HOLY MOTHER

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As a writer and listener to sermons, thousands and thousands of them, i must say that i have never experienced one quite like that of Eric Clapton. That’s right! The rockstar, as famous for his substance and sex addictions as for his guitar-hand, and the one that many used to call “God.” Of course, he never meant it as a sermon. It was just a chat, an interview, a recollection. Call it what you will; to me, it was the sermon of sermons.  

If ever there was an “lol,” Eric has lived in one for many years over that 1965 nickname that was painted on the London subway wall. He says that his very favorite picture was the one of the dog that stopped to relieve itself under the declaration of Clapton’s divinity.

Of course, the man must  take us all back to “the day the whole world cried,” the morning after he took his son, Conor, to the great circus at Madison Square Garden. Dad awoke to the news that the four year old had gone too close to the window on Floor 53. Thinking of Eric’s angel we all realize that we are still NOT CRIED OUT! And Clapton is perfectly willing  to confess his long, long battle with addiction – drugs, alcohol, sex, in desperate attempt to fill the void which is in us all, fillable only by ONE. Then, most beautifully, he tells how his life came full-circle, with Conor guiding the way, and how he returned to the way it was when HE was the sweet, pure little boy. Clapton so humbly yet proudly tells the whole world, “Every night now, before I go to bed, I get down on my knees by the bedside and pray…” to the true God, the One Who got me through it all.

Whenever I think about just what it is that I want my children to learn about “the higher things”, life, death, eternity, God….my message becomes increasingly simpler over the years. Five attempts at good, Catholic educating, only to learn again that these great gems will only be found through each one’s digging through the dirt of life-experience, these are wising me up and teaching me to let go. But, one thing, which I will point to – and repeat and repeat and repeat, is that irreplaceable tool. Please – for your own sake – befriend a good kneeler or find some special place, pure and special to you, and there hit the knees, morning, noon, and night. Don’t follow the Sinatra types, no matter how successful, if theirs are “not the words of one who kneels.” Heed the Claptons who know the very reason why our bodies were created this way, with this flexible joint. We are kneelers, all of us, and life will not let us forget it. “Yes, my name is Eric, and NO! I am not God!”

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But another critical point which comes out loud and clear in Eric’s perfect sermon is the essential need in us for a Mother. What i believe – and i think he does as well believe – to be his greatest song, “Holy Mother,” cries out from every cell of his body and of his legendary guitar. Written, he says, at the very very very lowest depth of his life, it finally took him to the road of recovery, of healing.

Millions of us around the world are thrilled this week with the return of Doc Martin to our lives. The BBC hit TV show created by the amazing Dominic Minghella only has new episodes every two years. We fans have longed with earnest hope that this “poor idiot” in what he calls “a whole village of idiots” will finally break through his horrid existence, a darkness that has engulfed his entire life. The saddest, most pathetic, yet irresistible man can save so many lives through his genius, but he cannot see his own pathos, because it is just too unbearable to face. i am amazed by Dominic’s ability to create this character, as Dominic has the most beautiful and passionate love for his own mother. The secret of Martin’s darkness, the root of all his problems, was eventually revealed to us when his parents suddenly arrived unannounced for a visit. We immediately saw the ugliness under the beauty of the great actress, Claire Bloom, and soon we learned, our hearts breaking to pieces, just how evil a mother- or shall we say  NO MOTHER at all. Somehow Mr. Minghella in his unceasing gratitude for his own darling mother is able to imagine life’s ultimate horror, to be a motherless child.

One of the treasures which we Catholics are most grateful for is how Jesus, in one of His final acts during his unspeakable death, took the time to deliberately share His Mother with the world, with all people of all time, but especially with those who have never experienced a good mother. Many of the Muslims whom i have known throughout my life were thrilled to acknowledge the wisdom of Christians in cherishing that most precious gift of God, the Holy Mother. October 7 is the day each year that we celebrate the Rosary in her honor and as our way to connect with her loving care for all her children.

A PARABLE

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Robinhood and the Old Cardinal – A Parable

(for my mother, who taught me to always love and take care of the birds – “…then God will surely take care of you.”

