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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

The Eucharistic Devotion of Venerable Matt Talbot

Fr. Scott Haynes

“As to nobility of blood, true nobility is to be derived only from the Blood of the Son of God.”

Venerable Matt Talbot


Overview


The media daily tell us what is important in this world, how things get done, and who has the power to make real change. Every politician always promises to make a difference as do political movements. But who does make a difference every day is Jesus—He who changes us by the frequent, fervent, worthy, and devout reception of the Most Holy Eucharist. We behold this most splendidly in the man Matt Talbott, a man whose life was transformed by the True Presence of Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Born in Dublin in 1856, Venerable Matt Talbot, OFS,[1] died of a heart attack there in 1925, while he was walking to the church for Holy Mass. Until the day of his death, no one knew how deep his love and devotion to Christ truly was.



Talbot was a hard worker, but he had struggled with alcohol. Even when wrestling with his addiction, he was known to be diligent in his work. There was in him a quiet strength. His example made him stand out to both his co-workers and friends. When the time of morning Mass changed, he switched jobs rather than give up his ability to attend Holy Mass every day. Clearly, he knew what his priorities were. First a devoted alcoholic, Talbot became a devoted Catholic. He gave up his hours of drinking for hours before the Blessed Sacrament. His devotion to the Eucharist is nothing short of extraordinary.


Talbot would spend time in prayer in his small room each evening. He read books on prayer and spirituality. During these hours of prayerful meditation, the Holy Spirit would prompt him to write little sayings. One apt for this Feast of Corpus Christi is: “As to nobility of blood, true nobility is to be derived only from the Blood of the Son of God.”



Matt Talbot would go to bed at 10 p.m. only to awaken himself for prayer at 2 a.m. Praying until 4:30 a.m., he readied himself for the daily morning Mass. After Holy Mass, he would partake in a small breakfast and go to perform his work. Often, he would attend meetings at his local parish and end up back at his small apartment. His routine did not change for nearly four decades. Joining the Franciscans in 1891 as a Third Order layman, Matt Talbot rarely missed the weekly meetings over the next 34 years. Venerable Matt Talbot as an example for his extraordinary ordinariness and holiness that we can all strive towards in our own lives. Matt allowed God to do with him what He willed. For a man with little education, take a look at the profundity of the following. God was his teacher and his all.


A Hard Beginning


When Matt Talbot was born on May 2, 1856, he became part of a large Irish family, being the second of twelve children. Like many, the Talbot family struggled financially. While Matt’s mother was a hardworking, saintly woman who tried to ensure her children grew up to become good Catholics, Matt’s father was a laborer with a fierce temper and a fondness for alcohol.


In those times, there was no law compelling children to attend school in Ireland. Sadly, Matt followed the example of his father and began drinking by age twelve, around the time he was employed as a messenger boy for Messrs. Edward and John Burke, wine merchants. Soon afterwards he came home drunk for the first time; the beating administered by his father had little effect, for Matt daily came home intoxicated. Matt would partake of the dregs from the bottom of wine bottles.


Living for Alcohol


Matt later admitted that from the time of his early teens to his late twenties, each day revolved around thoughts of how to obtain alcohol. Sadly, it seemed that Matt’s only aim in life was heavy drinking. It took little time before he was a hardened alcoholic. Nonetheless, Matt was always kind and helpful toward his family and friends, and, in spite of his drinking, was capable of working hard.


As he grew, Matt held a series of jobs. He was well-liked by everyone; he spent most of his paycheck buying drinks for himself and his buddies. He attended Mass each Sunday but rarely received Holy Communion or otherwise practice his faith. Through it all, his mother continued praying for his conversion, asking God to give Matt graces to give up the alcohol.


A Desperate Time


When Matt’s wages were spent up, he tended to borrow and scrounge for money in order to sustain his drinking habit. At times, he supplemented his financial earnings by minding horses outside a tavern to obtain tips from the owners. Additionally, Matt was known to pawn his clothes and boots to obtain money for alcohol.


There was a sad occasion when Matt was drinking with friends when a blind fiddle player joined the group. In his thirst for money to buy more alcohol, Matt stole the fiddle in order to sell it. The poor man was thereby deprived of his livelihood. Later, Matt Talbot’s conscience tormented him about the injustice of this incident. It haunted him for years.


Matt described how later he searched the city for the poor musician, in order to make restitution. Unable to find the musician, Matt had Masses offered for his sake to make some reparation. By the time he was twenty-eight, Matt was surely on the road to self-destruction, refusing to listen to his mother’s pleas to give up drinking.


