by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
Imagine sitting at a long table and enjoying a delicious feast when you hear St. Peter say, “Pass the bread” or St. Teresa of Avila announce that she brought her famous roast partridge. It’s a conversation that can only take place in your head — or in this case, in the pages of a new book.
Author, journalist and occasional Leaven contributor Woodeene Koenig-Bricker’s new book, “Dinner Party with the Saints,” gives voice to 16 saints gathered around a table in heaven, enjoying a potluck dinner. The book was released on Feb. 16, and an early read indicates it will be a hit.
“I’ve had the idea in my mind for awhile. I wondered what happens when we die,” said the author. “Surely, what makes us who we are on earth is still who we are in heaven. The same is true for the saints.”
Why a dinner party?
“One of the traditional images of heaven is the banquet or marriage feast of the Lamb,” Koenig-Bricker writes in the introduction. “Revelation 19:9 says, ‘Blessed are those who are called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.’ The idea of those who have lived a holy life gathering in celebration has often been interpreted as our being present at the Eucharist with all those saints in heaven.”
The premise of this book, however, hangs on the simple sentence that follows:
“What if the banquet could be seen as a little more earthly than theological?”
Fact from fiction
Koenig-Bricker has written extensively about spirituality and family for a variety of publications for much of her life, and has published nearly a dozen nonfiction books. The former editor of Catholic Parent magazine, she is well-known for her popular book, “365 Saints: Your Daily Guide to the Wisdom and Wonder of Their Lives.”
So, she knows whereof she speaks.
“Dinner Party with the Saints” combines a heavy dose of fact with a little creative license when the saints are talking with one another in heaven. For example, many people might not know that Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada, better known as St. Teresa of Avila, was a fashionista in her time.
But it took only a little stretch of the imagination for Koenig-Bricker to imagine St. Teresa walking through the pearly gates of heaven wearing “bright red boots with blue embroidery on the toes.”
“Teresa was fond of fashion and fashionable clothes in her youth and read the equivalent of fashion magazines,” Koenig-Bricker noted in the book. “She also loved to read romances, which consisted mostly of stories of knights, and even tried writing a few herself. She felt that a day when she couldn’t read a new book was a day lost.”
Another chapter explores the life of St. Martin de Porres and his life in heaven. Known for being an animal lover, Koenig-Bricker recounts how St. Martin “reunites” a cat named Mittens with its owner in heaven. The details make for an emotional reunion, a great read and even a few tears.
While that part of the book is of course fictional, history tells us much more about St. Martin’s time on earth and his mixed-race upbringing. Koenig-Bricker’s book details how St. Martin — born to a Spanish nobleman and his mistress, who was of African and Peruvian descent — experienced prejudice even in the 1500s. While serving as a lay brother in a Dominican monastery, he was called a “mulatto dog” and mocked for being “illegitimate,” she wrote.
Touching stories, touching lives
St. Martin’s story touched Koenig- Bricker like no other, making him her favorite saint to feature in the book.
“I cried the whole time I wrote the chapter and when I read it aloud,” she said.
The author did not choose her 16 favorite saints to tell her story. Instead, she decided to select saints that represented racial and ethnic diversity, and different times in church history.
Having studied the saints for most of her life, Koenig-Bricker said most written accounts spotlight the saints’ “piety, suffering and the good that they did.” She wanted to do something different.
“These were real people. I was tired of them all sounding alike,” she said. “I did a webinar called ‘Saintly Secrets’ and it was about the real lives of saints. People are dumbfounded by some of the scandalizing details. For example, St. Gianna Beretta Molla wore bright red lipstick. Many people don’t know that St. Francis of Assisi liked cookies. These were real people.”
Food for thought
Paired with each chapter in “Dinner Party with the Saints” is a recipe that would be characteristic of the saint’s personality. Koenig-Bricker’s friend Celia Murphy, who lives in Maine (Koenig-Bricker lives in Oregon), created and cooked each of the recipes.
Koenig-Bricker only tasted one of the recipes — St. Lydia of Thyatira’s “Turkish Delight” — when Murphy sent her a sample. (St. Lydia came from what is now modern-day Turkey). And while she wrote the book primarily for entertainment purposes, she said some of the meatless recipes might be valuable during Lent.
Also included in each chapter is a traditional and a contemporary prayer. Many of the traditional prayers were uncovered from her research, while Koenig-Bricker herself wrote nearly all of the contemporary ones.
There is even a little intrigue, as Koenig-Bricker hints throughout the book at the “special guest” that will be arriving. Of course, the identity of the guest remains a secret until you’ve read the book from cover to cover.
“Dinner Party with the Saints” is available in both retail settings and online. And what about the possibility of a second dinner party read? The author hasn’t ruled anything out and is focused on what these 16 saints have to teach us.
“My hope is that you will enjoy sitting down at this ‘Dinner Party with the Saints,’” she wrote, “and come away with a deeper appreciation for these holy people, as well as a few moments of amusement and several great recipes to try.
“If so, then I will feel greatly blessed, indeed.”