Interview by Andrea Midgett
It is safe to assume very few Cornell undergraduates are citizens of three countries. Chesterton House senior Martín Eizayaga is the rare exception. He is a citizen of Britain, Argentina, and the United States. Perhaps not being one of many has given Eizayaga a certain resilience and perspective, a comfortableness in his own skin that both appeals and quietly challenges. The only Catholic in the men’s house, he entered as a junior, wondering just how much his theology and faith experience would be questioned by his housemates. He will graduate this May convinced he and his Protestant brothers are more closely aligned on what matters most than he first thought – matters not only of the mind, but of the heart.
This edited and condensed interview was conducted on a cold morning last spring. Eizayaga had overslept. He was apologetic, but unruffled and thoughtful, immediately at ease, and ready to talk.
Tell me something about your childhood and how it shaped who you are today.
I was born in London, to Argentinean parents, the third of four children. My father has always worked in finance. We lived in London the first five years of my life, then moved back to Argentina. We speak only Spanish at home, so I am completely bilingual. You could say I was raised in an international household; my parents have a global mindset.
I attended an all-boys Catholic school in Argentina that was run by the Christian Brothers. My favorite classes were religion and math. Jesus and the different parables were always in my imagination.
My parents decided to move to the United States when I was in the 5th grade. We moved to Connecticut so my dad could work in New York City.
What was relocating again like for you?
Moving to America felt like being in a Disney movie. We were in the suburbs, with yellow school buses, ice cream trucks, schools and parks, mailboxes. It was an easy transition, partly because I already knew English. I started attending public school in the U.S. But there were no religion classes, something I missed. I always had this yearning for something more. Many things were kind of satisfied for me, but not this yearning.
You thought of this as a spiritual yearning?
My spiritual experience at the time was attending weekly Mass. Devotion might ebb and flow, but there was a constancy in going to Mass. I went through Catholic religious education, which left me wanting more. I had so many questions but couldn’t find the right person to have conversations with. I could talk freely at home, but my questions remained. My questions were a barrier between me and Jesus. Does God really exist? When I pray, am I talking to myself? Questions about Catholic theology, the Eucharist, the problems of evil and suffering.
Here’s where God works in kind of weird ways. We were going to Mass every Sunday – that was a given. The priest gave these complex sermons that went completely over my head. I was bored out of my mind. When I was younger I spent my time thinking about Tintin stories. Time went faster when I became an altar server, but I still did not get anything out of the sermons. Then I found this Chicago Catholic priest, now Bishop Barron. He brought a wealth of Catholic intellectualism to his sermons, popularizing it in such a way that made it attractive to anyone, especially someone with questions that had become a barrier to belief. I started listening to his sermons before I went to Mass with my family, then spent my time in Mass thinking about them.
Back then, I had this view that Mass was good only if the preaching was good. I needed the preaching to be good. But through hearing Father Barron, I learned Mass is good because I get to receive the Eucharist. Mass gradually became more dynamic, divine, constant, regular. It became extraordinary. God worked in me – to get me to this place – through the internet!
I take it you were in high school when you started listening to Barron. How did you get from there to Cornell?
I was in a large high school, very interested in computer science and, always, an abiding interest in music (singing), in clubs and all that. I never really experienced Christian community in high school. I was not willing to share my religious questions with others. I wore different hats, one was a faith hat. Not everyone was allowed to see it.
One of my sisters was at Cornell when I applied for early decision. It was my dream school – good in engineering, not too close or far away from home, lots of singing groups. I love this place.
Did you first experience Christian community at Cornell?
Not at Cornell. At a Catholic retreat center in north Georgia, a Catholic version of YoungLife. I saw an advertisement for it when I was a freshman. I thought it might help answer some of my deeper questions, so I applied and was accepted to work as a counselor. I found it to be slightly charismatic when I got there, which I loved. I was like, “Wow, in the Catholic world, you get to have both the mind and the spirit?! How beautiful!”
