Westmont Magazine When All Hell Breaks Lose
Excerpts from a talk at Homecoming 2001 by Alumnus of the Year Rick Josiasen ’69
September l0 was the first day of our long overdue vacation. My wife, Rita Shaughnessy, and I stood in the damp grass under the pines high in the Sierra Nevada mountains looking at a beautiful lake.
On Tuesday, I awakened early to see the sun rising in soft, orange waves and the lake below turning indigo. We wanted to isolate ourselves, and at the same time surround ourselves with the beauty and wisdom embedded in the creation.
Then came the telephone call telling me that the World Trade Center had just collapsed. “It can’t be true,” I said. “I’ve been in those two buildings. I know people who work [there].”
Something evil was loose in the world. Then the second telephone call: A third commercial liner had crashed through a wing of the Pentagon. I’ve spent a great deal of time in that building. It was built to stand up against a direct bomb blast. I had hated so much about the Vietnam War and the Pentagon, but now my thoughts and feeling of attachment for that place and the people there filled my heart and mind. The Pentagon with a deep wound cut completely through it. I began to feel overwhelmed.
And then, my 19-year- old daughter, Rachel, the sunshine of my life, called in a horribly controlled voice to say, “Dad, do you know what’s going on? Did you hear that a plane went down in Pennsylvania? It crashed about 40 miles from my college.”
Then it was Wednesday and Thursday and Friday and Saturday with the flood of words and pictures raging over and through us, carrying us along, down, away, washing almost everything else out of our minds and hearts, except those we love, and for me, the images of Columbine High School, and the Federal Building in Oklahoma, and the holocaust in Japan.
Surely we all know what it is to have all hell break loose. A cell starts to grow wildly in a brain or a breast, the hateful acts of family abuse. And we know what to call it. It’s evil. When we encounter it, it seems to overwhelm us, take us over. We go numb. We lose ourselves. We literally don’t know up from down and often reverse the two.
Evil is what seems to drain life and even death of any meaning at all. And it swarms in terrible diseases, cruel accidents, birth defects, suffering children. Its tracks are seen in Rwanda, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, my streets of Philadelphia, on your door steps in Santa Barbara and in the psyches of most of us.
For the truth is that only a millimeter separates me from some of these same cruel acts. Like the Apostle, I find myself doing things, saying things, that hurt people — even people I love — but there’s something in me that seems to compel me to keep it up even when I realize it’s hurting them, and even when I realize it’s hurting me! It’s as though something invades, or rears up from my murky depths to possess me. Even with all our glossy sophistication, it isn’t hard to grasp, is it, why the New Testament speaks of demons, evil powers that stalk the earth and seduce us?
But what’s at stake for us isn’t whether all hell breaks loose or oozes loose, or how, but what to do when it does. I remember speaking with Rosie Greer, who had been assigned the job of protecting Sen. Robert Kennedy. And when the shots rang out, he broke Sirhan Sirhan’s finger, looked the evil in the eye and then attempted to cover Sen. Kennedy’s body. With tears running down his massive cheeks Rosie said, “I prayed, I pleaded.” What is powerful to me about that image is the urgency and the honesty of it. Praying and pleading fused. Nothing nice about it, or particularly lovely or beautiful. What an emasculated view of praying too many of us carry around.
When all hell breaks loose, pray! Every day we have seen it in the streets of New York and Washington, D.C., and across this country. Every day prayer pouring out and candles everywhere. That is what the cross is about. That is what’s involved in learning how to live as best we can, with all there is in this wondrous, puzzling earth, and with ourselves, as well, and, gracefully, with God. “Our Father . . . deliver us from evil . . .” When all hell breaks loose, and before it does, and after, pray.
Then, reach out to others. Deepen into a community that helps you remember your songs and prayers when you forget. Deepen into a community like your family, or this Westmont College family. It’s revealing to me that the only comment Jesus makes about the prayer he taught those wounded ragamuffins on the mountain was about forgiving each other. I’ve come to believe that he emphasized forgiveness because it is the glue of any community. Our need, not our virtue, is what most deeply unites us. Our need for honesty, for mercy, for belonging at the deepest level beyond our shuffle of pride and guilt. Faith and prayer and courage and love and justice are not solitary matters. They are the soil and sinew of community.
The great Rabbi Abraham Heschel told us to dare to be a cantor of the universe. A cantor is someone who leads people in singing and prayers in worship. But being a cantor is also a way of seeing, of looking at the cosmos. As I listen to the gospel, that is much of the song of Jesus. It certainly was to that flock of sparrow-people cocking their heads to hear the beatitudes up on the side of the mountain as the sun sank in soft, orange waves. “Look, look,” he sang to them.
Do you see? Somehow we have gotten so tangled up in our own guilt and shame, our own little acts of hot — or more likely cold — betrayals that we’ve adopted the habit of believing that the world is a spiritual vacuum. But the seraphim proclaimed that “the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” Are only the seraphim endowed with a sense of glory? How do we declare it? The heavens have no voice, their glory is inaudible.
It is the task of us humans to reveal what is always standing right before us; to be the voice of glory, to sing its silence, to utter, so to speak, what is in the heart of all things. There is more than evil to see in the world, and we are called to speak of it, sing of it. Trusting that in the face of the worst we can do, we will see the best that God can do. “Look, look.”