In the Great Forest there are so, so many kinds of birds, each one so wonderful in its own right. There is a Hierarchy among them, or so some tend to think. Among the least is robinhood, a mixture of a common robin and, well, a hooded monk, you might say. It is a tiny bird, smaller than a sparrow or a finch, and there is a little dot of red on the chest and a kind of hood on the head. It was a handsome bird, but quite, quite common.

One day, this robinhood was pondering this whole hierarchy thing, this Best to least. He always did tend to agree that none compared to the Great White Dove, the Most Magnificent bird who, while no one questioned his place of superiority, never did think of himself as or want to be superior. He flew around day and night, visiting all of the creatures. He was both all-wise and all-present, never but a chirp or tweet away. Wherever there was a bird in pain, he managed to fly right in and offer comfort.

That day Dove found robinhood weeping, and asked why. The tiny bird who was so sick and tired of being put down by the rest for being so plain, asked the Dove why some birds were more blessed, more colorful, more beautiful. This was especially so of the Cardinal who, whenever he flew through, would cause the rest to be silent. The Dove answered that it does not really matter how one looks, but only what one holds within and what he or she does with it, how well one loves and serves the rest. The Magnificent One told the robinhood, however, that the Cardinal is indeed very special. He was given that most fabulous cloak by the Creator of the forest, because he was called to guardian and guide of all, and to be forever ready to lay down his life for anyone in need. The bright red, then, stood for blood, the symbol of life.

Robinhood immediately answered, “But, I watch them. They don’t give their lives at all. They mostly fly around and show off, like they are better than the rest of us!” Then, he thought of his parents, how they indeed constantly sacrificed themselves for him and his siblings, and even their neighbors. How hard had been their lives! How often they went without eating, thinking only of others. How many times they had really risked life and wing to protect their families.

The Dove had tears in his eyes as he listened, as he truly felt every word of robinhood and stood in utter awe of that mother and father. “But,” he said, “Robbie, this is how the Lord of the Forest has willed it to be. We need our guardians, and if the Lord has given them the brightest cloaks to single them out, so it is.” And with that, he flew away.

Robinhood was so focused now on his mother’s love and on the fact that she deserved the highest honor. She deserved to wear that beautiful royal red cloak more than any old Cardinal. They are called to be ready to die, but she does die every day in every way. So, little robinhood worked out a plan to break into the Cardinals’ palace and to steal a red cloak for his mother.

Late that night the little bird found a very tiny hole in the basement of the palace. Being so small he was able to pass right through, and once inside, being so small, he was able to hop around and avoid the guards. He made it to the Cardinal’s chamber to search for the cloak. Soon, however, he was standing right in the presence of a Cardinal, but not like the one he had seen in the forest. This one was old, tattered and torn. “Your lordship,” he bowed, trembling, weeping, “your mercy.” How utterly shocked he was when the Cardinal began to speak. Expecting a powerful reprimand and a sentence to the deepest dungeon below, instead he heard the gentlest voice he had known, even more than the Dove’s.

The Cardinal asked why the robinhood had come to his chamber, which the little bird now noticed to be utterly simple, empty of anything ornate. Robinhood confessed his entire tale, accenting the wonders of his mother and father, and by the time he was finished, the Cardinal was weeping himself. “You do not understand, my little friend. How I wished that I could have taken off my fancy coat and placed it on your most worthy mother, or any of the precious parents in the forest. I know the way that they sacrifice and serve. I watch them. They are my teachers everyday, as I fly around the forest. That is my main mission; it is not to show off, but to see. To seek out and to study the selfless ones, to learn from them how to ready myself for service unto death. My red is their color, it came from their hearts, and I wear it for them, at every moment, for their honor, the Glory of Love. How many nights I cry myself to sleep that I have been so blessed to wear this cloak when your mother deserves it so much more. Why, I cry, why me?”

From that moment forward, the Cardinal and robinhood were bonded, the very best of friends, even more than friends. They were brothers forever. They would always be considered among the Greatest Companions in the Forest.

“SONO STANCO DI FRANCESCO!”

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i’ve been talking so much about my hero, St. Francis. He says it is making him SICK! “Sono Stanco di Francesco” is the way he puts it! “I am sick and tired of Francis!”

Yes, he and i often chat. Anyone who has been to the Portiuncola in Assisi, the Home of Franciscanism, will hold the little big man forever within. i called my website “The Adventures of FriarDad,” because although i was a friar-priest for many years, now i’m a father to six. And though “i left my heart with San Francisco,” he travels by my side wherever i go. The Irish say, “The Irish never leave Ireland; they take Ireland with them!”

