Into the Maw of Chaos

Here in Appalachia, there are many thousands of people whose lives move in and out of chaos. Less than a paycheck away from a cascade of debt-borne disasters, personal behaviors add even greater danger. There’s no room for messing up. As a priest in the area, the stories come through the doors of the Church looking for assistance. Frequently, there’s a need to explain. Someone pulls a wad of receipts and medical bills from a purse and tearfully begins to relate the dominoes that have pushed them into begging.

There is good infrastructure in this part of the world (it could be better). There are agencies and social workers, as well as many generous and helpful people. No one is alone in all of this. But the most fundamental infrastructure is that of family – and it is the family that is collapsing under the weight of joblessness and drugs. In many areas, the most common family arrangement is that of grandparents raising children – the middle generation have been lost in the rising tide of drug-deaths and crime.

Chaos is always the greatest danger to human existence. Our creativity and adaptability also mean that we have greater opportunity to get things wrong. Most of our chaotic episodes come as the result of unintended consequences. Social and economic decisions in one place undermine fundamental structures in another. Drive through the Rust Belt, or the swath of former coal-mining communities and you’ll see what I mean. A war would have caused less damage.

It strikes me as interesting that we imagine war to be an answer to chaos. In the 60’s, the government created the “War on Poverty,” while we continue fighting the “War on Drugs” in what is now becoming its sixth decade. Neither, of course, has made much of a dent in its stated goals. “War” is a modern image of a form of progress. The 20th century witnessed the “War to End All Wars” (World War I) which, arguably, has been the source of all the wars following in what is now best described as the “Hundred Years’ and Counting War.” In point of fact, war is chaos. Chaos itself is never the solution to chaos, short of annihilation. This is the notion behind the phrase, “bomb them into the Stone Age.”

The great image of chaos in the Scriptures is water, especially large bodies of water. My Archbishop recently commented that the Hebrews had the same attitude towards large bodies of water as your cat. The waters are death:

Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing:
I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.
I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.

And

Thy throne is established of old: thou art from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their waves.
The LORD on high is mightier than the noise of many waters,
yea, than the mighty waves of the sea.

St. Paul echoes this imagery when he describes our Baptism as a “Baptism into the death” of Christ. I think that such imagery is largely lost on the average reader of the New Testament. Christ presents Himself to St. John the Baptist for Baptism. St. John hesitates. We assume that the issue revolves around Christ’s sinlessness. Why should He be baptized if He is without sin? St. John does not yet realize that these waters are those waters. Christ will later describe His ministry as “the sign of the Prophet Jonah.” Jonah was three days in the belly of the whale, and Christ is three days in the “belly” of the earth. But listen to Jonah’s description. His book relates a hymn sung from within that dark place:

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight;
yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.” (2:2-6)

This is a song, not from the belly of a whale, but from Sheol itself. This is a song from the chaos of death and hell. In His Baptism, Christ already enters (in a manner we cannot understand) the chaos from which He will bring us back. It is said that His submission to Baptism makes all Baptisms to be His. This is no longer the “Baptism of John.” This is something that Christ alone can give.

We cannot deliver the world from chaos through our own application of yet more chaos. Much of what modernity imagines itself to be building is not construction – it is destruction – a war on nature – of human nature above all.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10–11)

We do not heal, build, or make new through the instruments and chaos of war. Christ’s trampling down “death by death” is a paradoxical statement, in that His “death” is, in fact, eternal life. The same paradox is expressed in a Syriac description of Christ’s Baptism in which the Jordan River is said to have “burst into flames” as He entered it. When the Logos enters chaos, chaos never wins.

Modernity is a testament to the effectiveness of violence. It never changes hearts which are the seedbeds of all reality. The gospel of Jesus Christ rightly identifies chaos at its source and bravely goes into its yawning maw. It is there alone that death becomes life, order is re-forged, and the world emerges from the watery depths and becomes dry land once more.

