According to Michael Pollan, world renowned expert on the socio-cultural importance of food, around one third of the food that we consume is fermented. This is one of the fun facts that my seniors in The Paschal Mystery classes took away from the episode “Earth” from the Netflix mini-series Cooked based on Pollan’s book of the same name.
Not at first obvious to them, but seen by a number of students once we took a deeper dive into the segment on cheese - a fermented food - was the relationship between monastic work and the “theology” of fermentation.
Since the beginning of what we know as monasticism during the time of St. Benedict in the early 6th Century monks have lived by the Rule of Benedict and in the spirit of the phrase ora et labora, or pray and work. The work that we most often associate with monasteries has to do with food and drink - things like cheese, bread, wine, liqueur, and beer - and all of them are fermented.
The Benedictine nun featured in Pollan’s mini-series, Sr. Noella Marcelino, O.S.B., makes award-winning cheese, aided by the techniques taught to her by a woman from France whose family has made cheese for generations. But she is also assisted by all of the knowledge that she gained in the work done to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology and the experience of studying cheese in France on a Fulbright Scholarship.
As Sr. Noella, nicknamed “The Cheese Nun”, looks into her microscope at the rind of her fermenting cheese, she is moved to wax theological about the process of fermentation. It is all about death and rebirth. All fermented foods - from cheese to chocolate to kimchi - are what they are because of that very same process that we look to in our Catholic Faith. Indeed, we could say that fermentation is the very most central belief of our Faith.
Between the purely biological process of fermentation and the majestic theology of the saints in describing the Resurrection lies us, those who will someday return to the earth from which we came. There is no avoiding the reality of the fermentation of our earthly remains, but there is another fermentation that we often avoid - and at the cost of eternal peril.
It is the ora in the ora et labora that we need to focus our attention on when considering how important it is to concentrate on spiritual fermentation. Just as the process that produces incredible wheels of cheese requires some cells to replace others, so too does the process that produces incredible saints out of ordinary sinners. Those parts of us that need to be destroyed - our selfishness, our pride, our lack of charity - can, through the process of spiritual fermentation, be replaced by selflessness, humility, and generosity.
In the same way that fermented foods need yeast or some other fungi in order to be transformed, we need prayer. We also need that quiet space, a spiritual cheese cellar, in order that the prayer can do its work. This is a tough task in a world where screens (like the one I am staring at right now) are ubiquitous. We used to say that devices were getting in the way of our prayer lives, but now it appears more to the point that our prayer lives are getting in the way of our devices.
Ultimately, we all need to be transformed, to die in order to rise, to submit to the process of spiritual fermentation. If our call is to be made new in Christ, and Christ was made new in the Resurrection - that offering of Self in death that brought about new life, then our only choice is to follow His path. To do otherwise would be to waste God’s offer to assist Him in transforming ourselves into the saints we were created to be.