So, this morning, after his grand worldwide Feast, St. Francis says to me – in beautiful Italian, of course – “NON PIU SU DI ME! Se si vuole dire al mondo la mia semplice messagio, quindi blogga di dogga.” i say, “WHAT!? i get the first part (“No more about me. If you want to tell the world my simple message, then…) WHAT?!” He points to my beagle, Rudy, BLOGGA  DI DOGGA! OOOHHH! Blog the Dog!

Now there is exactly what we were talking about yesterday, about Creation Mirroring the Creator! You can’t get much closer than in a dog. If you want to stare into the eyes of God, just look for a while into your dog’s. My good friend, Giovanni Luongo, for example, sent me this picture of his Riley. Have you ever seen anything so tender or true?!FullSizeRender_(3)The Passion,  the Yearning for Communion!

Giovanni says it so well that a dog does not see color or race or nationality. Concepts such as “pretty” or “sexual orientation” mean nothing to them, nor does young or old. Dogs just peer deeply into a person’s heart; is it good or bad, whatever, their love is unconditional.

At some point in the creation of the English language, some neologist (i.e. maker of new words) faced a great dilemma, when the meanings of two words would be so incredibly similar, almost “twins,” so he decided to just keep them as close as possible – “Hey! Let’s just spell them backwards! GOD & DOG!” God is  so many things, but to St. Francis of Assisi it was very simple. God is this Pure Love, no matter what, and this constant longing to be together with the beloved. He just wants to walk with us, by our side – always. Now who does that sound like?10153660_625625724185394_4655930681427172542_n

My precious Rudy suffers from congestive heart failure. His enlarged heart presses on his larynx and cuts off his breathing. He goes into a horrible cough, so painful for Rudy, doubly painful for us, because  this cough is especially brought on by his excitement over us. For example, if i leave the house for ten minutes, my return home will put the poor dog into the throes of passion. We try and we try to keep him calm, but there is just no containing his love. It can honestly be said, or predicted now, that my dog will die of Love. (i’m just not exactly sure whether it will be for me or for a piece of bacon; his allegiance can be held in question. LOL! He IS a beagle, after all!)

A few days ago i was part of a massive crowd of people of every age, size, color, creed, orientation, etc., etc. who each wanted just to touch one man who is like Rudy, like Riley, like Francis, like God. All felt so comfortable in his company, as all felt loved, each as he or she is. It reminded me of a day thirty years ago when i was in a very similar crowd, where everyone wanted to touch another Pope. A large group of teenage girls, one in particular, was trying to reach him as if her life depended on it. And when Pope John Paul II bent that extra bend to meet hers and their fingers touched – just like the Creator and man on Michelangelo’s ceiling – the girl exploded in tearful bliss. And i caught it, the magical mystical moment. All that i could think of was Carole King singing, “All you have to do is touch my hand…and something happens to me that’s some kind of wonderful.”1377599_628032453944721_8766895353220560304_nThis is what happens every time i take a moment to connect with my adoring dog. And this is what happens every time we are ready to let the Master connect with us, be it through prayer or when we really feel that Awesome Love TOUCH US deeply through a loving parent or sibling or a child or true friend, or an ocean or a forest of sycamores. It is really “some kind of wonderful,” and we could know it constantly, if we could just learn how to break from our busy or self-centered lives to LOVE and to be LOVED more…just like a Dog or God.1017751_635080819906551_7182317074189536740_n


	

SAINT FRANCIS & THE HOLY COMMUNION

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This favorite portrait of me, taken by my photographer daughter, Molly, caught me in the act of “holy communion” with a beautiful sycamore. Very allergic to every other kind of tree, i am all the more devoted to these, and this giant, this treasured friend, always has advice for those who bow and listen: “Patience! Slow Down.”

October 4 is the day on which the whole world celebrates Saint Francis of Assisi, now more popular than ever, thanks to a Pope who daily gives more honor to that holy name. Not that the Saint needed or wanted any more. He is already beloved everywhere and by everyone, non-Christians as well as Christians, and even by “atheists” who often will state that “at least one saint was for real!”

