Thursday, December 16, 2010

Little rewards

The other day, I picked up and thumbed through a copy of Peter Seewald’s book Wisdom from the Monastery: A Program for Spiritual Healing, and stumbled across this tasty little tidbit of trivia:
Did you know that pretzels were a food invented for periods of fasting? They were considered an ideal tonic during periods of abstinence, being both meat-free as well as nourishing and tasty. The word “pretzel” is derived from the Latin bracchium, “arm,” because the shape of the pretzel symbolizes the crossed arms of a monk: the posture of monks when they pray.
Curious, I did a little online sleuthing, and while I make no claims as to the veracity of this information, here is a quick summary of what I discovered:

One fairly consistent tradition is that the pretzel has its origins in 7th-Century southern France or northern Italy, where monks made them to give as prizes (“pretiola”, or “little rewards”) to children who had learned their prayers. The three-holed shape of the pretzel’s twisted and baked dough was used to evoke the Holy Trinity. Later, pretzels became associated with Lent, fasting, and prayer before Easter.

The Latin term bracchium noted above in the passage from Seewald’s book became “brezel” in the common vocabulary of the Germanic peoples, later giving way to our term, “pretzel.”

It should be noted that while I have never seen a monk pray with his arms crossed over his chest as Seewald describes it, the posture was employed by monks (and other Christians) in previous centuries. Significantly, perhaps, the monks of Saint Meinrad assume precisely this posture while singing the Suscipe when professing solemn vows.

Clearly, the pretzel seems to be of Christian (and possibly monastic) origin. Chewing thoughtfully over all this, I’ve come to another conclusion as well: while the hardy austerity of pretzels makes them perfect for Lent, another variation is in order for Advent and Christmas …

… dare I say it … dark-chocolate covered pretzels made by Dietsch Bros. in Findlay, Ohio. Salty. Sweet. Crunchy. All the major food groups! A little taste, perhaps, of heaven on earth. If you have ever had one (or two, but everything in moderation, as St. Benedict says), you know what I am talking about. If you haven’t, well, you have yet to genuinely experience the meaning of the word exquisite. And don’t bother with the milk or white chocolate. Out of darkness comes light.

Returning to Saint Meinrad after my trip to Findlay, I brought back a few boxes to share with my confreres during the remainder of Advent and Christmastide. Then, a month later while professing my solemn vows, I will fold my arms like a pretzel and sing the Suscipe — my own eternal and unmerited “little reward.”

How sweet it is.

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