Many atheists and agnostics hold that they would believe in God if he would only show himself to them. After all, why couldn’t he, if he is all-powerful? Why wouldn’t he, if he is kind and loving, and if he really wants people to believe in him as much as he says he does? In response, Christians point to God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ, a man who lived on the earth just as we do. The people who lived in Christ’s time walked with him, ate with him, and touched his scarred hands. I’ve often envied their experience. Now, two thousand years later, it may seem foolish to believe in him; in his presence as he performed miracles, it would have been foolish not to.
But in fact, Jesus’ bodily presence was brief—fewer than thirty-five years. Even Jesus’ closest companions were with him for only the three years of his ministry. No sooner had Christ risen from the tomb and returned to their midst than he ascended into heaven and, we are told quite deliberately, “a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).
Poet Spencer Reece cites what is perhaps the best and strangest example of Christ’s fleeting physical presence in the title poem of his forthcoming collection, The Road to Emmaus. In this story, on the third day after Christ’s death, two of his disciples are walking to Emmaus when Christ himself approaches and asks, “What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?” Bafflingly, they do not recognize him; in some translations we are told that “their eyes were restrained.” It is not until that evening, after they have walked and talked a long way, and sat down to eat, that they recognize Jesus as he breaks bread and hands it to them: “Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight (Luke 24:31).”Again, we are offered tantalizing, taunting glimpse of Christ in the flesh, before he literally disappears.
Why should he vanish so conveniently, when bodies—visible, tangible, material—are a standard form of proof? As fragile as they are, bodies cannot be ignored or easily explained away. The fossil record is key to debates on the origin of species; excavated bodies from wars and genocides testify that crimes committed against them really happened. When God removed himself bodily from the world, it became easy to claim that he never existed at all. I think many readers become frustrated, perplexed, even angry with the account of the Ascension and Christ’s other disappearing acts—I know I do. But Reece’s response to the loss of the human body in his poetry is quite different: his primary reaction is grief. And mourners, in their imperfect, self-seeking way, do not demean or grow skeptical of what they have lost, but lovingly recall and long for what they once had.
Mourning is at the center of the title poems of Reece’s two collections: The Road to Emmaus, forthcoming this year, and The Clerk’s Tale, published in 2004. Both poems are extremely autobiographical, like all of Reece’s poetry. In some ways, the historicity of the events described makes the poems difficult to analyze, but in other ways it simplifies matters: his poetry and his theology are one.
“The Road to Emmaus” tells the story of how Reece met Durell, his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and confidante of over seventeen years, and of Reece’s life in the aftermath of Durell’s death. The poem opens with Reece undergoing grief counseling with Sister Ann, a Franciscan nun. He is struggling to hold on to the influence Durell had on his life, even as he acknowledges how his efforts fall short: “I paused, then spoke urgently, not wanting to forget some fact,/ but much I knew I would forget or remember in a way my own,/ which would not exactly be correct, no, not exactly.” Through his narration to Sister Ann, Durell comes vividly, physically, bodily alive:
his thick hair fixed as the waves of
an 1800s nautical painting |
(perhaps he kept it set with hair spray?), |
his Tiffany ring polished to a brilliance,
| he set himself apart in his metal folding chair. | He had the clot-
ted girth of Hermann Göring. | …
Imperious, behind prism-like trifo-
cals, | quietly he said to me, “I’ve
grown as fat as Elizabeth Taylor.”
Reece becomes the last man Durell sponsors, and they talk daily for over fifteen years until Durell’s death. Although it’s no small thing that Durell’s support helps Reece to recover from addiction, in some places, Reece’s attempts to present Durell as a Christ-figure feel a little heavy-handed: “We were bound, bound by a vow, a vow of attention/ (there are many causes for attention, among them redemption).” However, by the end of the poem, when more of Durell’s past has come to light, Reece’s description of him—“He was an unlikely candidate for so many things”—proves to be double-edged. While the poem is primarily eulogistic, Reece does his friend justice by not putting him up on a pedestal: “Everyone found him impossible,/ including, at times, me.”
More interesting is the way Durell is likened to Christ by his juxtaposition with the Emmaus scene, which enters the poem as a tawdry postcard in Sister Ann’s office:
Above her gray head, | a garish
postcard of the Emmaus scene, |
the colors off, as if painted by num-
bers, with no concern for shading—
| the style of it had an unoriginal
Catholic institutional uniformity. |
There is hung, askew in its golden
Reece did not get to see Durell’s body either, although he tried. His verse turns spare, precise in its accounting:
When I arrived at the hospital his
body was gone. | The formalities
were few, | for he had become a
ward of the state. | The staff gave me
a brown grocery bag of his things: |
a roll of dimes, a pair of shoes, a belt buckle, an Einstein quote, | some-
thing about mediocre minds.
Bereft even of his friend’s body, the loss is devastating, closure impossible. Reece struggles to make sense of Durell’s death, as incoherent as the roster of items he receives.
The poem is full of other losses, replacements. The AA meeting earlier receives one of Reece’s best and funniest lines—“Darkened figures in the poor light, we looked like the burghers of Calais.” By comparing them to monuments, he implies their permanence. So it is a shock, all the more so for how unsentimentally it is put, that “[After Durell’s death] I went through Cambridge and found the meeting gone.” Reece continues walking through Cambridge, observing “A new set of homeless people pleaded… The Charles advanced, determined as a hearse,/ its dark waters gathering up every unattached thing.” What others might accept with a shrug—that change is the natural order of things, as constant and emotionless as the tides— Reece sees as tragedy.
Loss, matched by grief, also pervades the title poem of Reece’s first collection, “The Clerk’s Tale.” The poem is about Reece’s time working as a salesman in a Brooks Brothers store, where he was in a prime position to observe how quickly things pass away. The tone is resigned, self-deprecating, yet a little performative as well:
Our hours are long. Our backs bent.
| We are more gracious than Eng-
lish royalty. | We dart amongst the
aisles tall as hedgerows. | Watch us
face into the merchandise.
I sometimes feel we are in a musical—| gossiping backstage between ournumbers. | He drags deeply on hiscigarette. | Most of his life is over.
We return, then, to the question of why God should be so physically absent in our world. Paul addresses the issue in his letter to the church in Rome, writing, “We ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance (Romans 8:23-25).”
In other words, to believe in God, we have to do far more than see him. To follow Christ is to hope in what we have not yet seen come to pass, and that hope sustains us through our lifelong experience of loss. Reece does well to plumb and capture his sorrow so frankly. True, hope bears a resemblance to starry- eyed idealism: we hope in life when all around us, our bodies bear witness to deaths and disappearances. But that is the hope we yearn for, and in which we are saved. The very absence of Christ’s body indicates the presence of his spirit; unrecognized, he journeys beside us on the road. Someday, we will see him face to face.