Chocolate Chip Spirituality

DSC00924It is a good thing that I did not give up cookies for Lent!

Last week was Reading Week at Northwestern University, and the Student Advisory Board at the Sheil Catholic Center enthusiastically hosts “study days”, where we dole out an extra dose of Sheil hospitality.  Our volunteers conjure up inordinate amounts of snack food while the staff pours out endless amounts of encouragement onto hard studying students.

As a special treat, I decided to mix up a batch of the perfect chocolate cookies! Not long after setting out this tray of sweet treats, I ran into Kelsey – who quickly snagged a cookie and later asked if I had a secret recipe! 

There is no secret, just a couple of tricks that I learned in the kitchen.  Kelsey and I swapped our favorite baking techniques, including this one straight from the cookie recipe, which requires that you remove the cookies from the oven while they’re still a bit under-done and let them sit on the hot cookie sheet for 2-3 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack.  The secret to soft chewy cookies is to not over bake them!  Remember, cookies continue to bake, even after removing them from the oven. 

I must admit, the first batch was a bit crispy for my own taste, but no one else seemed to notice.  Three dozen cookies were devoured within a matter of hours!  I decided to make a second batch the next night, and put the “cookies continue to bake” theory to the test. 

With every batch, I winced at taking them out too soon, yet resisted the urge to keep them in the oven for just one more minute.  After precisely 12 minutes, I removed them from the oven while they were puffy, domed, beginning to brown, and still looking slightly under cooked.  Then I diligently set the timer for another 5 minutes, letting the cookies continue to bake outside the oven.  

As I waited for dough to settle, I wondered (metaphorically of course), “How often are we tempted to keep the cookies in the oven just a little bit longer?” 

How often are we so elated after a spiritual experience that we proclaim with excitement, “I wish we could just stay here!”  For some it is an enriching retreat weekend or a much needed vacation.  I hear students say this after a life-changing service immersion trip or an unforgettable study abroad experience.  It might be an encounter with an unbelievably beautiful sunset or the energizing runner’s high at the end of a long run. 

Like Peter, James, and John who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration, we long to remain on the mountain top.  We wish for the intensity of the moment to last forever.  Yet despite the joy they bring or the insights we gain, we know that these dramatic experiences cannot be sustained for long.  What appears to the untrained eye to be a bit “not long enough” is in fact the perfect amount of time.  Those moments continue to bake to completion, and we appreciate their rich gooey goodness even more once they’re incorporated into our everyday lives.

Every year I hear this from our students who return from our international service immersion trips.  They spend weeks and months making sense of their time spent with the poor of Nicaragua or Haiti.  It was Kelsey herself who offered this reflection just days after our cookie conversation!  They wonder about the ways their lives have been changed.  They see the impact it has on their world view.  It makes a difference in the ways they see themselves, and their understanding of God.  Their priorities shift, it may impact how they make decisions about life after college, and their lives continue to be transformed.

The same could be said about an intense retreat experience.  I continue to watch the graces unfold and reach back to some of the more profound moments in prayer from some of my more memorable retreats. 

Today, it strikes me that we could also use the cookie analogy with this great season of Lent.  40 days is certainly enough time to break old habits and start new patterns of living.  In other ways, though, there is much that feels “slightly underdone”. 

Perhaps that is something to pay attention to as we enter into Holy Week.  What work has God begun throughout this Lenten season, and what still needs to be brought to completion as we bask in the glow of Easter?

Remember, the cookies will continue to bake even after you take them out of the oven!

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