Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France


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August 15, 2004
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

In a street in Dublin, Ireland, the morning of Trinity Sunday, June 7, 1925, a man who was making his way to a nearby church suddenly collapsed, dead. His body was taken to the hospital and washed by a religious nurse. She was greatly amazed when, in removing the deceased's clothing, she discovered a chain from which hung religious medals, wound twice around his waist. Other chains or cords encircled his arms and legs. Although these rusty chains were embedded in his skin, his body was impeccably clean. So who was this man? Was he insane or a saint?

From beer to whiskey

Matt Talbot was born in Dublin in May 1856, the sixth child in a family of twelve. As a young boy, he was placed in the school of the Brothers of the Christian Doctrine, where he did not do well in his studies. At the age of 12, he began work in a brewery. Working in an atmosphere where alcohol was everywhere, he soon followed the bad example of the other employees and began to empty the bottles. Seeing him come home every evening in unusually good spirits, his father intervened and found him another job, under his own supervision, with the port and docks committee. But Matt's situation got worse—he got into the habit of swearing and using the dockers' strong language. To top it all off, his new work buddies introduced him to whiskey! His father tried to dissuade him, and came to blows over it with him, but to no use. To his parents' despair, Matt removed himself from the paternal authority and sank into drunkenness. However, the young man was a kind-hearted soul. Realizing the dishonor he had brought upon his father, he left the docks and was hired as a mason. He then spent every evening in cabarets and regularly went home drunk. He spent his entire paycheck on booze. He sank to such a point in vice that sometimes he resorted to stealing to get ahold of alcohol.

His body was slowly being destroyed. But, more serious still is the sin that gives death to the soul: intemperate use of drink offends the Creator. Through alcoholism, just as through drugs, man voluntarily deprives himself of the use of reason, the most noble attribute of human nature. This licentiousness, when carried out in full knowledge and voluntarily, is a serious sin against God and also against the neighbor whom one, in a state of drunkenness, puts himself in danger of seriously offending. As with all serious sin, such overindulgence brings with it a loss of the state of grace, the greatest misfortune that can befall man. Indeed, man has no good more precious than the friendship of God. But this friendship is lost through serious sin. Our Lord warned His disciples against such misfortune: Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (Jn. 15:6). With these words, Jesus reveals to us the fate reserved for those who reject the divine friendship offered to every man by means of the redeeming Incarnation. Such a rejection leads to eternal death, hell, about which the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us: «Jesus often speaks of Gehenna, of the unquenchable fire reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both body and soul can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that He will send His angels, and they will gather... all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire, and that he will pronounce the condemnation: Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire! The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, eternal fire. The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in Whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs. The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mt. 7:13-14)» (CCC 1034-36).

The renunciation of sin and conversion to God are necessary for anyone who desires eternal life. To the question from the young man who asked, Master, what good must I do to possess everlasting life? Jesus replied, If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments (Mt. 19:16-17). Saint Benedict speaks no differently to the disciple who comes forward to enter monastic life: «[T]he Lord is waiting every day for us to respond by our deeds to His holy admonitions. And the days of this life are lengthened and a truce granted us for this very reason, that we may amend our evil ways. As the Apostle says, Do you not know that God's patience is inviting you to repent? For the merciful Lord tells us, I desire not the death of the sinner, but that the sinner should be converted and live... Therefore we must prepare our hearts and our bodies to do battle under the holy obedience of His commands; and let us ask God that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace for anything which our nature finds hardly possible. And if we want to escape the pains of hell and attain life everlasting, then, while there is still time, while we are still in the body and are able to fulfil all these things by the light of this life, we must hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity» (Rule, Prologue). We must therefore not put conversion off until tomorrow, as Saint John Chrysostom observed: «Let us consider our salvation. Do not delay in converting yourselves to the Lord, and put it not off from day to day (Sir. 5:8); for you do not know what tomorrow will bring« You had become intoxicated, you filled your bellies, you pillaged? Stop now, and turn back. Give thanks to God that you were not taken away in the midst of your sins« Consider that what is at stake is your soul«» (Homily on the second letter to the Corinthians).

