Thursday, January 31, 2008

"We knew Matt Talbot"

There are (at least) two references with the same title, We knew Matt Talbot.

We knew Matt Talbot: Visits with his relatives and friends was authored by Albert H. Dolan, author of more than fifty books typically on the saints and Matt Talbot. This 129 page volume was published by The Carmelite Press in 1948 with Nihil obstat and Imprimatur and includes many black and white photos. This collectable is periodically for sale online.

The second, We knew Matt Talbot (without a subtitle) is a 60 minutes documentary that was filmed in 1960 and released in 1964. Its description from Radharc Films in Ireland states, " Many of the people who knew Matt Talbot were still alive in 1960. The house he lived in, the place he worked - many of the streets of Dublin were still the same as in his day. This film is a unique testament of Matt Talbot, and the Dublin that he knew, told by people who lived and worked with him."

We have not found found the full film online, but copies are sometimes listed for sale online. However, seven minutes of the film (and print information) can be viewed at


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Matt Talbot and Alcoholics Anonymous (1948 Booklet)

The Dudley Birr group in Ireland graciously sent us a copy of the 1948 booklet titled, Matt Talbot and Alcoholics Anonymous, published by the Catholic Information Society and includes the Nihil obstat and Imprimatur.

Forty pages in length it focuses on Matt Talbot the man, the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the status of canonization at that time.

If you are interested in reading this booklet online, please send an email to the address in the profile section, and it will be emailed to you.

Please note that an inexpensive print copy in a 1979 revised edition is available from The Matt Talbot Retreat Movement, Inc.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A (Celtic) Saint for Today

In a section titled, "Saints for Today," from his book, The Spirituality of Celtic Saints (2000), Richard J. Woods states that two Irish laymen candidates for sainthood "...whose lives greatly altered the course of spiritual history in the West" are Matt Talbot (and Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary).

To read this section, click this link; then type in Matt Talbot in the search box; then click item 3. for page 175.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Introduction to Celtic Christianity *

by Caedmon Greene

Celtic Christianity was that form of the Christianity held by much of the population of the British Isles from about the end of the fourth century, until some time after the year 1171. Like any church it varied in form, from place to place, and time to time. However there is a constant stream that runs through that identified it as an unique entity. The classic period of Celtic Christianity ran from the fifth through the ninth centuries, in the "traditional" Celtic Lands (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany) on the continent (France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany) and beyond (Iceland, the Farroes, and other North Atlantic islands perhaps in Russia and North America).

Celtic Christianity was characterized by extreme holiness, a love of God and man, wanderlust and the need to bring the light of Christ to the world. Also, many of the issues that the Celtic Christians dealt with are amazingly contemporary, things like the position of women in the Church, nature and our environmental surroundings, and dealing with others of different customs and beliefs (both pagan and Christian). Much of its attraction comes from how it dealt with these problems, taking the best from older traditions while still standing firm in the truth.

Tradition holds that the faith was brought to the British Isles by Joseph of Arimathea and Aristobulus in A.D. 55 (some argue it was as early as A.D. 35) Modern scholarship rejects this, and places the introduction in the middle of the second century. Little is known of the first several centuries, however, Christianity was firmly established in Roman Britain by the time of the council of Arles (314) as two British bishops were in attendance. (There is also a possibility that British bishops were at Nicaea).

The true flowering of Celtic Christianity occurred after the Romans left Britain and they found themselves alone, surrounded by hostile barbarians. This is the time of the great celtic Saints: Patrick, David, Brigid, Columba, Brendan, Columbanus, and many, many others. This period was characterized by great holiness, love of learning and nature. It reached it's peak in the seventh century in the Columban monastic federation of Iona. Its decline began soon after when, in 671, it lost Saxon Northumbria to the Roman observance.

This was by no means the end. Celtic Christianity survived for the next five centuries. Due to many forces, demographic changes, Viking raids and settlement, and the expanding Roman rite; Celtic Christianity slowly retreated. Yet this the period when the Celts reached the pinnacle of their artistic genius; combining mediteranean plaitwork, barbarian zoomorphs, and their own native spiral and key patterns to create metalwork, illuminated manuscripts and stonecarving that amazes us even today. (Some examples include the Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels, the Ardagh Chalice, the Tara brooche and the Linsmore Croizer.)

Throughout the twelfth century, changes were pushed on the Irish system by eccesiastical reformers like Sts Malachi and Lawrence O'Toole. Finally in 1172, after the Anglo-Norman invasion, the Synod of Cashel ended the Celtic system. Even so, Celtic Christianity continued as an undercurrent in Celtic life. For the next four centuries the Culdees, monks of the Celtic tradition, retained some of the old ways as a minority rite. The last documented trace of them was in Armagh in 1628. Even into this century folk piety of the Scottish highlands and islands were strengthened by their Celtic Christian roots.

Source: The Celtic Christian List FAQ

An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality
by Diarmuid O'Laoghaire

We speak of the spirituality of the six Celtic lands before the coming of the Normans (or Anglo-Normans, as in the case of Ireland, who arrived there in 1169), namely, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man. Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man could be regarded as a unit, but we have very little knowledge of the Isle of Man. The other three Brythonic lands can likewise be regarded as a unit within the whole Celtic complex. Of all the countries Ireland is by far the best documented in itself and in its relations with Irish foundations in Scotland and Northumbria. However, in terms of spirituality, most of what we say of Ireland can be applied to all the other Celts. A symbol of that unity could be the Penitentials,1 where we have gathered matter from Ireland, Wales and Brittany. Sometimes, of course, that might mean just copying in Brittany of Irish matter, but that fact alone shows the unity, and in what deeply concerns the progress of the soul.

Ireland, unlike Britain, was never subject to Rome or Roman law. Her first full contact with Rome, then, was through the Christian faith. Saint Patrick, a Roman Briton, is the only known apostle of Ireland,2 although it seems he laboured mostly in the northern half of the country. There were Christians in Ireland before he came, but what evangelizers there were left us nothing in writing, whereas we have two authentic and most precious documents from the fifth-century Patrick. It is doubt ful if any evangelizer left such a lasting imprint on his spiritual children as did Patrick. As we will see, some of his outstanding traits were reproduced in the Irish. So, he speaks many times of being an exile till death for Christian Ireland; his writings abound with quotations and echoes from Scripture, notably from St Paul; in his Confession he speaks of his constantly repeated prayer out in the open, day and night, no matter how harsh the weather, when a slave in Ireland (Conf. 16).

It is a remarkable fact that in less than a hundred years after Patrick the Church in Ireland was not diocesan but monastic, and although obviously not lacking bishops, was governed by abbots of important monasteries — who might also be bishops. So it was also in other Celtic lands, with some variations where Roman influence was greater. Saint Patrick himself tells us how astonished he was at the numbers of the newly-baptized who chose to be monks and virgins of Christ. Presumably unorganized, they were the predecessors of thousands such in monasteries and convents throughout the land.

