Is it just me, or is life becoming more chaotic lately? Modern chaos theory posits the fundamental unpredictability of complex systems, and recent history seems to bear out this theory in spades: global financial instability, climate change and even the Arab Spring are unfolding in ways no one can foresee. How do we live and thrive within such chaos, when traditional Christian assurances of God’s steady hand on the tiller of history often seem quaint and trite?
The psalmist may have lifted his eyes toward the hills for help, but I have found guidance by looking down: at the floor of the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln, the anchor of monastic prayer at the Benedictine monastery where I work. Built in the late 19th century, the massive Romanesque church was thoroughly renovated a century later. The new floor has an intricate, captivating design: a series of six multicolored Sierpinski triangles that stretch along the church’s nave, intertwined with a serpentine band of white marble tile. The floor recalls the Cosmati tilework of medieval Italy but also has deep connections to modern chaos theory.
The regular, ordered (indeed, fractal) geometry of the triangles contrasts strongly with the floor’s lovely but patternless, chaotic background of rose-hued terrazzo and cream-colored broken marble. I see the floor as an important symbol of Benedictine life. The Benedictine order arose amid the political turmoil of the crumbling Roman Empire, when all bets were off for the future of Western Europe. For centuries, Benedictine communities cultivated an organized, stable way of life amid the surrounding chaos: patiently helping rebuild Europe’s shattered agriculture and economy, preserving its intellectual heritage and serving as islands of relative calm and sanity for monks, nearby villagers and all to whom they opened their doors in hospitality. In some sense, the Benedic-tines built arks, in which they rode out the storm of the Dark Ages.
Given the rapid pace, large scale and chaotic nature of change in the modern world, I wonder if ark-building may be in order for our time as well. Like the arks of Noah and the early Benedictines, modern arks can help preserve what is vital and beautiful but threatened.
My family and I see our farm as an ark, where we cultivate the out-of-fashion arts of self-sufficiency and try to keep verdant one small patch of the natural world. Perhaps families and parish communities can be arks, holding on to essential relationships and virtues amid a culture that fails to understand or support them. Maybe the small local hardware store and grocery are arks, struggling against encroaching big-box chains, or the beleaguered nonprofit enterprise, doggedly battling against inner-city blight and rampant crime.
Just as modern arks will take forms different from Noah’s pitch-covered boat, faithful ark-building must also follow one very different rule: Noah’s solitary ark was sealed off from the surrounding world. But we, even as we draw necessary boundaries around what we hold dear, must not wall ourselves off from others: from their need, their suffering or simply their differing beliefs.
Today’s arks must not have fear-battened hatches, but open windows and doors, in a spirit of generous hospitality that recognizes Christ in the needs and gifts of the stranger. Likewise, no single ark can survive on its own; we must find ways to link ark to ark to ark through local neighborliness or global communication networks or both.
Floating as arks do on the rough sea of chaos and radical uncertainty that is the post-modern era, their open hatches will take on some water and their crews will be lashed by breaking waves. No one gets through the voyage without a dousing and without the risk of being swept overboard.
But with sturdy vessels, upheld by prayer, perhaps we may come to see chaos not simply as a fearsome threat. From the decks of our arks, perhaps we may come to see—as chaos theory also speculates—a larger, stranger, more dynamic, even beautiful sort of order and creativity within what appears to be disorder and disarray. Could it be that in some mysterious way, the Creator of both order and chaos still guides the arks, but on courses far less straight and sure than we once thought?