Francis’ Oneness with his Creator was so clearly reflected in his union with all of Creation. To him God’s Heart was evident everywhere, from a simple, humble, ordinary piece of bread to the finest performance of Francis’ Biggest Brother, Brother  Sun!11958197_879545598793404_5882470069095576699_o
If Francis had been strolling on the beach with me that morning at Avalon-by-the-Sea, he would have gone into ecstasy over the Golden Chalice reminding him of the Precious Blood which his Lord poured out for him.297358_162632797151358_1957486483_n

If he had been by my side in the woods last Thanksgiving morning amid a peaceful and perfect early snowfall, i know he would have stopped us both and told me just to listen to God’s Voice in the Silence, “Be still and know that I am…I Alone!”10933957_768697276544904_2458706986832886405_n

i know these things because, as crazy as it sounds, St. Francis WAS with me at that mystical moment in time. And it was Francis who tells me that God expects me to reflect Him as clearly and as simply as this pond reflected the trees. He wants us to do this in words, as humans are wordy creatures, but also without them, as Nature knows so well how to do. St. Francis had seen thousands of Assisi Sunsets and had gazed at countless mountaintop vistas. He knew “Speechless!” He often told whatever companion was by his side, “We must go out to the world to preach the Good News, and occasionally we will use words.” Whatever the Season, whatever the situation, stormy or still, the Creator still resides in the soul of every creature. Flowers, birds, even rocks, they all do it so simply, so well. Creation has been around so much longer than this knucklehead; it knows how to say it all! Only humans complicate things, which for the most part mean just be-ing. If only we can learn the Language of Nature – Simplicity, Simplicity!, Thoreau knew it. Francis perfected it, and his legacy lasts forever.

My favorite “fun-fact” about  Francis is how  he was  contemporary of Genghis Khan. Each was at the center of his half of the world. Not far apart in age, they died only months apart. But oh, what  different lives and legacies! Genghis declared himself the “Conqueror of the World,” apparently told so by his god, and he set out to do it, slaughtering whole cities and provinces of men, women and children who would believe in his dream. He built great pyramids to himself throughout Asia with the skulls and bones of his victims.  All of this as Francis set out to be nothing, nothing but the littlest brother of all – and servant of all, just a quiet clear mirror of God’s Heart – and so CONQUERED the hearts of all the world, in his time and all times since.

For St. Francis of Assisi Creation reached its highest mountaintop of all times and ages on that real date in real history when God Himself became one of us, a tiny, fragile, totally dependent and vulnerable Babe in Bethlehem. That Babe went on to become the Christ, the Savior of the world, and the night before He died told His followers that every time thereafter that they remembered that night at that table – with the simple everyday gifts of bread and wine – Jesus would really and truly come to be with them again. St. Francis firmly believed this to be the Ultimate Holy Communion. As someone once put it so well, “the greatest love story ever told is contained in the tiny white Host.” To really try to tell or to understand the life of St. Francis without this Host is impossible. Every communion with every creature, great or small, flows from and is made HOLY by that Communion with his Lord. It defines his life, and it explains just why the Saint was so madly in love with Creation; simply, it was because the Creator So Loved The Creation as to Become ONE WITH IT FOREVER. Only there does one go  to the depths with Francis. i know that many are content to love and to imitate this amazing man without the Jesus-Link, and that is fine. There is enough in him, though teeny was he, to “feed the multitudes”…just as long as all know THERE WAS MUCH MUCH MORE…It is “the Jesus Link” alone which explains his “crazy love” and what turned a common little man into the Man of All Times and Seasons.

FRANCIS’ SONG to ALL of CREATION

1003150736At the heart of the world lies Italy. At the heart of Italy lies Assisi. At the heart of Assisi lies a large basilica dedicated to St. Mary of the Angels. And when you, hopefully in your lifetime, walk into this cathedral, you will see in the distance…in the heart…a tiny church. Immediately you will fall in love. Those of us who have had the grace to be there will swear it. This little church was the only place which the “homeless” Francis of Assisi allowed himself to call “home,” he loved it so, its restoration the product of his labors of love. You will feel like you have reached here the “heart of the world” – and of the little tiny man who conquered it. He called this place “Portiuncola” or his “little portion,” his legacy to those whom he loved. If Italy is the heart of the world, this truly was the world’s greatest lover.