In these monasteries, prayer, study and manual labour were cultivated with great diligence; and study, above all, meant study of the Scriptures. The psalms were held in the greatest veneration and it is a commonplace in the lives of the saints to read that young children were sent to read their psalms with some holy man. The whole spirituality was deeply scriptural. To this day, we have visible proof of the honour and love lavished on the word of God. In Ireland we have the Book of Kells from the eighth or ninth century, an incomparable shrine of the four Gospels, and the high crosses on which are depicted the history of salvation, all summed up in the cross itself, from Adam and Eve to the death and resurrection of Christ and His second coming. Saint Illtud, the British saint, born perhaps in Brittany, in the fifth century, can be considered typical in his devotion to the Scriptures. We are told of him in the early seventh-century life of that other great saint Samson, who from his native Britain (or Wales) went a pilgrim to Brittany, there to labour with great success. Illtud, we are told, was the most learned of all the Britons in the knowledge of Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments. Another such was Saint Adamnan from the seventh century, successor of Saint Colm Cille (Columba) as abbot in Iona and his biographer. Of him Bede wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People: "He was a good and wise man with an excellent knowledge of the Scriptures" (V.15). Bede, who so loved the Irish, is an important witness to the place Scripture held in Ireland. He tells us of the holy English priest, Egbert, who "had lived long in exile in Ireland for the sake of Christ and was most learned in the Scriptures..." (III.4), and of Agilbert, a Gaulish bishop, "who had spent a long time in Ireland for the purpose of studying the Scriptures" (III.7). Professor Bernhard Bischoff in our own time is showing us the remarkable extent of Irish scriptural studies on the Continent in the early Middle Ages.3

The height of asceticism among the Celts was considered to be exile and perpetual pilgrimage for the sake of Christ. We have just seen how Bede makes use of the phrase. We have no evidence that the Irish monks knowingly imitated Patrick in this. Their exemplar, as in so many things, came from the Scriptures — Abraham, commanded by God to leave his own land and people for the Promised Land. Exile could be imposed as a penalty under the law for crime, and perhaps the thought of penance for sin entered into this Christian exile, but the motive usually given is positive and personal — for the sake of Christ, for the eternal fatherland, etc. It has often been noted that the motive did not seem to be missionary, but ascetic. However, we note that Saint Aidan, as Bede tells us, came from Iona at King Oswald's request to evangelize Northumbria in the early seventh century. Bede, once again, tells us of Saint Fursa that he came from Ireland to East Anglia

to live the life of a pilgrim for the Lord's sake, whenever opportunity offered. When he came... he... followed his usual task of preaching the gospel. Thus he converted many both by the example of his virtues and the persuasiveness of his teaching, turning unbelievers to Christ and confirming believers in his faith and love (III.18).

Saint Columbanus himself, but in a letter written to his disciples in Luxeuil, when he had been expelled from there, says, "It was in my wish to visit the heathen and have the gospel preached to them" (Walker, Sancti Columbani Opera, pp. 30-1). Since the Irish monks at home were used to ministering to the people it would have come naturally to them to do so abroad, nor could they pretend to be pilgrims for Christ if they were to neglect those in need of Christ. Indeed we have a verse from the Rule attributed to Saint Ailbhe:

Their Father is noble God,
their mother is holy Church;
let it not be mouth-humility,
let everyone have pity on his fellow.

Saint Colm Cille was the first great exile for Christ (his biographer, Adamnan, gives us the motive) and is regarded as the exile par excellence. In the many poems attributed to him there is much nostalgia for his homeland. In the early sixteenth-century Life which contains much from Adamnan and much that is legend we have a passage that we may confidently take as representing the mind and heart of those exiles:

When Colm Cille was going into exile to Scotland, Mochonna, this holy child of whom we have spoken, said that he would go with him. "Don't go," said Colm Cille, "but remain with your father and mother in your own country." "You are my father," said Mochonna, "and the Church is my mother, and the place in which I can give most service to God is my country," said he, "and since it is you, Colm Cille, who have bound me to Christ, I will follow you till you bring me to where He is." And then he took the vow of pilgrimage.4

This ascetic desire, and love of God, took the Celts to all kinds of remote isles, even to the Faroes and Iceland, as well as to the nearer offshore islands of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 891 or 892 gives a completely typical example of three Irishmen whom it names, who in utter trust in God put to sea without oars and landed in Cornwall. Within their own lands also remote places were sought out. Hence the place-name "Díseart" in Ireland (where there are more than eighty such) and Scotland, and "Dyserth" in Wales for those desert-places. Of course, there were definite places of pilgrimage, notably Jerusalem and Rome. In fact, the Irish word "rómh" or "ruamh" (from "Roma") became a common noun, meaning a holy burying-ground, and therefore a place of pilgrimage, and we are told of soil being brought from the graves of Peter and Paul and other saints to spread in Irish graveyards.

The faith had been planted in Ireland without martyrdom, although Patrick was ready for it and went daily in danger of his life (Conf. 35, 37, 55). However, we find the ideal of martyrdom expressed, in both Latin and Irish texts, in terms of white, blue and red martyrdom. White martyrdom was the daily living of the ascetic life for Christ's sake; red, of course, meant the shedding of blood and death itself for Christ's sake. Blue martyrdom, which seems to have been a particularly Irish development, stood for the way of the penitent in penance, in bewailing of sins and in labour. Clare Stancliffe recently has argued very well that lay penitents could qualify to rank with the martyrs and monks, leaving an open question whether their penitence was lifelong or for a fixed number of years.5

The principle contraria contrariis sanantur, contraries are cured by their contraries, popularised by John Cassian, was adopted wholeheartedly, first perhaps by the Welsh, and through them the Irish. In the Penitential of Finnian we have the oft-repeated counsel:

But, by contraries... let us make haste to cure contraries and to cleanse away these faults from our hearts and introduce heavenly virtues in their place; patience must arise for wrathfulness; kindliness, or the love of God and of one's neighbour, for envy; for detraction, restraint of heart and tongue; for dejection, spiritual joy; for greed, liberality.6

These Penitentials were for the laity as well, and could be severe enough, and restrictive, for instance in such a thing as marital intercourse. We know that they had a great influence abroad, and if the Irish did not introduce private penance there, at least they greatly extended its use, and after Saint Columbanus it seems to have become the norm. No doubt the practice of anamchairdeas, spiritual direction, literally "soul-friendship", excercised by the anamchara or "soul-friend" — also for lay people — was a great help towards fervour of life and the promotion of private penance and confession. "Colainn gan cheann duine gan anamchara" (a person without a soul-friend is a body without a head) was a very telling and common maxim. Here it is right to note the constant stress on purity of heart. A tonsured head, went an ancient verse, is not pleasing to God unless the heart, too, be tonsured. The Penitentials and the monastic Rules consistently deal with that issue, as we have just seen, for example, in Finnian's words. So Gildas in the Preface on Penance attributed to him tells the repentant cleric to "at all times deplore his guilt from his inmost heart".7

The practice of soul-friendship is of a piece with the general attitude towards the spiritual and monastic life. Allowance was always made for the individual. Even in the same monastery and under the same Rule the Holy Spirit must be allowed to lead as He wills. In the Rule of Mochuda we read: "Different is the condition of everyone, different the nature of the place, different the law by which food is diminished or increased".8 The austere Columbanus himself stresses that principle. He speaks of the choir office: "Although the length of time standing or singing may be various, yet the identity of prayer in the heart and mental concentration that is unceasing with God's help will be of a single excellence".9 We are reminded of the famous ninth-century quatrain, composed perhaps by a disillusioned pilgrim: "Techt do Róim..."

To come to Rome:
much labour, little profit —
the King you seek here
you will not find him unless you bring him with you.

