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by Peter Reinhart
Perseus Books, 2000
Review by Eric L. Weislogel, Ph.D. on Oct 16th 2001

Bread Upon the WatersTake an insatiable hunger for self-knowledge and desire for a meaningful life. Add a dash of the vagabond. Mix with an attitude of open experimentation. Season heavily with a New Age spirituality. Flavor with monasticism, love, marriage, entrepreneurship, teaching, and mysticism. Knead and form. Let ferment. Then bake it into a series of autobiographical and spiritual reflections, and what you get is Peter Reinhart's Bread Upon the Waters.

Reinhart is the author of award-winning cookbooks, and his specialty is bread baking. He is a classroom teacher of future bakers, serving as a faculty member of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Bread Upon the Waters is Reinhart's offering of the insights he has gained from his spiritual pilgrimage. He uses bread baking as his key metaphor, showing that living the spiritual life roughly parallels the twelve stages of bread making:

1. Mise en place (gathering and measuring the ingredients)

2. Mixing

3. Primary fermentation

4. Punching down the dough ("degassing")

5. Weighing the individual pieces of dough

6. Rounding them

7. Resting them ("benching")

8. Shaping them into loaves

9. Secondary fermentation ("proofing")

10. Baking

11. Cooling

12. Eating or storing

Reinhardt grew up Jewish in Philadelphia, moved spiritually towards the East-yoga, zen-and eventually to what may be described as an on-going Christian conversion. He embarked on his pilgrimage in earnest, as he tells it, as a result of an ecstatic event he underwent when his car broke down on Highway 80, heading west. In this "main initiatic experience" of his life, Reinhardt found himself chanting "Hare Krishna, Hare Hare." Reinhart was not a Krishna, but knew the chant from visiting Krishna pantries as a hungry student in Boston. Here, along the side of the road, he spontaneously broke into the chant for reasons he cannot quite explain. Reinhart experienced an epiphany, a moment of mystical union, a oneness with being, a sense of unconditional love, which quickly passed (when a motorist stopped to give him a lift).

Reinhart decided that this kind of profound moment was worth seeking out, worth organizing his life around. Among the ingredients for conducting what the master bread-baker calls his "theostic quest" (i.e., a yearning for union with God and unconditional love) have been: living among spiritual elders and gurus, devouring religious and philosophical texts, making a pilgrimage to Israel, writing for Epiphany Journal (during which he got to interview numerous well-known spiritual leaders and thinkers), committing to the monastic life, serving as a lay-brother in an Eastern Orthodox religious order, running a restaurant and a bakery, writing cookbooks, and teaching classes.

His journey took him into the Holy Order of MANS, a gnostic Christian monastic group composed of both men and women. It was there that he met his wife. Members of the community supported each other in various ways, and Reinhart held a variety of jobs. The Holy Order of MANS eventually splintered, and Reinhart landed in the Christ the Savior Brotherhood, which has since been absorbed into mainstream Eastern Orthodoxy. Reinhart and his wife also ran a restaurant and a bakery.

Reinhart's goal in this book is to pass along his philosophy to his fellow travelers. To be frank, his philosophy is more a half-baked world-view. I don't mean for that comment to be as critical as it sounds, as I will explain. It's just that, despite his own sense that he has moved fully into Christian Orthodoxy, there is still a lot of New-Age thinking at work here. Some of it Reinhart acknowledges: He rightly notes that, although he has used words like "samadhi," "nirvana," "illumination," "self-realization," and "theosis" interchangeably, they are not really the synonyms that the New Age has made them out to be. Still, the overarching desire to be "interesting"--which Reinhart admits is his main motive for his spiritual quest--is not the standard drive one finds behind traditionally religious quests. Not in Eastern thought; not in Christianity. Certainly the Orthodox emphasis on theosis, divinization of the soul, union with God, unconditional love, is not because it makes a person "interesting"! Rather, Reinhart's motive tends to betray the American melting-pot tendency towards inflation of the ego ("I am interesting.") via a mix 'n' match, pick 'n' choose approach to the shopping mall of alternative spiritualities and lifestyles.

Even Reinhart's Ten Stages of Spiritual Development give it away:

1. Awakening

2. Stepping into rebirth

3. Embracing the path

4. Acquiring virtue

5. Going through the narrow gate

6. Integrating the inner and outer person

7. Surrendering to synergy

8. Tempering the soul

9. Living from the interior priesthood

10. Being in the world but not of it

Then again, Reinhart knew himself to be typically "American" when it comes to spirituality, even from the start: "My goal, ever since Highway 80, in the great and cocky American tradition of which I am proud to be a part, is to experience it (theosis, unconditional love) constantly." (He writes this after recalling to us that Saint Anthony of Egypt experienced it only five brief times in his life, though he spent nearly one hundred years in the desert trying to capture the feeling).

We can take a cue for understanding Reinhart's mixture of East and West in his philosophy from his recipes, especially from his signature bread, Struan. Traditionally, struan was made from the primary grains of Europe-wheat, rye, and oats. It was a heavy bread, made more for "symbolic gratitude…than as a culinary treat." Reinhart's recipe has some instructive variations: his is lighter, meant more for everyday, meant to be more appealing to children; he adds cornmeal, brown rice, and poppy seeds-grains and seeds from other parts of the world besides Europe. It is meant to be more palatable, less demanding.

No, it's not Wonder Bread; but it is a lighter, more eclectic fare. And that is both its strength and its weakness (and why my wisecrack about Reinhart's philosophy being half-baked is not all negative): Reinhart's philosophy, like his struan, is tasty and popular, but still more substantial than store-bought prepackaged ideas. If Reinhart's main goal was to become interesting, he has certainly succeeded. I am not sure this is a profound book (although there are plenty of substantial insights) or that Reinhart's philosophy is sound enough to stand on its own-but it is interesting. Reinhart never pretends to be anyone's guru, and Bread Upon the Waters is not meant to give away the end-state of anyone's spiritual quest (not even Reinhart's own). Like bread baking, with philosophy the proof is in the "eating." Unlike bread baking, it is not so easy to determine how one is doing. And one knows one is never done with it. When it comes to the mysteries of the meaning of life, we must admit with humility that all our views are a bit half-baked.

Bread Upon the Waters is as appealing as the aroma of freshly baked bread cooling in the kitchen. This book reminds the reader of the very best conversations one has…the ones at the kitchen table with friends and loved ones, about things that are interesting, things that matter, things that are the bread of life.

© 2001 Eric Weislogel

Eric Weislogel, Ph.D., taught philosophy at Penn State and the Indiana University of PA. However, knowing which side of his bread the butter's on, he now spends the majority of his days working as a business process consultant in the metals industry. He has written for industry trade publications and philosophical journals, and has published music reviews, book reviews, and feature articles. In his spare time, he is pursuing a degree in theology. He and his family reside in Pittsburgh, PA.

This review first appeared online Sept 1, 2001