Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Yen for Order

Note: An abbreviated version of this post is published in Give Us This Day, February 2013. Give Us This Day is a personal prayer periodical published by The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN

Summer undoes my careful allotment of time parcels to this and that--this day, this hour for administration, that other day, that other hour for writing my blog, and so on. Actually, life, aka God, undoes my careful allotment of time parcels all the time. And I realized this morning that I spend far too much time trying to tie them up again.

According to Genesis 1, "making order" is a quick way of describing God's creative work. God spends five days out of seven ordering time, space, and the first pragmatic interactions of created beings in a life-sustaining food chain. Only then does God set human beings down into an ordered cosmos, suggesting that a certain amount of order is essential to human survival. However, if you read carefully, you begin to notice that God is not particularly tied down to the kind of linear order laid out in your typical planner. (I wonder if the proliferation of calendars, planners, time management seminars, how-to-organize-your closet-your-desk-and- your-life books, and other gems of the human gift for parting one another from our money reflects a love of order or a frantic but fruitless scramble to impose it.) God creates light and darkness quite a while before coming up with sun, moon and stars, for example. God makes provision for seed-bearing plants both to feed animal life and to proliferate into an undefined future to feed future generations of animal life but offers very little for the sustenance of marine life (in Genesis 1, not in the actual cosmos. This may be one more sign of the Israelites' utter disinterest in having anything to do with the seas and their denizens.) And there is the forever unanswered question about how Evil, the force that runs around undoing all order, got into the picture at all.

God's work of ordering has two facets that tend to elude me when I sit down to plan the tying up of my careful time parcels into nice, neat, diagrammable pages in my various calendars, planners, and notebooks, which, of course, I can never find when it comes time to put the diagrams into practice because my desk is such a jumble. The first is that God's creative energy all goes into orders that sustain the always-untidy business of life and living on a very grand scale. If we don't understand where cockroaches and mosquitoes fit (God's gonna have a lot of 'splainin to do in heaven), why mountains sometimes fall into the sea as the psalmist notes, what good hurricanes are, and above all why human beings, charged with the task of continuing the divine work of creating, make such an all-fired mess out of it without calling down on our heads another cosmic flood (see Genesis 6!), perhaps it's because we don't really understand what life in all its richness is.

The second facet of God's creative work that eludes me when I'm "planning," is that it always starts with chaos: the rather terrifying primal chaos of Genesis 1:1-2, or the degenerate human chaos with which the biblical new creation begins in the prophets' promises of a new promised land after the return from exile in Babylon or in the gospels' testimony to Christ, the restorer of all that has gone awry. In both cases, chaos is the essential preliminary to the work of creation. The primal chaos is what I've often called "a seething cauldron of possibilities" out of which God draws everything.

I am a creative person. We all are, whether our creativity makes Michelangelo's David or Bach's Magnificat or a birthday cake to delight the hearts of a roomful of four-year-olds or simply that unappreciated gift, a clean, uncluttered space in which we can live, move and have our being. We must be creative persons. At the end of Genesis 1, when we know very little yet about God except that God is an incredibly imaginative Creator, God says "let us make humankind in our image." Christian reflection has heaped all sorts of things into that basket, "the image of God," but the image begins with creativity. As a creative person, I need to start where God started: with chaos, with "the seething cauldron of possibilities" as yet unnamed, unsorted, apparently purposeless. If we try to explain Genesis 1 from the belief that God created ex nihilo (out of nothing), then we have to believe that God first made the chaotic mess from which the Divine Word then drew all of created reality. Contemporary thinkers who have given us the chaos theory propose that God never actually reduced all that primal chaos into order: it is still among us and around us, still seething with possibilities, still giving birth to beings.

I wonder, then, if "chaos" is really an enemy to be confronted with the chair and whip of my various planners and licked into submission so that I can get on with life. I wonder if chaos isn't rather the perpetual treasure chest from which spill out all the possibilities that spur creative work in all its forms. Human beings do need order, especially the truly primal order of purpose, to survive. But I wonder what would happen if I were finally to succeed in wrestling every breath of time, every corner of space, every piece of paper and dust bunny of my own small universe into the kind of careful order for which I seem to hanker. I wonder if I would find that it is not chaos but excessive order, neatly packaged in linear rows, that is sterile.

©2009 Abbey of St. Walburga