One rightly associates corporal austerity with Celtic spirituality. It is summed up in the rather muddled life of Saint (or Saints) Padarn, where we read that his father came to Ireland there to spend his life in watching and fasting, praying day and night with genuflexions [prostrations]. Bede, in a number of places in his History, speaks with admiration of the ascetic life led by the Irish monks, especially Aidan, in his own Northumbria. In addition to the ordinary season of Lent, the Lent of Jesus, as they called it, the Irish also observed the Lent of Elias in winter and that of Moses after Pentecost. We note again the love of Scripture and of the holy ones of the Old Testament, who were also celebrated liturgically. The body was made to offer its meed of praise to God. The crosfhigheall or cross-vigil, praying with outstretched arms for long periods, was very popular. When we read that a bird came and nested in the outstretched hands of a saint, we may perhaps conclude that such a mystical state was not unknown. As regards genuflexions [prostrations], to which we may add frequent signs of the cross, it was not uncommon to see such in our own time in churches and pilgrimages. Praying the psalms in ice-cold water is mentioned so often that, as Dr Bieler has said, it may well have been an ascetic practice. In all such austerities we find the motive to be the love of God, and we cannot exclude what is called the folly of the cross. The ancient penitential pilgrimage to Loch Dearg with its three-day fast is still very much alive, as well as the pilgrimage to Cruach Phádraig, the mountain of penance traditionally associated, as is Loch Dearg, with St Patrick. In the ancient tradition also were the penitential practices in our day of Father Willie Doyle and the holy layman, Matt Talbot.

We have a large body of prayer, both in Irish and Latin, and mostly in verse. There are quite a number of very heartfelt and prolix prayers of repentance in Latin, as well as prayers in Irish in disciplined verse. There are also litanies to which the Irish were very given. There was no objection to repetitious prayer. A feature of prayer in general is that so much of it is loosely litanic in form. The lorica or breastplate prayer, such as the well-known ninth-century Breastplate of St Patrick, was very popular. The lorica may well have been pagan in origin, as a charm against natural phenomena and evil spirits, but as a Christian prayer it has also the interior and Christian dimension. These prayers convey a sense of completeness, for example, in enumerating the members of the body, external circumstances, all the various groups of the heavenly and earthly Church, represented by the outstanding saints. Everything, external and internal, was to be under the sway of God. Here is one of the loricae, that of St Fursa, the language of which dates from about the ninth century:

May the yoke of the Law of God be upon this shoulder,
the coming of the Holy Spirit on this head,
the sign of Christ on this forehead,
the hearing of the Holy Spirit in these ears,
the smelling of the Holy Spirit in this nose,
the vision that the people of heaven have in these eyes,
the speech of the people of heaven in this mouth,
the work of the Church of God in these hands,
the good of God and of the neighbour in these feet.
May God dwell in this heart
and this person belong entirely to God the Father!

The Last Judgement is prominent in Celtic, and especially (there are more documents) in Irish spirituality, but I think some authors err when they speak of it, and of an avenging God, as being dominent features.10 The intimate and human side of that spirituality (which are still characteristic of it) must be stressed. About the mid-seventh century arose the reforming movement of the Céili Dé (Servants of God) which sought to revitalise the ancient asceticism. That movement, which fostered the eremetical life, and which might to some extent be called today "puritanical", produced the most beautiful of lyrical and nature poetry and other works of religious art. Many of the lyrics are actually prayers. The purity of vision and language in that poetry is as if their great detachment from created things had helped the poets to share in the Creator's own vision of His creation.

The poems of Blathmac (c. 750)11 in honour of our Lady and her Son show a great tenderness and humanity. The poet asks Mary to come to him that he might lament with her the death of her beautiful Son. He speaks of consoling her heart. The poet tells that when our Lord after His death returned to heaven and "when the household of heaven welcomed their true heart, Mary, your beautiful Son broke into tears in their presence". Not till almost half a millennium later, when the humanity of the suffering Christ came to be stressed, do we come across such tender language in this part of Christendom. In another well-known poem (c. 800) God Himself is addressed as "mu chridecán", my little heart.12 Again, there is the poem in which St Íde welcomes to her little hermitage "Ísucán", the Infant Jesus (c. 900).13 The poem is full of diminutives such as a mother would use with her child, one of the verbs even being in a completely untranslatable diminutive form! (It would be pleasant, if we had space, to recount some of the whimsical stories that show so long before St Francis himself what intimate relations the saints had with the animals.)

So then, although we find many prayers to the Trinity and much stress on the majesty of God (cf. Columbanus, but also note how he speaks of Christ and also what we might term his warm, mystical passages), all that is well balanced by constant reference to the humanity of Christ. He is "Ri" (King), certainly, as is His Father, but in the Irish sense of the term, where the king in each of the hundred or so statelets (tuatha) was one of his people and in their midst, and closely related to not a few of them. In modern traditional prayers "Ri" is still the commonest of terms in addressing Christ or His Father. This aspect of Christ is completed, as it were, in the very corporate (which does not exclude the individual) Christianity of the old Irish. In particular, I suppose the institution of the tuath, with the great stress on kindred, was a help towards realizing the Church as the Body of Christ (Christ himself has always been referred to as "Mac Mhuire", the Son of Mary, or anciently in Welsh also, "Mab Mair"). Very significant is the word muintir, meaning "family" and derived from the Latin monasterium. The monastery fitted splendidly into the close-knit native society. The derived adjective, muinteartha, means "friendly, intimate, affectionate" — "familiar" (in the radical and best sense). Hence, when it came to hospitality and almsgiving, not to mention other ways of doing "the good of God and the neighbour", it is not surprising to see the famous passage in Matthew 25 so often repeated.


1. Cf. Bieler, The Irish Penitentials.

2. There was Palladius, of course, but all we know of him is that he was sent "to the Irish who believed in Christ" (Prosper of Aquitaine).

3. Cf. "Turning Points in the history of Latin exegesis in the Early Middle Ages."

4. O'Kelleher-Schoepperle, Betha Colaim Chille, p. 136.

5. Stancliffe, C., "Red, white and blue martyrdom," in Ireland in Early Mediaeval Europe. Studies in memory of Kathleen Hughes, ed. David Dumville (CUP, 1982), pp. 21-46. Also relevant is Pádraig P. Ó Néill, "Background to the Cambrai Homily," in Ériu (Dublin, 1981), pp. 137-148.

6. Bieler, op. cit., p. 85.

7. Ib., p. 61.

8. Quoted in Hughes, The Church in Early Irish Society, p. 183.

9. Walker, op. cit., pp. 132-3.

10. E.g. Godel, op. cit.

11. Ed. Carney.

12. Murphy, Early Irish Lyrics, pp. 112-13.

13. Ib., pp. 26-7.

This article appears as a chapter in The Study of Spirituality, Eds. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold. Oxford University Press: 1986.


* This article provides some background of historical influences on Matt and practices he adopted. (JB)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The God-Shaped Hole in the Human Soul

January 2006

Glenn F. Chesnut*

Photo by my good friend Fiona Dodd from County Mayo

Metaphors as signposts of the spirit

Ancient marker stones in Ireland pointing our eyes to the place
where the sunlight of the spirit breaks out over the peak of the dark hill
and illumines our lives with the promise of new life and hope.

The idea of a "God-shaped hole" in the human heart, a terrifying bottomless abyss opening up inside us which we would do anything to fill, is a famous modern metaphor for the yearning in the human soul which drives us on our spiritual quest. This is a modern paraphrase of something the famous philosopher and mathematician Pascal (1623-1662) wrote in his Pensees (10.148):1

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

When Pascal wrote this, he was probably thinking, in part, of a famous passage at the beginning of Augustine's Confessions (1.1.1), where the great African saint said to God, "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are rest-less till they find their rest in you." And Augustine went on to say that he wanted to ask God to come and dwell in him, but that he was not sure what it was that he was actually asking for when he prayed to God in that fashion (1.2.2):2

What place is there in me to which my God can come, what place that can receive the God who made heaven and earth? Does this mean, O Lord my God, that there is in me something fit to contain you? ... Or, since nothing that exists could exist without you, does this mean that whatever exists does, in this sense, contain you? If this is so, since I too exist, why do I ask you to come into me? For I should not be there at all unless, in this way, you were already present within me.

Augustine raises an interesting question. Since God is everywhere at all times and all places, what could it mean to ask him to come into my heart and still my tormenting, restless discontent, since in some way God must already be there? I could not exist at all unless God's power was already there holding me in existence.

