Have you met Matt Talbot? I have just met him myself.
Rummaging through the book bins in my local
dump recycling center, I found a small red pamphlet Matt Talbot, Alcoholic. Subtitled The Story of a Slave to Alcohol Who Became a Comrade of Christ’s, it was written in 1947 by Albert H. Dolan, a Carmelite priest sympathetic to the labor movement of the era and to the newly formed Alcoholics Anonymous. The red pulp cover, the length of the title, the graphics, the old imprimatur by Chicago’s esteemed Cardinal Stritch—how could it be left for the shredder?
I am grateful to have found it.
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It introduced me to a mystic to believe in.
Born in Dublin in 1856, Matt Talbot was no one in particular. A man of little schooling, he was a common laborer, an all-too-common drunk from the age of twelve until his conversion—metanoia in a man on the skids—from alcohol when he was twenty-eight. There were no names to drop on his behalf. He had no noticeable achievements, no wealth, no followers, no claims to sanctity, no recorded visions. He wrote no autobiography, left nothing to draw attention to himself. Yet within fifty years of his death he reached the first stage of canonization and was named Venerable Matt Talbot.
No saint had appeared on the street to call him to sobriety. His radical change of heart happened in quite an ordinary way. Fr. Dolan explains:
For the first time  liquor had kept him from work. He devoted an entire week, day and night, to drinking. Saturday, pay day for all but him, found him thirsty but penniless. Believing that his drinking companions, fellow-laborers in the brick-yard, would sympathize with his thirst and offer to treat him, he took his stand between the yard and the tavern so that his friends with their pay in their pockets would see him. Several of them greeted him with a “Good day, Matt,” but not one stopped to ask if he would like a drink.
His drinking buddies had welcomed him when he had money for his drinks and theirs, but “for Matt penniless they had no use.” He was cut to the heart. It was, in its sad, unspectacular way, his Pauline moment.
. . . Matt surrendered. “I’ll go home,” he said. It was not his false friends who, as it were, slammed the door in his face; it was Divine Providence. Christ, the Good Shepherd, planned that day of desolation.
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Dolan continues with a stanza from Francis Thompson’s Hound of Heaven. The stanza ends with what the writer calls “the theme song of Matt’s life:”
Rise, clasp My Hand and come!
Keeping sober was a battle. The temperance movement was strong but the habit of drink was stronger. Matt took the pledge of total abstinence in stages, uncertain he could make a lifetime commitment. He prayed for the will to conquer the craving. Prayer his only support, he threw himself into it like the strategist of a military campaign. Over time, as the craving for drink diminished, his craving for prayer increased. He lived another forty-one years intoxicated by the sacraments, captivated by the lives of the saints, quickened by love of the God he had ignored through his youth. He met Christ, the Great Healer, in the Eucharist and in visits to the Blessed Sacrament.
In recompense for the years of drunkenness, the injustice of so much hurt to his parents, he mortified himself. With the knowledge of no one but his confessor, he wore chains—similar to tire chains—around his body day and night. His asceticism was his secret. Toward the end of his life, when illness sent him to the hospital, he removed the chains ahead of time. Only after his release, did they go back on.
Were it not for those chains, the name Matt Talbot might never have been known. One morning in 1925, he collapsed on the street on his way to early Mass. Discovery of chains on his body led to inquiries into his life. It was, in many ways, a harrowing one, as excruciating to modern imagination as it is heart-rending.
He did not pronounce on love of neighbor. He simply loved:
For the greater part of his life, his pay was about five dollars a week. More than half . . . disappeared in charitable donations. He lived on $1.20 a week, including his rent, until, after World War I, his wages increased to $15.00. The only change which the increase of wages made was to increase his charitable gifts, for thereafter he lived on $2.00 a week and gave the rest to charity.
He was a union man, indignant on behalf of laborers, especially married ones with families to support. Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day might have regarded him as a model of the Christian worker, intent on imitating the Carpenter’s Son, and a man committed to justice to both laborer and employer. Dolan’s tribute reverberates with the language of the time:
If workers everywhere were to take Matt as their model, they would seek satisfaction for their just complaints through Christian channels, and reject the false promise of Communism which is both Godless and anti-Christian.
Matt’s single possession was his personal library, a small miracle in itself. A man with virtually no schooling, “read and digested some of the most advance and profound treatises of mystical theology.” He once mentioned reading Newman’s Apologia. But was that not over his head, objected a friend? Matt replied that he prayed for understanding and seemed to have been granted enough light to grasp most of what he read.
He read kneeling, so close did he come to prayer in the reading.
There is more to know. But a single thing moves—and exhilarates—me more than anything I have read in a very long time. A friend who asked him what ever did he say to God in all his hours in church or in the little space he used on the job when things were slow:
I say nothing to Him. I look at Him and He looks at me.
The splendor of that! The ineffable comes in silence; and leaves silence behind.
Pray for us, Matt.
Note: Matt Talbot’s cause for canonization was given the kibosh in 2002 on grounds that no discernible miracles could be attributed to his intercession. More on that next time.