Monday, November 9, 2009

The necessity of faith

I was taken aback almost immediately upon starting to read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple due to the fact that Celie writes almost the entirety of the novel in letters to God. The story begins with a scene of the rape of Celie by Alphonso told in the first of Celie’s many letters to God praying, “I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me” (pg. 1). The fact that a young woman experiencing rape by her stepfather, who she thinks is her father, spends her life writing to God intrigued me because I would find it hard to believe in goodness if all I had know was “My daddy lynch. My mama crazy. All my little half-brothers and sisters no kin to me. My children not my sister and brother. Pa not pa” (pg. 177). Celie’s experience of religion throughout the novel in conversation with the horrors and blessings of her life seem to characterize religion as a necessity.

Alphonso refuses to allow Mr. _______ to marry Nettie, but instead tries to convince him to marry Celie. In Celie’s eighth letter to God, Mr. _______ comes to look at his potential wife. Just as Celie has the chance to be removed from incestual rape, she is objectified by both men, marking the fact that not much in her life will change. “Pa call me. Celie, he say. Like it wasn’t nothing. Mr. _______ want another look at you. I go stand in the door…He look me up and down…Turn round, Pa say. I turn round…She good with children, Pa say, rattling his paper open more. Never heard her say a hard word to nary one of them” (pg. 10-11). Characterizing both her childhood with Alphonso and her marriage to Mr. _______, this exchange of Celie between the two men emphasizes that Celie, for the majority of her life, is treated as an object to be used. Her stepfather rapes her repeatedly under the cover of getting his hair cut, impregnates her twice, gives away her babies, practically kills her mother, and mistreats her sister before he gives Celie away to a man that loves Nettie. Mr. _______ then beats Celie, “do his business” (pg. 77) regardless of Celie’s feelings, sleeps with Shug, and forces her to work her entire life—taking care of their family both financially, as she works in the field, but also maternally, as she is responsible for the children and the house. In response to her life with Mr. _______, Celie says in response to Nettie, “It’s worse than that, I think. If I was buried, I wouldn’t have to work. But I just say, Never mine, never mine, long as I can spell G-o-d I got somebody along” (pg. 17). “G-o-d” acts as the rock that keeps Celie sane in a life worse than the grave. Her faith is portrayed as that which she clings to because she has nothing else.

It is not until Celie learns the truth of her family that she questions her faith in the Lord, and therefore her morally sound behavior. She writes to Nettie, “I don’t write to God no more. I write to you” (pg. 192). In her conversation with Shug about the identity of God, the sex of God and morality, Celie questions also her adherence to Christian morals, saying “Sinners have more good times, I say” (pg. 193). It is seemingly in this questioning that Celie finds the strength to leave Mr. _______, move to Memphis with Shug and “curse” (pg. 206) Mr. _______. Is Walker trying to imply that religion acts for Celie as a crutch? That religion quiets her suffering? Without her faith, Celie finally possesses the courage to act on behalf of her own wants and needs instead of living constantly for the use and abuse of other people. Her happiness stems from her own actions and never from her faith in God. It is not until the very last letter, in which Celie writes to God once more, that she appears to have a faith again. Her faith, though, has changed. She writes, “Dear God. Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples. Dear Everything. Dear God” (pg. 285). She has found the religion of creation that Shug explains and encourages. Through Celie’s journey and experience of faith, Walker seems to be commenting on religion, commenting on the way in which is excuses suffering, dichotomizes good and evil, the way it stops Celie from realizing her worth as a human by allowing her to put up with the dehumanizing objectification of her life.

I went to Beans and Bread a few times my first and second years here at Loyola. I had a good time, did was I was supposed to do and went home, but I never really thought too much about my experience of about the things I saw, heard or even felt. These weren’t the first experiences I had doing service and I am ashamed to say I thought I knew I lot more than I did (or do) and I thought I had gotten what there was to get out of my time at Beans and Bread. Consequently, I was not fully present. The summer after sophomore year, though, was the summer I spent taking high school students to service as part of a faith justice camp. Two things happened that summer (well a lot more than two things happened, but two are pertinent to my reading of The Color Purple). The first is that I realized and accepted the fact that I know practically nothing except for my own miniscule experience of life. The second is that I starting doubting the religion I had clung to for the entirety of my life thus far. It was this summer that I began to open myself more fully to the world around me, causing me to be present in my service experiences. It was the third week of camp that I cried in TASK (Trenton Area Soup Kitchen) and came to realize both the sensitivities of my heart and the injustices that (in my eyes) religion wasn’t doing enough to solve.

In coming back to school in August, I signed up to go to Beans and Bread in September desperately wanting to cling now to a new form of faith for me, faith in humanity. Before anyone had taken one bite to eat, my experience was already different from all that came before; I heard people pray. The prayer before food was served at Beans and Bread that morning echoes in Celie’s prayers. The man who volunteered to pray thanked God for waking up, for breath, for life, for food, for fellowship, for our work that morning, for the sun. Honestly, I have a heck of a lot more to thank God for than did that man and than does Celie and I am grateful. Of course this man’s prayer and Celie’s prayers make me look into myself and challenge my faith (or lack there of), but more importantly, they make me wonder what the experience of religion does to people psychologically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Everyone’s automatic reaction to the gratitude present at Beans and Bread is amazement, awe, wonder and joy, but why shouldn’t he be mad? What are his faith and gratitude really doing to/for him? I don’t want to say that he should take the sun, breath, or life for granted, but I’m not sure if I think Celie or anyone else should accept suffering and injustice at the hand of religion.

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