For when we speak of God as the Creator (the ground of being), we do not mean to refer only to that event at the beginning of time when God first brought this universe into existence. Modern physicists call that event "the Big Bang," when space and time, and all the energy and matter in the universe came into existence all at once, out of that mysterious reality which was there before, but which our mathematical equations cannot describe.3 But God, this mysterious reality which is the eternal ground of all existence, was there for infinite times before the Big Bang, and continues to be there after the Big Bang, as that upon which the existence of everything else depends, such that if God were not there underneath at all times, the universe and everything in it would instantly blink out of existence on the spot.

I am held in existence by God, in a universe where God�s power and glory are everywhere, both inside me and outside me, so that God is always already here.

And yet Augustine knows that the prayer which he is praying is the right one. He knows that what he longs for more than anything else is (1.5.5) "the gift of your coming into my heart and filling it to the brim, so that I may forget all the wrong that I have done and embrace you alone, my only source of good." So he prays (1.5.6):

The house of my soul is too small for you to come in to me; let it be enlarged by you. It is in ruins, but I ask you to remake it. It contains much that you will not be pleased to see; this I confess to you and do not hide it.

I do not quarrel with you about your judgments, for you are Truth Itself; and I have not wished to be dishonest with myself, or it would be my wrongdoing lying to itself.

And in that last sentence, we see the partial answer to his question, in a theme which recurs over and over in the Confessions. We encounter God above all as Truth Itself, as that moment of insight in which God's grace opens our eyes to some important truth about ourselves and God and the world, which enables our souls to be healed and our lives remade in finer and better form.4

So what I am actually praying for, is for God in his grace to open my eyes so that I can become aware of his presence. Developing a real God-consciousness in my heart and mind is the way that I will find rest and peace. In fact God was already here with me and always was with me -- but I was not consciously aware of it. The way my restless heart finds rest and peace from its troubles and torments is to become aware of the great central Truth which is the most important truth of all: God's light and grace and eternal holy presence is here with me. He is right here within my heart, where my knowledge of his presence will give me all the strength I need to deal with anything. And he is also everywhere outside me, where I can see his eternal glory shining all around me, which means that I can let go and let him take care of me and everything else that is driving me to desperation.

Pascal made an interesting comment about this longing for God in the passage which we quoted above: "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?" This seems an odd sort of thing to say, for most modern people. What is going on here? We are probably seeing an echo of an important spiritual tradition which went back even earlier than Augustine. It was presented in one of its classic formulations in the form of a "Platonic myth" created by the great third-century Christian theologian Origen.5 This author was an Egyptian; his name means Horus Born, that is, child of the hawk-headed Egyptian god Horus. A Platonic myth means a symbolic and metaphorical tale like the ones which Plato loved to tell in order to make important points, like the Myth of Er and the Parable of the Cave in his Republic. These were stories which you certainly could not take literally. But if you thought carefully about what these tales was saying, you could get a grasp of something of upmost importance about the nature of life and the world.6

In Origen's myth, at the beginning of all things, long before the creation of this present physical universe, God created a number of spirits. They spent their lives in the heavenly realm, with their eyes turned continually toward the vision of the glory of the sacred divine presence, so that they dwelt continually in the sunlight of the spirit.

But then some of these spirits began to rebel and turn away from the Vision of God,7 and finally there was war in heaven. When the battle was over, those spirits who had sinned the most were turned by God into demons and cast down into hell, where the fallen angel Lucifer ruled over them. Those spirits who had sided with God for the most part, although not perfectly, were allowed to become angels, and were allowed to continue to dwell in the heavenly realms.

Origen said that for those spirits who had sinned too much to become angels, but had not sinned enough to become demons, God created the present physical universe as a kind of reform school, and sent their spirits down to the planet Earth to live, where hopefully they would learn how to reform their ways. That is what we human beings are -- immortal spirits imprisoned within material corruptible bodies -- spirits who were not malicious and evil enough to have become genuine devils in their previous existence, but who fell far short of acting like angels.

We cannot usually truly remember much about our previous heavenly existence, during the period before we were born into our present material bodies here on earth. But like a dream which we can halfway recall the next day, as Pascal put it, "what else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in human beings a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace?" Somehow we halfway remember that our lives should not be racked with such resentment and fear, and that somehow or other we have lost something which we used to have, or ought to have. And that which we have lost is of course the Vision of God which we once enjoyed before the great war in heaven arose and we turned away from that awareness of God's presence, and shut our eyes to the sunlight of the spirit.

In Origen's myth, there was only one totally unfallen spirit, only one of God's beloved children, who did not turn away from him in the slightest, and kept his eyes locked continually upon the Vision of God. This spirit lived continually with a perfect God-consciousness, always retaining an awareness of the divine presence. Since Origen was a Christian, he said that this one unfallen spirit was the human soul of Jesus Christ. Christ was appointed by God to serve as the God-bearer, and sent down to Earth, where he was clothed in a physical body just like the poor human beings living down there in prison, to show those human beings the way back to the Vision of God which would save them and allow them to return at death to that heavenly home from which they had been exiled.

Origen was one of the most influential teachers of early Christianity, as influential in Eastern Orthodox Christianity as Augustine was in western Roman Catholic and later Protestant Christianity, but he was not always the most orthodox of theologians! One can see a number of Egyptian-style gnostic elements intermixed in his thoughts.8

The gnostics believed in a doctrine of the transmigration of souls, an idea which they had borrowed from Greek philosophy, from the Platonists and Pythagoreans.9 Origen likewise believed in a sort of transmigration of souls, where our spirits would go at death to the realm most appropriate to the amount of spiritual growth (or the reverse) which we had accomplished. We could end up in our next life down in hell with the demons, or up in heaven with the angels, or back here on earth again for another try at reforming us.

But since the power of God's love, Origen believed, was so great that nothing eventually could withstand its healing power, by the end of time, all of God's creatures would eventually be saved in what he called the consummation of all things (the apokatastasis pantôn, see Acts 3:21), when even Lucifer himself would once more be restored to his original role. For Lucifer means Light Bearer, and he had once been second only to Jesus Christ himself in the heavenly realm. At the end of time, even he, the chief of the demons, would once more wear a snowy robe, and be the loving bearer of enlightenment instead of the hate-filled Prince of Darkness.

In the modern world, Dostoyevski refers to this part of the story -- the ultimate salvation of Satan at the consummation of all things -- in The Brothers Karamazov, for the Russian novelist took that part of the Origenist myth quite seriously. No one -- not even the Prince of Darkness -- will be condemned to hell forever, and at the end of time, God will be all in all, and the Kingdom of Peace and Love will once more be home to all of God's beloved children. No one will be left out, and God will wipe away every tear.

So the modern metaphor of the God-shaped hole in the middle of the human soul had a long prehistory, which went back to some of the most formative thinkers of the ancient world. How can we "demythologize" or "deconstruct" this ancient tale, and put it in modern language?

Augustine helps point us in the right direction. Where is the preexistent world of the Platonic myths, the world where our souls lived before they were incarnated in our present mode of life? In the memory banks of our brains, Augustine said, particularly in those parts of the mind where the most deeply buried memories are stored, which we call the subconscious. That is what the mythical language was actually symbolizing, he believed, when it spoke of a lost transcendent world of mystery and awareness of the primordial truths.

