Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Column: Creative Winds of Chaos

The Rilke translation is my own, for better or worse. An alternative is here.

My kids joke that I can make the second law of thermodynamics say anything! Which may true, I certainly invoked it here and here.

I'm still working on coming to letting the chaos recreate me (since I can seem to neither outwit it nor channel it)! This may be a life long process...

This reflection appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 6 January 2010.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. — Gn. 1:1-2

I sometimes wish I lived in a universe that flowed smoothly, without turbulence or chaos. One where I could reach into a drawer and find the measuring spoons — not have to hunt them up. Or where the pin from my shawl isn’t on the bathroom shelf, standing in for the wrench to adjust someone’s retainer.

For better or worse, I live in a “make-do” household, populated by pragmatics who live by the principle: “If all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.” When we’re traveling or camping or snow bound, I love the can-do attitude of my guys. But I have to confess that there are times at home when all I want is to lay my hands on the spatula before the egg in the pan burns.

As a scientist I grasp intellectually that the second law of thermodynamics — the one that says that chaos drives the universe — prevails in this world. Certainly as a mother it’s utterly clear to me that events move in such a direction as to create the largest mess. No matter if I’m dealing in dishes, laundry or molecules — the things of my life are anything but neatly arranged.

My first instinct when faced with a mess is to try to tame it. Tidy things up if the blast of teen-aged energy has blown itself out, or attempt to contain an incipient disaster with motherly cautions, spread out newspapers and offers of a screwdriver instead of the hammer.

I wonder if I should instead get out of the way. Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, reflecting on creativity, suggests that there is nothing haphazard about this stance of messily making do, rather it is a creative impulse that can bring something altogether new into being. It is what we lack that ends up bringing forth our greatest strength.

Sounding a similar theme in her essay “When the Spirit Blows a Gale,” spiritual director and writer Margaret Silf looks to this passage from Genesis, where the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters, poised to bring the universe into being. The first steps, she says, is to trust that the Spirit is hovering over the chaos in our own lives, as much as over the first moments of creation.

Last month a great wind swept over us, making me think again of this passage in Genesis. I delighted in watching the snow flow like sheets of gossamer silk off the roof, even as the work we’d done to clear the back stoop of snow was summarily undone. I wondered if I could treat the winds that stir the drawers in my kitchen — and my life — with equal parts of delight and trust.

Genesis reminds me that in God’s hands, chaos is the stuff of creation. From it the world first came to be. And in the chaos of Jesus’ passion and death, we were created anew. As a new year begins, I’m trusting the chaos in my life to God’s hands and waiting to see what the breath of the Spirit might blow into being.

Wolle die Wandlung. O sei die Flamme begeistert,
drin sich ein Ding dir entzieht, das mit Verwandlungen prunkt;
jener entwerfende Geist, welcher das Irdische meistert,
liebt in dem Schwung der Figur nichts wie den wendenden Punkt.

Change is in the air. The flame stirs to life
that which is inside you, that which craves re-creation;
the Spirit breathes, shimmering, onto earth
and finds in love the point on which all life turns.
— Rainer Marie Rilke, from Sonnets to Orpheus II, 12


  1. As a Florida girl, and one who loves beautiful words, I relished your description, "I delighted in watching the snow flow like sheets of gossamer silk off the roof." You have also painted me a beautiful picture of the chaos of creation, and left me to think about how it applies to my life. Thanks!

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