Imagine, if you will, a loud, long screeching sound. Something like that emergency drill on your radio or television, only ten times more piercing! And now, imagine that it never stops. Ever! Well, that is my life. I don’t remember exactly what year it started. Seems like it’s been with me 24/7 forever. I have tinnitus.
What am I to do? The doctor who diagnosed it handed me a comical, but serious, prescription, “www.ata.org.” I wanted to slap him in the face! “There’s nothing, really, you can do,” he bleakly put it, “except to commiserate with other sufferers.” So, I now know a little of what that one sweet gentle man at my church in Hoboken many years ago experienced. I never knew what hell he knew behind his pleasant smile. The smiles all ended one night, when he kissed his darling wife goodbye, walked to the balcony of their high-rise apartment, and jumped. He just couldn’t bear it any longer, that ringing in his ear!
Each of us has various things for which we ask God, Why? Why me? Why this? This is one of my whys, to which He always answers with a screeeech. The quieter I get – the better to hear Him by – the louder the screech seems. Ring…ring…ring!!! A friend suggested that tinnitus is the very voice of God ever-calling from within me, ringing for my attention, beckoning me inward to meet Him. He never lets me forget He’s around, calling, just like those banks that keep calling for the money I owe. I said, “But I thought God’s was a ‘still small voice.’”(1 Kings 19: 12) “Maybe you needed something louder,” my friend came back at me. He knows me well. What was it my grandfather used to call me, “Stubborn Gus the Knucklehead?!”
This all brings me to a little story, which “set my life’s password.” It all happened one day way back, in a most unlikely place. A newly ordained Catholic priest, so gung-ho to get out there preaching and teaching, I was given the great opportunity to help some of God’s “prodigal sons”, in a top security New York State prison called Green Haven. As I was to be an assistant to the chaplain, I needed to go and tour the facility first, to meet the staff and the residents.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday, the entering process alone quite an ordeal. I was escorted through a few “cells” of my own, kind of holding pens en route to “the belly of the beast.” Bars slam behind you, as others open in front of you, again and again, until you are in. I recall being held for a while in one of these scary rooms with a family who were going in for a visit. There was a child among them who gave me quite a stare, full body scan in fact, as mine was wrapped in a long brown Franciscan robe and sandals. Eventually the boy opened up and shouted, “Hey, I know who YOU are! You’re the judge!” Everybody had a great laugh, except for the little guy who slid behind mom. “No, I’m not the judge,” I said. “I’m one of your dad’s friends, a brother he never knew he had.” One of the most beloved of New York prison chaplains, Fr. Don Licata, always said, “All of us are full of bad and good, sin and grace, and the only difference between you inmates and me is that you got caught.” And that’s just how I’ve always felt!
Anyway, I made it in and was in the middle of my eye-opening tour of one of the nation’s toughest penitentiaries, an amazing city within itself. Part of the tour took me to the hospital, where I would be making regular rounds. The hospital had different sections as well, and finally we were at “the belly of the belly of the beast”, where just a glance sent a chill or two up a rookie’s spine. My guide whispered, “And these would be our crazies, Father Mike. I wouldn’t bother going in there if I were you.” As I looked in, I made eye-contact with one guy who right away cried out to me in an unforgettable New York way, “Fatha, hey, fatha, would ya happen to know God’s phone numba?” Everybody laughed, and my escort reminded me, “Loons, Father, loons!” “I’m sorry, sir,” I apologized, “but I don’t know.” Then he answered, “Well, I do! How can you not know, fatha?! God’s phone numba is Jeremiah 333 (but he said it like this, “tree, tree, tree.”) “Oh, okay!” I said, “You have a nice day.” And we moved on.
After I completed my first day in jail, and as I returned to the friary, the “loon’s” words kept ringing in my head. I couldn’t rest until I picked up a Bible and took a look at Jeremiah 3. But that chapter doesn’t have 33 lines. I was about to close my mind on that guy once and for all, till I thumbed by chapter 33, and verse “tree” stuck out a branch and clobbered me in the head. Verse 3: “Thus says the Lord, Who made the earth and the heavens, Call Me, I want to tell you things beyond your imaginings.”
My book marker has been there ever since, and I have shared the “loony’s” knowledge wherever I roamed, asking people to be open, as he asked me that day, to the possibilities, to the wonders, if one can just believe. Jeremiah 333, that’s the key to me…my password. I hereby share it with you, and with it I invite you into my life. Come on, come and enjoy the ride – is the way I like to put it. The ride won’t always be an easy one, and when I speak of joy, Real Joy, it is what is to be found through the Sorrows. All are connected, intertwined. Just as that funny doctor was trying to tell me that in the shared suffering of the Tinnitus Association I would find some comfort yes, the same “bell” that awakens me to Him sounds constantly as an alert to the sufferings of others, sufferings that make my own puny, or at least bearable, and sufferings that need God’s attention through my reaching out.
One thing I know for certain is that God is constantly attempting to get our attention, to share with us dreams and miracles beyond our imagining, strength to face any trial. I also know about how little we know of what hell each person around us might be living with, so perhaps we could stand to be a little nicer, a bit gentler, with each other. A perfect example: only a handful, until now, know anything of my disease. Nobody knows what my life is like. And neither do I know what anyone else is going through, even those who try to share a little of their rough road with me. I do not know without walking their whole journey. So, how can I be any judge? Let me be just a little brother. And maybe I should start by asking mercy, or patience, of those I may annoy or offend – not on purpose, but because my head usually feels like it’s blowing off!