Alcohol is the world’s most popular drug. It can relax and it can stimulate. In a higher dose it is definitely a downer. It has wrecked many a life.
Is there any hope out? Yes there is. By chance, last September I came across a church – Our Lady of Lourdes – in a very poor and downtrodden part of Dublin. Inside I was surprised to see a glass panel through which a coffin could be seen. ‘Here lies the remains of Matt Talbot 1856-1925’, the inscription said.
Who is Matt Talbot? He is an alcoholic worker who today is on the road to be canonized. His story sings of resurrection.
Born the second eldest of twelve children to a poor family, he found himself drinking alcohol when he was only twelve years old. His father was a known alcoholic. He worked as a messenger boy and then in a bricklayer’s shop.
The drinking got worse and worse. When drunk, he became very hot-tempered, got into fights, and swore foully. He became so desperate for more drinks that he would buy drinks on credit, sell possessions – once he pawned his own boots – or simply steal.
On one occasion, a fiddler joined them for the fun. When the money was running short, Matt took the fiddle and pawned it. He then returned with the money and bought more drinks. It wasn’t until the party broke up that the fiddler realized that his means of livelihood was gone. Matt never forgave himself for being so insensitive.
But God is never far away. He came forward and gave Matt a helping hand. One day, utterly broke, – he was 28 years old – he loitered around hoping that his friends would invite him for a drink. Strangely, they completely ignored him. Matt said later that he was ‘cut to the heart’ by this treatment. He went home and solemnly announced to his mother that alcohol is a past thing. “I’m going to take the pledge”, he told his mother.
The pledge is a promise favored by various temperance societies to totally abstain from the use of alcohol.
His mother was skeptical. But she gave him some wise advice. She told him, “Go, in God’s name, but don’t take it unless you are going to keep it.” And as he was going out of the house, she continued, “May God give you strength to keep it.” God can make the impossible possible.
The grace of God slowly changed this man. Matt was a new man. “Three things I cannot escape: the eye of God, the voice of conscience, the stroke of death. In company, guard your tongue. In your family, guard your temper. When alone guard your thoughts”, he said later.
After successfully fulfilling his pledge for three months, he made a life long pledge. “It is consistency that God seeks”, Matt Talbot said. He became a good humored and amicable man. Slowly he paid all his debts.
He started attending Mass every morning at 5am! In the evening after work he would walk to another Church and spend his time praying. This was his way of defending himself from meeting his former drinking companions. Because, the truth of the matter was, he still had a tremendous yearning to go and start drink again. It was a horrendous struggle. Vices do not die easily. He later joined the Third Order of St. Francis.
“Never look down on a man, who cannot give up the drink”, he told his sister, “it is easier to get out of hell!”
He transformed his incessant craving for drink into a drive for closer union with God – a one-day-at-a-time approach which lasted forty years. In order to help himself, he even started mortifying himself rigorously. He fashioned his life on the Irish early monks, who believed that prayer, fasting and almsgiving would bring them closer to God. He slept in chains which he wore for 14 years before his death, round his leg and on his body.
Mortification is not senseless punishing of the body. It is the continual process of putting to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature. The positive aspect of it is that it makes room for the graces of power, peace, and Christ-likeness to grow in our heart. It gives the opportunity for God to flourish.
Matt was on his way to Mass on Trinity Sunday, 1925, when he collapsed and died. A paragraph in the newspaper Irish Independent of the following day stated, “An elderly man collapsed in Granby Lane yesterday and, on being taken to Jervis Street Hospital, was found to be dead. He was wearing a tweed suit, but there was nothing to indicate who he was.”
His story should have ended there. There were only a handful of people for his funeral. He was buried in a pauper’s grave. However God decided otherwise. Matt Talbot quickly became an icon for those struggling against addiction.
The Resurrection 2006 makes the impossible possible! What a blessed day this is! The Lord went down to Hades and He destroyed the hold that death had over us. Now He can make us able to live as though completely alive, completely pure, completely content, complete in all things, lacking nothing! Matt Talbot is a living witness.
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.