My dear, lifelong friend, Anthony Luongo, shares with me that when he went there, he felt PARALYZED and stood in the back corner with his head against the wall for two hours, feeling so unworthy to be there. i told him that such was my very own experience, but that eventually one feels the LOVE of God that filled and sifted through Francis SPRINKLING all over you like the powdered sugar on Italy’s dolci (all their pastries…) There you MEET the HEART of LOVE itself. (St. Francis had gone totally blind from years of weeping, and when asked why, he simply answered, “Because Such Love goes unloved!” Francis sometimes used that LOVE to turn hardened criminals into creampuffs!12063305_10208004369525729_1600999922081657433_n(photo just received from a little town in Italy, from my lucky pal, Stevie Siro!)

The followers and friends of St. Francis celebrate him each year with a two day event. October 4th is the Feast of St. Francis. Tomorrow the Holy Father, who on 3/13/13 let the world know that he was about to be a very very different Pope – simply by announcing his NAME – will officially close his month-plus dedicated to the Care for Creation, as he celebrates the Saint so famous for that care. But those who carry that NAME on their sleeves or in their souls, “Franciscans” will assemble today, October 3rd, to recall and to reenact in many places the Saint’s CRESCENDO!That is what he thought of DEATH. It all took place at that tiny “home,” where i heard for myself his trumpets blaring.

i don’t think there was ever a man who understood St. Francis better than Mahatma Gandhi, who put it this way: “Death should be welcomed, even as a best friend is welcomed. Death is an event to be celebrated, even more than birth. We are born to die, and we die only to be born again.” This man, who loved Francis so deeply, had learned from “the little poor man” the secret. He said, “the secret is to stop thinking of your body as your own. It is God’s, and He gave it to you for a while to use it for His service. Owners can misuse their property as they wish, but a trustee has to make the best use of it and know that God will take it back whenever He wishes.” Now this is a mighty big pill to swallow, but this is “the Francis Way.” He is definitely not all pretty flowers and jumping in the autumn leaves. To join his path is heavy stuff, but it promises genuine freedom-from-within and peace, true peace of mind. The Church, in setting up this two-day-event, is saying, “If you mean to really CELEBRATE St. Francis of Assisi tomorrow, well, here is the door, folks!”

When i was a little kid, my friends around the neighborhood and i just never got tired of playing “Army,” soldiers, whatever you called it. We played it day and night, into the darkness where one could hide better. The game was constantly ruined by the kid who could never fall right, or the one who just refused to face the fact that he had to go sometime. i mean, you would get him in the corner of some house and point weapons at every major organ, and blast away. And he’d just sorta stand there, all stupid. “Come on, man! We got you! You gotta go down!” “No, I don’t have to, if I don’t want to!!” “Oh, man! Go home, kid. Go home to mommy!” We’d be so bummed out for a few minutes…But once that kid rounded the bend, “Let’s go, boys!” back to our MAJESTIC DEATHS!!! Who could have thunk it that that little game would tell the story of our lives, that to a great extent our lives would be all about dying, and the greatest ones, the ones who would make the world so interesting and inspiring, would be those who knew well how to die. i can still see little kids making spectacular flies into thornbushes or falls off a roof or a tree. They knew there was no way of getting around it, so instead they really got into it.

i don’t just mean here the very act of dying. It’s far far more than that. It is the very understanding that life is a dying-to-self and a learning how very fragile and fleeting everything is. Gratefulness, joy, laughter, it is all so connected. i’m talking about our mothers and our fathers here…and all of the Magnificent Ones, who accepted that old message that Francis and Gandhi just said so simply: “Living is in the dying, and dying is in the living. And if you take Creation, you take THE WHOLE PACKAGE or nothin! Sister Death is just another member of the Family of Creation!” St. Francis considered her his special beauty, since she was the only one who could carry him home. The annual celebration of October 3rd is called the “Transitus,” which means “the Carrying from one life to the next, the Best!”12039566_1010875438977502_3253309522886919920_n

KITES

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Not sure just where it came from – my wonderful mother, i think – but i’ve always tried to keep an optimistic outlook on everything, to see the good in
everyone, however horrid some may appear, to greet and to close each day with a grateful heart.