 

32 comments:

  1. Thank you Father. I surely agree with what you say. The one “testimony” I can give is that having experienced chaos of the family in my own way, relying upon God gave me order and strength (see Psalm 27 – Western numbering). But having lived in particular urban neighborhoods of violence and drugs and volunteering where I could, I heard many stories of chaos, and it is surely clear that family is the last refuge for the poor, and that when family breaks down it breaks down the poor and will hit them hardest. I know you don’t like politics, but I will simply say that this seems so often lost on the policy ideologues who dream up social engineering theories.

    My grandparents survived a genocide. Without the structure that helped them survive everything — plus their faith which meant that having lost all, they still knew who they were — I don’t think the story would have been the same, even a story that went across several continents.

  2. Janine,
    The family is the most ancient institution given us by God (“be fruitful and multiply”). And though we abuse it, it is still the most profound structure for stability and sanity. We are “hard-wired” by God for the family. Though I do not like discussing politics – the progressive destruction of the family (both as intended and unintended consequence) is by far the most destabilizing element of chaos in our culture. We are already suffering from its insidious effects. It is not a substitute for the Church – but, as St. John Chrysostom noted – the family is a “little Church.”

  3. Thanks Father. One thing I have found seems to me is contained in the parable of the Good Samaritan. That is, that we are called in some way to “be” family even where family is abused or breaks down. Maybe that is in some sense our faith. Out of the chaos we are called to “step up” even when nobody else seems to be doing so. I am sure you have seen more of this dynamic than I …

  4. I really enjoyed reading this Father. The anxieties experienced by your parishioners are near universal, despite wide ranges of infrastructure presence, earnings and levels of debt.

    We are all prone to the dangers of chaos. My children often express profound truths about the chaos and impossible complexity in the modern world; I wish I could show them an alternative like your essay here with my example and not my words (I worry a lot). Provide for them a simpler life, which I have witnessed reduces the threats of chaos and anxiety.

    Here’s to hoping!

  5. When we moved from Texas roots and Texas family, the church we finally ended up in became our “family.” I believe that we flourished more so than we would have had we stayed in Texas

    Our church promoted world missions with strong leadership, active engagement with missionaries around the world and enccouragement of all of us to become or support missions. Our children prepared for missions. Several things went wrong. Our children remain ever faithful to Christ and the Kingdom, but our family has been deeply injured. Three different churches are now our “families”. We remain a strong family, but our physical separation and divorces have been and remain our daily struggle.

  6. Lewis,
    To a great extent, it is family in the “aggregate” that seems utterly vital. One particular family can be quite strong, but if surrounded by others that are imploding, the collateral damage will not be avoided. All of us in this present culture are currently suffering from the collateral damage of the destruction of the family. In one way, it begins in the 1950’s as America became a society of mobility. Today, I think the average family moves every 5 years (that was the number a few years ago). Add to this the urban/suburban lifestyle in which we do not actually know our neighbors or have any particular affinity with them and things quickly ratchet up.

    There will be many particular exceptions to all of this – but the aggregate will remain. In short, stable societies are required in order to nurture the practices that form virtue. At present, we are not only not a virtuous society, we have often forgotten entirely how to form virtuous people. We complain about political leaders, but they look and sound just like us. The truth is – we do not like what we see in the mirror (and rightly so).

  7. My church and many of the churches in my inner city neighborhood struggle to give aid to large numbers of people who are living in a similar sort of chaos as what you describe, Fr. Stephen. One of the many challenges of doing this is that a certain number of people, particularly people with addictions, tells stories of woe that are simply not true. This has resulted in our churches having to “programize” their charity to some degree, establishing rules, having systems for checking up or providing aid.

    What was intended to be the church family reaching out to the broader family of neighborhood and community begins to increasingly resemble a government agency. While it might seem an ideal to simply give without these safeguards, the needs presented so far outweigh the resources the churches have that it becomes necessary to set limits or only help a certain number of people a day.

