Very rarely do we hear about modern ascetics. In fact asceticism has almost entirely disappeared as an accepted and natural practice within the Western church, and to some degree in the large population of the Eastern church as well. Most of the holy men and women that we know of ascetic experience come from the early centuries of the Church, some before the Council of Chalcedon, and others later and in the Middle Ages. Rarely are we brought face to face with a character whose devotion and selfless practice existed in more modern times. And I believe there is a special significance to the fact that there were ascetics who practiced their penance in modern times, because we can understand them better, we can understand their motivations, they do not appear like super-hero’s from the Religious Life, but in fact as human beings tormented by the world and life as many beings on Earth.
Perhaps one of the most popular Christian ascetics of modern times was Matt Talbot, who was born on May 2, 1856 in Dublin, Ireland. It is said that for the first 28 years of his life Talbot lived as a simple worker, but addicted to alcohol. He started drinking at the age of 12, when he got his first job at a brewery. Later, he worked on the docks, where he got in the habit of drinking whiskey and visiting pubs and cabarets. Almost every night Talbot returned late at night to his parents house drunk.
After a while he lost his job, and had no money. Craving alcohol he decided to stand outside a pub where most of his friends frequented. He figured that when his friends see him standing outside they would invite him in and buy him a pint. But each friend passed by without inviting him. Talbot took this to heart, offended by the cruelty of his friends, for whom he had bought many drinks himself, he went home sober for the first time in many years.
That night, while having dinner with his mother he decided to take “The Pledge.” The Pledge was a popular thing to do in Ireland at the time. When you took the pledge you took it seriously, and you stopped drinking. However like most men and women of the time, the pledge was good for only a few days for many.
Talbot took the first pledge for 3 months, which were torturous on him. He offset the mad cravings, he would attend 5am morning Mass everyday, and spent most of the day in prayer and working as a handyman. His greatest cravings for alcohol were in the evenings, after work, when most men went to the pubs. Instead Talbot took long walks through the city.
After 3 months Talbot took another pledge, this time for six months. After six months he took the final, life-long pledge to never drink again. Over the many years that he was a drunk he accumulated great depths, and throughout the remaining years of his life Talbot made sure that all of his debts were paid out completely.
He adopted the life of poverty, emulating Jesus Christ. He lived on the bare essentials he needed to survive, giving the rest to the poor.
At some time in his life he decided to pursue the act of mortification, living in “holy slavery” to the Holy Virgin. He began binding chains around his waist, chest, arms, and legs, heavy chains with religious symbols attached to them, which he wore everyday of his life under his clothing. Talbot was inspired by the writings of St. Louis de Montfort who preached “total consecration of Jesus Christ through Mary.” Montfort is considered one of the modern fathers of Christian mortification, or what is known as “Mortification through Mary.”
But this was only one aspect of his asceticism. From what we know of Talbot he practiced many forms of asceticism, reminiscent of the hermit ascetics of early Ireland.
One of the practices that he employed in his early days was sleeping for small periods of time. Deprivation of sleep is one of the most common forms of penance and ascetic practice in all cultures. To make things more difficult for himself Talbot slept on a wooden pillow for about 3 hours a day. We know that his diet was just as meager, he lived mostly on tea, cocoa and bread. Though it has been recorded that when he was invited to others homes he ate just like everyone else.
Throughout the day Talbot managed to pray every minute he got. Any time there was free time he could be seen praying, often co-workers would find him behind a large pile of lumber on his lunch break in deep prayer. His mother often noticed him waking up at 2am after a small 3 hour nap, his hands raised in the form of a cross, praying, and when he would fall back into sleep, he would be clutching the statue of the Virgin.
This type of existence might have caused him to die so young. On June 7, 1925, on his way to morning Mass Talbot collapsed and died from heart failure. There was no way of identifying him, however when his clothes were taken off the nurses where shocked to find the severe methods which Talbot employed upon his body.
It was not until the 1930s that serious interest in Talbot’s ascetics arose. In 1931 an article on Talbot “The Saintly Lumberman” was published by Time Magazine. And in 1975 the Catholic Church gave Talbot the style “Venerable.”
Note: While the author comments that "this type of existence might have caused him to die so young," one might argue that Matt lived a relatively long life considering the number of years Matt abused alcohol from a very young age, the hard labor he did throughout his life, his daily meager diet and regular fasts, and the life expectancy at that time in Dublin. (JB)