Sunday, January 2, 2011

Matt Talbot as an image of liberty


Our own statues of liberty
Fr. John's (Bonavitacola) Weekly Letter
Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Tempe, Arizona
July 4, 2010

Freedom is first and foremost an inside job. What does political freedom matter if the human person is not free internally, spiritually. History is dotted with examples of men and women who despite the lack of political and physical freedom demonstrated the power of spiritual freedom: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nelson Mandela, Fr. Walter Ciszek are some contemporary examples that come to mind. Yet even though we unlike them have the benefits of political freedom we still find ourselves too often less than free. The freedom of the will to choose to be truly and authentically human and make decisions accordingly is what Christianity tries to teach us in regards to sin and grace. That is why things that diminish the capacity of the will to freely choose, things like force, fear and compulsion are the very things we seek to eliminate through our spiritual practices. One of the hallmarks of modern living is that it so often sets us up for addictive, compulsive behavior.

I recently received from Cardinal Rigali, my hometown Archbishop, a copy of his new booklet entitled: "Let the Oppressed Go Free: Breaking the Bonds of Addiction". In it he reminds us of the devastation that addiction causes to individuals, families and societies. And aptly he points out why the Church must offer hope and help for both those who are struggling with addiction and their families and loved ones. With our vast spiritual treasury we have plenty of tools that can help others to find recovery.

Hence the reason for the statue of Matt Talbot. Matt Talbot was an Irish Catholic drunk (some would say that is redundant!) from Dublin. Despite repeated attempts to quit drinking and taking "the Pledge" numerous times he always found himself drunk again. Periods of dryness were always followed by worse relapse. Finally Matt realized that no amount of will power could prevent him from taking the next drink. That power he realized had to come from outside himself. So he surrendered himself to God and embarked on a life of prayer, penance and service. He found that the more he was faithful to these the less temptation he had to drink. In fact he discovered the real secret to happiness was anonymous and selfless service. The statue itself reminds us that first through the Cross, Matt died to his own will and with the assistance of the Virgin Mother the chains of addiction were broken and he truly experienced a spiritual awakening. Finally his hands are not raising bottles to his lips but are rather raised in prayer.

The spiritual tools he used eventually would become incorporated into AA's Twelve Steps. Without knowing it Matt had found a solution to the "drink" problem that had eluded men for centuries and upon which would later become the model for effective sober living in the 20th century. The brilliance of AA's founders was that they took simple spiritual truths that had been around for centuries and arranged them in an order that was both acceptable and usable for the alcoholic. Today of course those same 12 Steps have been used for recovery from many addictions other than alcohol. Matt Talbot discovered the essence of the 12 Steps long before there were the 12 Steps: the admission of personal powerlessness, faith, surrender (Steps 1,2,3), confession, penance, amends (Steps 4,5,6,7.8,9), prayer/sacraments (Steps 10, 11), service (Step 12).

This image of Matt Talbot (who is at the first step of canonization hence he is called Servant of God [officially "Venerable"] because he demonstrated a life of heroic virtue) should remind us of the spiritual treasury that is at our disposal that we can use to "let the oppressed go free". It should also inspire us to reach out to those who suffer from addictions.

The other image is entitled "Charity". This beggar extending his hand for assistance reminds us that in each person we meet Christ, hence the nail wound in his hand. Also it brings to mind the words of Jesus: "whenever you did it for the least of them, you did it for me". Christ disguises himself in the needy. In serving the poor we serve Christ himself. I wanted something in our sights that honors our St. Vincent de Paul Conference and the many volunteers who each day serve the poor. Our SVDP at Mt. Carmel is not just active it is "hyper-active"! Which in this case is a good thing. I hope this little figure continues to inspire all of us to donate, contribute and assist our St. Vincent de Paul work.

Both these figures were created by Catholic artist Timothy Schmaltz of Ontario, Canada.  Let these be our own statues of liberty: proclaiming that this Church is a place to find freedom.

Note: The statue of Matt Talbot that Fr. John is referring to can be found at