We have to go back into the land of memory to find the truth. When Ebby visited Bill Wilson in his kitchen, Bill at first tried to counter what Ebby was telling him about the spiritual awakening which had freed him from alcohol, by reciting all his own most skeptical and cynical antireligious arguments. But in spite of himself, Bill was plunged into a trip back into long forgotten memories of encounters he had had with the spiritual dimension of reality, both as a child and as a young man, which he had regarded as unimportant and irrelevant at the time (Big Book pp. 10 and 12-13). And above all he remembered his awareness of the sacred and of the divine presence which he had felt when he entered Winchester Cathedral as a young military officer during the First World War. That turned out to be the key buried memory. To make sure that his readers realized how important it was, Bill Wilson introduced that motif on the very first page of the Big Book, at the very beginning of the story.

But that was linked to additional memories, where Bill also remembered "the sound of the preacher's voice" as he sat as a child on a hillside at a great distance from the little New England Protestant church where he lived. This trip into the past was a journey back into feelings, not words and theories, because he could not make out the actual words themselves which the preacher was speaking, nor was he thinking about the preacher's theological theories and the doctrines he was expounding. What the little boy was aware of however was that the man in the church was talking about things which he recognized to be sacred things.

Bill remember his grandfather too, a man for whom he had great honor and respect, who showed him that the awe and wonder that you felt when you gazed up into the starry heavens at night was equally much a feeling of the sacred, and an experience of the sacred, his grandfather reminded him, where the preacher in the church could not tell you what you were supposed to believe about it.

The ancient theologian Origen was a Christian, so his way of explaining things could only have one true God-bearer, and that one had to be sinless and perfect. From the very beginning, the early AA people discovered however that the Father of Light sends us many God-bearers, all of them vessels of clay, and many of them very far indeed from being perfect. God had used even poor Ebby, who never could stay sober for very long, as the God-bearer whose job was to open Bill Wilson's eyes at the beginning. Bill's grandfather had been a God-bearer too, and even though Bill had not realized this as a child, the memory of his grandfather was finally allowed to speak (in his long dead grandfather's behalf) another vital part of the message God needed to communicate to Bill.

We all have memories somewhere of a few encounters at the very least with a sacred realm, where we got at least a tiny touch of awe and wonder, and also somehow a fleeting taste of peace and reassurance. This is where the Truth lies, the moment of insight which Augustine said could bring God into the little house of my soul as a conscious presence, repairing the broken plaster and leaky roof, and scrubbing the floors, and expanding and enlarging the dark and filthy little hovel in which I had been living, until it became a mighty mansion shining from every window with the light of the divine presence within.

The God-shaped hole in the human heart is in fact an infinite and terrifying abyss, Pascal said, which I try to cover over with all sorts of false facades. But then a crack appears in the facade, and I see through it the well of eternal nothingness plunging down forever, and I hurl myself back in total horror. Only that which is infinite and completely transcendent, Pascal said, could fill such an abyss.

Can I pour alcohol through the crack in the facade and fill the primordial abyss of nonbeing and remove the unbearable terror? This does not work for very long. Sigmund Freud said in Civilization and Its Discontents that no mood-altering chemicals ultimately perform this job satisfactorily. For a while Freud thought that cocaine could safely do this, and had to learn the hard way, through his own personal experience, that in the long run it worked no better than alcohol.

Can I fill the primordial abyss with the adrenaline surge of gambling or other thrill seeking, or the trance-like state of the sex addict searching for his or her next release? This does not work for very long either, and likewise leads us down a path of personal destruction. I cannot fill the void which looms below with compulsive caretaking and rescuing, or by fanatically following rigid religious rules. I cannot fill the hole with food, or compulsive spending.

I cannot cover over the abyss forever by intellectualizing everything and trying to think "logically" and "scientifically" at all times, and denying that the infinite void is even there at all, for this is also a flight into fantasy. Beware of people who talk too much about being "realists," for they are the ones whose fantasies are the most naive of all! I have seen this kind of attempt to paper over the abyss be ripped to shreds too many times. The antireligious psychologist suddenly discovers that he has fatal liver cancer. The skeptical philosopher's wife suddenly announces that she is filing for divorce and taking the children and the house (and everything else) with her. The cynical historian's child is run over and killed in an automobile accident. The rationalistic physicist suddenly realizes that the government is using his discoveries to build bombs which are poised in missiles and aircraft and submarines all over the globe, and that one false move in a quarrel currently going on over a small island or a tiny peninsula is at the point of precipitating decisions which will kill all or most of the entire human race.

We cannot ultimately flee from the vision of this abyss of nothingness, or paper it over, or fill it up with food or alcohol or drugs, or keep ourselves perpetually so busy and preoccupied that we will never have to look down into it.

There is something however which can in fact fill the infinite void and turn it into a realm of light, and it is already there, and the knowledge of it is already in our memories -- but it is buried away so deep, that we have forgotten what it is, so that "all that now remains" at the conscious level, Pascal said, "is the empty print and trace." It is but the ghost of a memory which therefore gives us no peace, but only haunts us with the dim awareness that our lives somehow should not be sunk in this horrible anxiety and misery. Ironically, we come to fear this ghost memory of the light which would save us, just as much as we fear the abyss of darkness which opens up beneath us.

We can try to use the same tricks to chase away this ghost, which we tried to use to veil our view of the abyss which yawns below: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, caretaking and rescuing, eating, spending, throwing ourselves into fanatical religion-oholism, or allowing ourselves to be possessed by the control neurosis of the intellectualizers and rationalizers who believe that if we can just come up with the right "scientific" theories we can keep the ghost out of our bedrooms at night.

But the ghost of the God of whose presence my subconscious is already aware still comes back to haunt me, just as the facade I try to erect over the abyss of nothingness keeps on developing cracks in it. I fall into denial and fleeing, and spend half of my time trying to pretend that the infinite hole in my soul is not there, and the other half of the time trying to pretend that the God whose light and comfort would fill that hole does not exist either.

In the ancient world, human beings were often described as beings who had what we would call today the souls of angels and the bodies of monkeys. But the angel and the monkey have to learn how to respect one another and care for one another and love one another, if we are going to have a healthy spirituality. We will just make ourselves miserable and accomplish nothing worthwhile if the monkey tries to pretend that the angel is only an illusion, or if the angel believes that it will become more "spiritual" by grossly mistreating the monkey.

For most of the past two thousand years, the western world has tended to fall more often into the latter misunderstanding of spirituality. In century after century, people were praised for doing insane things in the name of religion. Those terrible French "saints" from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, like Madame Guyon for example, who contracted smallpox and then deliberately spread the infected areas to her face so that she could destroy her beauty with dreadful scars, along with the religious fanatics who wore haircloth undergarments and chains around their waists and slept on the stone floors of churches,10 were praised as great religious heroes who attained the greatest heights of spirituality by punishing their poor bodies in every way they could imagine, but were in fact people obsessed with a neurotic and perverted self-hatred.

The angel and the monkey are both important, each in its own way, and both have their rights. Good parents do not praise their children for deliberately pulling out their hair or cutting themselves with knives -- we regard children like that as deeply disturbed and send them to psychiatrists -- so how could a good and loving God take delight in that kind of mental disorder?

Can alcoholism be arrested through continual punishment of the body? The Irishman Matt Talbot sometimes held up as an example. He was an alcoholic who had been destroying himself through drink, and he had been doing it for years, not caring that he was killing himself. But then he had something like a conversion experience, and was able to stop his drinking by fasting every day, sleeping on a plank, allowing himself only four or five hours sleep a night, and engaging in other austerities. He went to mass every morning before going to work as a laborer in a lumber yard, and spent half of every Sunday in church. When he dropped dead on a Dublin street in 1925, they found three chains embedded in his flesh: one wrapped around his waist, another around an arm, and the third around one leg. He died sober, but this looks very much like simply the substitution of one kind of self-hatred by another.