Rock Bottom


Utterly broke and unable to buy another drink, Matt could not find anyone willing to buy him drink at O’Meara’s pub. Utterly depressed, Matt wandered the streets of Dublin. He at last decided it was time to give up alcohol. Tormented by his thirst for drink and the pains of alcohol withdrawal, Matt went to a church, hoping to receive Communion, but the church was yet locked. Matt collapsed on the church steps.


As Matt lay there, he had hit rock bottom. As he turned to God, he begged for the grace to overcome his addiction. As the faithful began to arrive for the early morning Mass, they were disgusted to see a drunk lying on the church doorsteps. What they did not realize was the miracle of grace taking place.


The Pledge


Matt was twenty-eight years old as he lay upon the doorsteps of the church that morning. As God heard Matt’s prayer, the Lord gave him strength to turn away from alcohol for the rest of his life. Matt went home and told his mother he was going to take “the pledge”[2] to reject alcohol.



Of course, Matt’s mother was thrilled about this, but she told him not to do so unless he really meant it. In this remarkable moment, Matt did mean it. In this moment of grace, he pledged to give up drinking for three months. This was the hardest time of his life, but he persevered by God’s grace, despite the knowledge that temptations would return.


Temptations Return Having given up spending time in pubs, Matt had free time. So, Matt took at walk each evening. On one occasion, he passed by Bushe’s Public House, and he was drawn in by the fragrance of beer wafting out onto the sidewalk. It was a temptation. However, he was a stranger and the man tending bar was too busy serving the locals to pay Matt any attention. Ignored, he turned away from the temptation to indulge in drink and he ended up in a Jesuit Church nearby where he made a second solemn pledge; this time to abstain from drink for the rest of his life. This experience led to another resolution, inasmuch as he decided that he should never carry any money, so as to make it impossible to purchase a drink.


Each man must choose between following Christ or following his own unruly passions. Though in our heart of hearts we may know the right choice, it is not easy to follow through on it. In the Epistle to the Ephesians (5:15-20), St. Paul had to warn his converts to watch carefully how they lived, and not to get drunk on wine, but to be filled with the Holy Spirit. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).


To overcome sinful habits (vices), we need to take several practical steps to root these out of ourselves, but we must also call upon the Lord to help us to “forsake foolishness…and advance in the way of understanding” (Proverbs 9:6-8). Conquering ourselves requires inner determination, the support of our neighbor, and God’s grace.


When we allow Jesus to live within us through grace, we find the power and strength to overcome temptations—and it is Christ, truly present in the Most Holy Eucharist, where we find the plenteous source of grace we need to live faithfully. This is the wisdom Matt Talbot discovered.


Visits to the Blessed Sacrament Dropping into churches became a way of life for Matt. In the beginning, these visits to the Blessed Sacrament substituted for the bars and taverns. Gradually, in time, Matt, who was suffering terribly from withdrawal from alcohol, began to pray to God to help him persevere.


The strict life of the early Irish monks, with its emphasis on prayer, penance, humility and manual labor appealed to him, and with this in mind, he fashioned for himself a new way of living. His austerity challenges our modern way of living, full of so many comforts. Matt teaches us self-discipline and shows us how live first for Christ in all things.


A Life of Lived Before the Blessed Sacrament


Matt Talbot became so devoted to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament that he began to spend more and more time in church on his knees before the Tabernacle. He became a great intercessor for others. As the priests heard confessions, he prayed for sinners—men and women like himself who needed God’s grace to overcome their sins. Every Sunday for forty years, he would remain after Mass praying in church for no less than seven hours. He was transfixed in prayer. His body from the knees up was as rigid and straight as the candles upon the Altar.


For the rest of his life, Matt was a quiet, humble, friendly, hard-working Catholic, quick to share a smile, a laugh, and a helping hand. He not only swore off his drinking, but also cursing, as well as use of foul language. Matt became known for speaking his mind in a respectful way, for acts of charity, and for a quiet but profound commitment to his Catholic faith. Like a St. Monica praying for her wayward Augustine, the prayers of his mother helped Matt reach a deep meatanoia,[3] a conversion of heart and mind. But it was the Eucharist which made it possible for him to persevere in his new way of life.


Each morning he attended 5:00 am Mass before starting work at 6:00 am; during his lunch hour he would visit a nearby church, and after work he frequently made a Holy Hour or went on short pilgrimages to nearby parishes. His time before the Blessed Sacrament was not only for himself, as he made reparation to God for his sins, but he spent much time in prayer, interceding for others.