    I do not know the answer to this. However, I remember being very moved by something attributed to Mother Gavrilia. She wrote of the importance of having a personal interaction with the person who begs. I may have written this in a comment here before but it bears repeating. Occasionally I have people come to my house begging, showing me their discharge papers from the nearby hospital (or sometimes from prison). People beg for money when I am pumping gas or going to the pharmacy to pick up my medications. Frankly I want to duck – and sometimes do. But I learned from Mother Gavrilia to begin by asking the person their name and telling them my name. Often a handshake follows. I often ask gently what brought them to be in such circumstances. I find that there are some people who just want to collect as much money as they can and don’t want to be bothered with conversation. They may get pocket change.

    However, some people share their pain and I feel that it is at moments like this that “family” is created in a small way. Each person who begs is first and foremost a person (not a “bum”) and they have a story that needs to be honored if they are ever to regain any dignity. It has also happened to me more than once that I have encountered someone outside my church, crying out loud, questioning why God doesn’t love them. When I have listened to their stories, I have sometimes offered them money they never asked for to ease the harshness of their lives. I know it is a drop in the bucket but I want them, for moment, to feel loved. This is what family does, even when the problems are too big to solve.

    I have no family myself within 100 miles. Yet I have friends, resources, community. I have people who have become “my family”. But I encounter people who have none of these things. They may know people but there is no one they can trust. We must create family for these lost souls. It is not easy when their need interrupts my plans or my inner peace but I cannot let myself hide from them.

    I cannot afford to forget how Jesus responded when asked, “And who is my neighbor?”

  8. Father,
    What you say about the aggregate is so true. The imploding family structure is like the ‘yawning maw’ ; its effects have no respect of families. Mine was once strong, but not strong enough, because we succumbed to this societal woe.
    That’s why it is so important to be kind to others. All others, acquaintances and strangers. We all have burdens that can be lightened a bit by acts of love and kindness. Much easier to do when you know the love of Christ.

    Thank you for this post, Father. It is so fulfilling to read about the depth of meaning of Baptism (I love the scripture verses), and then digest it all. Never tire of it and always want more!

  9. Mary,
    Might I say…those lost souls are not so far removed from us, as we may see the beggars on the streets, but are also sitting right with us ‘lost souls’ in church. ‘They’ are, in a very real sense, ‘us’.
    Lost souls are everywhere. Yeah, nowadays, everywhere. Even in sacred places. Just the ones Christ came to save.

  10. Mary, our God is personal, and it is my opinion that charity is also personal. Of course we can give resources to worthy causes, but when we read the Gospels we are given always stories of the personal from Jesus. And theosis is personal, not abstract. The cross asks something personal of us.

    When I first started volunteering in a church food pantry decades ago, I was actually given a job to register people to vote. I sat at a table asking everyone who came through the door if they wanted to register. Almost nobody cared about registering to vote. But many, many sat down and told me what was happening in their lives, especially those who felt desperate or traumatized. I still remember them after many years, and how once in a while I could think of just a word (or let’s say I was given that word) that gave hope and at least for the moment it made a difference.

    I so agree with you about “family” — “neighbor” — and the personal. I also believe God brings people or encounters into our lives for a reason, and we don’t really have to go in search of “what to do.”

  11. I am trying to organize thoughts at the moment, but so far everything’s a jumble. Nevertheless, this speaks to the God I love and worship, and not to the many modern gods I face daily, and struggle to reject.

    Thank-you Fr. for this.

  12. Modernity is a testament to the effectiveness of violence. It never changes hearts which are the seedbeds of all reality.

    I have thought much of this recently (perhaps over the last several months). I thought of the signs people hold after a chaotic event strikes them, things that say “we don’t need your prayers, we need new laws” and such as that. I recently came across a Kickstarter documentary about activism and how important it is. It is titled, “Prayer does nothing”.

    The modern world has given up Truth for laws. It has forgotten God, as Solzhenitsyn so aptly remarked. Laws never change hearts; more often they strangle the people they oversee. It requires prayer to change a heart. The modern world cannot understand this; it fails over and over again trying to become god through legality.

    I think the true sin of chaos is Despondency. It so easily takes root! Take part in the Life of the Church, do good in the world (love your neighbor) and pray always. I think it’s all one can really do.

