Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"One day at a time: a down-and-out Irishman inspires miracles as a patron saint for the sober-minded."

U.S. Catholic, July 1, 2005

ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN SPRING, IN THE FADING light of a church sacristy, a friend told me he was going away for a few weeks. And he needed me to know why. "I'm an alcoholic," he said quietly. He was heading to a treatment center in the Midwest.

The news surprised me. I'd never suspected he had a drinking problem. But I know how easy it can be to hide.

My parents were alcoholics. I remember as a kid taking out the trash before company came so no one would see the empty liquor bottles, the way my father staggered through the kitchen, and the way my mother began her Sundays with a Bloody Mary. After they died and I was grown and married, I tried to come to terms with it. What I did not know was whether there was someone to pray to about it. So before my friend left for rehab, I started a search.

I found a name unfamiliar to me--but one that holds meaning for countless alcoholics around the world: Matt Talbot.

Talbot was born in the slums of Dublin in 1856. When he was 12, to support his family, he got a job working for a company that bottled beer, where he got into the habit of drinking the dregs from the bottom of returned bottles. By the age of 16 he was an alcoholic.

Young Talbot would spend his money on drinking. When he ran out of money, he borrowed or begged. He pawned his clothes. Some times he stole. Every day was an exercise in how to get the next bottle.

But one Saturday in 1884, that changed. Talbot was standing outside a pub, unemployed and utterly broke, certain one of his friends would invite him in for a pint. No one did. They walked in and out of the pub all afternoon, and, one by one, they ignored him. Talbot was left alone--humiliated, desperate, spiritually scourged.

Stunned and hurt, he made his way home, taking an inventory of his life as he walked. Arriving at the house, he told his mother he was taking "the pledge": He would give up drinking. Not for a day. Not for a month. But for life. One day at a time.

Not long after, Talbot got a job at a lumberyard and began giving his beer money to the poor. He attended Mass every morning--and three Masses every Sunday.

"It is a constancy that God seeks," Talbot once said. And constant he was. His discipline was astonishing. He developed a self-styled program of austerity, fasting, and sacrifice, modeling his life on the Irish monks, with their strict attention to penance and humility. Decades before Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), he had created his own program of recovery that relied on surrendering to a Higher Power. It worked. Talbot stayed sober until his death in 1925.

The church began a formal inquiry into his life, and in 1973 Pope Paul VI declared Talbot "venerable," the first step toward canonization. Over the years news of Talbot's life and legacy spread. Today retreat houses and recovery centers bear his name, and a website ( posts favors and recoveries attributed to him.

Church scholars will tell you that there have not been enough confirmed miracles to have this man declared a saint. But others know better. We who have prayed for those who suffer from alcoholism will tell you the miracles Talbot has worked cannot be numbered. They are the miracles of glasses unfilled and bottles unopened. They are the miracles of dry lips and clear eyes, of a steady hand and a resolute heart. For anyone who is an alcoholic, or anyone who loves one, those are the greatest miracles of all.

JUST BEFORE MY FRIEND LEFT FOR THE TREATMENT CENTER, I pressed into his hand a Matt Talbot medal and told him I'd keep him in my prayers. And every morning after that I whispered a prayer to Talbot, asking him to help all those struggling to live without a drink, as he did, one day at a time.

Did it work? A couple of months later, my friend returned home, healthy and happy and sober. He's been that way for more than two years.

I like to think that perhaps he is another of Talbot's miracles: the handiwork of a quiet but committed Irishman who now pours out graces the way he once poured out beer--ordering up another round for anyone who needs it.

GREG KANDRA, writer and story producer for the CBS News program 60 Minutes. He lives and works in New York City.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Claretian Publications

This story is not unique; a search of the internet will show many such stories about the influence of Matt Talbot on people today. (JB)