(Image via Pixabay.)
Today is the the feast of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. I like Saint Pio. I feel closer to him than I do to many saints, because he’s separated from me by only one degree. I’ve met someone who met him. I met her by chance almost ten years ago, when I was baking a coconut cake for a stranger’s birthday. I don’t know many stories about Saint Pio you haven’t heard before, but let me tell you the story of the coconut cake. Saint Pio appears in there.
In those days, I volunteered at the soup kitchen once a week with some of my friends from the University. The soup kitchen was in the dank basement of a very old Protestant church, with a giant stained glass window of the Transfiguration behind the altar where I was used to seeing a Crucifix. The pastor of that church was a spirited old woman named Pastor Tony; she used to stand in front of that stained glass window and preach until all of us, even the upper-class white Catholics from the University, were feeling the spirit and crying “Amen!” I could see Christ transfigured in Pastor Tony when she preached. I could feel Him in all of us when we shouted “Amen!”
I rarely saw Christ transfigured like that, downstairs in the soup kitchen. Christ in the soup kitchen was usually quieter and more cynical. Christ shuffled to the buffet line and took a Styrofoam bowl of whatever concoction we made out of the cans on hand, along with a big handful of sliced white bread. Christ sometimes brought unruly children who smelled of sweat and never combed their hair. Christ leaned over His food as if He was afraid someone would take it; he ate quickly and didn’t say “thank you.” I didn’t blame them for forgetting a “thank you;” most days, the food we had to work with was nothing I’d be thankful for.
Nearly every week, Christ came to us in the disguise of a feisty, talkative gentleman with a zesty Italian name like Lorenzo. I’ll call him Lorenzo. Lorenzo used to stick his head into the kitchen door, if we sang while we cooked, and say “Don’t quit your day job.” I liked Lorenzo. He was honest.Lorenzo wasn’t sold on the Gospel. One week, he told us that he didn’t like the verse, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” He didn’t believe that anybody would do that for him. Lunch was livelier than usual, that day, because he was grilling us on that Bible verse.
“Would you do that for me?” he demanded. “If I was lying on the railroad track, would you come take me off and lie down in my place?”
“I’d risk my life to get you off the track,” said a student from the university.
“But really,” pressed Lorenzo. “Would you lay down your life? If I was gonna die, would you die in my place?”
The student hesitated. “Well, I don’t know, but I hope I would.”
“I would,” said another pastor who’d come to have lunch with Pastor Tony. She wasn’t an attractive woman– overweight, shabbily dressed, with a big mole on her nose. She hadn’t looked pretty to me up until that moment; now she was transfigured. I had never heard anyone speak with such conviction in my life. Any idea I’d had that Protestants are silly and shallow while Catholics are deep, evaporated on the spot with those two words. This woman was filled with the Holy Ghost. “I would. I’d lay down my life for you.”
I wanted to lay down my life for Lorenzo, too. I didn’t want to be left out of the reward waiting for that pastor. If you’d been there with me and heard her, you’d have been desperate to lay down your life in any way you could.
The opportunity presented itself later, as we were cleaning up and throwing out the Styrofoam dishes. Lorenzo mentioned that it was his birthday next Wednesday. He said his mother used to make a coconut cake for him on his birthday, but she’d died several years ago and he hadn’t had a coconut cake since.
“How do you make a coconut cake?” I asked.
Lorenzo was shocked at my ignorance. “You bake a cake. You mix the icing with coconut.”
The other volunteer and I plotted right on the spot to make Lorenzo a coconut cake.