Sunday, 31 January 2016

Humble Cake

Random monastic fact of the week: on Saturday nights, we have dessert with supper, as supper occurs after First Vespers of Sunday and is therefore considered part of the weekly feast of Christ’s resurrection. 
Christ is risen; what better reason to eat cake?

So, as I was cook last Saturday, I set out to bake a cake. Not a difficult recipe—in fact, one that I last baked in middle school. But the 9x3” springform pan that the recipe specified was apparently no match for the magma-like force of my meringue-topped chocolate hazelnut cake batter, and my beautiful cake looked more like Mount St. Helens circa 1980 than anything Martha Stewart ever cooked.

But then it got worse. My bread, which I’d started fermenting two days prior, decided to deflate completely the moment shaped loaf met oven steam. My Pain de Campagne Honfleur turned out more like Pain de Pancake.

The capper on my cooking shambles came when my chicken stock, which I’d started in the morning with fresh bones etc., turned out not like the base for a rib-sticking, nose-dripping, delectable January stew—but like jello. That’s right: Chicken Jello.

As I was tottering around the kitchen with a long face and my misshapen cake, I ran into an unsuspecting sister—and proceeded to add “breaking silence” to my list of fails.

“Sister!” I said. “My cake…exploded!

She laughed, and said, “Well, we must all start somewhere. It is a beginning!” She paused. “But you are not a beginner baker. What happened?

I mumbled something about loaf pans, and inches, and magma. But then—thank-you, Holy Spirit—a realization began to dawn on me

“Maybe I need to be more humble,” I said. “Maybe God is actually helping me. This is humble cake.

“Ah, humility” she said. “In the monastery, that is a beginning!

I was thinking about what she said, and remembered a story from Benedicta Ward’s translation of The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which the novitiate is reading in our monastic history class. The story is about one of the earlier events in the life of Abba John the Dwarf, who was born about 339 in Egypt. The story takes place when John is young and still living at home, before he moved to the cells at Scetis:

It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brothers 'I should like to be free of all care, like the angels, who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.' So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert.

After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it, 'Who are you?

'He said, 'I am John, your brother.

'But he replied, 'John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.'

Then the other begged him saying, 'It is I.' However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning.

Then, opening the door, he said to him, 'You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.'

Then John made a prostration before him, saying, 'Forgive me.'

The first food that John’s brother served him, after returning home, was not figs or grain—it was big dish of humble pie. John learned from that experience, and went on to become a respected spiritual elder, an Abba, of whom another Abba would ask, “Who is this John, who by his humility has all Scetis hanging from his little finger?” and who, even in his old age, said “I have not yet made a beginning.”

Looking at Abba John and the lives of the other Desert Fathers and Mothers, I have yet to even begin to make a beginning. But in the end, everyone left the refectory that Saturday with full bellies and clean plates—like Martha of Bethany, I’d been “worried and upset about many things”, and forgotten that none of them were the “one thing” necessary.

And my humble cake? With the help of one of my sisters, we’ve developed a new favourite pâtisserie—Mercy Trifle à la Monastère.

-- Bronwyn