Beliefnet
PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS)-- Blame it on the Easter bunny.

Sarah Hart of Portland knows the dilemma well. Every Easter, as a child,she would weigh the possibilities: Should she gobble up the chocolate rabbitright away? Or nibble it slowly: First the ears, then a little off the paws?

What would a chocoholic do?

"I'd eat the whole thing," Hart confesses over a cup of coffee. "Butwhat a sweet tension that was: temptation, desire, pleasure and guilt. Itwas wonderful."

Nowadays, Hart, 41, goes out of her way to re-create that tension. Shecarefully tempers organic chocolate, molds it and then gilds it with edible23-karat gold leaf. She makes miniature Buddhas, slightly larger VirginMarys, Celtic crosses and the extended palms of hamsa hands, all toobeautiful to eat and, somehow, too tempting not to.

"They are divine," exclaims Charmaine Schaack, who works at Fleur deLys, a beauty shop/boutique in Portland that has sold Hart's Alma Chocolatessince their launch in December.

"They fly out of the store," Schaack says. "I've only ever heard oneperson ask if was OK to eat a Buddha."

It's a question Hart has dealt with more than once. People admire herwork and then ask if letting a religious figure melt in one's mouth iskosher. Will it lead to bad karma?

Hart smiles. "I'm not overly reverent, but I'm not irreverent, either,"she says. "I know that my work walks a fine line, but I am drawn to theseimages and to how people find meaning in symbols."

Religion and symbols, of course, are practically inseparable. Ask anyonewho teaches world religions. Cecilia Ranger is a Catholic sister of the HolyNames of Jesus and Mary, a professor who has taught world religions atMarylhurst University for many years. She hasn't seen Hart's creations, butshe is delighted at the prospect.

"I love the playfulness of the idea," she says. "Especially in a nationlike ours, where fear seems to be the thing that's marketed (in religion).In other countries that I've visited, there's a more playful approach tosymbols."

The candy skulls used in Mexico during Day of the Dead celebrations comeimmediately to mind. Eating them does not suggest one either avoids orinvites death. "It's a celebration of life," Ranger says.

Hart sees herself as a spiritual person and she recognizes that otherpeople have their own, often more rigid, way of looking at religioussymbols. She knows that some folks just won't be able to swallow herchocolate icons. But still she makes them. They bring together importantstrands of her life.

Hart grew up in a Presbyterian family -- her father was a pastor, and soare some of her siblings -- in Springfield, Mo., "the buckle of the BibleBelt."

She sometimes still attends a Presbyterian Church, and she's trained asa spiritual director, someone with a background in several faith traditionswho helps people discern their religious path. She meets regularly with adiverse group that calls itself the Urban Spirituality Center.

Over the years, Hart says, she's become devoted to the Virgin Mary andto Quan Yin, a Buddhist figure that symbolizes compassion and whose nametranslates roughly as "she who hears the cries of the world." It seems onlynatural to Hart to mold both figures in chocolate. The botanical name forcocoa, she says, is theobroma, or "god food" in ancient Greek.

"These chocolates are my creative response to what I see in the world.There are so many religious conflicts going on right now. People fightingover which religious way is the right way."

Sometimes fundamentalists in any faith can lose a sense of the divineand how it transcends any physical symbol, she says.

Hart sees food as a symbol of love. She named Alma Chocolates for herfraternal grandmother, a solid Midwestern farm woman who canned everyvegetable to cross her path and had baked five or six pies by breakfastwhenever her grandchildren came to visit.

"There was always at least one chocolate pie," Hart recalls. "She was awoman who lived through the Great Depression and expressed her love throughfood. That's become highly symbolic for me, too."

Hart is married with two children, one in college and another in secondgrade. She'd been a copy writer, worked in food preparation and had alreadyfallen in love with the temperamental process of working with chocolatebefore the idea for Alma Chocolates came to her.

Now she may have found the perfect way to blend her interest inspirituality, her bittersweet addiction to chocolate and her inherited needto express herself in food. She can't quite make a living at it yet, but shehas hopes. She's broadening her line to include new twists on traditionalchocolates: caramels that taste of habanero, lavender and cardamom; aChinese five-spice truffle; creams filled with rosemary and Maker's Markbourbon; a toffee tinged with ginger.

She uses no additives and encourages customers to eat her chocolateswithin a week of buying them. The gilt statuettes will last longer, shesays, but they will melt and, ultimately, they are made to be eaten.

"Think of it as an exercise in impermanence," she says. "A Buddhistknows that nothing lasts forever."

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