Of Kosmos and Chaos
“Chaos, yes. Bella caos.” I disagreed and I would say I still disagree to a point. The space in question was Rome and the words were spoken into the ears of sunburnt, dusty, and exhausted travellers to whom no chaos was “bella.”
My dad and I were bringing our trip around Europe to a close in the city of Rome, a place the word “bustling” looks to for guidance. Narrow streets full of locals, tourists, vespas, and cube vans alike led us to our cheap hotel room, where we slept fitfully with the window wide open. The following morning our sore bodies spilled out of our tiny room and onto a street that was slightly less busy than the night before, but which, during our 40 minute walk to the Vatican, swelled to a cacophony of noises, smells, and colours that surpassed anything we had seen the previous day. Of course, we happened to visit Rome on Republic Day. This intensely jarring environment barged through the long queues and straight into St. Peter’s Basilica itself, following me all the way up to the altar with selfie-sticks and vials of holy water in hand; the line between pilgrim and tourist was blurred in the crowd around me, and perhaps in my own self.
Rewind two days and we were trudging up quiet streets within the stone wall of a medieval hilltop town: Assisi, home of St. Francis, and some might say, home of peace. It was the respite we needed after a month on the road. The only cacophony was the church bells all ringing at once, a sort of anti-unison that filled the air till it was thick with sound, and book-ended by silence. The breeze wound through the courtyards and old stone towers, and the songs of swallows swirled high above. We booked a room at a sort of convent, an instituto, across the road from the Basilica of St. Francis, and were helped to our clean and sparse room by nuns who radiated kindness, in their limited English and warm smiles. We tried to reciprocate with our broken and basic Italian phrases, which were received with laughter and more warm, understanding smiles. As the sun set over the Umbrian countryside and the gardens full of prayer-songs and lush flowers, I asked God how heaven could be anywhere else.
I also began to ask why we let chaos happen at all, or at least what I perceived to be chaos: Why did the kids in La Spezia blare their boomboxes loudly over the choir singing in the square? Why did it feel like the world flocked to the narrow alleys of Camden market in London? Why didn’t everyone live in quiet, hilltop towns with empty streets and church bells?
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with chaos. I grew up in a small town in British Columbia’s interior where chaos was foreign, except perhaps when the tourists came in the summer. I still can’t stand traffic on the freeway and I drive in the city with teeth clenched and hands gripping the steering wheel. I avoid crowds, for the most part, unless they are there for a good enough reason.
But there is a part of me that feels a measure of guilt about my avoidance of the crowd and of chaos. I remember from my childhood the illustrated stories of Jesus feeding the five thousand, and Jesus preaching to the crowd. I remember the story of Zacchaeus climbing up the sycamore tree to get above the throngs of people around Jesus, and the women who reached out from the chaos to grasp the hem of his cloak and be healed. In the children Bible stories, the crowds are often pictured as a joyful mass of colour and smiling faces, with children running around and playing, while their parents listened intently to Jesus speak. I understand now that this was likely far from the truth: these crowds were probably smelly, loud, and exhausting at best or rude, violent, and tumultuous at their worst. But Jesus still went out and stood in the midst of the chaos.
I know Jesus didn’t shy away from the crowd. So why should I?
I woke up on my last day in Europe to an alert on my phone: terrorists attacked the Borough Market area in London late at night. I watched the security camera reels in shock as the bullets of police officers brought the attack to a close, and saw the photos of London Bridge’s disarray, and the battered transport van resting on a street corner where I had stood just weeks before. I imagined the wheels of the van travelling over my own footprints and the footprints of the crowd that walked across the bridge with me. I felt the tendrils of fear that raced out like the roots of a noxious weed, writhing through the hearts of the people who were right there when it happened, and through the people who call London home, and through the millions and millions of people who, like me, have walked across that bridge once upon a time.
But most shocking were the pictures of an empty Borough market, and a quiet London Bridge. Yellow crime scene tape marked off a space that was desolate, empty, void. It was like a gaping hole in the fabric of the city. I would give anything for the chaos of London’s daily life to tear down the tape and re-enter.
I realized that’s why Jesus engaged with the chaos and walked with the crowd: he saw that something much worse than our idea of chaos can enter a place.
Our word chaos comes from the Greek word Khaos: Primeval emptiness, void. This is what the Greek Hesiod wrote about in Theogony, and Ovid wrote about in Metamorphoses. It’s what took the place of our modern “chaos” in the Borough market. I imagine it quite simply as lack of good. Ovid presents a compelling abstract of an opposition to khaos: Kosmos, the order of the universe. There is something spectacularly biblical about the pagan Ovid’s ideas of khaos and kosmos: In the beginning, the universe was in khaos, and God said, “let there be kosmos.” Because of sin, we let khaos creep into the world and into our hearts, the noxious weed threatening to choke us out, but God brings kosmos, his Kingdom here and now, and still to come. It’s a theme that runs through creation and gospel together.
So, while Jesus did know and practice the value of time alone in peace with God, and though He exemplified the importance of individual interaction, he also stepped into the roaring crowd because He recognized that crowds are so tremendously susceptible to either extreme of khaos or kosmos. Chaos becomes petty when khaos is a threat.
Maybe Jesus is just as present in the the bustling St. Peter’s Basilica as he is in the quiet countryside churches. Maybe he would walk the streets of Rome and Assisi alike, and embrace the chaotic markets of London. Maybe he would work his way down East Hastings in Vancouver at night, or meet summer’s disgruntled tourists with open arms. If he would enter the chaos to prevent khaos and bring forth kosmos then so should I.
C.S. Lewis summarized it well: “…our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions.”
Not long after the terror attacks, stories about acts of kindness began to surface: Londoners opened up their homes to displaced strangers, helped victims and their families contact each other, and made hot meals to share. One cab company gave free rides anywhere in the city for those affected. One man returned to the restaurant he had run from during the attack to pay for his meal and tip the server, while another cycled from his home in Surrey to deliver water to police on the scene of the attack. Little people bringing kosmos into the khaos: this is the work of the Lord, in both the calm and the crowd.