Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Christian Ascetic: Matt Talbot

Alex Malina
February 9, 2009

Very rarely do we hear about modern ascetics. In fact asceticism has almost entirely disappeared as an accepted and natural practice within the Western church, and to some degree in the large population of the Eastern church as well. Most of the holy men and women that we know of ascetic experience come from the early centuries of the Church, some before the Council of Chalcedon, and others later and in the Middle Ages. Rarely are we brought face to face with a character whose devotion and selfless practice existed in more modern times. And I believe there is a special significance to the fact that there were ascetics who practiced their penance in modern times, because we can understand them better, we can understand their motivations, they do not appear like super-hero’s from the Religious Life, but in fact as human beings tormented by the world and life as many beings on Earth.

Perhaps one of the most popular Christian ascetics of modern times was Matt Talbot, who was born on May 2, 1856 in Dublin, Ireland. It is said that for the first 28 years of his life Talbot lived as a simple worker, but addicted to alcohol. He started drinking at the age of 12, when he got his first job at a brewery. Later, he worked on the docks, where he got in the habit of drinking whiskey and visiting pubs and cabarets. Almost every night Talbot returned late at night to his parents house drunk.

After a while he lost his job, and had no money. Craving alcohol he decided to stand outside a pub where most of his friends frequented. He figured that when his friends see him standing outside they would invite him in and buy him a pint. But each friend passed by without inviting him. Talbot took this to heart, offended by the cruelty of his friends, for whom he had bought many drinks himself, he went home sober for the first time in many years.

That night, while having dinner with his mother he decided to take “The Pledge.” The Pledge was a popular thing to do in Ireland at the time. When you took the pledge you took it seriously, and you stopped drinking. However like most men and women of the time, the pledge was good for only a few days for many.

Talbot took the first pledge for 3 months, which were torturous on him. He offset the mad cravings, he would attend 5am morning Mass everyday, and spent most of the day in prayer and working as a handyman. His greatest cravings for alcohol were in the evenings, after work, when most men went to the pubs. Instead Talbot took long walks through the city.

After 3 months Talbot took another pledge, this time for six months. After six months he took the final, life-long pledge to never drink again. Over the many years that he was a drunk he accumulated great depths, and throughout the remaining years of his life Talbot made sure that all of his debts were paid out completely.

He adopted the life of poverty, emulating Jesus Christ. He lived on the bare essentials he needed to survive, giving the rest to the poor.

At some time in his life he decided to pursue the act of mortification, living in “holy slavery” to the Holy Virgin. He began binding chains around his waist, chest, arms, and legs, heavy chains with religious symbols attached to them, which he wore everyday of his life under his clothing. Talbot was inspired by the writings of St. Louis de Montfort who preached “total consecration of Jesus Christ through Mary.” Montfort is considered one of the modern fathers of Christian mortification, or what is known as “Mortification through Mary.”

But this was only one aspect of his asceticism. From what we know of Talbot he practiced many forms of asceticism, reminiscent of the hermit ascetics of early Ireland.

One of the practices that he employed in his early days was sleeping for small periods of time. Deprivation of sleep is one of the most common forms of penance and ascetic practice in all cultures. To make things more difficult for himself Talbot slept on a wooden pillow for about 3 hours a day. We know that his diet was just as meager, he lived mostly on tea, cocoa and bread. Though it has been recorded that when he was invited to others homes he ate just like everyone else.

Throughout the day Talbot managed to pray every minute he got. Any time there was free time he could be seen praying, often co-workers would find him behind a large pile of lumber on his lunch break in deep prayer. His mother often noticed him waking up at 2am after a small 3 hour nap, his hands raised in the form of a cross, praying, and when he would fall back into sleep, he would be clutching the statue of the Virgin.

This type of existence might have caused him to die so young. On June 7, 1925, on his way to morning Mass Talbot collapsed and died from heart failure. There was no way of identifying him, however when his clothes were taken off the nurses where shocked to find the severe methods which Talbot employed upon his body.

It was not until the 1930s that serious interest in Talbot’s ascetics arose. In 1931 an article on Talbot “The Saintly Lumberman” was published by Time Magazine. And in 1975 the Catholic Church gave Talbot the style “Venerable.”

Note: While the author comments that "this type of existence might have caused him to die so young," one might argue that Matt lived a relatively long life considering the number of years Matt abused alcohol from a very young age, the hard labor he did throughout his life, his daily meager diet and regular fasts, and the life expectancy at that time in Dublin. (JB)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Pioneer Challenge for Lent 2009

Feature 2 March 2009 | The Pioneer Challenge for Lent
Bishop Éamonn Walsh introduces a special Lenten edition of The Pioneer magazine and reminds us that "there is always someone for whom this is the year that will make the difference in their relationship with alcohol".

