God And The Great Chain Of Being

Burning candle at Nagaon Church on the x-mas day.

Toward the beginning of her essay about her complicated religious faith, Ayana Mathis announces that all of her attempts to describe it “begin with theological assertions and devolve into some syrupy business about the cosmos and the presence of God in all things.” She doesn’t give herself enough credit – it’s an elegant attempt well worth reading. A sample of her prose:

A few years before I left the church as a teenager, my mother and I became estranged from my grandparents and aunts and uncles. She and I were a little battalion of two, fighting our way through the world without family or neighborhood or most of the things that bond people to places and to each other. I suppose it could be said that we were impoverished by this circumstance. It is truer to say that ours was simply one in the infinite variety of human experience, with its accompanying difficulties and mercies. For a long time I held onto my unbelonging like a jewel, as though it were the most precious thing I had. And I liked tumbling around the world and sending dispatches to my mother who was, for a very long time, most of what I knew about love.

But it is time, as the saying goes, to put away childish things.

I am not, as I would like to think, hatched from an egg. It has taken me all my life to understand that I am a link in a long chain of fearless and flawed people: my grandparents, now dead; my aunts and uncles; my great-grandparents who came to Philadelphia from the South under harrowing circumstances at the beginning of the twentieth century. Also mine are Bettie Mae Fikes, and the millions who fled the Jim Crow South with nothing but a crumpled address and a few dollars in their pockets, the little children in those old colored schools with handed-down textbooks and more pride and hope than I can conceive of, and the children in the present iterations of those schools in Philadelphia and New York and all across this country. Also mine: Bessie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder and Lauryn Hill. To think that for so many years I refused to turn my head to see these luminous chains of souls, stretching across time and geography, to which I belong. I still turn away frequently. It is difficult for me to cede any bit of my growling individuality. But I have a few family photos, and I have the music I love, to chastise me when I am arrogant and to brace me when I falter.

God is in all of this. I don’t mean the God I encountered at church when I was a girl, the bearded tyrant up in the firmament jerking us around like marionettes. Rather, I believe in the God of the links in the chain of being. This includes ancestry and culture and history, but it extends beyond those particularities into a vast constellation of belonging, which seems to me to be a form of grace, and a bulwark against despair and disconnection. Certainly, it is what I mean by love.

(Photo by Diganta Talukdar)