Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Alcoholic Who Became a Saint

Venerable Matt Talbot

Nothing ever happened to Matt Talbot, an ordinary Irish laborer of no great learning, no riches, no remarkable accomplishments.

He lived in poverty and died, alone and unrecognized on a cold cobblestone lane, in Dublin. He left no family, no followers, no written discourses.

Scarcely anyone knew a thing about him. Yet within six months of his death, a brief biography sold 120,000 copies. Within a year, it had been published in twelve languages. Five years after that, the Catholic Church began investigating Matt Talbot’s life to determine if he warranted consideration for sainthood. A short fifty years after his death, the Church bestowed on him the title, “Venerable,” finding him fit to be commended as a “hero” whose virtues are worthy to be imitated.

No, nothing ever happened to Matt Talbot, but as one biographer noted, “he happened to those about him, as light happens to a dark room.”

Living to Drink. Darkness abounded during Matt’s lifetime. Ireland’s great famine of the 1840s had driven many countryfolk into the city, seeking food and employment. England had garrisoned troops in Dublin, and shortly after Matt was born in 1856, soldiers began returning from the Crimean War. The city teemed with people who were out of work, out of money, and out of hope.

Matt was the second of twelve children born to Charles and Elizabeth Talbot. The family lived on the verge of poverty, for although Charles Talbot worked regularly, he spent most of his wages at the local pub. Eventually Matt and seven of his brothers followed in Charles’ footsteps, drinking their way through life.

After spending just one year in school, Matt went to work at the age of twelve. He started as a messenger for a wine merchant and soon began sampling the products. Before long, he was living to drink. Neither thrashings from his father nor a change of jobs—he became an unskilled laborer for a bricklayer—deterred Matt. Over the next sixteen years, he spent nearly all of his earnings on alcohol.

By nature generous, Matt sometimes paid for his friends’ drinks when they had no money. When he had none, he pawned or sold what he could—right down to his own shoes once—so that he could continue drinking. Thus one Saturday, when twenty-eight-year-old Matt had been out of work for a week, he stood outside his neighborhood pub, broke but optimistic. Surely one of his friends would buy him a drink. Hadn’t he done so for them?

But curt nods and cold shoulders were all that Matt’s friends gave him. Eventually, he returned home, dejected and sober, and announced that he was taking “the pledge”—a euphemism for making a solemn promise not to drink. That evening he met with a priest, made his promise, and went to Confession for the first time in years. And from that day, the grace of God, which Matt hadn’t even thought to ask for yet, began manifesting its work in Matt.

“Don’t Let Me Go Back.” Now he faced an enormous dilemma. Matt had promised, for three months only, not to drink. His family drank. His friends drank. He spent his non-working hours drinking. How was he to avoid the alcohol his body craved, that his mind assured him he could never do without?

He took refuge in the only place his drinking buddies wouldn’t come looking for him: church. Matt began to attend Mass daily, before work, and to spend evenings kneeling in a shadowy corner of a neighborhood church —a neighborhood far from where he lived.

There, he made new friends—Jesus, Mary, and the saints—and cultivated new tastes—for solitude, prayer, and the presence of God. It didn’t come easily, and time and again Matt returned home convinced that he would never stick with sobriety. Back in church the next day, he’d beg God, “Please, don’t let me go back to my old ways. Have mercy on me.”

Years later, Matt told his sister that the first three months were the hardest, declaring that it’s easier to raise someone from the dead than to stop drinking. To help himself, Matt stuck two pins, crossed, in the sleeve of his coat, where he would see them often. They were to remind him to pray and to remind him that Jesus had suffered and died on the cross for him.

Matt was practical about adopting a new life. He established a schedule of Mass and prayer that left no time for visiting pubs. He never carried money in his pockets, lest he be tempted to stop in while walking to or from work. He joined the Franciscan Third Order and numerous sodalities. He spent Saturday afternoons and evenings, and all day Sunday, in church with his “new friends.”

Drunk with the Spirit. Gradually, a new thirst began to replace the old one: a thirst for more of God’s life and love. And God didn’t let him down. The love of Christ began to overwhelm Matt’s indulgence and intemperance. Matt wanted only to become like Christ, so he started fasting, sleeping less and praying more, and giving money to the missions and local poor families.

He read Scripture, lives of saints, and—considering his meager schooling—an astounding assortment of books: The Confessions of St. Augustine; writings of St. Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, and John Cardinal Newman; papal encyclicals, world history, and social policy. Word by word, he deciphered what they said. What he couldn’t understand, Matt laboriously copied onto a scrap of paper and handed it to a sometimes astonished priest for explanation the next time he went to Confession.

Prayer, reading, and atonement grew into a way of life that Matt managed to keep hidden. Meanwhile, those around him began to notice his humility, generosity, and self-control. His fellow laborers learned that Matt didn’t abide cursing or lewd stories, so they stopped. His employer suspected that Matt was giving away most of his earnings, but no one guessed the intensity with which he was living this new life. He was inebriated now by the Holy Spirit, “drunk,” as one writer put it, “only with the mercy and the wisdom and the power and the love of God.”

For the last two years of his life, Matt suffered from heart disease. Strict fasting, limited sleep, and hard physical labor had worn him out. On June 7, 1925, he collapsed on the way to Mass. No one recognized the frail little man who died in Granby Lane. He carried no money or identification, just a few odd scraps of paper in his pockets. Curiously, two pins, blackened with age, were pinned to his sleeve in a cross. Four days later, the body of Matt Talbot was identified. The books in his bare tenement room were discovered, along with many scraps of paper on which he had written. On one of those scraps was written the following prayer: “O Virgin, I ask only three things: the grace of God, the presence of God, and the benediction of God.” Among many others, this prayer was surely answered.

Matt Talbot believed God absolutely. He emptied his heart and life of all that encumbered him and waited for the Lord to fill him to overflowing. He remained sober for forty-one years and, in a quiet, unobtrusive way, shed light in the darkness around him. He stands now as a hero for all who struggle with addiction, and a model for all who desire, in the words of Pope Pius XII, “the greatness of Christianity lived in all its fullness.”

*Note: For those unfamiliar with Matt Talbot, he is not officially canonized as a “saint” by the Roman Catholic Church; he is currently recognized as “Venerable.” (See Beatification, Canonization, and Sainthood) The 76th anniversity of Matt’s death was Tuesday, June 7. The brief bibliography referred to in the above article was written by Sir Joseph Glynn and expanded in later editions. (See "The Life of Matt Talbot" by Sir Joseph Glynn )