Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Alicia von Stamwitz on A Good Waiter is Hard to Find

How often do you come across a theologian who is as funny and mischievous as he is smart? I’m no scholar, but I know a good thinker when I see one, and the first time I read a sample section of James Alison’s catechetical course online I laughed out loud, and then I immediately read it again—twice. His analogy of the Church as a restaurant is so perfect, so true, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I later looked up Alison’s background and learned he’s a 57-year-old Oxford-educated systematic theologian, a former Dominican, and an itinerant preacher. He may be an outlier, having chosen an unusual vocational path, but he’s got theological chops, all right.

I’ll link to the full text with the restaurant analogy below. In short, his extended riff skewers pompous theologians and ministers by comparing them to ordinary waiters who’ve forgotten how insignificant they are. True, they are necessary—and good ones can help make a fine dining experience even better—but, Alison writes, “how many of us go to a restaurant because of the waiters?”

Alison doesn’t pull punches, but he’s not mean-spirited, either. You get the sense he’s seen it all and is poking fun at himself along with our Church’s hapless “waiters” when he writes, “At the same time as the chef is hard at work preparing the food...the waiters, whose task it is to serve the chef by serving those whom the chef wants to nourish, are engaged in a constant series of drama-queen hissy fits. Sometimes it is about which one is the Maître D’, or whether there ought to be a Maître D’ at all. Then there are rows about the gender, the marital status, and (Dear Lord!) even the sexual orientation of the waiters. Then there are endless snits about who has a nicer uniform, who is promoting whose friends, who has been insufficiently attentive to whose dignity and so forth. Furthermore, the waiters seem to have picked up, through their forays into the kitchen, that they are somehow emanations of the chef, but know better than the chef who the guests are, and what is good for them.”

Read the full piece here.

Alicia (Arellano) von Stamwitz is an award-winning freelance author and longtime editor with the religious press whose exclusive interviews and profiles of today's most influential spiritual leaders are published internationally ( She served as one of our regular contributors through the first year of the "Monks in Our Midst" series.

What rings true to you, if anything, in Alison’s extended restaurant analogy?

Alison also compares the Church to a half-way house, a portal, and an embassy. Do any of these analogies strike you?

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