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



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


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, “” 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!