Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Christian witnesses encourage us to follow the Lord

[Matt Talbot’s example and prayers remind us that every human struggle can be the path to holiness and heroic Christian witness if we hand ourselves over to God.]

Wedged inconspicuously into the corner of his workstation so that only he can see it, a small portrait of Matt Talbot reminds a good friend to take one day at a time and offer God the consistency he desires. The image was given him years ago by his sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellow Catholic who had found in Talbot a good role model and inspiration to maintain sobriety.

Matt Talbot was born in Dublin in 1856 into a life of poverty. By the age of 13, he was addicted to alcohol—hopelessly so, according to those who knew him. Desperate at age 28, he made a pledge of sobriety on his knees. With the help of a priest friend, with whom he began to meet weekly, he established and maintained a disciplined program of recovery and maintained sobriety for 40 years. Many have remarked that the regimen closely foreshadowed the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous developed years after his death.

Talbot’s healing took place through prayer, fasting and joy-filled service to others. He never escaped poverty, partly because he gave so much money away. His sister once said, “Matt had no time for money.” He preferred to remain in the background, silently but faithfully at Mass and private prayer, quietly tending to those in need. “It is consistency God wants,” he is often quoted as saying.

He worked in the timber yards of Dublin and developed a keen sense of his fellow workers’ struggle for justice. A union leader described him as “a beacon of light to Irish workers.” Matt Talbot died June 7, 1925, on the way to Mass. He was declared Venerable in 1973, and Pope John Paul II (who as a young man once wrote a paper about him) described Talbot as a model of hope for those with substance addictions.

My friend faced his own alcoholism as a young husband and father, increasingly aware that the disease was affecting his health and that of his family. He connected with A.A., began to work his program every day and has been sober for many years. Much of his free time is spent helping others remain sober as well.

After a parish meeting a few months ago, one of my sisters was having small talk with her parish priest and a fellow parishioner. The subject arose of asking St. Anthony’s intercession when having lost something. My sister added, “In our family, when we lost something, we always asked Matt Talbot to help us find it.”

I can confirm her recollection. As clear as a bell, I can hear mom say, “Ask Matt Talbot to help you.” Talbot had become a patron of our dad almost 60 years ago, after he had joined A.A., and mom was always grateful for his intercession for all the needs of our family. The night of the parish meeting a few months ago, my sister learned something new about Talbot’s dealings through and beyond our family.

After she told her friends about asking Talbot’s intercession, her fellow parishioner added, “I know. It was your dad who introduced us to Matt Talbot.” Her deceased husband was also in A.A., and soon after he started working the program, some nuns had given him a small portrait of Talbot. “Your dad had given it to the nuns,” she said, adding, “When my husband started sponsoring John Smith in A.A., he gave the picture to him, and he still has it.”

My sister sent me an e-mail that night telling me about her encounter, because she knows that John Smith and I are good friends; I forwarded the e-mail to him. He was amazed to learn that the picture of Matt Talbot wedged into an inconspicuous corner of his office originally belonged to my dad.

But in another sense, he was not amazed at all.

As a Catholic who prays daily and actively lives his faith, as a recovering alcoholic who daily places his sobriety in God’s hands, and as one who has experienced first-hand the communion that is ours with Christian witnesses living and dead, he saw what I told him as another reason to keep moving forward, keep trusting in God’s grace, keep encouraging others, and keep being aware of the “cloud of witnesses” to which the Letter to the Hebrews refers—our sisters and brothers who urge us and encourage us to follow the Lord.

What strikes me about Matt Talbot and the reason the church is considering his cause for sainthood is this: he is a model of Christian life and holiness not because things came easy for him, but precisely because in poverty, addiction, desperation and utter helplessness he gave himself entirely to God; not because he achieved something great, but because he allowed God to achieve something great in him. He could have given up, but instead he gave himself to God. In other words, he is a striking example of what I wrote about last week—that God wants what is best for us and asks that we cooperate with his grace, with what he is lovingly doing for us and in us. The struggle to do so—to let go and let God—can be mighty indeed.

Of the many prayer requests I receive, a significant percentage are for those who suffer addictions of various kinds. Perhaps they fear that somehow they are unworthy of God’s attention, that they have squandered their chance to receive his grace and healing. Matt Talbot’s example and prayers say otherwise and remind us that every human struggle can be the path to holiness and heroic Christian witness if we hand ourselves over to God.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3)

Bishop Sartain
Diocese of Joliet
425 Summit St.
Joliet, IL 60435-7193

SOURCE: http://www.catholicexplorer.com/explore4325/bishop/index~p3.shtml

Note: There are some, if not many, who have a devotion to Matt Talbot and work the Alcoholics Anonymous program of recovery, have a loved one in AA., or pray that Matt will lead the alcoholic to recovery.