This is the dark side of ancient gnosticism, which was supposedly suppressed within the Christian church by the fourth century, but which simply went underground at that point, and has continued to crop out in Christian practice over and over again through all the succeeding centuries. Gnosticism tells us that if the spiritual world is good, and the material world is evil, then the path to salvation necessarily entails denying and punishing our bodies and fleeing from any kind of pleasure of any sort, while simultaneously deliberately inflicting pain on ourselves. We dare not sleep in a bed that does not make our bones ache, we become afraid to eat even simple food unless its taste is unpleasant, and we work continually to take every single bit of joy and delight out of our lives, all in the name of "spirituality." For our bodies and our pleasures are all part of the material world, which gnosticism has defined as the ultimate evil.

In a good spirituality, the angel cannot be allowed to do that to the monkey, because an angel who does that sort of thing to any living creature -- taking a sick pleasure out of keeping it in continual pain -- is no longer an angel but a demon.

In a healthy spirituality, some sort of balance must be maintained between our spiritual needs and our physical needs. That is the principle which structures both the Rule of St. Benedict and the chapter on the Fourth Step in Bill Wilson's Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Corresponding to those two levels of human cares and concerns, it was believed in the ancient world that there were two different dimensions of being, the sacred and the profane.11 Up above lies the realm of the transcendent, and down below lies the realm of physical nature. By "profane" we do not mean that which is obscene or sacrilegious, but that which is pro fanum. The fanum in ancient Latin meant the place consecrated to a god, including both the temple and the land around it. When you stand inside the boundaries of the fanum, you are standing on holy ground. That which is pro fanum on the other hand, is that which is situated in the ordinary world lying outside the fence or wall which guards the consecrated grounds.

Some beings are constructed in such a way that they are able to dwell continually in the transcendent world. Jews, Christians, and Muslims call these beings angels. Ancient pagan Greeks and Romans called them gods. Other beings are constructed in such a way that they can live only within the realm of the physical and material world: earthworms, trout, frogs, trees, and so on. They do not feel this as a hardship, because they cannot even imagine any higher kind of existence.

Human beings are constructed however in a way where they live partly in one of these realms and partly in the other. This is an extremely difficult kind of existence. The ancient Christian texts say that those human beings who truly work out how to live in both of those worlds satisfactorily will find, when they go to the eternal realm, that the angels will be falling down before them and singing songs of praise, and that these highest human souls will be regarded in heaven as superior in rank even to the greatest of the angels. That is how difficult the human task is.

St. Thomas Aquinas12 in the thirteenth century attempted to deal with the twofold nature of human existence by following the principle that "grace does not destroy nature but perfects it." So when he talked about human psychology, he accepted the fact that there was a natural realm where one could discuss psychological problems (and how to heal them) without bringing in any sort of spiritual issues. The four natural virtues gave us a description of a psychologically healthy person in totally secular terms.

Prudence referred to learning how to think before we spoke or acted, instead of just lashing out with our first impulse. It dealt with learning greater ego control, and learning to become aware that our actions always had consequences.

Temperance referred to learning how to tolerate the ordinary discomforts of life, and learning about delayed gratification. Trying to operate continually on the childish principle of "I want what I want and I want it now" was a recipe for disaster. Both in the family and on the job, I had to learn that there were some tasks I had to do which were hard work and sometimes unpleasant, and I had to learn how to compromise on some of my desires.

Fortitude referred to learning how to stand up for myself, for I need to learn how to set proper boundaries and act assertively to protect myself against people who are attempting to transgress those boundaries. Fortitude was linked to building up both my self-esteem and my basic survival instinct. In cases of "fight or flight," my best hope of survival sometimes lay in summoning the courage to fight.

Justice referred to learning certain fundamental principles of fair play in my dealings with other human beings. Marriage counselors spend a lot of their time trying to teach husbands and wives to play fair with one another, and to respect the fact that my spouse also has rights.

In addition to these four secular virtues, Aquinas said, there were also three spiritual virtues: faith, hope, and love. Working on the principle that "grace does not destroy nature but perfects it," he made it clear that even the most deeply spiritual people still had to practice prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Even if their hearts were overflowing with the gifts of grace, they still had to think before acting, and tolerate necessary discomforts and delayed gratification, and stand up for themselves and set boundaries, and play fair. And on the other side, grace certainly does not allow people to lie, cheat, steal, be cowardly, complain about everything that does not go their way, scream at other people, and wallow in neurotic fantasy.

Grace -- which gave us faith, hope, and love -- did not destroy our natural instincts and virtues, but added "something extra" to our lives, that made them even better and more satisfying.

Faith meant learning to trust the fundamental goodness of reality, which has its own kind of innate goodness, because coming to know the truth about my life and the universe (no matter how frightening it seems at first) will ultimately be healing for me. Faith meant learning the kind of existential courage which allows me to look down into the infinite abyss which Pascal talked about, without fleeing into denial and escapism. It meant developing the bravery to venture into the unknown. Psychotherapy will not work without that kind of faith.

Hope meant a willingness to look beyond the torn and tattered shape of my life at present, and see the possibility of healing and the restoration of wholeness. It meant learning that there are situations which look hopeless, which can nevertheless be changed in ways that will bring new life. Psychotherapy will not work until despair can be replaced with that kind of hope.

Love meant developing something worthwhile to desire and want and care about. The desire to flee from pain may drive me into psychotherapy, but I will not start getting well until I recover some of my ability to lieben und arbeiten (to use Freud's words), the ability "to love and work." That means the capacity to form intimate and caring human relations, and it also means that I must develop things I can do where I can feel that my life is useful, or at least satisfying and worthwhile. That is the ultimate goal of good psychotherapy.

Now the very best secular psychotherapists always "cheat" as it were, because although they claim that they are only practicing a secular variety of psychotherapy, they understand the importance of the spiritual values of faith, hope, and love, and so they in fact try to teach their patients how to live life in that higher kind of way. But these are actually not secular values, and they cannot be "proved" to exist by scientific reasoning, so in fact this is no longer a truly secular psychotherapy any longer. So why do the very best therapists do it anyway? Because they are good men and women, who know that these spiritual values "perfect" our secular lives by bringing them to their highest possibilities.

The very best secular psychotherapy smuggles the spiritual element in surreptitiously, and thereby gives patients a little bit more than they would have had otherwise. What the founders of the twelve step movement discovered was that when we come out totally in the open about this spiritual dimension, even more psychological healing takes place, and it takes place far more quickly and easily.

It is an inescapable fact that, for human beings to feel that their lives are truly satisfying and worthwhile, they are going to have to develop faith, hope, and love in the sense described above. Admitting openly that this is what we are doing is the easiest and best way to do this, for there are techniques of prayer and meditation which do more to help growth in this area of human life than anything else we can do. And there really is no way to tell people to take up prayer and meditation without admitting that we are teaching them about spirituality!

Let me try a metaphor of my own to perhaps illustrate a little more clearly, the twofold nature of human life, a metaphor which describes in a slightly different way both the human problem and its solution. Let us imagine a bird with a broken wing. There are two kinds of therapy we could practice on this wounded bird. We could try to teach the bird how to live as successfully as possible on the ground. Or we could heal the bird's wing and teach it to fly again.

One kind of secular psychology attempts to treat the bird with the broken wing by teaching it strategies for foraging around on the ground for fallen seeds, and coping as best it can with an earthbound life. Even in Alcoholics Anonymous, regretfully enough, one can find members who have gone years without a drink, but who are still crippled spiritually. When you see someone with ten or twenty or more years in the program, who is still going around angry all the time, and starting continual fights and arguments, and bullying people -- or someone who collapses into depression and despair and feelings of total worthlessness on a frequent basis -- we are dealing with someone who has refused to carry out the full spiritual work of the program.

