El Camino words and paintings by Father Spencer Reece
Why make an Anglican Center in Santiago, Spain? What good can come of it? Why extoll this effort in the world now?
Once, a long time ago, a Catholic nun, whom I sought out for spiritual direction, in Lantana, Florida, said to me, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”I met with her for several years: we discussed many times what has become my favorite Bible story, The Road to Emmaus. I love the story of two disciples bumbling around not sure of where they are going or what they are doing.I love that they go to a small house in Emmaus. I love that the story only happens once. I actually ended up going to the real Emmaus: it is a tiny non-descript place outside Jerusalem. I loved that aspect of the story too. The two disciples breaking bread, one named Cleopus, and the other unnamed (it could have been a woman for all we know, I’d like to think it was, for Jesus was often surrounded by women). Jesus appears in front of them as an apparition and a stranger they met earlier on the road. Then the disciples’ hearts are opened and they shoot off like missiles, back to Jerusalem to spread the good news.I like the doubt in the story .I like the fact we don’t always realize what is in front of us. This story embodies the Camino in Spain for me.This story embodies my life.
Many times, I spent with Bishop Carlos Lopez discussing the importance of the Camino. Many times, we went to Santiago.Many times, we drove together in his car.Many times, we blessed pilgrims in Madrid.I worked as the Bishop’s canon-to-the-ordinary close to a decade. I did not speak Spanish when I arrived. So, you can imagine how close I felt to those bumbling disciples in my daily life. I often stumbled on my Camino, my road to Emmaus.
During one of the last trips in that role, we went on a beautiful Camino led by Joanna Wevill with Corazon Travel and several of the board members; Edith Morrill, Nancy Mead, Don Carlos and Nancy Weidinger. I still at times wasn’t sure where I was going.Perhaps you know the famous prayer by Thomas Merton, that begins “Lord I do not know where I am going.”Nancy Mead reminded me in a recent phone call that we had poetry meditations on that Camino. She made a connection to that and work I’ve recently been engaged with in my current post. The idea to have those meditations was not planned or thought out ahead of time. The idea came to me on the road, the way the Holy Spirit fell on my beloved Cleopus and the unnamed disciples. I think hearts were opened in the recitation of the poems or in the silence that followed .I don’t know what it is about poems that opens hearts like walnuts. I have seen it again and again: in a home for abandoned girls in San Pedro Sula, Honduras; on the Camino, in Spain; at a historic literary festival in Madrid; and now, improbably, in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York.
I returned to the States with my dog, Mr. Coconut in tow, last February. The return was sudden. I was jolted into that feeling they had on Emmaus, or you have when you walk the Camino, that Merton-like state of knowing and unknowing all at once. There were several reasons for this return, but they were accelerated by the fact my mother had a massive stroke that left her permanently disabled. An old word for the disabled you hear in the Bible is “the halt.”I understood the meaning now. My mother’s world was halted. Her children were called to her bedside as she had once attended out basinets.
I did not know where I was going in the neuroscience wing in New London, Connecticut, with my mother hallucinating and my father distraught. But the Camino was in my sense memory, the poems were with me, the spirit of Bishop Carlos was with me and the dog he gifted me was at my side. I suddenly, like the disciples, understood Don Carlos and the Spanish Episcopal Church, the bravery and humbleness of the place and the people, the triumph of their survival in a dictatorship, I suddenly understood it, just as the disciples did, only in its absence. Only when something is gone, do we fully understand it. Hindsight leads to insight. It is a bittersweet human thing.
Eight months later I was called to be the priest-in-charge of a bilingual multicultural parish called Saint Mark’s in Jackson Heights, Queens, which the New York Times calls “the world’s most diverse neighborhood. ”I am on the road again. One foot in front of the other. We began a poetry series with meditation called The Red Door Series with podcasts that has zoomed into popularity on Facebook and with the Episcopal News wire. I doubt I would have done that if I hadn’t fallen into that task on our Camino.
The pandemic has humbled us .Travel has grinded down to a halt.And yet as I write this, this Lent, I feel more globally connected than ever, I am lit with the Holy Spirit. I believe the Anglican Center is important for the future.No.Change that. I know the Anglican Center is important for the future. Important as that little house in Emmaus.Perhaps just as humble.No need to be too fancy. I will be there one day.I believe in the Bishop and this team. I believe because I have been on the road and I always land in a beautiful place. It’s true what Jesus says that the foxes have their dens and the birds have their nests and us? We’re on the road. As Christians. The Anglican Center will make a space to lay our heads. I believe.
Board member, Spencer Reece is the author of The Secret Gospel of Mark (Seven Stories Press, March 2021), a poet’s memoir and All The Beauty Still Left: A Poet’s Painted Book of Hours (Turtle Point Press, April 2021). He also serves on the board of the Wonder Forum, the umbrella organization for Logos and EcoTheo Review which will hold a first-ever festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, this July. He is the priest-in-charge, Saint Mark’s, a bilingual parish, Jackson Heights, New York City.