  13. Byron,
    One of the reasons I write as I do about “politics” (that we should not think of them as very important, nor emotionally engage them) is that the unceasing message of the world around us is that politics is pretty much the only way to do anything and they only thing of importance. The message hidden within that thought is that “political people are the only people with power – the only people that matter.” It is a lie – a modern lie – and the tool of demons.

    It denies the doctrine of providence and the work of the good God. But it greatly empowers the people who want to run the world (for all kinds of reasons – the reasons don’t matter).

    It is extremely difficult to live in a manner that largely ignores the “political” noise in the room. Everything about that noise is geared to mash one or another emotional button (never a rational button). Whenever we see the word “politics” we should substitute the word “the passions” and then what is being said will make Christian sense.

    The protester holds a sign saying “prayer does nothing.” What he means is “Only the passions accomplish anything.” Once we see this – then our minds can begin to clear. Still the passions. Prayer is everything.

  14. Much of what is called modern is recycled and repackaged human attempts to control or loose chaos that have failed in the past

    God’s order is the only solution of course but that requires humility, repentance and forgiveness. And patience. His order is revealed not taken by violence.
    Chaos would have us believe otherwise.

  15. Fr. Stephen, I am so grateful for this post, words cannot express, although I will say Glory to God for All Things and God bless you!

  16. Dear Father Stephen;
    I left a comment on your Dec. 2 post and wonder if you would respond to it?
    I am asking here again just in case you missed my request, but if you’re avoiding the response intentionally please disregard this. I wont ask again. 🙂
    Please feel most free to delete this comment as it is not germane to the current article.
    In Christ’s love;
    -Mark Basil

  17. Mark,
    I’m sorry, I was simply distracted by a lot of things. I think Hart is pretty spot-on in this matter – particularly in his critique of Wright and many others. I have long been unsatisfied with Wright’s work – and feel that it continues the false treatment of 2nd Temple Judaism that has been a hallmark of Protestant thought on the early Church. Much that gets criticized as “gnosticism” (I’ve been called one because of how seriously I treat allegory) is nothing of the sort and relies on a poor understanding of the term as well as a lot of modern nonsense.

    Wright’s work (and that of Protestantism in general) stands in almost complete ignorance of the culture of Orthodoxy – and, for that matter, the culture of the Fathers of which culture Orthodox is an abiding extension. There’s ever so much to say on this, but I do not have time to tonight. I’m not entirely sure if I can put all of it into words that would do justice to the topic.

  18. I’m glad to hear this affirming assessment of yours as it was really a very helpful article for me. I will allow myself one further comment on Hart in this light, which is my concern that as Orthodox we not get caught up in anxiety over his work, as this work is really crushing and devastating for Western (esp. Protestant) Christian structures but it is not threatening to us in the Orthodox Tradition, or even anything very new in most cases. So far his works drive me to delve both more deeply and more broadly into the great deposit of the Tradition, whether I agree or disagree or withhold judgement at first read.

  19. Dear Father Stephen
    Like always, I am delighted and inspired by your writings. I have some comments that may appear contrary to your teachings but they are not and I wholeheartedly agree with your overall message.
    War is many things but not chaotic. It is probably the most organized and disciplined endeavor that we humans unfortunately engage far too often. Many circumstances and outcomes of war may appear chaotic but they are not. Same with politics and so called unintended consequences. Most often they can be qualified as demonic but they are for the most part intended and we’ll planned. As an example, the breakage of the family structure, abortion on demand, drugs, alphabet sex, etc. are the result of a well planned multidecade effort and not collateral damage. If in doubt, I would suggest reading about the “Mitrokin archive”.
    My bottom line is that we should never vote for giving politicians more power under any circumstance; worse of all in the name of “social justice”. I know that I should not judge but signing voters in homeless places and prisons is akin to arson. We must remember that our actions generally have a limited radius of influence but our vote have consequences over millions of people.
    I remember you mentioned your father picked-up cotton at very early age. I did not picked cotton but I had to work hard since very early age. My father entered war at age 18 and came out of second world war at age 37 including actual combat and being prisoner of war. I got a doses of dirty war myself. We were poor and broken in many ways but as a family we made a life for ourselves out of the ashes. I want to help and be a good Christian but I have very little tolerance for people that do not try hard to get out of the messes of our own making.