A stroke of grace

In spite of his debasement, Matt retained a degree of propriety. He did not have illicit relations. Every morning, no matter the libations of the night before, he was up at six o'clock to go to work. He also faithfully attended Sunday Mass, even if he did not receive the Sacraments. One Saturday in 1884, divine grace knocked at his door. After having been out of work for a week, Matt, 28 years old, found himself without money and unable to buy alcohol. And yet, he was tormented by desire. Around noon, he went to station himself with Philip, his younger brother, on a street corner where workers passed after having received their pay. Surely one or another would invite him to have a drink. The workers passed and greeted him, but no one invited him. Matt was cut to the quick. To be deprived of alcohol cost him dearly, but most of all, he was wounded by the harshness of his friends, to whom he had frequently offered a round at the cabaret. He abruptly went home. His mother was quite surprised to see him arrive so early, and sober. His mother! Matt was seized with the thought that he had been so ungrateful towards her. He had given his parents almost nothing toward board and lodging (all his money went to buy alcohol!) and now his heart was broken for having left them to suffer alone, while he went off to drink in a selfish manner. At this time in Ireland, it was not unusual for a man who wanted to give up drinking to make a pledge. After the meal, sitting alone with his mother, Matt suddenly said, «I'm going to make the pledge.»—«Good heavens! Do it, but don't make it if you can't keep it!»—«I will make it, in God's name.» After having carefully dressed himself, he went to the College of the Holy Cross, asked to see a priest, and confessed. On the priest's prudent advice, Matt made his pledge for a three-month period. The next day, he went to hear the five o'clock Mass at Saint Francis Xavier Church, received Communion and returned home renewed. But to remain faithful to his pledge, the struggle would be terrible. Matt therefore decided to draw from daily Communion the spiritual strength he would need to keep his resolution. The most difficult time was the evening, after work. To avoid temptation, the newly-converted began to take walks in the city. One day, however, he entered a cabaret at the same time as a number of other customers. The bartender, who was busy, seemed to ignore Matt, who, offended by this inattention, left as quickly as possible, having decided never again to set foot in a pub.

«Will I ever drink again?»

During his walks, Matt met with another difficulty: alcohol had ruined his health, and he grew tired quickly. So, entering a church, he knelt before the Tabernacle and began to pray, begging God to strengthen him. He thus got into the habit of visiting the house of God. Nevertheless, the three months were long. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal—hallucinations, depression, nausea—were for him a veritable Calvary. At times, the old passion awakened in him—he had to struggle desperately and prolong his prayers. One day, returning home, he collapsed into a chair and sadly said to his mother: «It's all no use, Mother—once these three months are over, I will drink again«» But his mother comforted him and encouraged him to pray. Following this advice to the letter, Matt acquired a taste for prayer, and therein found his salvation. Indeed, prayer allows us to get out of situations that are hopeless in human terms. For God all things are possible (Mt. 19:26). Saint Alphonsus of Liguori, a doctor of the Church, affirms: «The grace to pray is given to everyone, such that if someone loses his soul, he has no excuse« Pray, pray, pray and never abandon prayer: he who prays is certainly saved; he who does not pray is certainly damned» (cf. CCC 2744). When the three months were over, astonished to have «stuck it out,» Matt renewed his vow for another six months, at the end of which time he promised never to drink alcohol again.

