These Parables: The Yeast

In the heart of noisy Manhattan, when silence falls outside the window, I suspect something has gone wrong. St. Gregory the Great extended this feeling of alarm at silence to the moral order of the Church: “When one of his flock sins morally through his own fault, then he who is set above, because he kept silent, is responsible.” Healthy silence, however, should be the norm of the intestines and the soul. Parents, I believe, think their children are most attractive when they are quiet. Our culture of the chattering classes was the first to erase the traditional silent canon from the Eucharist. English poet Robert Bridges asked, “But who hath ever heard, who hath seen joy, or who shall ever find Joy’s language?”

I do not mean the pseudo-Buddhist “Quietism” of Molinos and Madame Guyon, who convinced many in the 17th century that spiritual heights are attained by total passivity. It was not a long stretch from that annihilation of the will to modern enthusiasms such as being “slain in the spirit” and “holy laughter.” These affronts to the economy of faith and reason simply betray an ignorance of the history of neurotic religiosity.

I do rejoice in that silence which is moved by perception of the holy. Fénelon’s tinge of Quietism does not invalidate his words in the Spiritual Letters: “How can you expect God to speak in that gentle and inward voice which melts the soul, when you are making so much noise with your rapid reflections? Be silent and God will speak again.”

The parable of the yeast (Matthew 13:33), parallel to that of the mustard seed as an account of the way the Church will work, is about silence. Yeast has no decibels. A man quietly sows the mustard seed, and a woman quietly works the yeast into the dough. It is not that a woman cannot plant seed, or that a man cannot work dough (as a little boy, a French uncle of mine ran away from his birthplace in Versailles hoping to become a pastry chef, the way American boys might want to run away to become cowboys or, in a reduced culture, basketball stars). Our Lord uses these opposite little parables to join men and women in His great enterprise, and the King of heaven never condescends to the bourgeois mistake of thinking that maleness and femaleness are blithe biological accidents.

The yeast kneaded into the dough works so calmly that only a few shepherds in Bethlehem noticed the start of the process. This struck Phillips Brooks in 1868 when he had left Philadelphia for the Holy Land: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!” The blaring shofar and brassy trumpet drowned out the voice of Jesus telling the parable in one verse: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast….” But saints caught the echo. Christ says two things about His Church. First, the Church as yeast in the dough will change the character of the world, not its outward appearance. Bread is bread, leavened or not. The laws of nature will be unchanged, and men and women will look the same whether they spit at God or die for Him. But the worldliness of the world will never again be the same, nor will manliness and femininity be the same in mind and heart. Grace, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, does not destroy nature but perfects it. There is an ocean between mystery and weirdness, between the holy and the exotic.

Then the parable tells how the Church, this kingdom, is to grow. The process is slow, but it is a procession with a purpose. Through the persuasive influence of personalities transformed by love, Christians will be the yeast that raises the culture through them: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And all this because of the resurrection, for which yeast is an obvious metaphor, a metaphor the Western rite acknowledges by using unleavened bread for the Eucharist.

Without the yeast of grace, the human race is stale and dying. Christ wept for gorgeous Jerusalem falling flat on its golden ground. Human civilization has no intrinsic guarantees of progress. The prophet Daniel saw this in the idol whose head was made of gold, but whose body was made of brass and iron and whose feet were made of clay (Daniel 2). Christ alone can save culture. There will be dark ages and golden ages, but only Christ is the Light through them all. The primary voice for this in Christian life is the liturgy: It is a tradition, a continuity in outward forms, but electric with transforming power. Liturgy concocted by hobbyists, whatever romantic antiquarian claims they may make, lacks the leaven of Christ and falls flat. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger laments that “in place of the liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process, with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.”

The contemporary Church is suffering for its impatience with the way of yeast, which is impatience with Jesus Himself. He perdures, and His silent ways in a world of horns will rise up when every television network and newspaper and university and senate has drifted into the dust of ancient monuments and dead conceits: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast….”


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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