We can even imagine groups of birds with broken wings, gathering together and gazing up into the sky at the birds who are flying around freely and joyfully, and criticizing them as dreamers and fools and people who refuse to think scientifically and take responsibility, and as people who are just "fleeing from reality." There is however always a bitterness of some sort in the wounded birds who form these little groups of naysayers, because as Pascal said, "there was once in them a true happiness," even if "all that now remains is the empty print and trace" of a buried memory of the time, back in the forgotten past, when they too knew how to fly.

A good twelve step program takes wounded birds and uses a totally different kind of therapy on them. It heals their broken wings and teaches them to fly again. Once these little birds learn how to soar through the heavens again, it is only rarely that any are driven back to alcohol or drugs.

Chemical substances like alcohol and drugs (including the psychoactive medications used by psychiatrists) can make us feel as though we were flying. But real flying is always better than pretend flying. Taking a drug which makes me feel as though I were coping with the problems of my life effectively, does no great amount of good in the long run unless I am given help in learning how to actually cope with the problems of my life effectively. Antidepressants and antipsychotics and other medications of this sort can be life savers, but if at all possible, they should be combined with the kind of therapy which teaches us better ways of dealing with life.

I am well aware that with some mental patients, all we can do is medicate them, just as with some medical patients, all we can do is give them pain killers until they finally die. But I am talking here about what our goal should be in situations where we can do more than simply dope people up.

If we can teach the wounded bird to fly again, even just a little bit, this is the most precious gift we can give that injured creature. If we can take people in the twelve step program and teach them even just a little bit about real spirituality, it will enormously help all their other psychological symptoms.

In A.A. meetings in northern Indiana in the old days, the members sometimes referred to non-members as the "earth people." There was a bit of self-deprecating humor in that little phrase. Alcoholics, even after years in recovery, react so differently to the world around them, that they sometimes have trouble even beginning to comprehend the cares and worries and logic of the non-alcoholics among whom they live. They often feel like aliens from outer space, dumped down on a planet called Earth, where the local inhabitants have customs and thought processes which are so totally incomprehensible, that they often feel lost and totally out of touch with what is going on. So they laugh, because there is nothing they can do about this, and because they realize that even people who feel like space aliens can learn to have a good time and enjoy their lives.

But there was a deeper level of meaning to that little phrase, which was not humorous at all. Some of these other people, the "earth people" who acted in such strange ways, were what the ancient world called the chthonic race, those who were locked to the earth and could never rise above it. The spiritual masters of the twelve step program were, in contrast, the "people of heaven," those who could live and move freely in the transcendent realm.

There are those who brag that they "have no God-shaped hole in the middle of their souls," thank you very much, and regard any talk of spiritual awareness as fantasy and self-delusion. This raises the interesting question of whether these unfortunates are "earth people" in the ultimate and irredeemable sense. Some of the ancient gnostics of the second and third century said that there were such pitiful souls, which were doomed to remain forever enchained in the cycle of birth and rebirth. John Calvin likewise in the sixteenth century believed that there were those who were predestined to live forever locked out of the kingdom of light. Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century also made a clear distinction between those human beings who had the existential courage to gaze into the abyss of nonbeing (who could therefore learn to take responsibility for their own lives and live authentically), and those who had no more higher spiritual awareness than sheep or cattle.

Bill Wilson in the twentieth century similarly declared that there were those who could not follow the twelve step path to higher spiritual awakening, and he stated it in predestinarian language: they could never do it, and there was nothing anyone could do to help them, because "they seem to have been born that way." But he gave an interesting twist to this old idea, because he did not say that it was because their minds were too dense or because they were in fact lacking in the ability to be aware of spiritual realities or because God refused to send them grace, but because they were "constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves."13 This is a good Augustinian approach, for we remember how Augustine referred to God as "Truth Itself" in that passage in the Confessions which we quoted above, and then went on to say, "I have not wished to be dishonest with myself, or it would be my wrongdoing lying to itself." In other words, both Augustine and Bill W. were talking about what Jean Paul Sartre called mauvaise foi, the kind of self-deception in which my lies lie even to themselves.

There are some "earth people," Bill W. said, who would never find spiritual enlightenment because their lives were a tissue of alibis and excuses and refusal to face the reality of their own existences, and their thought processes were an endless series of tricks and rationalizations to "explain away" every instance in which a tiny ray of the sunlight of the spirit attempted to shine into the darkness of their hearts.

The spiritual masters of the twelve steps were, in contrast to these doomed souls, the "people of heaven." They could fly on the winged chariot of the soul described in the great myth in Plato's Phaedrus, where learning to control the chariot means learning the correct balance between the three parts of the soul which are involved: intellectual thought (the rational ego), the natural instinct of anger and aggression, and the natural instinct which makes us desire physical pleasure and entertainment and relaxation. A very difficult vessel to learn how to maneuver and fly successfully, because it can only move smoothly and swiftly when its three parts have a just and right relationship between themselves (called dikaiosunê in Plato's Greek).14 But once having mastered the winged chariot of the soul, these spiritual masters could ascend at will into the eternal realm of the sunlight of the spirit.

Pascal and Augustine and Bill Wilson, and those other great spiritual masters of the past, were not just posing curious intellectual puzzles for us to toy over and talk about. They were trying to confront us with a decision which we have to make. There are two different directions we can go, two different kinds of people we can become, two different kinds of destiny at which we can arrive.

So which do we wish to be? Earth people, or the masters of the winged chariot? Do we wish to continue pretending that the yearnings of our souls are imagination and nonsense? Or do we want to learn how to soar up into the eternal sunlight once again?

Let us remember what Pascal observed: if this desire to feel the sunlight of the spirit penetrating down into our hearts is fantasy and illusion and could never be carried out in reality, then why is it that there is a place down at the bottom of our souls where we remember actually having experienced it before?


© Copyright 2005 by Glenn F. Chesnut. From the Hindsfoot Foundation website at This material may be copied and reproduced by others subject to the restrictions given at

Disclaimer: The placing of information on the Venerable Matt Talbot Resource Center site from external linked sources does not necessarily imply agreement with all of its contents.

*Glenn Chesnut is a professor emeritus and distinguished historian. He is currently the moderator of the "AA History Lovers" Yahoo group.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Mother's Prayer

Apostolate (letter)

Barry O'Brian

"The Irish-born venerable Matt Talbot (1856-1925) provides an excellent example of a life of prayer and penance. He was an alcoholic from the age of 12 to 28, but his mother - like St Monica - never gave up praying for him. In 1884, her prayers were answered when Talbot vowed to give up drinking.

Pope Paul VI declared Matt Talbot venerable in 1975 having told members of an Irish Marian association in 1971 that he had read a book on Talbot's life and believed he should be canonised.

One of the great apostolates that has survived amid the changes since Vatican II is the Pioneer and Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart.

The Association's prayer, recited daily, is as follows: "For your greater glory and consolation, O Sacred Heart of Jesus! For your sake, to give good example, to practise self-denial, to make reparation to you for the sins of intemperance, and for conversion of excessive drinkers, I will abstain for life from all intoxicating drinks."

Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 2 (March 2003), p. 15


Matt's mother, Elizabeth, did pray for him, as she probably did for all of her children. However, all of Matt's brothers who drank died early deaths. His brother, John, abstained from alcohol as did his sisters.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

One reflection on Matt Talbot

In this brief reflection Brian notes how he "met" Matt Talbot, mentions some important details about Matt, and ends by asking an interesting question.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Matt Talbot's remains and tomb

Matt Talbot 1856-1925


Born in Dublin. He was an alcoholic who turned to religion. He was
buried in a poorer part of Glasnevin Cemetery before being moved to the vault where Fr.Gentili was buried. The coffin was moved in 1972 and the remains now rest in Our Lady of Lourdes Church,
Sean MacDermott St., Dublin. The coffin is enclosed behind glass.

