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 rabbit right 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. "But what a sweet tension that was: temptation, desire, pleasure and guilt. It was wonderful."

Nowadays, Hart, 41, goes out of her way to re-create that tension. She carefully tempers organic chocolate, molds it and then gilds it with edible 23-karat gold leaf. She makes miniature Buddhas, slightly larger Virgin Marys, Celtic crosses and the extended palms of hamsa hands, all too beautiful to eat and, somehow, too tempting not to.

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

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

It's a question Hart has dealt with more than once. People admire her work and then ask if letting a religious figure melt in one's mouth is kosher. 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 these images and to how people find meaning in symbols."

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

"I love the playfulness of the idea," she says. "Especially in a nation like 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 to symbols."

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

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

Hart grew up in a Presbyterian family -- her father was a pastor, and so are some of her siblings -- in Springfield, Mo., "the buckle of the Bible Belt."

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

Over the years, Hart says, she's become devoted to the Virgin Mary and to Quan Yin, a Buddhist figure that symbolizes compassion and whose name translates roughly as "she who hears the cries of the world." It seems only natural to Hart to mold both figures in chocolate. The botanical name for cocoa, 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 fighting over which religious way is the right way."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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