God as a person. I’ve always loved this about Christianity.
I love the idea that God wanted to be close to people, so went to all the trouble to be born as a baby, and took all that time to grow up into a man who could walk and talk with people, and sit and drink wine and hang out with people. So he could know and be known, as a form that was as easy for human beings to understand as our own selves (turns out, it isn’t that easy, but that’s another post). So he could tell people – show people – a story about love.
I realize some people think this is a crazy concept. I see the ridiculousness in the whole thing as much as I see the beauty: God needing to relocate (from where??) to Earth, and shape-shift into a man (how did he fit into one body??) to make contact with us (who he created, but we didn’t stay in touch?). Makes no sense. And, makes perfect sense. Like a lot of stories in a lot of religions.
Cyrus currently carries around this tiny leprechaun figurine, named Carrig, in his pocket. I pray it doesn’t break but I bet it will, so I bought some superglue yesterday to be prepared. He talks to it, and it talks back. It often has opinions that are very different from Cyrus’s, and is responsible for mischief that Cyrus apparently knows nothing about. Leprechauns are known to be mischievous, Cyrus reminds us each time. He’s strategic, that boy.
We acquired Carrig in Ireland a few weeks ago, after a leprechaun hunt that resulted – SPOILER ALERT – in the successful capture of zero actual real live leprechauns. (It’s a story that merits more explanation, but that, too, is another post.) When Carrig isn’t in Cyrus’s pocket, he’s sitting zen-like in what can only be described as a shrine that Cyrus makes anew each time we change hotels or airbnbs, usually some sort of mini-house-like structure made out of slippers and papers and toilet paper rolls or whatever odds and ends happen to be around.
I bring up Carrig because when I think about my earliest ideas of God, I remember feeling the same kind of feeling about God that I think Cyrus has when he carries Carrig around. God was like my secret, invisible friend. He went through my days with me, saw everything I did, did everything I did. He may as well have been some kind of little living talisman that I kept in my pocket. I felt like Jesus was hanging out with me, all the time.
God as invisible friend. It might sound silly, but it was real to me. I felt God’s presence all the time. He was close enough to hear my whispers and my thoughts, and we were in constant conversation. In all of my childhood, I never remember actually feeling alone. God was with me.
The caves we saw yesterday, here in Cappadocia, in Central Anatolia, were created about 1500 years ago. There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of separate caves. Some of them have several rooms. Some are parts of huge compounds, even cities. Yes, whole cities. In fact there are at least dozens of underground cities in Cappadocia. The widest one, Kaymakli, consists of 8 floors below ground, and according to our tour guide, could fit 20,000 people. She may have meant 2,000. Either way, I’m impressed.
Before we visited that particular underground city, we visited Goreme Open Air Museum. It is a vast monastic complex with scores of monasteries, side-by-side, each with its own beautiful rock-cut church. Many of the churches have stunning frescoes on the walls and ceilings, still brightly colored. We arrived at Goreme mid-morning, and the sun was high and hot. It had burned off any hope of clouds, blazing in a sea of cobalt.
We walked into the open space, following our tour guide, and mostly looking down to make sure we had steady footing on the uneven ground. And then, suddenly, she stopped and pointed to the mountain before us. The light was blinding as it reflected off of the white rocks. We looked up, squinting, and as our eyes adjusted, myriad dark spots on the face of the rock came into focus: cave entrances.
We stared and listened to her speak about what life in the caves was like. Some of the caves are broken open, their outer walls partially collapsed, crumbled away. The caves are so rounded, soft-looking. Their walls are smooth, made amorphous, ballooning deep into the rock. Round, embryonic spaces, as if some giant had pushed his thumb into dough. Or like bubbles had moved through and parted the rock, Swiss cheese-like, only the air had been drawn in toward the center, laterally, not upward. Or like some ancient, bulbous flora had once grown there in the stone, pushing through the mountains like they were clay, and had since decayed, leaving their imprints as proof they had existed.
