Questions of Faith: Spencer Reece
"Questions of Faith" is a selection of excerpts from interviews that Dianne Bilyak has conducted over the past decade. The interviews began as her master's thesis for The Institute of Sacred Music & Arts at Yale Divinity School. The poets were queried about their religious upbringing, current practices, and how these may or may not have influenced their writing, as well as general questions related to faith, doubt, and meaning, and more specific questions related to each poet's work.
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Dianne Bilyak: What was the role of organized religion in your childhood?
Spencer Reece: I attended an Episcopal preparatory school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for thirteen years. We had chapel every morning, Monday through Friday. Formally a military academy, we still had inspection on Wednesdays. Routines comforted me. While I was there, the school's religiousness dissipated, stressing an ecumenical identity that soft-pedaled any strictly Christian message. My father came from a vague long line of American Protestants. My mother had grown up Catholic, her parents both Lithuanian immigrants. Her mother devout, her father, she often speculated, was a Jew who had buried his religion to assimilate, not even divulging this information to his wife or children. I never met him; he died when my mother was young. His ghost loomed large for my mother. Neither of my parents were churchy. Curiously, after my ordination to the deaconate, my father, at 80, asked to be baptized. When I was not in school, we sporadically attended a Catholic basilica and another country Catholic Church. I was baptized and communicated in the Catholic Church. I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church in my forties.
DB: What role does it play for you as an adult?
SR: At 48, I was ordained an Episcopal priest in Madrid, Spain. I work here for the Bishop of Spain as his chaplain. My duties include: morning prayer in Spanish, traveling with the Bishop, reading the Gospel in our services, celebrating in Spanish and helping with our homeless ministry which feeds 500 every Saturday. I have approached religion tentatively. However, the daily chapel services and the example of my devout Catholic grandmother, who never mentioned her faith, prevailed. I look and act like my father, so inheriting the faith of his people is no surprise. But actions rather than words left their mark on me: a routine of morning prayer, and one singular, Lithuanian immigrant woman in the north end of Hartford who worked an accountant's job at the Sage-Allen department store, lost a husband and a child, and went off by herself to church.
DB: In what ways, if any, did or does this influence your writing?
SR: My writing turns more to the religious. My new book of poems is scheduled to come out in 2013 along with a short prose book of twenty five devotional meditations based on four poets: George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and James Merrill. The book of poems is called The Road to Emmaus, the prose The Little Entrance.
Several of the poems allude to the Bible: the upper room, the road to Emmaus, the fifth commandment (honoring your mother and father), 1 Corinthians: 13.
The prose book is a departure. I had been trying to write in prose for a long time but I was not sure how to do it, or what to do. I was not thrilled by the idea of memoir. I had false starts; the effort is a decade in the making. The meditations take as their inspiration the idea that for the Anglican the word is a source of inspiration; as a poet, that works out rather conveniently, and so in the book, I seek to honor and meditate on poets that have meant a great deal to me. The poems become icons for the divine. The long hard work at seminary had, indeed, inspired me. Some of the essays deal with theology, liturgy, biography, and some with a personal narrative about becoming a priest. I wrote the final draft in a wild seven days and nights at the MacDowell Colony, in a way I never wrote anything before. I worked from many previous drafts and thoughts, only making a few sections from whole cloth.
My next project I hope to be a collection of poems by the young abandoned and abused girls at the orphanage of Nuestras Pequenas Rosas in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. I hope to work with them writing these poems and to employ the help of fellow painters and artists and seminary friends in this project. This book will collect their poems and watercolors and have at its center the story of Diana Frade, the founder of the orphanage. Proceeds for the book will go to the orphanage. The poems will be in both Spanish and English. If it is God's will, if a grant comes through, I will be moving back to Central America next fall for an indefinite period.
DB: Have there ever been times, in either sermon writing or writing poems, where you've lost your faith in words?
SR: They are such different ways of writing; a sermon is not a poem. I have come to depend upon the moment for a homily; I do not write them down anymore, I think about them all week, make an outline, and then speak them out. Their charm is in the ether. Poems mostly take years.
DB: Do you believe that there is still a living tradition of religious poetry? Furthermore, do you think it is important that a tradition of religious poetry be alive in the world?
SR: I suppose it is rather unpopular to claim to be a religious poet. Main-line traditions dwindle. From my church windows, I have a democratic view of literature and love the religious and the non-religious with equal fervor. Fortunately, the Episcopal Church loves the word: recently it brought a smile to my current Spanish bishop's face, as we drove to Huelva in Southern Spain to clean out a Protestant graveyard, observing me in his rearview mirror slowly reading Antonio Machado.