He's Not Heavy - He's My Friar

A POLL which we can all ardently hope will be the poll to end polls informs us that the Protestant clergy of the Republic of Germany is largely overweight. The pollster assures us that at least 5,000 ministers have obesity problems and things get heavier every day. In the words of the pollster, the ministers ``consume too much of their daily bread during frequent visits among their flocks.'' We can breathe a little easier at that, since it removes the matter from the category of sheer unbridled gluttony into the bracket of an occupational hazard. None of us has heretofore given a thought to the gustatory challenge of preaching the Gospel, and certainly none of us has worried about the perils of plenitude that persist in the pastoral profession. This is curious, since all of us have grown up with the pleasant stereotype of the portly priest and the fat friar. Think about that.

Where in all literature will you find a kinder character than the saintly Friar Tuck, his beef pasty at hand and the nearby babbling stream awaiting the unwanted ablutions of rascally Robin Hood? Ah, we can see him now, cajoling himself further! ``An' will ye not have another small morsel?'' and then the protest, ``Oh, no - thank ye quite!'' ``Ah, but pray do!'' And the capitulation, ``Well, since you insist!''

Rabelais assured us he was a monk ``even to the teeth,'' or as great a monk as ever monked a monkery. Trenchermen all, such worthies at least suggested to us that good food went with piety, and it wasn't until the Reformation that we began to equate lighter lunches with the ministry.

There was, for example, the Rev. Micajah Foster of the Baptist persuasion, who left a fairly remunerative pulpit in Henniker, N.H., to come at a much smaller stipend to preach at Biddeford, Maine. His explanation was that ``they feed a good deal better in Maine.'' And even if we didn't give the matter thought until now, we can at last appreciate what a good parson went through to gain weight.

My family cannot be considered average. We had a forebearer who came to Maine early to free himself of certain obligations, and he lived at New Meadows a number of years before other settlers moved in. He had survived all right without this and that, and he didn't jump up and down with glee when his new neighbors proposed a church. But he was outvoted under the Boston Principle, and shortly a church was built, a minister ``called,'' and Forebearer Joseph got a bill for pew rent.

Three times he was cited in the parish records for refusing to pay, and three times a committee waited on him to say that he would be ``read out of the church'' if he didn't. ``Everybody has to pay pew rent,'' he was told.

Shortly they posted his shame on the meeting-house door, and after devotions the minister read Joseph out of church and he never did pay his pew rent. And, our family always pointed out, he freed himself forever from the parish requirement of feeding the reverend when he came on his parochial calls.

These calls, in those days, came twice or three times a year, and for parishioners out on the farms it meant a truly high priority occasion. Somebody with a horse and buggy would volunteer to ``carry'' the minister and his wife to such-and-such a home - and that meant three more mouths at table. Every housewife outdid all the others.

A minister who took dinner with the Farrar family, and then on the way back to town stopped off for supper with the Monroes, would arrive back at the parsonage in a replete condition. The weekly offerings that mothered his small salary were notoriously meager, but he didn't need to go hungry if he had a volunteer with a horse. So it was.

There is an elderly dialog, long in Maine folklore, that shows how hard it was for the minister to inculcate the faith and stay slim at the same time. Granny Knowland was deaf as a post and couldn't hear a thing less than a thunderclap. When Parson Potter came to dinner, she fed him up to his ears, and then she said, ``Can I serve you some more?''

``No, thank you - I've a genteel sufficiency.''

``Been a-fishin', you say?''

``No, no - I've got plenty.''

``Caught twenty?''

``No, no - I'm full!''

``Broke your pole?''

In desperation, the Reverend Mr. Potter was obliged to embrace the opportunity, as did Friar Tuck and as do the clergy of Germany - ``Well, since you insist ... ''

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