Holy Bread and the Obedience of a Prosphora Baker

In the Church, bread is a symbol of Christ. He Himself spoke of this: I am the Bread of life (Jn. 6:48). If earthly bread nourishes human life, then Christ, the Heavenly Bread, brings human life into communion with the fullness of divine life in eternity.

Prosphora is an inseparable part of liturgical life in the Church, and therefore the obedience of prosphora baker has special significance. Beyond the seeming simplicity of this God-pleasing work hides a multitude of subtleties, mysteries, and hidden activity. As long-time resident of the Moscow Sretensky Monastery, Igumen Cyprian (Parts), tells us about this.

We will learn why the Lord created wheat, why prosphora can be baked anywhere on Earth, and why the obedience of prosphora baker, which Fr. Cyprian has been performing for more than ten years now, is considered so important in a monastery.

Batiushka, why is the obedience of prosphora baker considered one of the most important?

—As we know, there can be no Liturgical life without prosphora. And the Church cannot live without the Liturgy. This means that the second building after the church is the prosphora bakery, where bread is specially cooked for the Liturgy.

—Who can and should bake prosphora? How has it always been done in Russia?

—In monasteries, of course, the monks or nuns have always baked the prosphora. But in parish churches, prosphora has always been baked either by pious widows or virgins, unmarried girls. They were called “prosphirny”, or, prosphora ladies.

This comes from the reverential attitude we have towards prosphora. Also out of reverence, the bakers would add holy water to the prosphora dough—this is not essential or required, but was done out of reverence.

If a “white” (married) priest serves in a rural parish and his matushka (wife) knows how to bake prosphora, then of course she will do so—who else is there to do it? And this is normal. We have to take real live circumstances into consideration.

Now, in the monasteries, the monks and nuns themselves do the baking, both for themselves and for sale (to parishes). Parish churches either bake it themselves, or as it happens more often, buy it.

In ancient times, everyone could bake prosphora—it was an offering to the church. The best were chosen for serving the Liturgy. Just about every housewife knew how to bake bread, because this was part of her routine, and as they were all religious people and knew the requirements (that it should be leavened bread, using salt, water, and flour), any of them could bake prosphora at home and bring it to the church.

In Greece today, prosphora can be purchased in a store and brought to the church as an offering.

What needs to be done in order to always have a reverential, prayerful attitude towards prosphora baking, so that it would not turn into merely a craft?

—It always continues to be reverential. I have never noticed the reverence to cease. Not in parishes, nor in monasteries, where I have had the opportunity to visit the prosphora bakeries, nor in private prosphora bakeries have I ever seen it degrade into a mere craft. I don’t think that there is any danger here. I have never observed that happening.

I have read that prosphora baking is called an ecclesiastical art. How did you learn to bake prosphora?

—Earlier, our monastery did not have a special prosphora bakery, and I was responsible for providing prosphora to the church because I was in charge of the vestry. One “fine day”, due to my own oversight, there were no small prosphora for the parishioners for the next morning. There were service prosphora, but we hadn’t stored or purchased any for the people. This was discovered on Friday, and we needed the prosphora on Saturday morning, but we could only pick them up on Saturday afternoon.

It was unthinkable to leave the people without prosphora. What to do? We had one worker in the refectory, Liubov, who used to bake prosphora and knew how to do it. She was finishing her shift when I came to the kitchen and said, “Aunty Liuba, you used to bake prosphora, didn’t you?” “Yes. Why, do you need some?” “Yes, we don’t have any.”

We found some imported American flour—terrible bleached flour—some French yeast, and we baked with this our first prosphora in the kitchen oven, where cookies had just been baked. As I now understand it, the prosphora turned out awful, they smelled like cookies, but at least they were there and the people were happy.

This got us going, and we decided to try baking prosphora ourselves. At the time, Hierodeacon Cleopa was under me in obedience, and we began baking in the kitchen at night. Of course, we were able keep this up for about a month before we collapsed—we weren’t sleeping at night. Maybe not every night, but we were tired just the same. However, we did begin to have our own prosphora. Then we started asking our Father Superior to start our own prosphora bakery. He gave the blessing, and after remodeling a new monastery building we equipped it. This was in the year 2000.

You just mentioned the terrible American flour and the French yeast… Others might have thought that this was, to the contrary, a great thing. What kind of flour and yeast should there be?

—Why do I malign the American flour? Although not all American flour is bleached, it most often is. This is done solely for the color. They essentially ruin the flour.

French instant yeast is not very suitable for prosphora baking. It immediately produces a lot of carbon dioxide; that is, it rises quickly, which doesn't work for a large batch of prosphora—you can’t keep up with it, it simply “runs away”. Therefore we try to buy our own Russian yeast.

Dried yeast keeps longer, while fresh yeast keeps no longer than a month, after which its rising strength wanes… You can also use a sour dough starter.

At one point there was a buzz about only using natural sour dough. People would say, “They used to bake only with sour dough, but now they’ve gone to yeast…” However, they said this out of ignorance. In fact, the same yeast is at work in sour dough, only it is wild. Lactose bacteria and yeast of various kinds are practically everywhere. If you simply pour water over flour, then leave it in a warm place under the right conditions, the yeast will begin to multiply: that is your leavening.

After some time, people learned how to grow yeast in large quantities in factories. Then, by selection they cultivated yeast that releases more carbon dioxide, and are more resistant to temperature changes.

What is yeast? It is unicellular fungi that can be subjected to selection, choosing the more stable forms that can easily ferment the sugar contained in flour—and that is about it.

Furthermore, sour dough leavening used to be called yeast. There was no difference. If you take the old book by Elena Molokhovets, A Gift to Young Housewives, and look at the chapter on bread, you can see that she always uses the word “yeast”...

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