Saints for the Times: five addresses delivered in the nationwide Catholic Hour, produced by the National Council of Catholic Men, in cooperation with the National Broadcasting Company, from October 28, 1945 through November 25, 1945. Our Sunday Visitor Press (1946)
Twenty years ago Matt Talbot was picked up dead on a Dublin Street. A simple laborer, his passing rated only the summary obituary notice that simple laborers receive — a few lines of agate type tucked away in the daily newspaper: "Matthew Francis Talbot; age, 69; died June 7th; funeral Mass, Jesuit Church, Gardiner Street; burial, Glasnevin Cemetery." That was all the press had to say of Matt Talbot at his death, and that was 20 years ago.
Today we know much more of Matt Talbot than most of the people who read that obituary notice, because today, six full-length books have appeared, not to mention hundreds of essays, articles, and pamphlets, having as their subject this lovable, thoroughly appealing, and warmly human person. The affectionate reference to him as “Matt’' rather than the more formal “Matthew" is at once the key to his hold upon the hearts of so many people. It is as though he lived just down the street from us and we had known him personally for many years.
Thousands of men and women all over the English-speaking world are praying, only 20 years after his death, that Matt Talbot will be canonized by the Catholic Church, that his name one day will be honored at the altar even as the names of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas More are now honored. When we speak of him today, we do in no way wish to anticipate the judgment of the Catholic Church upon his life of prayer and good works. We simply wish to hold out for consideration his life of great sanctity, hard work, and extraordinary discipline, and to indicate its significance. For Matt Talbot's story is bound to inspire, and the more it gets around, the more good it will do. He has significance, today, for two reasons. First, an America that is discouraged and disheartened at its failure to control its habit of drink can learn much from his solution; and secondly, Matt Talbot is desperately needed as a symbol by workingmen not only in America but throughout the whole world.
He was born in Dublin half way through the last century — in 1856. He was one of 12 children, of a good father and a great mother. Poverty knew his family very well. At an early age, at the age of 12 to be exact, Matt left school and went to work as a messenger boy for a wine merchant. He developed in that job a taste for wine which led to the habit of drink. And before he was 14 he was spending his weekly pay, such as it was, in the saloons instead of bringing it home to his mother. At 14 years of age, a drunkard ! Imagine, at an age when a boy should have been worrying about his athletic prowess or his skill at games, this boy was caught fast in drink, and for almost 15 years he was to remain under the tyranny of this habit. So strong was its hold over him that on one occasion he gave the very shoes off his feet in payment for a drink.
One night, though, at the age of 26, he came home to his mother and told her he was going to give up drinking. Like any mother, her heart quickened at this news; and yet she had been subjected to so many disappointments in the past that she must have wondered whether he could persevere. She sent him off to the priest, nonetheless, with the blessing of God upon him. After seeing the priest. Matt promised to abstain from intoxicating liquor for three months. That promise was not easy to keep. His whole system, so long accustomed to the stimulation of liquor, was now shocked by the lack of it. Worse still, there was a loneliness enforced upon him. — he could no longer go to the drinking places he had once frequented, he could no longer spend his evenings in the company of those with whom he had traveled for 14 years. To keep his pledge, he had to endure the bleakness of his hall bedroom during the evening hours when his day’s work was done. So desperately did he feel this sense of isolation that he grew testy, even with his mother, and threatened to go back to his drink. But she, wonderful psychologist, sensing that no man can live in a vacuum, understanding that no man can turn from a life of sin or dissipation and have any success living virtuously unless he embrace some positive program of activity, encouraged her boy to fill up that void which the loss of drink had made in his life by taking Jesus Christ as his companion each morning in Holy Communion.
This he began to do, but his progress was discouragingly slow. The fierce temptation to drink persisted — at times agonizing in its intensity — and Matt must have wondered whether he could persevere. He must have wondered whether Christ could ever become so attractive as to counteract a habit made strong by 14 years of exercise. He stayed with his resolution, however, and for his constancy Christ rewarded him. Three months went by and he took no liquor — then a year passed. And now strength and confidence surged in his heart. He pledged himself not to touch any liquor, ever, for the remainder of his life. And he kept that pledge. And because he kept that pledge we say he is significant for America.
There is little use closing our eyes to the paralyzing effect which drink has in this country. Not drink within the limits of reason, but that habit of drink, unreasonable and excessive, which has resulted in the breaking of homes, in scalding many a mother’s, many a wife’s heart, in crushing the promise of so many business and professional careers — that habit which has become, on the testimony of expert medical men, one of America’s outstanding problems.