More than anything, I experienced community with the other counselors. That summer knocked down some of my most intense questions, but not in an intellectual way. For instance, I had always had these questions about prayer. If God knows everything why should I ask Him for anything? My answer – to not pray – was full of pride. That was knocked down the first week I was there, by prayer itself. I needed prayer to get through the week, and as I prayed with others I gained a dependence on God. I realized prayer keeps me in closer communion with Him. My faith was being shaped by living in the community.
A lot of people in our culture are spiritual but not religious, others are religious but not spiritual. I found it gets interesting, and passionate and devotional, when you have both. I had been religious, not spiritual. Becoming spiritual came from community, from prayer, attention to Mass, confession. I was so sad when the summer ended because I didn’t know if I would ever experience that kind of community again.
I left, praying, “O God, help me be near you sacramentally, have a dependence on you through Mass and confession. God, give me a community, please.”
You don’t realize how much you need community until you experience it. I found Cornell Catholic after I returned to campus. That was when things began to change for me.
When did Chesterton House come into the picture?
I walked to Collegetown with some friends the fall of my sophomore year to sign a lease for an apartment for the next year. I was about to sign, but I had this feeling, which I now think was from the Holy Spirit, “No. No. You should not do this.” So I asked the landlord for a week to make up my mind.
I knew nothing about Chesterton House other than I had seen a pamphlet about it on a table my freshman year, and as a Catholic I knew who G. K. Chesterton was, but I found out where The Knoll is and I walked over, trying to figure out which house was the right one. I asked a resident for a tour. He answered they didn’t really give tours but he would show me around. And I just walked into this beautiful space, and knew I wanted to be in a place that could offer a living community like that. I signed up as soon as I was sure it would not put my friends in a bad spot for me not to co-sign with them in Collegetown.
What has it been like for you as the only Catholic in the men’s house?
Primarily, I wanted – and found – community. And I love that this space allows for questions and conversations. I have gained an ability to speak by leading with questions, by listening to the other person. Just because you say something or give your point of view on something does not mean the other person is really listening. You may not be the person that ultimately gets a point of view across; you’ve got to let go of that.
The first month I was here I did get a lot of questions. What do you think about Mary? The Papacy? One person asked if I was a Christian. What about this? That? To some people it would not be enjoyable, but to me it was a delight. I was ready with an answer from the Bible, or some anecdote, or something from Church history.
You were not unnerved by the questions?
No! If anything, living here has made me more Catholic! With my Protestant friends, there is a certain flexibility, even if they are tied to a denomination. Also, I see it the way the Catholic Church sees it: We are all baptized into the same Church. The baptism we have, the Trinitarian formula, is the same. We are all part of the Church, though some are closer to full communion than others.
I was expecting a kind of fervency, maybe some Bible-thumping: I’m a Presbyterian or Baptist and here is why, etc. But I discovered that is only true for a few. What I found was a lot of confusion, a lot of should I go to this church or that church, believe this or that?
Questions do arise in the house. We discuss everything. I am comfortable saying, “Let me find out and I’ll get back to you.” I can check Church Council documents, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, what the Pope has said. The answer doesn’t have to come from me. I don’t have to be able to explain it all. This is sometimes different from my Protestants friends. I don’t have to be the interpreter for what I believe, my beliefs are not based upon what I feel about this or that church, this or that denomination.
I’ve learned that the best kind of religion is not when you shape your beliefs to fit you, but when you are shaped by your beliefs. Believing that Jesus instituted the Catholic Church as opposed to any other church gives me the best kind of security because it is not about me and what I feel. It’s about me being shaped to another ideal, even when it is hard.
You will graduate next semester. Looking back, how has your time at Chesterton House benefited you?
The biggest thing I have gained is the realization of just how close I am in faith with my Protestant friends. There are some substantial differences, but our common belief cannot be overlooked. I have more in common with my friends here than with friends who are nominal Catholics. I have the Christian community I always longed for. I’ve been able to form deep friendships with people I wouldn’t have otherwise come across. Living in the house has helped my faith become an everyday part of my life. It has been a blessing, really, to live here.