“Alcohol addictions are at times so strong that those closest to the alcoholic are led to believe that he will never overcome his addiction, and the alcoholic himself is tempted to lose all hope. It is good then to remember Jesus’ resurrection. This reminds us that failure is never God’s last word.”
WHO WAS THIS MAN? WAS HE INSANE OR A SAINT?
“In a street in Dublin, Ireland, on the morning of Trinity Sunday, June 7, 1925, a man who was making his way to a nearby church suddenly collapsed, dead. His body was taken to the hospital to be washed by a religious nurse. She was greatly amazed when, in removing the deceased’s clothing, she discovered a chain from which hung religious medals, wound twice around his waist. Other chains or cords encircled his arms and legs. Although these rusty chains were embedded in his skin, his body was impeccably clean. So who was this man? Was he insane or a saint?
÷ HOW CROSSES HELP US TO A HOLY, SERENE, FULFILLED LIFE ÷
FROM BEER TO WHISKEY
Matt Talbot was born in Dublin in May 1856, the sixth child in a family of twelve. As a young boy, he was placed in the school of the Brothers of the Christian Doctrine, where he did not do well in his studies. At the age of 12, he began work in a brewery. Working in an atmosphere where alcohol was everywhere, he soon followed the bad example of the other employees and began to empty the bottles. Seeing him come home every evening in unusually good spirits, his father intervened and found him another job, under his own supervision, with the port and dock committee. But Matt’s situation got worse – he got into the habit of swearing and using the dockers’ strong language. To top it all off, his new work buddies introduced him to whiskey! His father tried to dissuade him, and came to blows over it with him, but to no use.
To his parents’ despair, Matt removed himself from the paternal authority and sunk into drunkenness. However, the young man was a kindhearted soul. Realising the dishonour he had brought upon his father, he left the docks and was hired as a mason. He then spent every evening in cabarets and regularly went home drunk. He spent his entire wages on booze. He sank to such a point of vice that sometimes he resorted to stealing to get hold of alcohol.
His body was slowly being destroyed. But, more serious still is the sin that gives death to the soul: intemperate use of drink offends the Creator. Through alcoholism, just as through drugs, man voluntarily deprives himself of the use of reason, the most noble attribute of human nature. This licentiousness, when carried out in full knowledge and voluntarily, is a serious sin against God and also against the neighbour whom one, in a state of drunkenness, puts himself in danger of seriously offending.
A STROKE OF GRACE
In spite of his debasement, Matt retained a degree of propriety. He did not have illicit relations. Every morning, no matter the libations of the night before, he was up at six o’clock to go to work. He also faithfully attended Sunday Mass, even if he did not receive the Sacraments. One Saturday in 1884, divine grace knocked at his door. After having been out of work for a week, Matt, 28 years old, found himself without money and unable to buy alcohol. And yet, he was tormented by desire. Around noon, he went to station himself with Philip, his younger brother, on a street corner where workers passed after having received their pay. Surely one or another would invite him to have a drink. The workers passed and greet him, but no one invited him.
Matt was cut to the quick. To be deprived of alcohol cost him dearly, but most of all, he was wounded by the harshness of his friends, to whom he had frequently offered a round at the cabaret. He apruptly went home.
His mother was quite surprised to see him arrive so early, and sober. His mother! Matt was seized with the thought that he had been so ungrateful towards her. He had given his parents almost nothing toward board and lodging (all his money went to buy alcohol!) And now his heart was broken for having left them to suffer alone, while he went off to drink in a selfish manner.
At this time in Ireland, it was not unusual for a man who wanted to give up drinking to make a pledge. After the meal, sitting alone with his mother, Matt suddenly said, ‘I am going to make the pledge.’
HELPED BY THE HOLY SACRAMENTS
‘Good heavens! Do it, but don’t make it if you can’t keep it!’
‘I will make it, in God’s name.’
After having carefully dressed himself, he went to the College of the Holy Cross, asked to see a priest, and confessed. On the priest’s prudent advice, Matt made his pledge for a three-month period. The next day, he went to hear the five o’clock Mass at Saint Francis Xavier Church, received Communion and returned home renewed.
But to remain faithful to his pledge, the struggle would be terrible. Matt therefore decided to draw from daily Communion the spiritual strength he would need to keep his resolution. The most difficult time was in the evening, after work. To avoid temptation, the newly-converted began to take walks in the city. One day, however, he entered a cabaret at the same time as a number of other customers. The bartender, who was busy, seemed to ignore Matt, who, offended by his inattention, left as quickly as possible, having decided never again to set foot in a pub.
‘WILL I EVER DRINK AGAIN?’