Matt's current tomb above. Below left was his first
grave marker. Below right was his second tomb.
The bottom picture was when his coffin was
opened before he was reburied above.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Choosing a Temperate Way of Living

A homily presented by (then) Archbishop Sean Brady at the
2005 pilgrimage to the Shrine of Venerable Matt Talbot can be read at
(We have changed the title for posting purposes.)

Matt Talbot, Fr. Theobold Mathew, and Temperance

Matt Talbot National Pilgrimage
Homily By
Cardinal Sean Brady
Sunday, 16 July 2006

The name Matthew means Gift of God. The year 1856 linked two men bearing the name of Matthew. In 1856 Fr Theobold Mathew, the Capuchin priest known as the Apostle of Temperance died in Cork. That same year Venerable Matthew Talbot was born in Dublin. Both of these men were outstanding gifts sent by God to the people of Ireland - gifts sent by God to help us in the struggle for freedom and independence. I am not speaking of the struggle for political freedom and national independence from foreign oppression but rather of the struggle for personal freedom from slavery to drink and of the journey to independence in place of dependence on alcohol. Now, 150 years later, it is calculated that almost nine out of ten public order offences committed in Ireland are linked to alcohol. Obviously Ireland is now facing a new struggle for freedom

  • Freedom from its reputation for the abuse of alcohol,
  • Freedom to enjoy, rather than be destroyed, by this gift of God's creation.

In an Ireland where one quarter of the cases treated in Accident and Emergency units of our hospitals are as a result of alcohol abuse, is it not time to plead with the people of Ireland to give priority to addressing the serious problem that stems from the abuse of alcohol in our society?

Fr. Theobold Mathew was an inspiration in the struggle for temperance. Venerable Matt Talbot succeeded in giving up his excessive drinking - thanks to the pledge movement, begun by Fr Mathew. Subsequently Matt Talbot became in himself a bright beacon of hope to people caught in the toils of addiction to alcohol. At the age of 28, Matt Talbot had become a seemingly hopeless alcoholic. At the tender age of 12 he got a job as a message boy for a firm of wine merchants. He quickly fell into the habit of drinking too much, a habit, which lasted some 16 years.

At the age of 28 Matt Talbot came to his senses. His own money had run out. His friends refused to buy him a drink. That day Matt took the pledge, went to Confession, the next day he received Holy Communion for the first time in years. At first he took the pledge for 3 months, then for 1 year and finally for life. The struggle to break the habit was not easy but with the help of a life of prayer and penance, Matt Talbot succeeded gloriously. He slept for only three and a half hours per night on two wooden planks and a wooden pillow, got up at 2 am to pray and went to 6 o'clock Mass. He ate no meat for 9 months of the year and at midday he ate a slice of dry bread and a cup of cold tea. Matt Talbot decided to replace the bad habit of drinking too much with the good habit of temperance.

Those who are moderate in life are admired for two important qualities, their freedom and their strength of character,

  • freedom from slavery to excess and freedom for the things which lead to real joy and fulfilment,
  • freedom from the demons which block and destroy wholeness, freedom for the journey to genuine happiness and maturity.

"There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength" says St. Paul (ph.4.13).

The greatest strength of all is strength of character - the strength of self-control. The recent World Cup has often shown how costly loss of self-restraint can be.

People need help to resist the temptation to drink too much. They must be convinced with information on the potential damage to their health, physical, mental and moral. People must be helped to become confident and so secure in themselves that they don't need to turn to alcohol to get Dutch courage. They need time and attention to know that they are loved, first of all by their parents and families. The first call must go to young people themselves to take responsibility for their lives and for the consequences of their actions. They must be called and helped and motivated. They can be given self-confidence through the abundant love of their parents, which will give them the strength of character to live lives of sobriety and self-control.

At the marriage feast of Cana, Mary, the Mother of Jesus said, "They have no wine". Her son, Jesus, responded by working his first miracle. But in the midst of the mindset in which John wrote those words they refer not to the wine of the grape, but to the wine of the heart of Christ - that is compassion for all. Today in Ireland the growing drinks crisis calls for a major and concerted response from the people and from their leaders. Compassion for the plight of our young people - 'drowning in an ocean of drink', as one politician described it, should move the minds and hearts of all to action.

What can parents and guardians do? In the first place they can offer to each other and to their children an example of sobriety and/or abstinence. In this way they would be doing their best to convince their children of the damage that results from becoming addicted to alcohol. They could decide to spend more time talking to their children, praying with their children and relaxing with them.

They could meet with other committed parents from the extended family or neighbourhood to explore together the chief influences on their children, their own best hopes for their children and the support and assistance, which they need as, parents. They might even consider exploring together why drink, drugs, gambling and even vandalism sometimes seem more attractive than the challenge of becoming a follower of Jesus Christ.

Irish young people have the right to grow up in a society free from pressure to consume alcohol. Leaders in that society have a responsibility to help parents in keeping childhood and early adolescence alcohol-free in our present culture of indulgence. Could those with influence in society, clergy, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, journalists, police and media, pool resources in order to create a more effective counter dynamic against intemperate consumption and behaviours? The problem is so serious that its remedy must become an issue of public priority. It deserves the same focus and determination from all the leaders of our society as we give to the peace process, to road safety or to the economy. The peace of so many homes, the health of so many of our young people and the happiness of our society are at stake.

Surely there is an excellent case to be made for the provision of more ample facilities and activities for young people which are drink-free. The efforts of the Pioneer Association, the No Name Club and responsible youth clubs in this regard are to be highly commended.

The questions must be asked,

  • How do the various vested interests subvert the efforts to address the drink problem?
  • Why do the images of "the good life" so often give the false message: - "You have to drink alcohol if you want to really enjoy yourself"?

The fact is that it is irresponsible and illegal to serve alcoholic drink to minors. It is immoral to serve drink to people who are already drunk. It is a grave dereliction of duty to fail to try to dissuade a person, with too much drink, from driving a motor vehicle on the public highway. The widespread promotion, in various guises, of cheap drink to students, is especially reprehensible. The result is behaviour that can adversely effect their future in a wide variety of ways.

It is always better to light the candle than to curse the darkness. Those many generous people who help the addicted and their dependents deserve greater support. The example of Venerable Matt Talbot gives inspiration to all of us to give more support to those helping the rehabilitation of those addicted to alcohol and drugs.

At his death, Jesus shouted out, "I thirst." This is not thirst for a drink of beer or spirits. It is the thirst for what Jesus bestowed on each one of us, the Holy Spirit of love. Our greatest fear should be of ever losing that precious gift of God's love. Unfortunately if we abuse the gifts of the Creator we run the risk of losing the love of the Creator.

The stakes are high, very high indeed. A significant part of Irish contemporary society is deeply wounded in its relation to alcohol - alcohol, which is something good in itself but which if used to excess is anything but good. Alcohol - wine is something good, created by a good God to give joy to the human heart. The temperate person masters the excess to which nature invites. Only when wine is not used properly but abused in a misplaced exercise of human freedom does it become a problem. The primary cost of this misplaced exercise of human freedom is borne in the home by the family.

At the marriage feast of Cana, Mary said to her son, Jesus, "They have no wine". Today it is not a question of having no wine; rather it is a question of not having the ability to deal with the temptation to excess. It is a question of not having enough moderation, enough temperance and enough self-control, ultimately it is a question of knowing how to use the goods of the earth properly.

A temperate person gladly avoids any useless and intemperate use of the goods of this earth. Venerable Matt Talbot, with his outstanding life of prayer and penance, gives hope. May his life inspire all who are troubled by their use of alcohol.



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