Who is Matt Talbot? A growing number of people in recovery know. In November 1991, St. John Paul II told a Guest House alumnus “I am very interested in the canonization of Matt Talbot.”
Guest House began prayers and Masses in honor of Talbot’s June 19 Feast many years ago and Guest House priests have led or been a part of the growing Matt Talbot retreat movement. Father Mark Stelzer, Guest House education director, has led several of the popular retreats.This year, Guest House brought benefactors and alumni from across the United States for its first Matt Talbot pilgrimage to Ireland, retracing his journey through life. But exactly who was Matt Talbot? His story is inspiring:
Venerable Matt Talbot (May 2, 1856 to June 7, 1925) was an Irish alcoholic (admittedly the son of a drunk), and a laborer who became an ascetic (ascetics abstain from sexual and other pleasures in pursuit of spiritual goals). When brick layer’s laid bricks, he served as their “hodman,’’ humbly gathering mortar and bricks for the craftsmen.
Numerous American Catholics say a devotion to Matt Talbot helped in their journey toward recovery. From age 13 to age 28, his drinking was uncontrollable. Friends said Matt “only wanted one thing: the drink… for the drink, he’d do anything.’’
How Matt Talbot hit bottom
In his darkest days, Matt literally spent all his available money on alcohol.
When his wages were exhausted, he could turn the mangle (the hand-driven mechanism that squeezed the water out of wet clothes) for a local wash woman. His reward for helping a wash woman? A pig’s head. He would then sell the pig’s head for money to buy drinks.
He was also known to pawn his coat or boots for money to buy alcohol and he would be mocked for walking barefoot through the streets. He hit bottom when he and his brothers stole a fiddle from a blind street musician, selling it for the price of a single drink.
He eventually began a seven year search to find the street musician he had robbed. He eventually took the money he hoped to return to the musician and used it to have Masses offered for the man’s soul.
Talbot knew he had to go to Confession. So he went to Holy Cross College, the seminary for Dublin, Ireland, where he confessed his sins.
He soon after, made a pledge to stop drinking for three months but there was no Alcoholics Anonymous, no recovery or support groups, not even family or friends he could count on. So he focused everything he had on God.
For the first time in many years, he accepted the sacrament of Holy Communion at a morning Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church, beginning a new routine of attending Mass every day. But the struggle continued. During Mass, he fell to the floor, hearing a voice tell him “It’s no use. You’ll never stop drinking.”
He got on his knees, begging God for mercy.
“Three things I cannot escape.’’ Talbot declared. “ 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.”
12 steps before the 12 Steps
Fifty years before the 12-steps were written, Matt Talbot learned his own variation with a Jesuit spiritual advisor who followed the Ignatian Way:
- He abstained from drinking (vowing to be sober for three months, then for another six months and finally for the rest of his life but the first seven years of his abstaining was particularly difficult for him.
- He confessed his sins regularly, attending daily Mass.
- He learned to read so he could study the Bible, becoming a lay member, Third Order Franciscan.
- He gained strength by frequently praying before the Blessed Sacrament, asking how anyone could be lonely when they were with the Lord. Some say they saw him in “ecstasy” when praying before the Crucifix.
- He would take working class jobs and give to charity the money he would have otherwise spent on alcohol.
- His desire for alcohol remained but when he felt the urge to drink, he went to Church, turned to God for help and prayed.
- “It is easier to get out of hell’’ than to give up drinking, Talbot said. He also gave up smoking, confiding that it was actually easier to give up alcohol than it was to quit smoking.
- Talbot was often asked to pray for others. Once, when asked to pray for a man’s sick wife, Talbot said he would pray to Our Lady. The next day, he told the man the prayers would be answered but not in the way he hoped, telling the man to not to be afraid, that everything would work out as it was meant to. The next day, the man’s wife died and the man felt certain Talbot’s prayers had been heard and that his wife was in Heaven.
Matt Talbot: From “poorest of the poor” to being widely known as holy
The poorest of the poor and most addicted people can relate to his testimony.
As the Matt Talbot Dublin Diocesan Committee argues, Talbot: “lived in a tenement, wore second hand clothes, died in a laneway and was buried in a pauper’s grave. Coming from such a deprived background and with an alcoholic father and a family history of neglect and poverty, Matt found himself sucked into the culture of addiction and to the only choice of drug available to the poor of his day, alcohol. Matt, like so many others, embraced alcohol as a means of escape from the misery and poverty of daily life. Today we live in an age of addictions more sophisticated perhaps than those of Matt’s day, addictions to substances such as alcohol and other drugs soft or hard, prescription or illegal, addictions to gambling, pornography and the internet, addictions to work, professional advancement, sex, money and power. All these have the ability to destroy our lives and like demons even our very souls as well.”
He is celebrated as a patron of the fallen, broken and alcoholics. Talbot also spoke of “the Way” saying: ““To know God and to understand His ways and to watch in His presence in all sanctity is the great end of life.”
He died at age 69 on Trinity Sunday 1925, the hottest day of the year in the midst of a heat wave, while hurrying to attend his second Mass of that Sunday. Witnesses who gathered around him after he fell in the nearby streets said his eyes closed around 9:40a.m. as the Church bells were ringing.
People immediately began talking about his intense holiness and spreading the word. A short biography written about him the year after he died sold more than 120,000 copies.
People wanted to hear his story. The first formal book about this poor worker, Life of Matt Talbot, would appear in 1928, just three years after his death. By 1931, the beatification process had already begun and the following year, the International Eucharastic Congress started encouraging pilgrims to learn the Matt Talbot story. By 1972, work began on a shrine and in 1975, he was declared Venerable by St. Paul VI.
“Never be too hard on the man who can’t give up drink,’’ Talbot once said. “It’s as hard to give up drink as it is to raise the dead to life again. But both are possible and even easy for Our Lord. We have only to depend on Him.’’
Prayer asking help from Matt Talbot in the Presence of the Lord
Gentle Matt, I turn to you in my present needs and ask for the help of your prayers.
Trusting in you, I am confident your charitable and understanding heart will make my petitions your own.
I believe that you are truly powerful in the presence of Divine Mercy.
If it be for the glory of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the honor of Mary, our Mother and the deepening of my relationship with them, show that your goodness towards me, in my daily struggles, equals your influence with the Holy Spirit, who is hidden and at home in my Heart.
Friend of pity, friend of power, hear, oh hear me in this hour, gentle Matt, please pray for me.