Sunday, April 5, 2015

Matt Talbot: from alcohol to holiness

by Fr. Brian Schieber 
St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish
Leawood, KS
First Sunday of Lent Year B 
February 22, 2015

Matt Talbot has been declared Venerable which means he on the way to hopefully becoming a canonized saint.

Matt Talbot was born in Dublin Ireland in 1856. He was one of 12 children. At the time in Ireland school attendance was not in force so Matt rarely attended school. At the age of 12, he got a job in a wine shop. It was there that Matt began “sampling the wares,” which started him on a journey of excessive drinking for the next 16 years. For those 16 years, he lived for booze. After working in the wine shop, he started working in a whiskey shop making things even worse. All of his wages he spent on drinking. He frequented the pubs and became such a down and out drunk that he even pawned his clothes and boots to get money for alcohol. Once he even stole a fiddle from a blind street musician.

One day, penniless, he was standing outside a pub waiting for someone to buy him a drink. Frustrated that no one would, he received a flash of grace and recognized what a pitiful life he was living. He went home and told his mother that he was taking the pledge. She had been praying earnestly for his conversion. At the age of 28 he found a priest, made his confession, and then the next day he went to Mass and received Communion which did every day for the rest of his life until he died at the age of 69 in 1925 of a heart attack on his way to morning Mass.

Living the life of sobriety was not easy. He wrote to his sister, “Never look down on a man who cannot give up the drink. It is easier to get out of hell.” It was the grace of God that set him free. He had support and accountability. And he did more than resist the urge to drink – he lived a life of penance and self-discipline. He slept on a plank, fasted, and wore chains around his waist and arm and leg as a symbol of his devotion and desire to be a slave of Mary.

On this first Sunday of Lent we hear Jesus say to us, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent means to make a turn in your life. Turn away from sin and turn toward Christ. Matt Talbot made a huge life-saving turn in his life. All of us, no matter where we are on our spiritual journey, are called to deepening repentance. As we begin Lent, take time to honestly reflect: what are the sins that are binding me? What do I need to let go of in my life? Then I’m asking all of us to do something very important for Lent – please make a good confession! That was really the beginning of Matt Talbot’s conversion.

The Church holds up for us three traditional disciplines of Lent to help us in our on-going process of conversion: prayer, fasting, almsgiving
I want to talk about fasting first. Why do we fast? We fast in imitation of Jesus. We see in the gospel that the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the desert where he fasted. What happens when we you fast? You get hungry! What happens in the desert? You get thirsty. Fasting or giving something up for lent is meant to awaken the deepest hunger and thirst in our life: the thirst for God. Alcohol could not quench Matt Talbot’s deepest thirst. In fact in only led him into the throws of addiction. It was only Jesus and his reception of Jesus in daily Communion that satisfied and set him free. Fasting can help us turn to Jesus. Every time we have a desire to have that desert or soda or coffee that we gave up, it gives us an opportunity to choose Jesus over whatever we gave up.

Second, Almsgiving – our sacrifices should lead to the aide of the poor. After Matt Talbot’s conversion he was known for his generosity. He repaid all of his debts. He tried to find the man from whom he stole the fiddle and unable to find him donated money to the church to have Masses offered for him. Even though he was poor himself, he gave generously to the poor, to charities, and to the Church.

We still have the rice-bowls available after Mass. The idea is that you take the money you would have saved on whatever you give up for Lent and you put it in the rice-bowl to help the poor.

Can I make one other practical suggestion of what we can all do for Lent? Catholic Charities has provided a clothing bin for us that we have put on the north side of the church. Please take time this lent to clean out your closet and donate clothes for the poor.

At our administrative team meetings with the Archbishop, we are taking a few minutes before the meeting to reflect on Pope Francis’ letter called Joy of the Gospel. What struck me this week were these words by Pope Francis: “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading.” We so often are blessed with abundance which sadly can lead to waste. It could be a beautiful Lenten resolution to say, “I’m going to work hard not to waste food.” Or before we buy something to say, “Do I really need another  one of these?” Simplify your life. Clean out your closet for Lent!

Finally, prayer. It was by the grace of God that Matt Talbot was set free. Conversion goes hand and hand with prayer. The image of the desert provides us with insight. The desert is free of distractions.

Blase Paschal said most of the time human beings seek diversion in life. We easily get caught up in the world through images, ads, media, music, idle conversations, and the constant borage of sensory pleasures available to us. We are drawn out into the world to the neglect of our interior life – our spiritual life.

St. Augustine: Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. St. Augustine searched for God in the pleasures of the world to the neglect of his interior life. If I’m going to be cultivating my interior life – my prayer life – what is necessary?

Silence! I have to unplug. What a beautiful thing to do for lent – create a desert space in your life. Unplug the TV, computer games, IPad, the cell phone, the IPod and enter into the silence.

Take home a copy of the Word Among Us. You can reflect on the daily readings for Mass. It also has a daily meditation. Consider praying the rosary as a family. Come to the Stations of the Cross on Fridays.

As the story of Matt Talbot circulated, his life gave hope to so many. Now there are countless addiction clinics, recovery centers and youth hostels named after him. Matt Talbot made a turn in his life. Now is the time to repent. Let us take up fasting, almsgiving, and prayer and turn back to God with all our hearts.