Bishop Éamonn Walsh
Vice Chair, Irish Bishops’ Drugs Initiative (IBDI)

bishopeamonnwalsh_webThis special edition of the Pioneer magazine to mark Temperance Sunday encourages us all to address our relationship with alcohol. Ireland will forever be indebted to Fr. Theobald Mathew, founder of the Temperance Movement. We are also indebted to Fr. James Cullen, founder of the Pioneer Association 111 years ago. Fr Cullen, in expressing appreciation of Fr. Mathew, described him as the ‘giant at his shoulder’. Matt Talbot is an inspiration, a sign of hope to those who can only safely relate to alcohol through abstinence. The abstinence of the Pioneer Association is positive in the way it converts the sacrifice involved into reparation for the suffering caused through the misuse of alcohol.

I welcome the Pioneer Association’s extended outreach to those who wish to enjoy the use of alcohol. A temporary pledge for Lent or a significant reduction in the consumption of alcohol is proposed. Temperance Sunday provides an opportunity to discuss honestly with family and friends the way we use alcohol. Minimising, denial and mistakes can be addressed in a friendly environment. Goals can be set and agreement made, to help one another in setting targets of abstinence or reduction with built-in friendly support structures to encourage and evaluate. There is always someone for whom this is the year that will make the difference in their relationship with alcohol. The Pioneer Association may occasion that difference.

The Pioneer magazine special edition for Lent 2009 includes:

- Fr Joe Dargan SJ, Chairman of the PTAA
- Mary Wallace TD, Minister for Health Promotion and Food Safety
- Bishop Éamonn Walsh, Vice-Chair, IBDI

Calling ‘time’ on alcohol related harm
- Fiona Ryan, CEO, Alcohol Action Ireland

Grappling with the demons of addiction: Invitation to give up or moderate alcohol consumption for Lent
- Bernard McGuckian SJ

- Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh

Thinking of abstaining from or reducing your intake of alcohol for Lent?

Practical suggestions from the IBDI

  • Refrain from alcohol for the weeks of Lent
  • Consider drinking non-alcoholic drinks when out with friends at the weekend
  • Reduce the intake of alcohol from what is your normal use
  • Encourage your friends to reduce alcohol intake
  • Donate some of the money saved from alcohol to a charity of your choice
  • Encourage discussion with your friends about the dangers of excessive drinking
  • Initiate a discussion in the home about the family’s attitude to and use of alcohol
  • Nationally, we might encourage people to reduce their alcohol use, say by one-third or a half, during the weeks of Lent.

The Irish Bishops' Drugs Initiative is supporting the Pioneer Challenge, which invites everyone to abstain from alcohol or reduce their intake of alcohol this Lent. At any time of year, parishes seeking further information on alcohol or drugs can contact the Irish Bishops' Drugs Initiative.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Father Martin, R.I.P.

Although their earthly lives overlapped by only eight months and had very distinct personalities and life styles, Matt Talbot and Fr. Martin were connected by their deep faith in God's mercy for alcoholics and their families.

Fr. Joseph C. Martin, S.S.

October 12, 1924 - March 9, 2009

"I'll die with a piece of chalk in my hands, talking with a bunch of drunks and addicts."

"My name is Joe Martin, and I'm an alcoholic
". Father Martin first uttered this statement in 1958, when he was in treatment for alcoholism at the Guest House, what would prove to be a refuge for him from his drinking and a turning point in his life. His personal journey in recovery prompted a celebrated career in which his only aim was to ease the suffering of individuals and families, around the world, affected by addiction.

He was born on October 12, 1924 in Baltimore, Maryland. He quickly developed a fondness for religion and faith. People fondly recall his special story-telling ability and wonderful sense of humor. In 1942, Father Martin graduated from Loyola College and entered St. Mary's seminary. He was ordained a priest in 1948 and underwent rigorous training to become a Sulpician, a highly regarded teaching society within the Catholic Church. After losing this coveted distinction as a result of his drinking, only in sobriety did he regain this title.

