But when we are broken, we know that we know. And we consciously accept it. Strange, but there’s a joy in it. A joy that wants to serve Life.

Ask a soldier. Ask a woman with child. Ask Jesus.

Comments (2)

  • Sharing

    When I hear the phase ‘breaking bread’ I think of an act of sharing and a level of trust that is involved even with strangers. As you wrote, “Breaking bread is a radical act. The hard crust must be broken, penetrated, in order that the sweet interior be accessed and shared,” I think of the times I visited soup kitchens where very outwardly hardened street people came to break bread with some inwardly prejudiced suburbanites. Before the meal was over we all began to see each others humanity and our hearts were more exposed.

    From another angle, what does this mean to all of us who are gluten free? LOL

    — Askalice, 12/1/2014
  • Answers are here

    To Askalice, it means, for gluten free you must go to an Episcopal or Catholic church for a wafer in the communion. As well as finding your gluten free staple in other ways. Just find the connection. It is there in one way or another.
    To Bill, I so enjoyed all the different roads you created in this news letter, you do make us think.
    Thank you.

    — Carol, 12/2/2014

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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