Saturday, February 22, 2020

Praying with Matt Talbot
"By Father Don, CP
January 22, 2020

Someone once said to me, “We are all addicts”. I have worked for a long time with people in AA. I know some people in NA and OA, and even SA.In an article by Richard Rohr, a modern spiritual writer, he describes how we are all addicts. He describes two of our generalized addictions… One he names ‘stinking thinking’. Do we always have to be right? Are our opinions set in concrete? Are we addicted to our habitual way of thinking and doing?
Rohr also points out another general addiction… All societies are addicted to themselves, to what they consider valuable and worthwhile. We Americans like to buy new stuff, money back guarantee, to make our lives easier or happier. How much of that stuff ends up in our garage? Are we addicted to ‘consumption? 

Rohr believes that only a life lived with a spiritual depth can get us beyond these generalized addictions. A developing prayer life plugs us into something deeper and richer than our social environs, commercials and the internet. Rohr calls this ‘divine therapy’. (See R. Rohr, Daily Meditations, Sunday, December 8, 2019)

There are also individual addictions we can suffer from. Some become addicted to alcohol and pills, others to shopping, others to the internet and porn. Some millennials become addicted to their smart phones… a recent study found that millennials check their smart phones on an average of 87 times a day. So much information… so little meaning. Many suffer from FOMO –a new dis-ease – Fear Of Missing Out. Would that we would lift our minds and hearts to God 87 times a day. Would that we suffered from FOMG – Fear Of Missing God.
Are you aware of any addictions in your life? How long have you had them? How do you deal with them?
Many people deny their addictions.  ‘I can stop internet shopping any time I want to’. Can you? Try it for two weeks. ‘I can stop porn any time I want to’. Can you? Try stopping for two weeks.
Remember, you can’t heal what you do not acknowledge.
The first step in dealing with our addiction… own up to it. We need to honestly recognize our activity as an addiction. Shortly I will be describing the life of Matt Talbot. At age 28 he had a ‘moment of clarity’ when he recognized how important booze was to him… he couldn’t stop drinking.He was in bondage to booze.
As I tell Matt’s story I will at times compare his experiences with those of people in AA.  In AA, for example, this ‘moment of clarity’ leads to the First of the Twelve Steps.

