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Deacon Kyle Eller: Finding inspiration for the spiritual life in a new sourdough starter

My new sourdough starter is finally mature as of mid-March, having taken far longer than the books say it should, and therefore far more patience and persistence than I thought it would on my part. (I blame the cold weather.)

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

During the height of the pandemic lockdowns, I got deep into making sourdough bread and developed a lot of skill at it. (I tend to be that way with hobbies.) It was easy, working from home, to pop out of my home office for a minute or five to do a stretch-and-fold or shape a loaf that was ready for its final proof. At the height of it, I had two different sourdough starters I had developed from scratch that I maintained and used, depending on what I was making.

When I went back to working mostly in the office, my baking dropped off, and soon both starters died of neglect, so when I baked it was with commercial yeast, sometimes with a poolish that mimics the sourdough process and has some of its benefits.

But I found myself missing the sourdough, so I started working on a new starter on my birthday in early February. I think it’s not a terrible metaphor for aspects of the spiritual life.

If you’re unfamiliar with sourdough starters, like many fermentation processes, it’s one of those little wonders of nature, almost miraculous in themselves, that seem to have been designed by God for the good of the human race. At its essence, it’s the simplest recipe you could imagine: simple flour and water, mixed together and left to sit there. There are tiny microorganisms like yeast and bacteria on the flour itself, on the hands of the baker, in the air, on the spoon and jar, and so on, and they find that sticky goo in the jar a wonderful place to live and multiply.

At first, it’s a riot of all kinds of microscopic life. Often when people go to start a new sourdough starter the first time, they are encouraged that it seems really active and rises almost immediately — just like my new one did — but this is fool’s gold and not something you want to make bread with. Within a day or two that activity ceases, and the jar may seem totally, depressingly lifeless.

What’s really happening in the jar, though, is pretty amazing. As you keep discarding some and feeding it fresh flour and water each day, at first the undesirable organisms have the upper hand, but over time, the byproducts of all that microscopic life change the environment within the jar (for instance the acidity) until only the kinds of yeast and bacteria that are desirable for making bread rise and taste good can live in it. That’s how the starter matures and becomes useful and wholesome.

Submitted photo

Sourdough starters are surprisingly complex cultures of microbiology, and no two are exactly alike. Even a single starter over time changes depending on a number of factors, especially the flour it’s being fed.

But at any rate, usually after a week or two of the process, out of the chaos a stable, mature culture has formed, and the starter becomes lively and bubbly again and ready to bake with. From there, starters are fairly resilient. All you have to do is keep feeding them regularly and changing the jar occasionally and they can carry on indefinitely.

It’s no wonder leaven is such a rich metaphor, including a biblical one.

But what strikes me after nurturing this new starter to maturity is the process itself. Don’t our hearts often seem to be like the first days of a new sourdough starter, when it’s a chaotic mess of good and bad, and sometimes the bad seems to have the upper hand?

Unlike flour and water, where a purely natural process of fermentation turns the starter from something unusable to something wholesome, we require supernatural help — the freely given grace of God — to be made wholesome.

But despite that, from our point of view, the process is not so different. Our walk of faith requires patience — it’s not usually a matter of instant gratification but a process that may take longer than we expect and one that sometimes seems dormant and frustrating.

All through, we have to patiently and diligently persevere. We need careful (and at times tedious) tending. Like that daily feeding of good flour and water in the sourdough starter, we need to tend our souls with the sacraments, with Scripture, with daily prayer.

And over time, isn’t the goal as we grow with the help of God in virtue and grace, to become a less hospitable “environment” for the temptations and unholy desires that continue to arise? By filling our minds and hearts with what is holy and by daily examining our consciences and frequenting the sacrament of confession we seek to root out what is not holy in us.

I have been unreasonably excited to see my new sourdough starter full of life after I was tempted a few times to quit on it. Imagine how God looks on his adopted children as they grow to maturity, tended by his grace, and come to the fullness of life he has planned for each of us.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]