On how God is and is not like an Eastern European Country

In college, while “studying abroad” (such a glorious remnant of a European past before unions or skepticism of them), it is popular among American university students to visit Estonia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic. Because these formerly iron curtained countries are relatively inexpensive, and a college student on a budget could squeeze three or four into a spring break week. When one thinks about the reason why these countries are relatively cheap to visit, one’s spring break usually is ruined, so one doesn’t really spend too much considering the more unpleasant factors for your steeply discounted hostel rate.

Outside of college, in their postgraduate careers, Millennials who have instagrams are into the “30 by 30,” which I think is the name of an ESPN video series, [Update: It is not. But 30 for 30 is. Hashtag Sports.] and is also a sort of challenge issued by certain social groups to visit thirty countries by the time you’re thirty. It’s a tempting goal to buy into, because challenges are f-u-n, fun. My competitive streak surfaces (it’s an odd duck, popping up unexpectedly  at nonsensical interludes to ruffle feathers, take names, and muddy still waters). 

So I tend to be dismissive of challenges, because the only way to cope with a challenge that you know you can’t win is to pretend it doesn’t matter—riiiight? 

I consistently have to remind myself that this sort of challenge is operating on a paradigm of travel that’s, to say the least, not worth buying into. 

For example, what counts as “visiting” on your list? You can hardly say that you have been to a country if you have only stepped inside it’s airport. So what’s the degree of being there that must be achieved to have been to the country? 

Because if you’ve visited the airport, you’ve technically touched down upon the ground of the country—I’ve spent multiple layovers in the Zurich airport and seen the mountains from the windows. I’ve probably made some sort of contact with Swiss atmosphere. But have I “been” to Switzerland? No, that’s absurd. Any sort of meaningful sense of encountering Switzerland—experiencing its terrain, climate, people, culture, food—did not occur. Well, maybe slightly—I encountered airport employees, very ritzy airport stores, and I watched the mountains from the window, from the removed distance of cinema.

So say you go to a country—like Italy or Turkey. If you’ve been to one city—like Rome or Izmir—there’s teams of other important cities—Ankara or Florence—that you’ve never even seen! Far from exhausting all there is to be seen in a week, you’ve barely scratched the surface. 

I get very protective of places I’ve been—“I’ve been to the Holy Land” says someone who’s never walked through a checkpoint or seen Samaria. “I’ve been to Ireland” says the girl in the cable knit sweater. Yes, you spent a St. Paddy’s Day in Dublin—did you spend two weeks with the mountains of Connemara outside your window? Bet you didn’t. I must have had a more authentic experience, I think, but then I realize I’m operating on the same spectrum of tourism, looking for the “authentic” by going to more remote locations. 

And also, as soon as I set myself up as judge and arbiter of the authenticity of one’s travel to a country I have spent less than 1/100th of my life in, I have the decency to feel like a fool and fraud. The authority of having been to a country longer or in a more interesting way than someone else is fragile authority. But where does it end? Who has authority on a place besides those who live there? Can you really see or experience or be somewhere while just visiting?

 —

There are only saints in heaven, wrote Garrigou-LaGrange. People say we project our interior mental states onto what we read, or we interpret the passages according to the events of our lives. But I do think what authors means can seep into us from the page. Garrigou-LaGrante’s words leave a haunted impression in my brain. Earlier on this page, he identifies the men who devote themselves to their philosophical and academic work as if “God did not exist.” In their moments of solitude, he writes, they have no intimate conversation with God. 

He writes as though he recognizes  this emptiness in himself, this void where God should be—the silence that rings inside his ears in the place of conversation. He accuses them of self-love and intellectual pride, even though their life “appears to be in certain respects the search for the true and the good.” 

“Do the depths of their souls live by God? it would seem not”

Oh Garrigou-LaGrange, your name is the last word in quixotic, and your writing is fraught with an anxiety regarding salvation endemic to nineteenth century popular piety. Do you not know the Paradiso was written just for  you? Julian wrote down her showings for souls like yours and mine—who try to quantify all our striving. There will only be saints in heaven, yes. And yes, Garrigou-LaGrange (May I call you Reginald? Fr. Reggie?), you and I are so aware of how imperfectly we love, how dogged by self-congratulation all our efforts are. I am haunted by that same question: at the heart of my soul, in its very depth, do I live by God, do I live by God’s love? Do I love him or just my own living and loving?

And then begins the competition. I think I’m better off than that person who barely even prays, who has no spiritual concern, who does not project theological expertise and scrupulous self-examination. Surely, I know God better than they. I begin my pharisaical project once again, but this time, instead of quantifying how much someone has visited a country, how authentic their experience is, how much they have “truly seen,” I point to five people who think about themselves more than God, I mentally drum up a list of those whose ultimate concern is not the Trinity. I may not yet be a saint, but I’m certainly a bit more native to the land than they are.

It’s exactly this sort of pride I read haunting the pages of Garrigou-LaGrange. And maybe this is my own projection, but, for the moment, it is a consoling. That someone else sees the country we are visiting, and their own inability to simply be in it, and their desire to simply encounter what is before them. I read someone who is trying so hard to love back the love that has loved them, and in the very effort of “trying” gets tangled up in this pervasive, dogged self-interest, the odd duck spirit of competition and record-keeper who surfaces just when we most want him out of the way.

The good news about God, is that God is, like an Eastern European country, visited by those who have wreaked his devastation, and still, he welcomes all the cheap students, the grifters, and the Saudi tourists. All of them. God gently holds those who have lived there for ages, who have worked since sunrise and are paid the same wages as those of us who show up sweaty and late five minutes after the deadline. Heaven is, of course, only saints. Only those who have thirsted for nothing else but God.

But the thing is, I think, is that once this pilgrimage is done, we’ll discover how this thirst for God was present underneath more of what we did than we understood. Once we are concerned less with: how much have we seen? How authentic is our visit? How singleminded is my love? We will discover that inexhaustible entities—countries, deities—can be encountered truly in a moment as in a lifetime.

The surprise of heaven will not be: wow, holiness was such a rare commodity, but rather: wow, God was in every corner of a universe that seeped holiness from every atom. How did we not see him?

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