Father Martin taught minor seminarians and fulfilled several teaching roles within the church. It was very evident that he possessed a special ability to educate but his drinking became very troublesome and he was eventually directed to seek help at Guest House (in Michigan).. Father Martin frequently cited the tremendous impact his mentor Austin Ripley had on his journey in recovery. Many of Father Martin's teachings originated in concepts he learned while at the Guest House. His enthusiasm for sobriety coupled with his passion for teaching evolved into an unending quest to ease the suffering of individuals and families affected by addiction. In his career, spanning more than 35 years, Father Martin was catapulted into international acclaim as a prized speaker and educator on addiction and recovery thru the Twelve Steps. He founded Kelly Productions in 1972 and used it as a platform to capture the minds and hearts of millions of people.

Father Martin's message is no less relevant today than in 1972. He will continue to inspire love, service, helpfulness to others, and recovery through the use of his films, audio lectures, and books. In his last year, he shared his vision that he can be remembered so that the still suffering individual affected by addiction might benefit from his God-inspired message of hope.

Source: http://www.fathermartin.com/

Fr. Martin can be viewed speaking at http://www.youtube.com/user/fatherjoemartin.

The Rev. Joseph C. Martin, Leading Authority on
Alcoholism and Addiction Treatment, Dies at 84

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md., March 9 /PRNewswire/ -- The Rev. Joseph C. Martin, S.S.,
noted authority and lecturer on alcoholism who co-founded Father Martin's
Ashley, an addiction treatment center in Havre de Grace, MD, died today at his
home in Havre de Grace. He was 84.

Best known for his lectures on alcoholism as a disease, delivered to alcoholics
and their families with his charismatic style and sense of humor, Fr. Martin is
credited with saving the lives of thousands of alcoholics and addicts. While he
retired from active management in 2003, he continued to lecture at Father
Martin's Ashley, addressing patients as recently as November 2008.

"Today, the entire treatment community mourns the loss of an icon," said the
Rev. Mark Hushen, president and chief executive officer of Father Martin's
Ashley. "The death of Father Martin marks the end of an era.

"His world renowned 'Chalk Talk on Alcohol' changed the lives of thousands of
recovering alcoholics," Hushen said. "His humor and spirituality infused his
teachings with hope. He believed in the innate dignity of the human person and
founded Father Martin's Ashley as an oasis where alcoholics and addicts could

Fr. Martin's "Chalk Talk on Alcohol" lecture, which began: "I'm Joe Martin, and
I'm an alcoholic," and more than 40 motivational films, are legendary. His
films, which have been translated into multiple languages, continue to be used
at treatment centers around the world, in hospitals, substance abuse programs,
industry, and most branches of the U.S. government. He is the author of several
publications, including Chalk Talks on Alcohol, published by Harper & Row in
1982, which is still in print.

Fr. Martin and Father Martin's Ashley co-founder Mae Abraham raised funds to buy
and renovate Oakington, the estate owned by the widow of U.S. Senator Millard
Tydings located on the Chesapeake Bay near Havre de Grace. The center, which
opened in 1983, has since provided treatment to more than 40,000 people
suffering from the disease of addiction and has provided program services to
their families. Two years after Father Martin's Ashley opened its doors, Forbes
magazine ranked it as one of the top ten addiction treatment facilities in the
country. Today, patients come from the East Coast and across the U.S. to the
85-bed facility, which has a reputation for treating alcohol and drug addiction
and relapse with respect for the dignity of each individual who enters its

In 1972, the U.S. Navy filmed Martin's "The Blackboard Talk," which they then
dubbed "The Chalk Talk." It became known throughout the U.S. military and
established Fr. Martin as a recognized leader in the addiction treatment field.

In 1991, Fr. Martin was invited by Pope John Paul II to participate in the
Vatican's International Conference on Drugs and Alcohol. He made four trips to
Russia under the auspices of the International Institute on Alcohol Education
and Training, and also traveled to Switzerland and Poland to speak to Alcoholics
Anonymous groups as well as to addiction counselors in training.

Fr. Martin's honors and awards include the Andrew White Medal from Loyola
College, Baltimore, for his contributions to the general welfare of the
citizenry of Maryland; Rutgers University's Summer School of Alcohol Studies'
Distinguished Service Award (1988); and Norman Vincent Peale Award (1992).

Born the fourth of seven children in Baltimore on October 12, 1924, Fr. Martin
graduated from Loyola High School in 1942, where he was valedictorian. He then
attended Loyola College (1942-44). He studied for the priesthood at St. Mary's
Seminary and St. Mary's Roland Park in Baltimore (1944-48), and was ordained a
priest of the Society of Saint Sulpice, whose mission is to train and educate
seminarians, in 1948.