 We admitted we were powerless over alcohol… that our lives had become unmanageable.’ 
That’s what Matt Talbot experienced. What about us? Instead of alcohol we might put drugs, food, sex, shopping, porn, or the way that our society believes that ‘stuff’ will make us happy.
Remember, you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge.
How can we rise above our addiction (s)? What happened to Matt Talbot that began to change his life? As we go thru the life of Matt Talbot notice both the physical and the spiritual parts of his dealing with his alcoholism. Matt dealt with his alcoholism toward the end of the 1800’s, well before the publishing of AA’s Big Book in the 1939, which introduced the world to AA.
Heroes and Saints
Before looking at the life of Matt Talbot I would like to look at the topic of heroes and saints. This might help us understand why we’re even considering Matt Talbot and Praying with Matt Talbot.
Heroes…  19th Century
In an interesting book entitled A Call to Heroism by Harvard History Professor Peter Gibbon, he notes that in the 19th century our country paid homage to many heroes who it looked up to: George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, Lewis and Clark.  Such heroes were larger than life. They inspired and challenged people. Heroes were distinguished by their achievements, by a certain largesse of soul. They participated in heroic events with courage and bravery.  Heroes enhanced life, they inspired and stretched our imagination. They showed nobleness and moral bravery, calling us to search for our better selves. They challenge us to “surmount adversity and fight despair.  Human beings become heroic when, against all odds, they persist; when despite their flaws, they achieve.”  (p. 183)
Heroes show us that we humans can overcome our frailties and flaws and follies, our ignorance and illnesses… that courage and patience can create something great.
As we examine the life of Matt Talbot, we see a hero who struggled with his alcoholism with courage and patience and certainly with God’s help.
Heroes show us that life is more than being a happy consumer, deluged in entertainment and in bondage to the constant need to consume more "stuff". Heroes challenge us to move beyond ‘my life is all about me’.
What happened to "heroes" in the 20th century?
With the wealth of information about past heroes now available, biography gave way to pathography. Biography used to celebrate talents and achievements, virtue and inspiring character traits. In the 20th century biographies of heroes began to highlight their quirks and their "dark sides." Heroes were debunked as their character defects and their foibles were intimately described.  The "clay feet" of heroes became all too visible. Today there is much cynicism and skepticism regarding so-called "heroes".  We live in a society that tends to look upon our leaders with skeptical eyes. We tend to be suspicious of anyone who might be considered as great or heroic.  
I find it interesting that Matt Talbot and many people in AA today own up to their addiction and their character defects. They witness to the action of God in their lives. Their lives are now spent in service to others. Prayer becomes important in Matt Talbot’s life and in the lives of AA people today.  AA’s Step 11 points to the importance of prayer in our life.
Step 11… Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. (Big Book, P. 59)
Our modern society seldom if ever recognizes or encourages this.
As we present Matt Talbot’s life, we will see the heart of this Step 11 in his life as he developed his spiritual life. 
For us Catholics we look to our family of saints for examples of heroism. Saints are members of God's family who have passed from this life to the banquet of life in the presence of God.  They are still an important part of our faith journey thru this life. We believe that even now they care for us by interceding for us before God.  But the saints do more. They are examples and challenges.
The saints show us how God's grace can transform peoples' lives. Matt Talbot’s life shows us how God's grace can enter a person's life and transform that life. Saints help us to glimpse God's glory present among us. 
The saints also exemplify for us the human response to God's grace.  Matt Talbot shows us how to respond to God's gracious call and live as God’s people in our world.  Matt Talbot gives us encouragement and even guidance in facing the challenges of addiction in our own time and culture as we ponder the story of his life and how he met its challenges. 
Matt Talbot… A Modern Saint
Now we come to the main topic of our reflections… Praying with Matt Talbot.
First let me say that Matt Talbot is not a saint – yet. He is a Venerable… on the path to being declared a saint by our Church. Let’s look at the life of Matt Talbot… why he is a Venerable and why he is the patron of those addicted to alcohol. Indeed, his life can help us deal with all of our addictive behaviors. That’s why we want to ‘Pray with Matt Talbot’.
Matt Talbot was born in Dublin, Ireland, on May 2nd, 1856. His family was large… 11 siblings, 7 boys and 4 girls. All but one of the boys died young. Matt survived. His father was a heavy drinker. His family was poor. The family moved often. 
At age 10 Matt went to school. He left two years later, still unable to read and write. At age 12 he got a job at Porter and Stout Bottling Co. His drinking career began. By age 14 he was drinking whiskey. By age 16 he regularly came home from work drunk. 
As he developed his drinking career, every evening after work he trekked to his ‘watering hole’, O’Meara’s Pub. Drink was his only interest. When his wages were spent, he borrowed, pawned his clothes and did extra work at small jobs for more money to drink. Matt was an alcoholic.
By age 28 he was well on his way to destruction. One Saturday morning in 1884 Matt waited outside of O’Meara’s without a penny to his name. He had been unemployed that week. When he had money, he would share it generously with his drinking friends. Now he thought his ‘friends’ would help him out. Surprise… they passed him by, one by one… basically ignoring him. He was just a drunk.
Matt was stunned and hurt and angry. But it was a ‘moment of grace’. People today in AA call it ‘a moment of clarity’. Matt thought about his predicament and realized he was totally enslaved to booze. He was powerless.  He decided to ‘take the Pledge’ for three months… no booze for three months – period.  He went home and told his mother, ‘Ma, I’m going to take the Pledge’. He was 28 years old. (The Pledge was a promise common in Ireland to avoid drinking – no drink - for a certain period of time.)
The next three months were sheer hell for Matt. He stopped drinking ‘cold turkey’, as folks in AA describe it today. The withdrawal symptoms from his addiction - hallucination, depression and nausea - were extremely painful for Matt, but he stuck to it. Here began the physical part of Matt’s recovery. It was tough. In his day and age there was no detox or rehab centers. 