During his walks, Matt met with another difficulty: alcohol had ruined his health, and he grew tired quickly. So, entering a church, he knelt before the Tabernacle and began to pray, begging God to strengthen him. He thus got into the habit of visiting the house of God. Nevertheless, the three months were long. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal – hallucinations, depression, nausea, – were for him a veritable Calvary.
At times, the old passion awakened in him – he had to struggle desperately and prolong his prayers.
One day, returning home, he collapsed into a chair and sadly said to his mother: ‘It’s all no use, Mother – once these three months are over, I will drink again…’ But his mother comforted him and encouraged him to pray. Following this advice to the letter, Matt acquired a taste for prayer, and therein found his salvation. Indeed, prayer allows us to get out of situations that are hopeless in human terms. ‘For God all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26). When the three months were over, astonished to have ‘stuck it out’, Matt renewed his vow for another six months, at the end of which he promised never to drink alcohol again.
THE PILLAR OF DAILY MASS
Matt began a new life, a life of intimacy with God, of which daily Mass was the pillar. But, in 1892, the 5 a.m. Mass at which Matt usually received Communion was cancelled. The first Mass from then on was at 6.15. Despite the real skill he had acquired in his work, he did not hesitate to change jobs, and was hired as a simple manual labourer at a wood merchant’s, where work didn’t start until eight o’clock. His new job consisted of loading trucks. At night, as soon as work was over, he washed with care, put on his best clothes – because he did not want to enter the house of God with his work clothes on – and went to the church to visit the Blessed Sacrament.
One day, he admitted to his confessor: ‘I greatly desired the gift of prayer, and my wish has been fully granted.’His existence from then on was completely directed towards God, and especially the true presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle. ‘While the Eucharist is reserved in churches or oratories – Christ is truly Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’,’ wrote Pope Paul VI. ‘For He is in the midst of us day and night; He dwells in us with the fullness of grace and of truth. He raises the level of morals, fosters virtue, comforts the sorrowful, strengthens the weak and stirs up those who draw near to Him to imitate Him, so that they may learn from His example to be meek and humble of heart, and to seek not their own interests but those of God. Anyone who has a special devotion to the sacred Eucharist and who tries to repay Christ’s infinite love for us with an eager and unselfish love of his own, will experience and fully understand – and this will bring great delight and benefit to his soul – just how precious life hidden with Christ in God and just how worthwhile it is to carry on a conversation with Christ, for there is nothing more consoling here on earth, nothing more efficacious for progress along the paths of holiness (Encyclical ‘Mysterium Fidei’, September 3, 1965)
IN THE SERVICE OF MARY
Matt Talbot cherished a tender devotion to the Mother of Jesus. Every day, he recited the Rosary and the office of the Blessed Virgin. Around 1912, he read the ‘Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin’, by Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort. In this book, he learned to practise ‘holy slavery’ through the consecration of his entire being and all his possessions to the service of Mary. [The consecration prayer and information can be found on this blog; please type “The prayer of consecration to Jesus through Mary” into this blog’s search facility; for information about living the consecration, please enter, “Living the consecration to Jesus through Mary” (4 instalments).]
Naturally quick tempered, Matt came to find it very difficult to endure his companions’ swearing and coarse language. When they took the Lord’s name in vain, he respectfully lifted his hat. Seeing this gesture, his friends would redouble their bad language. Matt would severely reprimand them, but later he limited himself to gently saying, ‘Jesus Christ hears you.’ One day, he sharply criticised his foreman for a less than generous charitable contribution. His boss called him back to respect and, the next day, Matt reported to his boss: ‘Our Lord,’ he declared, ‘told me that I must ask your forgiveness. I am coming to do it.’ His exemplary life ended up inspiring respect. What is more, he was a pleasant companion, always the first to laugh at a good joke, provided that it was within the limits of propriety.
‘YOUR CLOTHES LOOK WRETCHED’
In imitation of the ancient Irish monks who followed the tradition of Saint Columba, Matt imposed upon himself their [vegetarian] ascetic dietary regimen, both for the expiation of his sins as well as to mortify himself and promote in himself the life of the spirit. However, when friends invited him, he ate like everyone else.
Entering the Third Order of St Francis, he applied himself to imitate Christ’s poverty, reducing his needs to a bare minimum, and giving the rest to the poor. At the beginning of his conversion, he had kept the habit of smoking. One day, one of his friends asked him for tobacco. He had just bought a pipe and a bag of tobacco. In a heroic gesture, he gave them both away, and would never smoke again. He ordinarily wore shabby and threadbare clothes, and one day, someone gave him a new suit. He wanted to refuse it, but his confessor intervened – ‘Talbot, your clothes look wretched. They are offering you a new suit…’ – ‘Father, I promised God never to wear new clothes.’ – ‘Well!’ replied the Father. ‘It is God Who is sending you these!’ – ‘All right, if it is God Who is sending them to me, I’ll take them.’
