Jesus fell three times under his cross to show us what it looks like to persevere in weakness, and Matt Talbot does just the same.
Matt Talbot was a drunk. His father was a drunk. Nearly every one of his brothers was a drunk. He was uneducated and unskilled and died in obscurity. And someday soon, God willing, Venerable Matt Talbot will be a saint.
Talbot (1856-1925) was the second of 12 children born to a working class Dublin family at a time when work and food were scarce and hope scarcer still. Matt’s home life was unstable and his schooling inconsistent. After a few years of sporadic attendance, Matt quit school entirely and entered the workforce.
His first job was for a wine seller, and the occasional taste he took of the merchandise soon turned him into a full-fledged alcoholic. By the time he was 13, Matt’s life was driven by his need to drink. He spent all his wages on alcohol, even pawning his boots when he didn’t have enough for a pint. Matt’s father beat him and made him change jobs, but it was too late. The alcohol had taken hold of him and, as his father well knew, it wouldn’t let go without a fight.
But Matt didn’t want to fight. He wanted to drink. And only to drink. His friends later said that he “only wanted one thing—the drink; he wouldn’t go with us to a dance or a party or a school function. But for the drink he’d do anything.” For 15 years, Matt begged, borrowed, and stole whatever he needed to feed his addiction, once stealing the fiddle from a blind beggar to sell it for liquor.
Matt was a lost cause—so everybody said. But everybody reckoned without grace.
Matt Talbot was the life of the party, but one day, when he was 28, he suddenly saw how false his happiness was, how false his friendships. He had been out of work for a few days and had drunk all his wages, so he stood outside a pub waiting for one of his many drinking buddies to offer to buy him a drink. But as one old friend after another passed him by, Talbot began to realize the emptiness of his life.
Disgusted with his friends and himself, he went home, to a mother very surprised to find her son home and sober so early in the day. After dinner, he announced his intention to “take the pledge,” to vow that he would abstain from all alcohol. His mother, whose pessimism was not unfounded, urged him not to make such a vow unless he intended to keep it.
But Matt’s heart had been seized, first by misery, then by remorse, and soon by love. He made his first confession in years and returned to the Sacraments. He promised sobriety for three months, then six, then for all his life. He worked even harder at his blue-collar jobs and gave the money he would have spent on beer to the poor. He went to Mass daily, lived simply, and performed powerful acts of penance and asceticism. He became a Third Order Franciscan. He taught himself to read so that he could study the Bible and the lives of the Saints. Perhaps most importantly, he never touched a drop of alcohol again.
But he never stopped being an alcoholic; the temptation to drink remained with him. Early into his abstinence he decided never to carry money with him as it was too much of a temptation to go into a pub and buy a pint. After work, as his friends went off to the pub, Talbot went to church; if he didn’t fill his time with something, he knew he would relapse. “Never be too hard on the man who can’t give up drink,” he once said. “It’s as hard to give up the 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.”
On Trinity Sunday, at the age of 69, Matt Talbot was making his way slowly through the streets of Dublin on his way to Mass. His body weakened by decades of hard labor, he collapsed of heart failure and was discovered later, an unidentified elderly man found dead in the street. He died as he had lived, in simple obscurity. But he was born that day into glory.
Venerable Matt Talbot is proof that being a follower of Christ doesn’t make virtue easy, it just makes it possible. Jesus fell three times under his cross to show us what it looks like to persevere in weakness, and Matt Talbot does just the same, an example of what it is to live with an addiction without being ruled by it. Let’s ask his intercession for all those suffering from addiction, that God may give them the courage to persevere on the hard road of recovery. Venerable Matt Talbot, pray for us!
Meg Hunter-Kilmer profiles a saint for Aleteia every Thursday, particularly pointing out how easy it is to relate to the saints, who struggled with the same struggles we all face. Find more of her profiles here.