Matt began a new life, a life of intimacy with God, of which daily Mass was the pillar. But, in 1892, the five A.M. Mass at which Matt usually received Communion was canceled. The first Mass from then on was at 6:15. Despite the real skill he had acquired in his work, he did not hesitate to change jobs, and was hired as a simple manual labor at a wood merchant's, where work didn't start until eight o'clock. His new job consisted of loading trucks. At night, as soon as work was over, he washed up with care, put on his best clothes—because he did not want to enter the house of God with his work clothes on—and went to the church to visit the Blessed Sacrament. One day, he admitted to his confessor: «I greatly desired the gift of prayer, and my wish has been fully granted.» His existence from them on was completely directed towards God, and especially to the true presence of the Lord in the Tabernacle. «[W]hile the Eucharist is reserved in churches or oratories—Christ is truly Emmanuel, which means God with us,» wrote Pope Paul VI. «For He is in the midst of us day and night; He dwells in us with the fullness of grace and of truth. He raises the level of morals, fosters virtue, comforts the sorrowful, strengthens the weak and stirs up all those who draw near to Him to imitate Him, so that they may learn from His example to be meek and humble of heart, and to seek not their own interests but those of God. Anyone who has a special devotion to the sacred Eucharist and who tries to repay Christ's infinite love for us with an eager and unselfish love of his own, will experience and fully understand—and this will bring great delight and benefit to his soul—just how precious is a life hidden with Christ in God and just how worthwhile it is to carry on a conversation with Christ, for there is nothing more consoling here on earth, nothing more efficacious for progress along the paths of holiness» (Encyclical Mysterium fidei, September 3, 1965).

The meaning of the chains

Matt Talbot cherished a tender devotion to the Mother of Jesus. Every day, he recited the Rosary and the office of the Blessed Virgin. Around 1912, he read the Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin, by Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort. In this book, he learned to practice «holy Slavery» through the consecration of his entire being and all his possessions to the service of Mary. As a practical means of living in the spirit of this filial attachment to Mary, Saint Grignion recommended the wearing of a small chain. This is the meaning of the chains found on Matt Talbot's body after his death.

Naturally quick-tempered, Matt came to find it difficult to endure his companions' swearing and coarse language. When they took the Lord's name in vain, he respectfully lifted his hat. Seeing this gesture, his friends would redouble their bad language. At first, Matt would severely reprimand them, but later on, he limited himself to gently saying, «Jesus Christ hears you.» One day, he sharply criticized his foreman for a less than generous charitable contribution. His boss called him back to respect and, the next day, Matt reported to his boss: «Our Lord,» he declared, «told me that I must ask your forgiveness. I am coming to do it.» His exemplary life ended up inspiring respect. What is more, he was a pleasant companion, always the first to laugh at a good joke, provided that it was within the limits of propriety.

«Your clothes look wretched»

In imitation of the ancient Irish monks who followed the tradition of Saint Columba, Matt Talbot imposed upon himself an ascetic dietary regimen, both for the expiation of his sins as well as to mortify himself and promote in himself the life of the spirit. However, when friends invited him, he ate like everyone else. Entering the Third Order of Saint Francis, he applied himself to imitate Christ's poverty, reducing his needs to the bare minimum, and giving the rest to the poor. At the beginning of his conversion, he had kept the habit of smoking. One day, one of his friends asked him for tobacco. He had just bought a pipe and a bag of tobacco. In a heroic gesture, he gave them both away, and would never smoke again. He ordinarily wore shabby and threadbare clothes, and one day, someone gave him a new suit. He wanted to refuse it, but his confessor intervened—«Talbot, your clothes look wretched. They are offering you a new suit«»—«Father, I promised God never to wear new clothes.»—«Well!» replied the Father. «It's God Who is sending you these!»—«All right, if it's God Who is sending them to me, I'll take them.»

