Posted on June 24th, 2013
“Cult” and “Culture”–the words share a root, the Latin cultus which, loosely, means “to aid, cultivate, and care for”. The modern usage of “culture” is essentially an agricultural metaphor, in which men and women are likened to plants that must be raised with care and patience so that they might produce healthy and nutritious fruit. It is a method of raising people in the way that agriculture is a method of raising crops. “Cult”, in antiquity, before it came to mean matching jumpsuits and cyanide punch, was the basic form of religious devotion, built on the idea that proper cultivation requires a patience and dedication that borders on worship. The argument implicit in both words is that people and gods, respectively, should be shown the same care and deference that is naturally shown to food (the wisdom of the mantra “eat, pray, love” must, then, predate Elizabeth Gilbert and Julia Roberts by an order of millenia). For the Ancient Greeks, “cult” was a much more profoundly divine and important practice than the poetic production and recitation of myth. In cult practice, the lives, struggles, and passions of the gods were reenacted ritually; much more than mere imitation, these performances were the means by which the stories and power of the gods were made real and immediate. They were creative practices which generated divine energies in the lives of human beings.
Christian religious practice, from its earliest incarnations to the present, can, I think, be talked about as the cult practice of preparing and sharing a meal. Its central spectacle, the Eucharist, privileges bread as the means by which divine energies (which Christians call “grace”) are manifested in physical reality and distributed throughout the community. The priest, who has echoed the words of the Last Supper habitually for two millennia, recites the Words of Institution; “Take this, all of you, and eat it: for this is my body, which will be given up for you.” Much has been made of the implication of a god becoming a human being in the Christian story; it suggests an elevation of human life to a position of divine celebration. But what can we make of a god who also becomes a loaf of bread, a god for whom the place of the holiest celebration is not a temple but the dinner table?
One of the most recognizable, and often-repeated, phrases among the overwhelming volume of Christian text is the request in the Lord’s Prayer (also known as the Our Father) that god “give us this day our daily bread”. But the Greek word, epiousios, which is here translated as “daily”, is rather more complicated; it appears only twice in all known text written in Classical Greek – in the Lord’s Prayer as printed in ancient copies of the Gospels of Mathew and Luke. As such, it does not have a clear equivalent in English: the translation “daily” dates back to some of the earliest Latin translations of the Gospels. In his revised Latin translation called the Vulgate, St. Jerome offers the more direct “supersubstantial”, drawing on the Greek roots epi (over/on/against) and ousia (substance). In the space between these two translations, we can begin to glimpse something of the mystical nature of bread.
It is difficult, I think, for people in our time to think about religion and nature in the way that they must have seemed to people in the time that these Christian traditions were being established. The two would not have been as separate as we consider them today; thinkers as diverse in background and piety as St. Francis and Baruch Spinoza have espoused doctrines of the unity of god and nature that are based primarily on the kind of observable phenomena and sense of childlike awe that were much more widespread in pre-Enlightenment cultures. Without the knowledge of microbiology and chemistry that is so intrinsic to our modern process of cooking, each loaf of bread must have seemed like a small miracle, the ritual of human interaction with simple ingredients from nature combining with the mystery of divine intervention to form the daily meal. This is what makes the puzzle of epiousios so enthralling; it contains within itself the idea that the miracle of a loaf of bread is necessarily both daily (as in required regularly for human survival) and supersubstantial (as in beyond the physical, observable world). We can see, then, that the embodiment of god in a loaf of bread in the Christian cult of the Eucharist betrays a wonder not only at the mythic miracles of creation and resurrection, but on the everyday miracles that provide for human life; in fact, it places the two on the same level.
I don’t think it’s necessary for one to “be religious” to find something worthwhile in this perspective on breadmaking. In part, this is because I don’t think pre-Enlightenment religious groups had the kind of relationship with religion that we do; it was not a matter of belonging to one social group in contrast and opposition to another, but of contemplating one’s place within the enormity and complexity of nature. These rites were developed in a time when the overwhelming majority of the world’s population worked in agriculture, and the mysteries of beauty and nature must have seemed much more immediate in their lives then they do in many of ours. Every loaf of bread to them would have been the result of so many months of things going right, of all their hard work being rewarded by crops growing and yielding, and the final small miracle in which dough becomes bread must have seemed like confirmation that they worked in concert with forces they could neither understand nor control. From this perspective, we can really begin to understand what “cult”, “culture”, and cultus have to do with each other. The mysteries and miracles of religion, human life, and agriculture, though we so often speak of them in isolation, are here shown to be intrinsically woven together, and in fact part of the same ritual that melds the daily (that which we do every day in order to live and feed ourselves) and the supersubstantial (that which is beyond our power to comprehend) into one system of practices.
The next time you make a loaf of bread, try not to think about leavening or gluten, but think about your actions as a small, simple ritual. Think about how central these actions are to human life and history. Think about how many millennia, how many thousands of generations all over the world, have performed a variation of the little performance you and these simple ingredients are giving. Think about the reverence you might have felt if you lived two thousand years ago, and this ancient technique, handed down through your family since before anyone could remember (it wouldn’t have been written down anywhere) was the most immediate, necessary, and fundamental miracle that kept you alive, although you witnessed it every day. You may find that the idea of god in a loaf of bread is not so strange after all.