Sunday, August 19, 2012

Matt Talbot and the Single Life

Sunday Homily - January 29
Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time 2012

The Very Reverend Robert J. Kus
St. Mary Catholic Church
Wilmington, NC

Today as Catholic Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we hear an intriguing discourse from the St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians. In this letter, he talks about two primary paths the Christian may journey in life: the married state or the single state. He concludes that, all things being equal, single people have less earthly distractions than do married people. Logically, then, single person may find it easier to give himself or herself more fully to the Lord.

The majority are called to the path of the coupled person, a path that includes married persons including many permanent deacons. Fewer people, however, travel the path of the single person as priests, Religious Brothers or Sisters, lay persons, or whatever.

While we often hear of exciting lives of priests and Religious Brothers and Sisters, we rarely hear about heroic men and women who live a single, lay life. Today I offer you a glimpse into the life of a simple Irishman who will likely be declared a saint one day.

Matthew Talbot was born on May 2, 1856 in a poor section of Dublin, Ireland, the second of twelve children. His mother was a homemaker, and his alcoholic father was a dockworker.

In those days, Ireland did not have a compulsory age for going to school, so young Matt left school at the age of twelve and began to work as a messenger boy. It was then that Matt began to drink alcohol. Like his father and all but one of his brothers, alcoholism would play a huge role in young Matt’s life.

After working three years as a messenger, Matthew got a job as a hodman, a man who fetched bricks and mortar for bricklayers. In no time Matthew came to be seen as the best hodman in all of Dublin.

Unfortunately for Matthew, his drinking became worse and worse. When he got drunk, he became very hot-tempered and got into fights frequently. He would spend all of his money on his alcohol use. In his desperation for a drink when he would find himself penniless, he would steal things and sell them for money. Or he would sell his boots for money.

His mother pleaded with him to stop drinking, but her pleas fell on deft ears. One day, however, at the age of twenty-eight, Matthew “hit bottom” as people say in Alcoholics Anonymous. On this day, when he was penniless, he loitered on a street corner waiting for his companions to come out from their workplace as they had just been paid. He hoped they would invite him for a drink, but instead they ignored him. Totally dejected, he went home and told his mother that he was going to “take the pledge.”

In those days, a “pledge” was a promise made to give up alcohol for a specific period of time. This was fifty years before the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the people at that time did not realize that for true recovery, an alcoholic must give up alcohol forever.

Anyway, Matthew went to Confession and made a pledge not to drink for three months. The next day, he went to Mass and received Communion for the first time in many years.

From that time on, his life changed dramatically. He paid back all of his debts with the money he made as a hodman and later as a laborer for timber merchants. He went to daily Mass and loved doing religious devotions in the evening such as Stations of the Cross or praying the Rosary. Matthew was fond of fasting and giving alms to many religious organizations and people in need. Matthew had a strong sense of social justice and put his faith into action by supporting his fellow workers. He was friendly to everyone he met.

Matthew also had great compassion for those who suffered from alcoholism. He once told his mother, “Never look down on a man who cannot give up the drink, for it is easier to get out of hell.” He also gave up his pipe and tobacco which, he said, was much harder to abandon than alcohol.

Matthew, in his sobriety, loved to do spiritual reading and had special devotion to St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux (the “Little Flower”), and St. Catherine of Siena. He also joined the Third Order of St. Francis.

Matthew lived soberly for the next forty-one years. On his way to Mass on Trinity Sunday, 1923, Matthew died in the streets of Dublin. His life would have gone unnoticed except for the fact that when his body was taken to the hospital, the staff found penitential chains and cords around his knees and arms and waist. Pope Paul VI proclaimed him “Venerable” in 1975.

The life of Matt Talbot shows a couple of the special gifts of the single path. First, this path provides a certain freedom not available to the married person or the person raising children. Because single people are free to focus themselves on their own journey exclusively, they are often able to devote their selves to a spiritual exercise regime more completely. That is what we see in the life of Matthew.

Second, because single people don’t usually have to give their money to spouses and children, they are able to use their money to those in need in ways that coupled people are often not able to do. That is what allowed Matthew to be so generous to so many though he was never rich.

As we continue our life journey this week, it would be a good idea to focus on our own life path, whether it is coupled or single. What are the special gifts we have as a result of the path we have been called to?