But i would be a deceiver, if i didn’t confess that there are days when the sun is rising outside my window, and i am doing anything but shining. It’s difficult to even lift my head off the pillow. i feel “run over by life,” i.e. the past and future of it, countless regrets, guilt, disappointments, worries and fears. It is so easy to focus on them in their multitude rather than on the one and only thing in front of my face – TODAY! The Moment!

The image that quickly comes to mind, when i’m feeling so down, is that of so many a kite i saw crashing in a park or on a sandy beach. Life is so much like kite-flying, myself the kite. Everybody knows how hard it can be to Catch the Wind and Ride It. One thing is Absolutely Certain: i cannot do it on my own. i can make it alone in life just as easily as a kite can!

Three ingredients are necessary: the Wind, some string, and a tugger.

The Bible’s word for the Spirit of God is RUACH, which really means WIND.
He is out there for sure, though Invisible and at some times so calm that i can barely feel His Presence. It is then that i rely on the certainty of His Love in my wife and family. They are the steadiest breeze that raises me. (And of course THEY include my ever-worshiping dog, Rudy, who would never let me stay down!) Despite my every fault and failing, they remind me that i can FLY! And there are “extended family” who blow a constant uplifting breeze my way every day. All the way from the Windy City, Chicago, the wonderful poet, Jim Littwin and his wife, Carol, channel affirmations galore which go under my tired wings and make me soar.

And Strings! Strings stretch literally around the world – to Fr. Cantalamessa in a hermitage in Italy, from which he sends me so much encouragement and HOPE. Strings stretch to Fr. Ichabod in the MiddleEast, Fr. Henry Liguori in Las Vegas, and Bishop John Corriveau in British Columbia. There is Anthony Luongo in Hollywood, Florida, and Gerry Straub in Hollywood, California, Bob Waldron in Boston and Sr. Dolores in San Francisco! Only to name a tiny few who tug the strings, strings from the four corners and way beyond, strings that pull and say, “Hey, Mikie, you Knucklehead, it’s time to get up and fly.”

i have a dear friend, Tom Jordan, who works at Walmart. It is the last place he cares to work, and it can be quite disheartening for him. But, then, he tells me of moments, such as when one customer will watch another, who is obviously struggling at the very last thread of her life-string to feed her family…and all of a sudden that first customer will say, “Let me pay for all of her things as well!” The kindness of a human heart raises my buddy up, and then he sends that wind my way to lift me, to take me higher and higher. For a while Tom and i fly together! WOW! How Sweet It Is!

Actually, i never need any more lift than the Robinsons of Tallahassee. Many years ago my blondy bubbly niece, Valerie (we always called her “Cutiepatootie”), who was one of those Florida State cheerleaders that flies high in the air, touching the sky…was in a car crash, which left her pretty much paralyzed for life. But the 24/7 care of my brother, Timmy, his wife, Vivian, and their host of huggers and tuggers, is as constant as the constancy of God, whose very name is “AIR,” without which we are nothing. That constant love, though so far away from me, and the smiling faces of Valerie on my refrigerator, are more than enough to lift Uncle Michael from any slump or slumber. When the wind seems knocked-out of me, it is never long before their “in-spiration” comes – What a Word! It means “this sweet and heavenly breeze comes along, wraps around me, enters my being, fills my very heart and soul, and up…UP…UP goes the kite again!”

This is why, like a good Catholic boy, i will often speak of the Saints, both
of today and of yesteryear, and our holy Communion with them. The kite strings truly stretch everywhere, pulling us, “Come on, run with us, and fly even higher than you’ve ever flown before. You can do it, if you believe.”

Our Jewish Brethren have been celebrating their beautiful Feast of Sukkot this week, my favorite Jewish Feast. Many of them maintain the great custom of making a little hut on their property and going there to be alone with God. The purpose is simply to reflect and to pray – most of all, Remember – all the wonders God has done for them! Given them! Each of us has string stretching far and winds waiting to whisk us away. Each has huggers and tuggers wrapped around us. Maybe we don’t always let them pick us up? That part only we can play. Tagore used to say, “The Winds of Grace are always blowing, but you must bend your sails.” As a dog eagerly seeks the wind, his head always outside the car window, so may we…the Spirit of God!0820150948c

“GOD’S PHONE NUMBA”

468875_393558774058758_1035393948_oImagine, 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!