After a while, staring at the horizontal landscape of the face of the mountain, you notice smaller holes as well. Some are inside the caves in neat, pock-marked rows. Our tour guide explained that these were places for pigeons to roost. (The cave’s former residents – human residents, that is – would collect the pigeon poop and use it for fertilizer in their gardens. So it wasn’t uncommon to have a dozen or two spots for pigeons to roost in a home.) Outside the caves, there are smaller holes too, foot holds that trail below the cave entrances. They are shallower holes, shadowed but not black, just deep enough for fingers and feet to grab and climb.
Some cave entrances are at ground level, but others are relatively high up. And still others are at amazing altitudes, apart from anything else. The location of these caves, carved in the last soft volcanic ash-formed rock layers before the impenetrable lava rock layer begins at the top, struck me as a precarious, almost desperate, choice. I pictured the monks, 1500 years ago, perched way up, cloaked and sweating through their habits, making scrape after scrape, the scraps of obsidian glass cutting their fingers (apparently this is what they dug with). Why go to such trouble?
Our tour guide once again explained things to us. These high spots were used not as dwelling spaces but temporary escapes, as places to find solitude. Monks would climb up, up, up, and tuck themselves inside the caves to pray, “to get as high as they could, to be close to God.”
This brought to mind a joke that our friend Pete Holmes makes. (He makes a lot of jokes. He’s my favorite comedian, and a lot of other people’s favorite too.) He talks about how it strikes him as weird when, say, an athlete scores a touchdown or something, and thens point to the sky to give the glory to God. Pete laughs about this and wonders about how funny it would it be if, when someone said, “Thank you God,” instead of pointing up, they just pointed somewhere else, like out into the audience, or off to the side, or down, or anywhere, because, well, isn’t God everywhere?
This “God is up there” idea has been a strong theme in our trip so far. We’ve seen a lot of structures so far, and will see many more, than have been built high to reach up to the heavens. All to be closer to God. As if God is only up.
All of this has made me wonder, when do we begin to feel anything but closeness to God? When do we have to make such great efforts to feel connected, again? I don’t know the answer to this, even in my own life. But I know I need to remind myself of God’s presence more now than when I was a kid. I believe in that presence, but I don’t always feel it. Why?
Some people would say sin is the obvious culprit. That sin is solely responsible for any distance, real or imagined, from God. I’d blame other things. Distraction, and doubt, and that irresistible desire sometimes to be utterly alone – though, I’m not sure if I’d have gone to such great lengths as those monks did to find solitude – seem more insidious.
Cyrus says he feels especially close to God in nature. He will often talk to the trees, to the flowers, to the ocean, in a prayerful tone. Standing in awe of giant sequoias, or ancient mountains, or the endless sea, Cyrus senses God. I do, too.
Jaspar says he feels especially close to God when he is in quiet, dark places, where he sneaks away to pray. Like the monks in caves, just without the element of height. We will find him in these kinds of spots like this in our house, praying in his makeshift caves. Under tables. Behind chairs. Wrapped in the bottom quarter of the drapes. Under sofa cushions (never as hidden as he thinks).
I understand Jaspar, and those monks who insisted on dark solitude, creating voids inside of mountains, cutting open the rock and climbing inside. Who hollowed out the most solid of structures, all because they hungered so badly to feel alone with God. I imagine those high caves are actually nice places to connect with God, in the thinning air, with the certainty that you will not be interrupted as you strain your ears and your heart for the sound of God’s voice. Maybe some of those monks sense an inverse correlation, in terms of God and humans: to get closeness with the Divine, get distance from people. Get alone. Maybe the distance from others is the most important part of the equation.
Not for me. My math is different. I feel closest to God when I am with my family. And with dearest friends. And it is the opposite of dark or quiet or isolated when we are together. It’s loud and bright and crowded.
I feel the presence of God most when I’m in the presence of the people I love. People to walk and talk with, to sit and drink wine and shoot the breeze with. People to hang out with. People to know and to love, who want to know and love us back. People who remind us that, undeniably, we are made in God’s image.
God is there when we are surrounded, and God is there when we are alone. In the loudness and in the quiet. In the most hidden places. Though we, too, are never as hidden as we think; to God, I bet, we are like Jaspar, hiding in the couch cushions. We only imagine aloneness.
God is inescapable. Always there. Always here. Even at ground level.
author of #claywaterbrick. cofounder of @kiva. instructor at @USC. investor at @collabfund. in love w @rezaaslan + our three boys.