Fr. Martin held teaching positions at St. Joseph's College in Mountain View, CA
(1948-56) and St. Charles College, Catonsville, MD (1956-59).

In 1958, Fr. Martin began his recovery from alcoholism. Following treatment, he
worked as a lecturer and educator in the Division of Alcohol Control for the
state of Maryland prior to founding Father Martin's Ashley.

"As Father Martin passes through death to life, his legacy lives on at Ashley as
we continue his mission of hope and healing," said Fr. Hushen. "Truly, the world
is a better place for his having been here."

Sample remembrances of Father Martin:

"I'm not alcoholic because God loves me less... I'm alcoholic so God can use me more."

- Art G.

“It is easy to place the name of Father Joseph Martin in the same sentence with Bill W and Doctor Bob. Over the past 3 to 4 decades, no one has meant more to so many struggling from alcoholism and addiction than Father Martin. His presence, videos and books sustain the history of our field and serve to never allow us to deviate from the principle that have lead so many along the spiritual path to recovery. There is no person in the history of the recovery movement that I love and admire more than Father.”

-Dr. Cardwell C. Nuckols

CC Nuckols is described as “one of the most influential clinical trainers in North America.” He is widely published, having authored more than 50 journal articles, 30 books and workbooks, 38 DVDs, CDs and videos, and 17 audiotape series.

Michael K. Deaver, former White House chief of staff during the Reagan administration, had been a patient and later served on Ashley's board for a decade.

"When I came to Ashley, I had been with presidents, kings, popes and prime ministers, but Father Martin was the most powerful person I had ever met," Mr. Deaver said. "You see, Father has the power to change people, to make them better, to make them whole again."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Lenten Patterns

Although the practices of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer for Lent were well known and utilized by Matt Talbot in his day, we now have an abundance of comprehensive guidelines in print and online for Lenten practices today. Since Matt's spiritual director was a Jesuit, the following was selected as an example of one example of Lenten guidelines for today from Creighton University Online Ministries. (JB)

Beginning My Lenten Patterns

"Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results."

This saying, commonly used in 12 Step programs, reveals a real wisdom. It can be a good beginning reflection as we examine the choices we will make in the days ahead. It is very simple. Our Lord is calling us to a "change of heart." And, we know from experience, that nothing will change, unless we change our patterns. To expect different results is insanity.

So, what needs changing?

We start to come to know that by asking for help. "Lord, help me to know what needs changing." It is often said, "Be careful about what you ask for." This is one of those requests that God must surely want to answer.

Then, we have to listen. With a little bit of reflection, most of us will just begin to "name" things that make up our ordinary habits and ways of being who we are, that we aren't very proud of. Things we do and things we never get around to doing. We can "feel" the call to change our attitudes, our self-absorption, or our way of interacting with others. Perhaps a spouse, a loved one, a friend, a family member, a co-worker has told me something about myself that gets in the way of communication, that makes relating to them difficult. Maybe I don't take God very seriously. I go to Church on Sunday, and contribute my share, but I don't really take time to deal with my relationship with God. Perhaps I've let my mind and fantasy get cluttered with escapist litter. I might begin to name a number of self-indulgent habits. I may realize I rarely, if ever, hear the cry of the poor, and can't remember when I've answered that cry. It could be that dishonesty on all kinds of levels has become a way of life. One of the roadblocks in my relationship with God and others may be deep wounds or resentments from the past, things I continue to hold against others or myself.

You are always merciful! Please wipe away my sins. merciful!

Wash me clean from all my sin and guilt. - Psalm 51

(See The Penitential Psalms)

Beginning New Patters during Lent

Something all of us can do is commit ourselves to being more reflective during Lent. It just means that I'm going to make a point of being more observant, more aware of what I'm experiencing - paying more attention to what is "automatic" behavior. And, I then start paying attention to my desires. We have all kinds of desires. During Lent, I can reflect upon the desires I currently have and which of them need to be purified, which may need to be abandoned, and which are wonderful desires that are there, but I haven't acted upon them. Naming our deepest desires will guide the choices we make to establish new patterns for Lent.

Lent is the time to start new patterns of prayer. Perhaps I haven't been praying at all. This is a great time to choose to begin. It is important to begin realistically. I can start by simply pausing when I get up and taking a slow, deep breath, and recalling what I have to do this day, and asking for grace to do it as a child of God. I may want to go to bed a half an hour earlier, and get up a half an hour earlier and give myself some time alone to read the readings for the day, the Daily Reflection, or the PRAYING LENT page for the day. I may choose to go to Mass each day during Lent. I may choose to get to church on Sunday, just 15 minutes earlier, so I can reflect a bit. Lent may be a time I would want to choose to start to journal the day to day reflections that are coming, the desires I'm naming and asking for, the graces I am being given.