Now the problem of drink is mainly psychological. It involves the will. All the medical care and institutional cures in the world cannot save a man from drink if he does not sincerely will to give it up. The change has to come from within. It was so in Matt Talbot’s life. It must be so in the life of anyone thus afflicted. See what that change from within did for Matt Talbot. He still went through the simple routine of his daily round but now there was a difference. His long day at work, formally humdrum and unattractive, in itself a strong temptation to drink, was now made wonderfully attractive by the life of prayer accompanying it.
When we say a long day, think of the schedule he followed. Up at two o’clock in the morning after only three or four hours sleep on a plank bed with wooden pillow. Never mind if you can’t understand such discipline, such mortification! Never mind if you do not see the need of it! It was Matt’s way and it was a good way. He would pray for two hours in the early morning, get dressed and go off to 5:30 Mass. There he would receive Holy Communion and return to his room for a sparse breakfast. Then off to work in the lumber yards at 7:30. This was his daily routine for 41 years.
He was never late and he was not lazy — and his work was good because it was also his prayer. Thus, there was no break in his prayer from the time he rose in the morning until he slept at night. At 5:30 when his work was through at the yards, he would return home for an indifferent meal — food and drink now exerted no tyranny over him. He was above their reach, and small wonder, for his thoughts constantly were on Christ, His Blessed Mother, and the Saints. The evening hours, once so lonely and full of temptation to be out drinking, now were short enough and never lonely for Matt because of his prayer and spiritual reading.
We have said that his work was also his prayer and that is me truth. In America we have lost that notion of work as prayer, and we are the poorer for having lost it. We have forgotten that work, all work, has a dignity — and that men must see in their daily tasks, no matter how menial, how governed by routine, wonderful opportunities for improving their spiritual resources. If the American workingman will take Matt Talbot as his model, he can enrich his life immeasurably. This is not to say that he must be meek to the point of tolerating injustice and taking no steps to remedy it. Matt Talbot, for all his subdued way, went out on strike from the lumber yards when the strike was called. He did not, however, take part in recriminations and in expressions of hatred, for in the good common sense which he possessed so abundantly, he knew that nothing would be accomplished that way save the deepening of the rift between the worker and his employer.
One other thing! There is a lot of silly sentiment expressed about the common man today. The press and radio have proclaimed that the century of the common man is here. He has been rhapsodized and made a great deal of and yet very little has come of it all. For to most of us in America, the common man still has no face. We know that we are passing him every day on our streets and yet we cannot point him out. He is for all intents and purposes an abstraction, the subject of articles and talks but never a living person whom we can recognize.
If the 20th century wants an image of the common man, let it look to Matt Talbot. Was ever a man so common — broken shoes, torn trousers, odd coat, five dollars a week for wages, ill-regulated diet, cold, damp hall-bedroom, long hours at work. Why these are all the things that plague and have plagued the laboring man in our society. These are the things the laboring man has been longing to correct, and they find their complete expression in Matt. Yet for all his handicaps. Matt Talbot was patient of his lot and he achieved happiness at his work. He knew a society could have a 40 hour week, a minimum wage law, protection for the aged, good living conditions, and still be miserable and unhappy if it did not have God. He knew that many men would use their new found leisure and increased wages only to lose God and to sin more grievously than ever they had sinned in the past. He knew the weakness of the common man because he knew his own weakness. He realized that commonness is very often mediocrity and that a man cannot save his soul if he is mediocre. He saw that life could only be successful for the common man if he would be uncommonly good, uncommonly faithful in prayer, uncommonly reliant upon God.
If Matt Talbot ever becomes canonized, it will be not only Matt, but millions of other men who in all countries of the world have chosen to follow Christ without any fanfare or publicity day in and day out at their daily tasks, providing faithfully for their families, seeking no awards or medals, caring not if the world ever sees or hears them, hoping only to merit Christ’s clasp of their hand as they go through life. If Matt Talbot is raised to the altar, the common man will be given a greater recognition in that single gesture than ever he has received since Christ walked along the roads of Judea and chose His first followers from among the ranks of those simple, nameless folk who have never since forgotten the honor He bestowed upon them; who as a consequence have treasured their anonymity, their obscurity, in the hope that He will always feel free to walk in their midst, in the hope that He will always feel free to turn to them at any time for help in accomplishing His work upon this earth.
When Christ touched the heart of Matt Talbot, He indicated once more His identity with the poor and with those whom the world has so grievously sinned against. And having touched the heart of this common man and having given it such wonderful strength, millions of hearts everywhere have begun to beat faster in the knowledge that Christ still does not forget, that He still walks among the little people of the world and in their midst He is most at home and from their midst He receives His greatest homage.