If there was one luxury that Matt allowed himself, it was books. He loved to spend time reading, his favorite reading material being the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Saints. Flipping through the Bible found in his home after his death, one could notice that he was especially fond of the Psalms, particularly the penitential Psalms in which the sinner expresses regret to God for his sins, but also unshakable confidence in divine mercy: Have mercy on me, O God, in Your goodness; in the greatness of Your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me« Give me back the joy of Your salvation« (Psalm 50 [51] «Miserere»). He also made notes that reveal an astonishing elevation of thought for a man of very rudimentary schooling. Some examples of his reflections: «Our time in this life is only a race to death, in which no man can stop« Freedom of the mind is gained by freeing oneself from pride, which makes the soul disposed to do the will of God in the smallest things« Applying the will consists in doing good, abusing it consists in doing evil« In meditation, we seek God through reason and commendable acts, but in contemplation, we see effortlessly«» This life of prayer and penitence was strengthened by exceptional graces. One day he confided to his sister: «How sad it is to see what little love people have for God!« Oh Susan! If you knew the profound joy I felt last night as I was conversing with God and His Blessed Mother!», then, realizing that he was talking about himself, he changed the subject.

There was profound unrest in Ireland in the period from 1911 to 1921—labor conflicts marked by unemployment and strikes, the struggle for home rule, the First World War, then the war between Ireland and England. In the midst of this unrest, Matt kept his soul in peace. Nevertheless, the workers' cause was close to his heart. He candidly condemned the inadequacy of the salaries of married workers, whom he helped financially as much as he could. But he never demanded anything for himself. When friends quit their jobs or were dismissed, he expressed support of their cause.

«Thank the Great Healer»

At the age of sixty-seven, Matt Talbot was physically spent—shortness of breath and heart palpitations forced him to ease up on his activities. After two hospital stays in 1923 and 1925, he recovered to some degree and took up his work again. During these stays, as soon as he was able, he would go to the chapel. To a nun who scolded him for the fright he had given her when he disappeared from his room, he answered, smiling, «I have thanked the sisters and the doctors—was it not right to thank the Great Healer?» On Sunday, June 7, 1925, he was making his way to the Church of the Holy Saviour. Exhausted, he collapsed on the sidewalk. A lady gave him a glass of water. Matt opened his eyes, smiled, and let his head fall down again—this was the great encounter so desired with Christ Who came to call, not the self-righteous, but sinners (Mt. 9:13). In 1975, Matt Talbot received the title «Venerable». Today, many charitable organizations dedicated to helping victims of alcohol and drugs place themselves under his patronage.

Matt Talbot is a model for all men and women. To victims of alcoholism or drugs, he shows through his example that with the grace of God, recovery is possible. «Alcohol addictions are at times so strong that those closest to the alcoholic are led to believe that he will never overcome his addiction, and the alcoholic himself is tempted to lose all hope. It is good then to remember Jesus' resurrection. This reminds us that failure is never God's last word» (Social Commission of French Bishops, declaration of December 1, 1998). To those who are slaves to other sins (idolatry, blasphemy, abortion, euthanasia, contraception, adultery, debauchery, homosexuality, masturbation, stealing, false witness, slander, etc.), he reminds them that one must «never despair of God's mercy,» in accordance with Saint Benedict's recommendation (Rule, ch. 4). Our Lord promised St. Margaret Mary that sinners would find in His Heart the source and the infinite ocean of mercy. Just as it is the nature of a ship to sail on the water, it is God's nature to forgive and be merciful, as the Church confirms in one of its prayers. Saint Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, also was able to write near the end of her manuscripts: «Even if I had on my conscience all the sins that can be committed, I would go, my heart broken with repentance, to throw myself into the arms of Jesus, for I know how much He loves the prodigal child who returns to Him.» She added, in spoken words, «If I had committed all the crimes it is possible to commit, I would still have the same confidence, I would feel that this multitude of offenses would be like a drop of water thrown into a raging blaze.» Matt Talbot's life eloquently proves that by turning faithfully to the Lord to ask forgiveness, one may, through the Sacrament of Penance, the normal way of reconciliation with God, begin a new life under Mary's maternal gaze.

Venerable Matt Talbot, obtain for us the grace of turning with confidence to the divine mercy, and of going to the very end of the demands of a passionate love for Jesus and Mary!

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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