Whenever I smell fresh baked bread, many images and memories are conjured up in my mind.
By far the strongest image is that of a time I spent in the village of Bhozoni, on the border of the desert in Sindh.
To say it was a village is giving dignity to a group of five or six huts within a ring of brushwood and thorns. The wall gave a sense of protection from the vast expanse of flat open countryside. The glare of the sun and an empty deep blue sky melts into the grey khaki, landscape with no discernible horizon. Outside of the compound one feels exposed, small and vulnerable.
I and my team of catechists had been invited to this village by the head man, Shona Bhozoni. He and his family, including his two married sons and their children, had been to our Easter celebrations at the church in Badin earlier in the year. They were all of the Hindu faith, being members of the Parkri Kholi tribe. Shona had been very moved by what he saw and experienced there and had been to see members of our staff several times to talk about his Easter experience. He had decided that it was time for all of his family to be instructed in the faith of Jesus Christ.
When we arrived at Bhozoni village, it was harvest time and the people were very busy in the fields. They had no leisure to sit and talk about religion except after dark. Since the village was so far away from the parish centre in Badin, we decided to spend a week with them working in the fields by day and using the evenings to teach. This was fine for my staff members, they had all been used to the agricultural kind of life, one of very hard work. However, I soon found that I could not keep the pace in that heat. It was so hot that the scale on my thermometer did not go that high. Anyway, I was not a lot of help, so I spent my time learning more of the language and watching the work.
As I watched I became aware of the enormous effort everyone has to put into harvest-time . Everyone was involved in the process in some way. The men, women, older boys and girls were cutting the wheat with hand sickles. While some bundled the sheaves others carried them to the compound on their backs. At the threshing floor, a clean patch of hand-spread mud that had baked hard and white in the sun, the sheaves were spread out and trampled by a pair of harnessed oxen.
Towards evening, as the constant strong winds began to die a little, the children gathered the grain into baskets while the women, standing on boxes, shook the grain into the wind which blew away the chaff. Two children covered in chaff dust shovelled the grain with their hands into sacks. Two men carried the sacks into the compound and emptied them into a pile on yet another patch of clean sunbaked mud. Nearby, two girls had their ankle-length skirts tucked up over their knees and were mixing mud, cow-dung and straw with their feet. The pile of grain was then sealed into a straw and mud-dung plaster shell by the girls. Each day saw the same, constant seemingly endless work. Only in the evening, as the sun set, did the work stop, except for the women who had to prepare the food for supper.
After everyone had eaten, with fans made of wheat leaves in our hands to keep cool and to waft away the mosquitoes, we sat around the fire as a source of light. Under the stars we taught the children. The men and women sitting close by listened to everything and give answers to the questions the children couldn’t. We taught the catechism by rote, we used pictures from a pictorial Bible, we sang hymns and songs that taught the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Stations of the Cross.
At last when eyes could stay open no longer, the children slept in their parents’ arms and laps. Then the elders talked with us about their lives and their problems, living as Hari, or bonded serfs. The powerful and very rich landlord not only owned the land they worked, but in law , owned them and their children. This situation would continue until they could pay off their debts, which would not be in their lifetime.
We talked and sang with them until we could stay awake no longer. Lying on quilts on the ground under the bright starlit sky, with the praises of God still ringing in our ears, we slept well. And so it was for a week. Finally, after discussing it with my team and Shona, we decided that the whole family was ready for baptism on the Sunday evening.
Sunday was just as every day had been. Wheat was cut, gathered, winnowed and stored. By evening the harvest was complete and the last of the wheat was cased in its shell on the compound floor, or in sacks ready to be collected by the landlord. It was noticeable that the landlord’s share was more than three times that of the village.
Everyone bathed in water from the well, and dressed in their best clothes. We drank tea and talked as one of the women took a small bag of wheat grain and sat by the millstone. A young boy set to lighting the fire as the millstone started its rhythmic grinding, filling the air with its music and the scent of fresh flour. I was enthralled by the moment. I watched as a child collected the flour in a basin, another girl brought water and started to knead it into dough. Shona’s wife then took it and started to fashion it into chuppatties, flat bread, between her hands in that distinctive slapping style. She then cooked them on an earthenware plate which was heating on the fire. The smell was wonderful. I asked for one to be put aside for the Mass, then we ate our meal.
At last everything was ready for the Mass. Seated on the ground, with the children in a half circle in front of me, the men behind them and the women behind the men, I explained the meaning of Baptism and the Eucharist. I related this to the symbols that I had seen in use each day I had been with them, the washing away of sin, in terms of the almost ritual washing at the well every evening; the community preparation of the meal as the entry into the community of God by becoming His children, sharing life with the creator; each person working to the best of their ability, each playing his or her part, a real family.
I took the bread and explained what it meant to me, how they had made it. I told the story of their work, from the ploughing,
sowing watering and weeding to the harvest, reaping, winnowing, grinding into flour. I spoke to them using the simplest words I could find. We are like the single grains of wheat gathered together and ground in our suffering to become one with the waters of Baptism. In the fire of the Holy Spirit we are changed into something new and wonderful. I told them that in this way we are united with Jesus who feeds us with himself as the Bread of Life, and so makes us one with him. As we eat we absorb him and are absorbed by him. He enters fully into our lives and we into his. This is not easy to understand or to accept but we have been given the gifts of the Holy Spirit to help us in our faith. It is the Holy Spirit that draws us to him in the first place, and our acceptance of his claim on us in Baptism, unites us with Jesus and the Father of all life.
I asked Shona, if he and his family truly believed in what I had said. And if so, did they really want to become Christians and be baptised. I asked them if they really wanted to share in the Body and Blood of Jesus and to call God Father.
Shona, his face glowing in the light of the fire, smiled and looked around at his family and then back to me. Of course they believed, that is why they invited my team and I to come and teach them. Since their experience of the Easter celebrations they had believed. There were things they hadn’t understood very well, even now there were still many things that were hard to understand, but they could be accepted and with God’s help they would become clearer in time.
I baptised the whole village, family by family, adults, children and babies. The Eucharist that followed was one of the most moving experiences of my life. The offering of the gifts was made with the declaration that they were offering their whole lives in the bread and wine to God, so that he would make them into what he wanted them to be.
Having shared their life for the past week and experienced their love, hardship and work, I knew that this was not just a glib statement, but something they meant. At the consecration, as the bread and wine was turned into the Body and Blood of Christ and I held the host up high for all to adore, a child’s small voice said, ‘He has changed us into himself.’
I began to tremble and prayed for the grace to believe and trust as much as that child. What happened at that Mass was powerful and real. Today I still offer myself to God in the Mass to do with me as he wills.
Sometimes as I celebrate Mass I almost take it for granted, without making much effort to be aware of the meaning of the symbols and rituals. Sometimes I ask myself what has this got to do with the price of bread? Sometimes my work gets so very involved with the very ordinary things of life, things that take up so much energy and time. When that happens I can lose sight of why I am a priest.
But it only take the scent of bread to jolt me back to reality.
When I remember the village of Bhozoni, I am able to see that everyone has his or her part in life. It does not matter how small or mundane it may seem to be, in taking part we are transformed and contribute to the bread of life for the world.