“Your holiness,” Santa said, bowing slightly to Pope John XXIII.
“I should say that to you,” Pope John replied. “I am merely a pope, but you are a saint.”
“So, Lee, what do you think of our gathering?” He asked.
All four of my companions laughed.
“An honest reaction,” Chesterton said.
“We all experienced that at first,” Stout said.
“I don’t understand why I am here. I am fat, true. But I am not dead.”
“As the invitation said, this is an information dinner,” Stout said.
“The information is not so much about the society as it is about what it takes to join,” Santa said.
“If you qualify, you can’t not want to join,” Pope john said.
At that moment, a waiter brought a tray full of crackers, cheese, shrimp, pickles, stuffed mushrooms, and assorted other appetizers.
My companions dug in.
Chesterton picked up a piece of cheese and studied it.
“The poets have been mysteriously silent …,” he began.
“On the subject of cheese,” Santa and Stout finished.
Chesterton laughed. “That’s the problem with publishing every thought one has ever had.”
He popped the cheese into his mouth.
“We are by nature joiners,” Chesterton said. “From the moment a man first totters away from his mother’s arms, he seeks the company of other men. They form gangs, packs, clubs, secret clubs, societies. They wear robes and cloaks and swords and hats with feathers. They have secret passwords and handshakes. Man is a social creature.”
“And at these gatherings, we eat and drink,” Stout said.
“Generally too much,” Santa said, patting his stomach.
By this time wine and beer had arrived. Chesterton poured me a mug of beer.
“I sense you are a beer man, eh?”
I took the mug. The others raised their mugs and glasses.
“To dining and drinking with friends,” Stout said.
We all drank. The beer was quite good.
“Mind you, we are not talking about gluttony here,” Santa said.
“No. What we celebrate is the companionship,” Chesterton said. “Food and drink is always better in a social context.”
“When I eat alone I feel like a seminarian being punished,” Pope John said. “I tried it for one week and I was not comfortable. Then I searched through Sacred Scripture for something saying I had to eat alone. I found nothing, so I gave it up and it's much better now.”
“I fear I am not the only one guilty of quoting himself,” Chesterton said.
Pope John nodded, smiled, then sipped his wine.
“Companionship. That is what nourishes us,” Chesterton continued. “It is communion, a sharing in the sacred feast.”
“Why there are some religions that recognize the importance of this kind of communion that they forbid their members from eating with nonbelievers,” Stout said.
“But if you will forgive me,” I said. “Given our respective girths, aren’t we still talking about gluttony?”
“Look about,” Chesterton said. “What do you see? Fat men?”
“Illusion!” he declared.
“There are men here who in life were never fat,” Pope John said. “Our dinner companion,” he pointed to Santa, “was thin in life.”
“What you see here are manifestations of their spirits,” Stout said.
“Outward signs of their largeness of spirit,” Pope John added.
“That is what our society celebrates,” Chesterton said. “These are men who rejoice in God’s good gifts to us. Food and drink, yes, but also friendship, and generosity, and love. The ordinary and the simple is as much food for a feast as that which we call profound. Indeed, there is nothing more profound than the ordinary.”
He chuckled and took a bite of the potatoes that had arrived. Indeed, our plates were full and we had been eating – yet I was barely aware of the food passing my lips.
“The world is too full of people waiting for Christmas, and missing the point that every day is Christmas,” Santa said. “The great gift of Christ is waiting for us to unwrap every day.”
“But we think of holiness as somehow a sour pursuit,” Chesterton said. “Imagine the message we give to non-believers with our dark and somber looks. Who wants to join a group of people who look as if they spend their days sucking lemons and stamping out joy? Why, we should feast every day. As it says in Proverbs, `He that is of a merry heart has a continual feast.’ There’s a faith to attract others.”
“Yes, and `They shall bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing,’’’ Pope John said. “They bring the message of God’s kingdom to others through their savoring it like a fine wine or even a piece of humble bread.”
“Which is what we are about,” Stout said. “We are men who tried to celebrate each day in life. We tried to share that joy with others.”
“God does not demand perfection,” Pope John said. “Look about. There are men here who sinned greatly. But they loved greatly. They tried hard to improve. They begged forgiveness. King David committed great offenses, yet he danced with abandon before the Ark of the Covenant because of his love for the Lord.”
“St. Francis of Assisi sinned in his life, yet he was so in love that he was willing to play the fool for Christ,” Chesterton added. “He made penance, yes, but at the same celebrated even the simple thing of creation, calling them his bothers and sisters. And by doing so, he inspired others. He made others aware that all creation is a gift, that life is a great feast.”
“By the way, Brother Francis is quite fat when he attends our gatherings,” Santa said. “And when he laughs, talk about a belly that looks like a bowlful of jelly!”
“There are those who say that inside every fat man is a thin man trying to get out,” Chesterton said. “I say that inside every thin man is a fat man waiting to enjoy a belly laugh.”
“So you don’t have to be fat of body in life to join,” Stout said. “But you must be large of spirit.”
“That is why you have been invited here,” Pope John said. “You have shown signs of that largeness of spirit. You have shared the love of the Lord in some ways.”
“If you chose to continue to share it, to seek out more ways to share it, then you will grow,” Santa said.
“What this evening is is an invitation,” Chesterton said. “You too can be an Old Fat Man, if you continue to celebrate and share God’s presence in the simple and the profound.”
“You can have your cake and eat it too,” Stout said.
“Out of curiosity, what about women?” I said. “I see none here.”
“Most women don’t need societies to celebrate the ordinary,” Chesterton said. “They have their own wonderful ways to express largeness of spirit.”
“But we do have women who join us occasionally,” Stout added.
“Yes, I had a wonderful talk one dinner with Mother Teresa and the Blessed Mother,” Pope John said.
The conversation flowed freely over the next two hours – fueled by food, drink and humor.
I never laughed so much.
As the evening ended, each of my dinner companions bade me farewell. Santa gave me some tips on portraying him at the mall. Pope John blessed me. Chesterton gave me an idea for a play that he’d considered, but never wrote.
After the last dessert and the last toast, Stout led me to the door.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I hope to see you again – but not for a while.”
“I hope so – and not – as well,” I said.
“Remember,” he said. “The way to become an OFM is not by becoming fat, but rather, by making others `fat and flourishing.' As they increase, so do you. So does God's kingdom.”
As I drove home, I resolved two things.
I would treat all life as a feast to be shared with others.
And I would go on a diet.
Heck, I now know I can be a fat man without adding a pant size!