Lent is a great time to change our eating patterns. This is not about "losing weight" or "getting in shape," though for most of us, paying attention to what we eat, will make a difference in our overall health. This is about being more alert. Anyone who has tried to diet knows that something changes in us when we try to avoid eating. The monks in the desert, centuries ago, discovered that fasting - simply not eating - caused a tremendous boost to their consciousness. Not only did their bodies go on "alert," but their whole person seemed to be in a more heightened state of attention. The whole purpose of fasting was to aid prayer - to make it easier to listen to God more openly, especially in times of need.

Among Catholics, only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are named as days of fast we all do together. (And that fast is simply to eat only one full meal in the day, with the other two meals combined, not equal to the one.) On the Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent, we may want to try to fast more intentionally. Of course, always conscious of our health and individual nutrition needs, we may want to try to eat very little, except some juices, or perhaps a small amount of beans and rice. We will experience how powerfully open and alert we feel and how much easier it is to pray and to name deeper desires. Not only will I feel less sluggish and tired, I will feel simply freer and more energized.

The other powerful advantage of fasting is that it can be a very simple gesture that places me in greater solidarity with the poor of the earth, who often have very little more than a little rice and beans each day. Powerful things happen in me, when I think about those people in the world who have so much less than I do. And, it's a great cure for self-pity.

Practicing Generosity
Almsgiving has always been an important part of Lent. Lent begins with the powerful Isaiah 58, on the Friday and Saturday after Ash Wednesday. It is important to give ourselves the experience of fasting from being un-generous. Generosity is not simply giving my excess clothes to a place where poor people might purchase them. It's not even writing a "generous" check at the time a collection is taken up for a cause that benefits the poor. These are wonderful practices. Generosity is an attitude. It is a sense that no matter how much I have, all that I have is gift, and given to me to be shared. It means that sharing with others in need is one of my personal priorities. That is quite different from assessing all of my needs first, and then giving away what is left over. A spirit of self-less giving means that one of my needs is to share what I have with others. Lent is a wonderful time to practice self-less giving, because it takes practice. This kind of self-sacrificing generosity is a religious experience. It places us in solidarity with the poor who share with each other, without having any excess. It also joins us with Jesus, who gave himself completely, for us. Establishing new patterns of giving will give real life and joy to Lent.

Practicing Penance
When I sprain my ankle, part of the healing process will involve physical therapy. It's tender, and perhaps it is swollen. It may be important to put ice on it first, to reduce the inflammation. I may want to wrap it an elevate it and stay off of it. Then I will need to start moving it and then walking on it, and eventually, as the injury is healed, I'll want to start exercising it, so that it will be stronger than it was before, so that I won't as easily injure it again.

Penance is a remedy, a medicine, a spiritual therapy for the healing I desire. The Lord always forgives us. We are forgiven without condition. But complete healing takes time. With serious sin or with bad habits we've invested years in forming, we need to develop a therapeutic care plan to let the healing happen. To say "I'm sorry" or to simply make a "resolution" to change a long established pattern, will have the same bad result as wishing a sprained ankle would heal, while still walking on it.

Lent is a wonderful time to name what sinful, unhealthy, self-centered patterns need changing and to act against them by coming up with a strategy. For example, if the Lord is shining a light into the darkness of a bad pattern in my life, I can choose to "stop doing it." But, I have to work on a "change of heart" and to look concretely at what circumstances, attitudes, and other behaviors contribute to the pattern. If I'm self-indulgent with food, sex, attention-seeking behaviors and don't ask "what's missing for me, that I need to fill it with this?" then simply choosing to stop the pattern won't last long. Lasting healing needs the practice of penance.

Putting it All Together - Alone and With Others

In the end, the prayer of St. Augustine places us in the right spirit for Lent:

O Lord, our Lord, you have created us for yourself and

our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

Lent is indeed how God draws us home, as individuals. But, it is also a very communal journey. We never journey alone, no matter how "lonely" we may feel. We are always journeying together. If we can experience our journey in communion with others, it makes it so much clearer that we are on a journey together. When I can share my experience with even one other close friend, or with my regular worshiping community, I can enjoy and share the support and environment that allows grace to flourish.

Let us pray for each other on this journey, especially those who need and desire a change of heart on this pilgrimage to Easter joy.