Monday, January 7, 2008

Irish Venerable's Story Contradicts Stereotypes

It seems as if every culture has stereotypes to battle. The French are often perceived as effete and snobbish. Biases against Jews run the gamut from unacceptable ribbing to repulsive anti-Semitism. Americans are rude bores lacking subtlety. The Irish? They like to drink and they like to fight.

Those stereotypes, of course, tend to be inaccurate. They might describe a few members of a group, but they serve as a poor cultural descriptor. The inaccuracy of those biased perceptions is evidenced by the life of Matt Talbot, an Irishman from Dublin who may be on the slow path to Catholic sainthood.

Matt was born in 1856. He started drinking at the age of twelve and didn't stop for sixteen years. He was an alcoholic known for drinking his paychecks away and then pawning his work boots for more drinking money. He was a reliable laborer through his drinking years, until at the age of twenty eight he either quit or lost his job and spent his unemployed time drinking even more. When former co-workers seemed uninterested in helping him scrape up drink money, a depressed Talbot decided to "take the pledge".

With the help of a priest who outlined an addiction recovery program for him, Matt Talbot sobered up. The rest of his life was spent working hard, praying harder, and distributing his earnings to those less fortunate or who were doing mission work.

As a means of paying for past sins and to keep himself from drink, Talbot adopted a rigorous prayer schedule and attended mass several times every week. He read the gospels and the stories of the saints and adopted ascetic behavior patterns. He slept on wood planks using lumber as a pillow. He ate but one true meal a day, and often refused anything but the bare essentials even then. His prayer schedule was intensified by his proclivity to wear chains around the waist and legs as a means of serving penance.

Matt Talbot was an Irishman. He wasn't a drinker or a fighter though. From the age of twenty eight until his death, Talbot never touched another drop. He was also seen as a happy and pleasant person, not a brawler.

Since his death, Talbot has been given the rank of Venerable by the Catholic Church. Upon evidence of a miracle, he can be moved up in the process of becoming a saint. After discover of a second miracle, he would be canonized.

The Church seems to agree that Talbot lived an otherwise saintly life and it will be interesting to learn whether the Irish man will ever reach sainthood. Some claim his miracle was the discovery and adoption of a strategy that mimics the twelve step programs of today.

Talbot died while walking to mass. Investigation showed he was wearing his punishing chains at the time.

Even if Talbot never reaches the level of saint, his life is particularly informative in the way it casts a noticeable Irish person in light far different from what is often echoed in blind stereotype.

Irishman are said to be short-tempered drinkers. Venerable Matt Talbot appears to have been neither. He found a way to use religion to help him defeat alcoholism and did all he could to remain pleasant, optimistic and helpful to others.