To fill in the time he’d spend at O’Meara’s, Matt went for a walk every evening after work. He was tempted to stop into the old watering hole… Once he stopped into another bar… but was not served immediately as the barman was busy serving regulars. Matt stormed out and went into a Jesuit Church. Here begins the spiritual part of Matt’s recovery.
Dropping into a Church during his evening walks became a habit. Gradually he began to pray, to ask God for help. This would be considered Step Two of AA’s Twelve Steps:
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
This was something new for Matt… he was not a man of prayer. He had been raised Catholic but had not practiced. To find the strength to remain sober he decided to attend Mass every morning before work and to receive Communion. Daily Communion was not common practice in those days. Catholics went to Mass on Sunday only and waited til Easter and Christmas to receive Communion.
Matt broke the mold. His life began to change. His spiritual life began to grow. This would be comparable to Step Three of AA:
Made a decision to turn our lives and our wills over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Matt Talbot never married. After he took the Pledge he lived in a number of tenement flats. Matt’s mother died. Matt decided to live as an Irish monk lived in the 6th century… A simple life. His flat was like a Monastery room in the 6th century… Modest and spartan.  His meals were simple and small. He slept only 5 hours a night. He rose at 5 AM to go to Mass. 
Matt worked in the lumber yard of T & C Martin where he was employed as a laborer. He was a hard worker. Matt became concerned about the rights of workers in an age when workers’ rights were not a major concern.
Matt joined several religious associations, from the Third Order of St. Francis to the Workingman’s Sodality. He attended a meeting almost every evening. These organizations centered around prayer devotions and doing charitable works. AA also stresses service, especially to other alcoholics.
Matt learned to read and write. He came home every evening between 9 and 10 PM and would begin his spiritual reading for several hours until he went to bed. Matt developed the habit of reading Sacred Scripture. His reading was guided for most of his life by Dr. Michael Hickey, Professor of Philosophy in Clonliffe College. Under Dr. Hickey's guidance Talbot's reading became wider. He laboriously read the Bible and the lives of saints, The Confessions of St. Augustine, the writings of St. Francis de Sales and others. When he found a part difficult to understand, he asked Professor Hickey or a priest he knew to help him understand. He had a lively devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. He loved St. Therese of Lisieux and her simple way of doing ordinary things extraordinarily well for the love of God. Matt was immersed in God.
Matt was known as a happy man, quiet and with a good sense of humor. He was generous and would help fellow workers who needed some money to buy clothes or shoes for their kids. He never insisted on getting his money back.
At age 67 Matt had his first serious illness. He was under a Doctor’s care for the next two years. At age 69 Matt died of a serious heart attack on the way to Mass on Sunday, June 7, 1925. 
As word of Matt Talbot spread he rapidly became an icon for Ireland's temperance movement, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. His story soon became known to the large Irish emigrant communities. Many addiction clinics, youth hostels and statues have been named after him throughout the world from Nebraska to Warsaw to Sydney.
Let’s look at the various aspects of Matt’s spiritual life. Here we can talk about ‘Praying with Matt Talbot’. What are the spiritual parts of Matt’s life?
  • Matt began to spend time in prayer… stopping in a Church every evening and asking God for help. He realized he could not resist alcohol under his own power. 
  • He began to attend daily Mass and Communion… he ‘practiced his religion’. This was a beautiful way to develop his spiritual life.  He uses what is at hand to deepen his journey with his God.
  • Matt led an austere life. His life was no longer about taking care of Matt first. His life was not about ‘stuff’. 
  • He began to read SS and the lives of the saints to feed his spiritual life. He was challenged by the lives of the saints… The saints show us that we humans can overcome our frailties and flaws and follies, our ignorance and illnesses… with the help of God’s grace our courage and patience can create something great.
  • Matt joined spiritual organizations which he attended most evenings a week. Here he was embedded with spiritual people – people not perfect, but certainly trying to lead good and faithful lives. 
  • These spiritual organizations centered around devotional prayer and doing works of charity… reaching out to be of service to others in need.
Summary of the spiritual life of Matt Talbot…
  • Time for prayer everyday
  • Practice your religion if you have one
  • Keep your life as simple as possible
  • Feed your spiritual life with Sacred Scripture and the lives of the saints or the lives of other good people… 
  • Find a mentor to help you… (in AA this could be a sponsor)
  • Don’t do it alone… plug into others who are spiritual people… (in AA this could be other folks in the AA Program who exhibit a spiritual life and who lead lives of service)
Addictions are part of our society’s sickness and darkness. 70,000 opioid ODs in 2018 is a chilling statistic.
I have tried to address two general addictions we all encounter, then specific addictions prevalent today. How might we deal with addictions? 
I briefly described Richard Rohr’s ‘divine therapy’ approach to generalized addictions. Then I turned to specific addictions. I briefly dealt with heroes and saints as people who can help us. I believe we need heroes and saints today to whom we can look for encouragement and some answers.
Matt Talbot is a wonderful example of a life of a heroic and saintly individual who struggled with his alcoholism. When we look at his life and how he dealt with his alcoholism we see a number of the principles of today’s AA Program which helps so many alcoholics today. 
Their 12 Steps have been successfully applied to other addictions which burden our society. I believe Matt Talbot’s spirituality parallels in a number of ways the spirituality of the AA Program. Then we examined elements of Matt Talbot’s spirituality which can help those in bondage to addictions today…  a ‘divine therapy’ in the words of Richard Rohr, a modern spiritual writer and teacher.
Read the final paragraph of the Big Book of AA, P. 164
“Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.”
May God bless you and keep you – until then.