I’m heading in for work when my stomach starts to growl. I didn’t eat much of a breakfast so I stop at the local fast food joint and grab a burger to go.
When I arrive at the Bistro I realize I have a few minutes to kill before my shift starts. I pour myself a Diet Coke (who am I kidding?) and tuck into my caloric monstrosity.
“Hey, you can’t eat that!” Erica, a fellow waiter, exclaims.
“Why not?” I mumble though a mouthful of beef.
“It’s Good Friday. You’re not supposed to eat meat!” she chides.
Its many years ago and I’m studying for the priesthood. I’m locked up for a Holy Week retreat at this run down monastery in the middle of nowhere. Most of the monks are long dead so they run it as a retreat center for extra income. Believe me when I tell you – it’s in the Styx.
By the time Good Friday arrives, after all praying, chanting, reflecting, and silence; we’re close to losing our minds. Guys are sneaking out to their cars to listen to the radio. The only thing that keeps us sane is the retreat master. A former monk who had been pulled out of his monastery to become an assistant bishop for a southern diocese, he is earthy, funny, and very real. To him religion is not about doctrine and ceremony but getting down in the trenches were real people live.
Asked why he became a monk he said, “It beats working for a living.”
The salty old bishop drives our prancing, ceremony obsessed, closet alcoholic, French cuff wearing academe rector up the wall. We love that bishop.
Late on Good Friday night, starving and restless, we break into the monastery kitchen and liberate several cases of beer. Raiding the larders, we grab all the cold cuts we can lay our greedy hands on and start to assemble some monster sandwiches.
Trying to be good, we decide to wait until the stroke of midnight, the end of the fast, before devouring our ill gotten gain. Try and picture twenty really drunk, really hungry guys, sitting around watching the clock, drooling in anticipation of our surreptitious feast.
At a quarter of midnight, Jim, who is now a monsignor somewhere, leaps up onto the counter and pushes the hands of the clock past midnight.
“Let’s eat!” he screams in true John Belushi fashion.
We dive into our sinful hoagies with gusto.
“Hey, what are you guys doing?” a voice calls out.
Standing in the doorway, dressed in a shabby bathrobe, is the bishop. We’re so busted.
We look at him, mouths full, beers in hand, waiting to be excoriated to within an inch of our lives.
The bishop looks at his watch and sighs. He grabs a beer in one hand and a sandwich in the other saying,
“Well boys, nothing tastes better than a hamburger on Good Friday. ”
Party on. We really loved that bishop……………………………………………..
“Erica, nothing tastes better then a hamburger on Good Friday,” I say recycling the bishop’s line.
“Ugh,” Erica snorts, “You’re gonna burn in hell.”
“Like a rotisserie chicken babe.”
Erica walks away laughing.
I smile inwardly. I haven’t thought about that retreat in years. When you’re in the “religion business” you tend to get very familiar with the sacred – often to the point of treating it profanely. It’s kind of like cops drinking coffee and telling jokes around a dead body. The same dynamic is at work.
I get sat a four top. They’re regulars I haven’t seen in a while. After I fetch their cocktails one of the husbands says to me,
“Hey waiter, could you do something about the heat? I’m next to the radiator and it feels like my feet are on fire.”
I can’t help myself
“Well, it is Good Friday sir.” I deadpan.
The table bursts out laughing.
“The waiter seems to know where your headed Jim,” the man’s friend says.
I go, turn down the heat, and return to tell them the specials. While they are asking me questions I refill their water glasses with Pellegrino. I commit a minor faux pas. I pour water into one of the ladies white wine glasses.
“Oh, I’m sorry madam,” I apologize.
The husband laughs and says, “Hey, you’re supposed to turn water into wine, not the other way around!”
“I’ve got the multiplying bread thing down but the wine part still needs work,” I reply.
More laughter. I begin to take their orders.
“I know it’s Good Friday but I want the steak – is that all right with you?” the husband asks keeping the gag running.
“I’m responsible for your gustation not your salvation,” I quip. The table cracks up.
I punch in the order and return with the woman’s wine refill.
“Do you need anything else before I ascend into Heaven?” I ask placing the glass on the table. Obviously not evangelicals, they roar with laughter.
I’m slaying ‘em tonight.
As the table leaves the man hands me the checkbook bowing deeply,
“Dinner was a religious experience!”
“Glad you enjoyed it sir.”
As they walk out the door I look at the tip. It’s pretty big.
I love tables that have a sense of humor.
For some strange reason I’m in a happy mood for the rest of the night.
This time, seventeen years ago, I was raiding a monastery kitchen. Now I’m working in a kitchen.
I realize intuitively, somehow, it’s all for the best.
God works in mysterious ways.