  20. William – Have you ever been in combat? The combat veterans I have known have always described it as chaotic. I am sure it looks well organized from the viewpoint of the generals in reserve, looking at their maps, but in the ground it is chaos. I also think of the Russian defense against the Nazi invasion. Some organization, yes, but mostly chaos. I also think of Shiloh and the Battle of Chickamauga. Some organization, but essentially won by chaotic, disordered action.

  21. David
    I will be glad to talk to you on the side if would think it is important but I think it is completely of topic and the wrong forum However, I can tell that I know quite well what I am saying. Command, control, coordination, intelligence, planning, specific training, targeting, spotters, imaginery, communication, reserves, air support, extricating plans, plan a, b, and c are just a few words that come to mind that are just the opposite of chaos.

  22. William
    Although you make a very good and interesting point, I think that an underlying sense of meaninglessness can always make the most perfectly organized, robotic setup feel like a hellish chaos, while a sense of eternal meaning can make a seemingly aleatory or tumultuous life quite harmonised…

  23. Nihilism aka modernism is all about destruction often in an orderly (progressive) way. War is a favorite tool.
    It’s ultimate goal the triumph of the tyrannical will. Ultimate order it would seem.

    But we have the Cross, the death, the third day Resurrection. All seemingly out of order, indeed overthrowing all known natural order. The Life of the Cross lived in the eye of the storm, if we trust in Jesus Christ. All around winds, rain, lightening.

    Where is the chaos, where is the order?

    Order comes only in the trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

    Anything other than that is a vain or delusional attempt to impose order on death, decay and destruction by using death, decay and destruction, or as the poet put it: “I defend myself against pain and death by pain and death”

    Seems a subtle, small difference, but it is not subtle or small at all.

  24. William,
    I would think that the chaos of war versus the orderly structure of war depends on whether you’re firing the bombs, missles, bullets, or receiving them. On the receiving end – it’s quite chaotic. Thus, my thoughts on war as unleashing chaos. It only destroys – it does not build.

    But, I understand your point.

  25. Longtime reader and lurker on the article comments. I am a seeker that is currently a Protestant.

    Today one of the sermons I heard mentioned Matthew 11:12 – “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (NKJV). I looked up the Greek and the only other place where the word that is translated as “violence” is used is in Luke’s version of this verse.

    How are we to understand what Jesus is saying here? I agree that violence is definitely not effective at solving human issues, but it’s very jarring to read Jesus saying these words.

  26. Father:
    I fully agree with your teaching.
    I was trying to make the point that what is happening around us is for the most part not the result of chaotic circumstances but the result of a highly organized and persistent internal “war” with very clear objectives including the heart and minds of our youth and we need to pay attention on what side we are. Like you said the aftermath is chaotic e.g the streets of some of our biggest cities or the small towns in Appalachia.
    I apologize if I said something I should not have said.

  27. Father, I hope you do not mind me addressing Andrey’s question. Please correct where needed.

    Andrey,
    I do believe that the Fathers taught that Mt 11:12 should be understood as violence against spiritual warfare. As St Paul says, we do not fight against flesh and blood but against principalities, powers and the rulers of darkness. In St Luke’s gospel (16:16) he uses the words”pressing in”.
    Here is a link to an article I hope you will find helpful:
    http://www.stgeorgegoc.org/pastors-corner/fr-ricks-sermons/spiritual-armor

  28. Andrey,
    Here, “violence” is something of a metaphor – alluding to the life-giving exertions of St. John and others (such as many of the disciples). They had left homes, families, wealth – losing everything for the sake of gaining the Kingdom of God. It is a violence than can often mark the inward heart when we turn ourselves towards God despite everything that would pull us away.

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