How Blessed are We


As Catholics, how privileged we truly are to receive the Most Precious Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Coming before Him in a state of grace, we are filled with the life of God—the saving and transforming power of Jesus Christ.


When our time comes to be judged by God, and each moment of our lives is reviewed, we will regret the times we missed Mass, the times we were distracted while receiving Holy Communion, and the times we failed to give sufficient thanks for this great gift. We will also rejoice over the times we received this Sacrament worthily, the times we truly opened our hearts to the Eucharistic Lord, and the times we allowed His presence to strengthen, nourish, and enrich us.


The Eucharist is more than we can comprehend, more than we can understand, and certainly much more than we can ever deserve—but Jesus yearns to give Himself to us in this manner, and nothing pleases Him more than having us come forward for Communion with genuine gratitude and love.


Whether one is a great sinner needing to be turned into a great saint, like Venerable Matt Talbot, or an average Catholic simply trying to make it through another week, each one of us needs the spiritual life Jesus offers in this Sacrament. He promises that if we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we will remain in Him and He in us—and His promise deserves all our faith, all our gratitude, and all our trust.


Detachment from Self


In a spirit of Christian poverty and simplicity, Matt used his wages to pay back his debts and what little remained he gave away to others. He fasted regularly and when his mother died, the little apartment that became his home was sparsely furnished. He slept upon a plank bed with a piece of timber as his pillow. He continually sought out penances, great and small, to mortify himself and detach himself from a worldly spirit, so that he might be freer to imitate Christ.


The Day of His Death Matt was on his way to Mass in St. Saviour’s Church on Dominic Street on June 7th 1925, when he collapsed and died on Granby Lane. His life might have gone unnoticed were it not for the cords and chains discovered on his body. Inquiries revealed them to be a symbol of his devotion to the Virgin Mary.[4]


Images of Granby Lane, Dublin 1, where Matt Talbot died and his memorial plaque. You can see the back of St. Saviour’s Church in the background of the picture. Following this discovery, allied to people’s experience of him, stories about his holiness began to spread. A process was put in place which culminated in Matt being declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1975. If this opinion is confirmed by the miracles of intercession required by Canon Law, he will, in time, be declared a Saint.


His shrine is located in the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes on Sean MacDermott Street Lower in Dublin. Whether or not this comes to pass, Matt will always remain an inspirational example of one man’s capacity to transform a long road of despair into one of redemption. Matt Talbot gives us hope, especially to alcoholics, who are inspired by his courage and faith, as they seek a way out of the darkness.


“As to nobility of blood,

true nobility is to be

derived only from the

Blood of the Son of God.”

Venerable Matt Talbot


Notes


[1] Tonne, Vol. 10, #99; Ball, Modern Saints, II, p. 361.

[2] At that time if an Irishman wanted to stop drinking, the custom was to take a solemn pledge before a priest to abstain for a period of time. Matt Talbot went to Holy Cross Church where he asked for confession and took the pledge. The priest advised him to abstain from drink for 90 days and then discuss how he was doing. These were 90 days of sheer hell. Today, we are aware of the withdrawal symptoms of addiction and there is help available to assist alcoholics. There was no support then and Matt had to endure the sufferings, hallucinations, tremors, depression and nausea alone.

[3] Metanoia, a transliteration of the Greek μετάνοια, is “a transformative change of heart” and a “spiritual conversion.” The term suggests repudiation, change of mind, repentance, and atonement.

[4] St. Louis de Montfort considered himself a slave (servant) to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and, as such, he faithfully wore chains on his arms and feet as a token of his dedication and love for her. He strongly recommended, after his own example and that of many other saints, that those who complete the 33-day Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary and make the Act of Total Consecration should wear an outward sign as a reminder and expression of their holy slavery (servitude) to Our Lady in the form of a chain around the wrist, neck, or ankle. His words are excerpted below: “It is very praiseworthy and helpful for those who have become slaves of Jesus in Mary to wear, in token of their slavery of love, a little chain blessed with a special blessing. It is perfectly true, these external tokens are not essential and may very well be dispensed with by those who have made this consecration. Nevertheless, I cannot help but give the warmest approval to those who wear them. They show they have shaken off the shameful chains of the slavery of the devil, in which original sin and perhaps actual sin had bound them, and have willingly taken upon themselves the glorious slavery of Jesus Christ. Like St. Paul, they glory in the chains they wear for Christ. For though these chains are made only of iron they are far more glorious and precious than all the gold ornaments worn by monarchs.”

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