Sunday, July 10, 2011

Matt Talbot: Denying All to Gain All

Matt Talbot was a drunk. He came to this state partly as a result of nature and nurture, as his father was an alcoholic, as were most of Matt’s brothers. Born into a poverty stricken home on May 2, 1856 in Dublin he became an unskilled laborer who blew most of his wages on feeding his addiction to drink. The worst thing he did to buy alcohol was to steal a fiddle from a street performer and sell it for booze. Penniless in 1884, he took the pledge not to drink and kept it for the remainder of his life.

However, turning away from alcohol was only a small part of his transformation. In order to truly change one’s life it is never enough to turn away from something. We must also turn to something. Talbot turned to God. He began to attend daily Mass and and read books and pamphlets on the Faith. He repaid his debts and, after a fruitless search for the fiddler whose fiddle he stole, donated the money he wanted to pay the fiddler for his stolen fiddle to the Church for Masses to be said for the fiddler.

Talbot led an ascetic life thereafter, eating little and giving away much of his wages to charities and to help his fellow workers. He wore heavy chains and cords under his clothes as a penance and on Sundays would hear several Masses. He got up early every day to go to daily Mass, and he would normally spend his evenings on his knees in prayer. He did all of this while continuing to earn his daily bread as a laborer. He lived with his mother until her death in 1915 and then alone until his own death in 1925. It is entirely possible that, other than by God, he would have been entirely forgotten after his death, except that he died on the streets of Dublin on his way to Mass on June 7, 1925, and after his death the chains and cords he wore under his clothes were discovered.

In his death, Matt Talbot achieved a fame that had been a complete stranger to him in his quiet and obscure life. He quickly became a symbol of the Irish temperance movement. John Paul II as a young man wrote a paper about him. He was declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI.

Irish playwright and drunk Brendan Behan contended that Matt Talbot had been a figure of ridicule among his fellow workers because of his piety. I have little doubt of it since sanctity can make a great many people uneasy, especially when the person exhibiting it seems otherwise to be quite ordinary. Venerable Matt Talbot through his life reminds us all that sainthood is within the grasp of each of us but that it sometimes, in Earthly terms, can be a daunting path. Matt Talbot led a life of prayer, religious devotion, asceticism, penance and voluntary poverty that emulated the extreme self-denial of a monk or a nun of a very strict order, and he did it all while living in the World. He gave up everything to gain everything.