Uncommon Prayers

Still from ‘Voices Beyond the Wall’ (Stories Matter Media)

I live in the center of Madrid, built in the center of Spain by the order of a king around 1606. I live on the top floor of the Spanish Episcopal Cathedral in the center of the center. Put your thumb on a Spanish map. Put it in the center of Madrid. I’m right under that. I’ve been here seven years and when I ask my boss, the Episcopal bishop of Spain, how long I will be here, he says it is a contrato indefinido.

No one is more surprised than me that I am here. Spaniards perhaps think the strange expression on my face is the result of all my labored “r” rolling, but it is probably also the fact of my wonder. The place and its people suit me, although they are a place and a people that couldn’t be more different from me, and perhaps that is why they suit me.

I am the national secretary for the Episcopal bishop, who is Spanish. As the Anglican church spread through the British Empire in the nineteenth century, it mainly took root in English-speaking places—British colonies, including the United States where, largely because of the revolution there, it decided to call itself Episcopal rather than Anglican. But somehow the Anglican Church also took hold here in Spain, embraced by the Spaniards, in Spanish. Unlikely. There was an effort to spread the Anglican faith into Portugal and Italy too, but Spain was where it caught on most. We’re so tiny and curious here in Catholic Spain—five thousand believers in a country of 43 million Catholics—that Spaniards are always astonished at our existence no matter how many times I explain it.

I am the national secretary for the Episcopal bishop. I answer the door, I do the church newsletter, I answer the phone, I travel with him, I conduct services, I preach, I empty trash, I hand out bags of food on Saturday. In between all of that, I have time in this office to look at the map of Spain with tiny pins showing where our few priests are.

 

Oh, this crumbling cathedral with buckling windows, cracked window glass, chipping paint, and sewage that backs up under the office!

Several minutes past nine in the morning. Madrid wakes up. Children in the tiny street lined with four-story nineteenth-century brick buildings head to school. Their yearning yelps echo and increase as the sounds bounce off the building walls, entering my small living room, where I put down my cup of coffee. I am dressed in a faded black shirt and black dress pants left over from the days when I worked at Brooks Brothers. My plastic white collar is in my hand, I shake it like a soldier with a bandage ready to attend to the wounded. Around my neck swings a huge set of keys. I jangle when I move so I always sound like the coins the homeless shake in their paper cups.

Oh, this crumbling cathedral with buckling windows, cracked window glass, chipping paint, and sewage that backs up under the office! This tiny twig of the church that was founded for Spanish Anglicans and closed during the dictatorship. The whole place smells like an old book that has been in a dank basement for forty years.

I come down my four flights of burnished wooden steps with iron railings. The bishop is surely in his pew. I’m late, but it’s Spain, so this is nothing. I enter the sacristy. I don my full-length cassock. I fasten the black buttons at the top. I cinch the black fabric belt around my waist with the fringe ends. I look quickly in the spotted mirror next to the cheap broken plastic clock where time is always stopped. I pull on my giant white alb that billows like a parachute, then a tippet, a black scarf, which I kiss in the center for morning prayer as I was taught to do before it goes around my neck. Something about the idea of wearing a uniform appeals to me. A uniform for a profession that George Herbert said was characterized by love: he wrote in The Country Parson that “love was the business and the aim” for parsons. The uniform advertises that. What a magical thing to have a uniform that signals love.

In my hand I have the tattered program for morning prayer, the white paper browned by the dirty fingers of the poor who have fingered these pages for years waiting for their bags of food on Saturday evenings. Finally, I snap my white plastic collar in place behind my head. I turn the latch that goes into the cathedral. I begin morning prayer for two—three if the bishop’s wife joins us. The bishop stands for my entrance. I go in a straight line toward the Bible I will read from, ready for love.

Opening up the Bible and finding the passage on the rota, I begin. In the Greek Orthodox Church, this moment when the priest opens the Bible and reads from it is called “the little entrance.” I like that term, the image of a priest popping out from behind a reredos as out of some kind of religious dollhouse. I do this every week. I smooth the tissue-thin Bible pages, clear my throat, and read.

Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: 

Spencer Reece is the author of The Clerk’s Tale and The Road to Emmaus, a long-list nominee for the National Book Award in 2014. This essay is adapted from The Little Entrance: Devotions, a forthcoming nonfiction book that combines the author’s life story with an appreciation of the poetry that saved him and led him to the church.

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