Saturday, November 24, 2007

Matt Talbot - triumph over addiction to alcohol

Homily for Temperance Sunday - Last Sunday before Lent

by Fr. Tommy Lane

Today is Temperance Sunday when the Church invites us to reflect on the value of temperance, on the value of moderation and self-restraint so I would like to share with you about Matt Talbot.

He was born in 1856 into poverty in Dublin’s inner city. After only one year in school he left it to begin working with wine merchants to supplement the family income. Some crates used to be damaged and the workers helped themselves to bottles of stout. One day Matt sampled a bottle. It was a new taste and was good. He was twelve years. Soon he began to open more and more bottles. He even started his day with beer. The first thing he thought of when he woke up every day was alcohol. His mother knew he had taken to the drink and prayed a great deal for him. He always made sure to come home sober because he did not want to cause pain to his mother. But one evening he came home drunk. His father changed his employment hoping it would help, getting him a job where he worked in the Port and Docks Board. But Matt took to whiskey and not to cause his father grief at work he got a job as a bricklayer. The only disadvantage was that now he had to buy the alcohol. It was 1am or 2am every morning when he came home from drinking. Deep inside he wanted to cry and shout and beg for help, but he was not ready just yet. He could not part with his addiction.

His conversion began like this. It was early 1884 and Matt was 28 years old and had been drinking for sixteen years. One Saturday morning he was not able to get up for work. But that evening he went to a location near the tavern where he and his mates drank. But his drinking buddies ignored him when they passed him by from work, even those for whom he had bought drinks in the past. He went home. “You’re home very soon”, his mother said. He said to her, “I’m going to stop drinking for good.” She said to him, “Don’t take the pledge if you don’t intend to keep it.” He knew it would take faith, more faith than he had but he knew his mother’s faith would help him to ask the Lord for courage. He walked to the seminary of Dublin archdiocese to find a priest so he could make the pledge. He felt like turning around and going back home. It had been three years since his last Confession and he had been drunk every day except that day. A kind priest helped him and he took the pledge to renounce alcohol for three months. He thought three months would be an eternity and he knew the first three months were going to be a terrible struggle. He did not believe he could do it. He knew where he would get his strength. He would go to Mass the next morning. In fact he went to Mass every morning after that for the rest of his life in St Francis Xavier’s Church in Gardiner Street Upper. Because work began at 6am he went to 5am Mass. A church was the only place in all of Dublin where he felt safe from himself. He decided he would fight his struggle in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. He decided to stay away from the pub and his drinking friends. That meant taking a different route home from work every evening. Since he had stayed awake so long every night drinking, he now decided he would still only give himself the same four hours sleep every night, except that now he spent his nights reading spiritual books and praying. He especially loved reading the lives of the saints. Having remained sober for three months he took the pledge for another three months. His thumping headaches and emotional turmoil began to subside and he felt new hope rise within. His sister Mary was convinced of his conversion because since the day he stopped drinking he also stopped cursing. That reminds me of our first reading today (8th Sunday Year C), “the test of a man is in his conversation” (Ecclesiasticus 24:7) and the last lines of today’s Gospel where Jesus says, “A good man draws what is good from the store of goodness in his heart; a bad man draws what is bad from the store of badness. For a man’s words flow out of what fills his heart.” (Luke 6)

At the end of the second three months he took the pledge for a year and at the end of the year he took the pledge for life. He wanted to do penance to make up for his sixteen years of drinking. He slept on boards with a block of wood for his pillow and holed the knees of his trousers so that when he knelt he would have no protection from the hard wood. He fasted a lot and ate only enough food to stay alive. He also gave a lot of his weekly wages to charities. He used to have a quick temper especially after drinking but now he was mellowing. He joined the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association when it was founded in 1898. Although now he was a very spiritual person he did not want to be known as such but people could see the profound change that had occurred in him. For example, what most upset him was using the name of Jesus as a curse. Whenever that happened he lifted his cap as a sign of reverence to the name of ‘Jesus’ and he would take a crucifix out of his pocket and say, “Look at the One you are insulting.” As well as giving up drink he also gave up smoking but the extent of his penance was only discovered after his death. He had chains around his body embedded into his flesh.

His story is a beautiful story of conversion and shows us that a very ordinary person can totally transform. He died on his way to Sunday Mass on 7 June 1925 in Granby Lane (a plaque on the wall marks the spot). He was declared Venerable in 1973, which is a step on the way to canonization. Hopefully some day he will be the patron saint of addicts. Many favors have been attributed to his intercession so on this Temperance Sunday why not pray to Matt Talbot for help in overcoming problems. You can see his coffin behind glass in Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sean McDermott Street.

I will conclude with part of the prayer for his canonization:

"Lord, in your servant Matt Talbot you have given us a wonderful example of triumph over addiction, of devotion to duty, and of lifelong reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament. May his life of prayer and penance give us courage to take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

(Other stories of addiction overcome through prayer) by Fr. Tommy Lane