If there was one luxury that Matt allowed himself, it was books. He loved to spend time reading, his favourite reading material being the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Saints. Flipping through the Bible found in his home after his death, one could notice that he was especially fond of the Psalms, particularly the penitential Psalms in which the sinner expresses regret to God for his sins [They can be found on this blog, please type “Penitential Psalms” into the search facility], but also unshakeable confidence in divine mercy: ‘Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness: in the greatness of Your compassion wipe out my offence. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and from my sin cleanse me… Give me back the joy of Your salvation… (Psalm 50).
He also made notes that reveal an astonishing elevation of thought for a man of very rudimentary schooling. Some examples of his reflections: ‘Our time in this life is only a race to death, in which no man can stop… Freedom of the mind is gained by freeing oneself from pride, which makes the soul disposed to do the will of God in the smallest things… Applying the will consists in doing good, abusing it consists in doing evil… In meditation, we seek God through reason and commendable acts, but in contemplation, we see effortlessly…’ This life of prayer and penitence was strengthened by exceptional graces. One day he confided to his sister: ‘How sad it is to see what little love people have for God! .. Oh Susan! If you knew the profound joy I felt last night as I was conversing with God and His Blessed Mother!’, then, realising that he was talking about himself, he changed the subject.
There was profound unrest in Ireland in the period from 1911 to 1921 – labour conflicts marked by unemployment and strikes, the struggle for home rule, the First World War, then the war between Ireland and England. In the midst of this unrest, Matt kept his soul in peace. Nevertheless, the workers’ cause was close to his heart. He candidly condemned the inadequacy of the salaries of married workers, who he helped financiaally as much as he could. But he never demanded anything for himself. When friends quit their jobs or were dismissed, he expressed support of their cause.
‘THANK THE GREAT HEALER’
At the age of sixty-seven, Matt Talbot was physically spent – shortness of breath and heart palpitations forced him to ease up on his activities. After two hospital stays in 1923 and 1925, he recovered to some degree and took up his work again. During these stays, as soon as he was able, he would go to the chapel. To a nun who scolded him for the fright he had given her when he disappeared from the room, he answered, smiling, ‘I have thanked the sisters and the doctors – was it not right to thank the Great Healer?’
On Sunday, June 7, 1925, he was making his way to the Church of the Holy Saviour. Exhausted, he collapsed on the pavement. A lady gave him a glass of water. Matt opened his eyes, smiled and let his head fall down gain – this was the great encounter so desired with Christ Who came ‘to call, not the self-righteous, but sinners’ (Mt 9:13). In 1975 Matt Talbot received the title ‘Venerable’. Today, many charitable organisations dedicated to helping victims of alcohol and drugs place themselves under his patronage.
RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE
Matt Talbot is a model for all men and women. To victims of alcoholism or drugs, he shows through his example that, with the grace of God, recovery is possible. ‘Alcohol addictions are at times so strong that those closest to the alcoholic are led to believe that he will never overcome his addiction, and the alcoholic himself is tempted to lose all hope. It is good then to remember Jesus’ resurrection. This reminds us that failure is never God’s last word’ (Social Commission of French Bishops, December 1st 1998). To those who are slaves to other sins, he reminds them that one must ‘never despair of God’s mercy’ in accordance with Saint Benedict’s recommendation (Rule, ch.4). Our Lord promised St Margaret Mary that sinners would find in His Heart the source and the infinite ocean of mercy. Just as it is the nature of a ship to sail on the water, it is God’s nature to forgive and be merciful, as the Church confirms in one of her prayers.
Saint Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, also was able to write near the end of her manuscripts: ‘Even if I had on my conscience all the sinst that can be committed, I would go, my heart broken with repentance, to throw myself into the arms of Jesus, for I know how much He loves the prodigal child who returns to Him.’ She added: ‘If I had committed all the crimes it is possible to commit, I would still have the same confidence, I would feel that this multitude of offences would be like a drop of water thrown into a blazing fire.’
Matt Talbot’s life eloquently proves that by turning faithfully to the Lord to ask forgiveness, one may, through the Sacrament of Penance, the normal way of Reconciliation with God, begin a new life under Mary’s maternal gaze.”
– Dom Antoine Marie OSB. This article was published in “The Little Way Association” (Helping the Missions side by side with St Therese), issue number 88. For more information and donations to The Little Way Association, please contact them at: Sacred Heart House, 119 Cedars Road, Clapham Common, London SW4 0PR. Tel.: +44 (0)20 7622 0466