Monday, January 14, 2008

Required Reading about Matt Talbot

Anyone who is seriously interested in the life of Matt Talbot needs to read the two books authored by the late Mary Purcell, who has been described as the "doyenne of religious biographers" and the possibly definitive biographer of Matt Talbot. These books are Matt Talbot and His Times (rev. ed., 1977), which remains in-print, and Remembering Matt Talbot (rev. ed., 1990), which is out-of-print but preread copies are available through Amazon and other sources. There is much information in these books, including interviews with people who knew Matt, that is not available elsewhere. Additional information contained in these books will be posted at a later date. (JB)

Here is a review of Matt Talbot and His Times:

"The poignant story of one man's holy battle against drink"
Christian Engler
April 25, 2005

Mary Purcell's touching and well written biography of Venerable Matt Talbot, the Dublin blue-collar workman, whose slavery to drink and unquenchable and relentless addiction robbed a large part of his childhood and early adulthood, is a striking story of one man's battle against his demons--the plaguing obsession for alcoholic consumption. While at his first job at a bottling store, he learned to "put away" liquor to such an excess that by the age of thirteen, he was considered a chronic alcoholic, with no hope whatsoever for any type of recovery. At the age of twenty-eight, he had a profound conversion experience that forever altered his life, whereby God, Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Mary, the Virgin Mother, became the epicenter of his whole life. But up till that intense moment, drink and how to go about getting it-even if it was by criminal means-was the all engrossing fixation that took over his soul. Not even his family, friends, work, self-respect nor his own health could minutely penetrate into his gloomy obstinacy and cruel recklessness. He was indifferent and unyielding about changing any facet of himself for the better, not caring one iota how his behavior and actions wounded those around him, for his disease was a combination of genetics and emotional distress. One was compounded with the other, locked together in a physical and mental war to destroy one who did not know where or how to turn in order to combat the spiritual and psychological decimation that was occurring from within.

Matt Talbot always had a distant yet respectful relationship with religion, but he had a greater bond with drink and anyone and anything associated with it. Oftentimes, when finishing up work at the docks or the yards, Matt and his buddies would head to the bars to get thoroughly tanked. To do so, he would often borrow money and offer empty promises to repay the debt. Or worse, he would beat up a drifter, as he did on one particular occasion, stealing his fiddle and pawning it for cash to be used for drink. He also sold his own shoes in the dead of winter-again-for drink alone. But more often than not, her got temporary "loans" from those around him, until that was no longer acceptable. And on one particular evening, when waiting outside a bar for his friends to arrive, his mates blatantly shunned him so completely that burning shame brought him down to the pits where nothing could revive him or so he thought, until he turned to "Him who does not fail."--page 60. After that experience and others like them, he knew humility and understood sin in its acute theological essence without having the book knowledge as a priest or theologian might. He had the life experience of it, and that goes way beyond any type of book learning. In 1882, at a church in Clonliffe, he took the abstinence pledge after his confession, and though he struggled bitterly, falling little by little, his evenings at various bars were replaced by evenings in quite reflections at various churches doing the rosary or trying to understand and assimilate scriptural truths into his recovery, for though he was practically illiterate, his conversion and openness to God's grace gave him the committed perseverance required to be the type of man that nobody thought possible.

When Matt Talbot took the pledge of sobriety in 1882, he renewed it three months later, then eight months, until he took it for life, remaining clean for the balance of his forty-one years of life. But it was what he did with that gift of life which God gave him that was so arresting. Always one of the guys, he led the life of the conconsummate laborer, the best of the best; he was often cited by his foreman to take the lead for the others to emulate. In his private life, however, he worked diligently and with a pure heart to bond ever deeper to God, through His Son and the Blessed Virgin. He practiced deep acts of mortifications: fasting, praying, serving others, trying to help alcoholics who were in his same shoes, long before Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) ever emerged. He exercised his conversion by secretly wearing chains around his body, otherwise known as Slavery to Mary. And though he was never rich or truly healthy, whatever money he had, he always denied himself and gave to the less fortunate, for his miracle was his liberation from the alcohol that he wrongly believed was on par with oxygen itself for his mere survival. This was his way to give back to a Father who only wanted the best for his child. What the Matt Talbot story illustrates is that no sin-no matter how demeaning or gross or horrific or extremely overwhelming-is overpowering enough that Christ Jesus, God, can't handle it, one needs only to meet Them half way in the struggle. And the gift will most certainly be made evident.

Mary Purcell's top-notch biography of Matt Talbot is without a doubt the definitive book on this little known man's holy life. Not only are his stuggles exhaustively explored with intelligent depth but so too are his times, his immediate environment and why alcoholism was so prevalent in nineteenth century Ireland. Poverty, lack of work and various other negative social issues were the causes and effects as to why so many "Matt Talbots" seemed to sprout up with a drink offering in one hand and a "screw this" mentality in the other. It is a book that reads not simply as a biography, but it reads as a fascinating chronicle of a country with its yo-yo-like ups and downs, economically, socially and politically. But with all that aside, it had-as it still does-its Catholic faith firmly held in tact, lifting and encouraging the downtrodden and those less so to look upward when it was, and sometimes is, easier to look down. Matt Talbot's story is a shining example, a future Catholic Saint whose witness has much to teach us.