Conversion Stories: Venerable Matthew Talbot
As a child, I found most of the stories of saints I read to be distant and abstract, entirely irrelevant to a young dreamer like me. As an adult, however, not only have the lives of the saints influenced my spirituality and lifestyle, but many other people’s stories who have not yet been canonized have quickened my heart and linger there. The story of Venerable Matthew ("Matt") Talbot and his conversion is one of them.
Venerable Matt Talbot was a typical Irishman who lived and worked in Dublin at the turn of the nineteenth century; he was typical in the sense that he was born into a large,Catholic family deeply impoverished and afflicted with the family disease of alcoholism. But the sanctified manner in which he died was dramatically divergent from the sinful, selfish lifestyle he maintained from the onset of adolescence until his eventual conversion. “Matt Talbot was not someone who did things by halves. For as fervently as he devoted himself to drinking in his young years, he just as fervently gave the rest of his life to God” (McGrane, 2006). He lived in an epoch and milieu in which alcoholism was pervasive; Dublin alone in 1865 sheltered over two thousand pubs, and many people were recorded to have died from alcohol poisoning in 1865-1866 (McGrane, 2006).
Matt’s father was an alcoholic, and Matt himself began drinking heavily at age twelve; it was readily available to him through his job at a “wine and beer establishment in Dublin” (McGrane, 2006). His father tried to dissuade his drinking through intense scourging at home when Matt would arrive after work in a drunken stupor, but nothing and no one could prevent Matt from the downward spiral into the darkness of alcoholism.
By today’s definition, he was truly addicted to alcohol. His wages were essential to supplement his family’s needs. There were twelve of them living at home, and both his mother and father were hard workers yet very poor. As soon as Matt was paid, he gave his favorite pub owner all of his hard-earned money with the instruction to keep it all until he drank his earnings dry. He often became so desperate for alcohol that he would beg from his friends for extra money, and he even came home on more than one occasion with no shirt or boots, as he had sold them for alcohol money (McGrane, 2006).
At the age of 28, Matt hit rock bottom and pledged to his mother that he would never imbibe again. He held true to his promise. Amazingly, he was able to do this without the help of any sort of rehabilitative program, as none existed to assist him at the time. It was truly a miracle of God’s grace that Matt was able to change his life from the moment his mother told him, “Go, then, in God’s name, but don’t take [the pledge] unless you are going to keep it.” As Matt responded that he intended to keep his pledge “in God’s name,” his mother added, “God give you the strength to keep it” (McGrane, 2006).
Soon afterward, Matt chose to deepen his relationship with God, which had been waning since the disease of alcoholism had consumed his entire being. “As an alcoholic, Matt’s god was the bottle, and his altar was a bar” (McGrane, 2006). Yet, as is the case for many heroic saints whose vigor for self transforms into pining for God, Matt’s zeal for drinking quickly and permanently became transformed into a thirst for God. He realized that God alone could slake his eternal thirst, and returning to the sacraments was grace enough for Matt to tackle withdrawals and long-term sobriety.
A striking feature of Matt’s conversion is that his life did not drastically change on the exterior; he remained a hard worker at his job doing manual labor, and he continued his daily regimen without much notice from others; yet Matt’s interior life was deepening rapidly, and he kept this dramatic conversion largely to himself out of profound humility.
Eventually, however, everyone noticed Matt’s spiritual metamorphosis, though it was entirely by the silent witness of his changed life. The day after Matt made his pledge to stop drinking, he began a lifelong commitment to attend daily Mass, and he would arrive at least a half hour early for silent prayer and devotions. Instead of spending every last iota of money on alcohol, Matt donated much of his earning to charitable organizations. He joined several Catholic sodalities through his boyhood parish, and he was faithful to classic devotions, such as the Stations of the Cross and the Rosary. Most notably was how “Matt ate very little food and chose to sleep on a plank instead of a mattress” (McGrane 2006) as an act of penitence.
Matt Talbot died at the age of 65 while walking to daily Mass at St. Saviour’s Church; he had been ill with heart and kidney problems (possibly related to the many years of abusing alcohol) and yet soldiered on to spend time with the Lord while he was suffering and struggling in the physical aftermath of his former malady. No one could identify Matt when he collapsed on the road outside the parish, as he was carrying only a rosary and a prayer book. Probably most shocking of all is that physicians discovered Matt’s body was covered in chains beneath his clothing once they began to prepare his body for the autopsy prior to embalming for his funeral. Matt may have chosen to succumb to instant gratification and sensual pleasures early in his life, but he certainly became a man of humble and authentic austerity in the end of his life.
There are two reasons Matt Talbot’s story strikes me so deeply: firstly, I belong to a family riddled with alcoholism and addiction. I have witnessed family members and close friends become slaves to this disease, and a few of them have tragically died as a direct result of the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse.
Secondly, I find the humility and asceticism of Matt's life to be so relevant and inspiring. Matt’s conversion was sincere, because he was encased in humility, and humility is a virtue so contrary to our natural concupiscence. In fact, humility is the antidote to the vice of pride, which many theological scholars agree is the foundation and root of all other sins. We dwell in the midst of the technological revolution in which it is commonplace for every American household to contain a plethora of virtual devices. Yet asceticism draws the spirit of humanity, entices the eternal thirst of every soul back to its source: God and eternal rest with Him in Heaven. I cannot imagine that any of us will acquire sainthood without obtaining the virtue of humility, which necessitates a perpetual dying to self; yet it seems even more challenging to achieve this when we are immersed in busyness; surrounded by constant noise; and generally exhausted and unfulfilled by the nagging restlessness that pervades our lives. Matt Talbot recognized his own restlessness and responded quickly and fervently to God’s call for healing and holiness; this is the universal beckoning of all of humanity.
Matt Talbot may have earned an early reputation as a drunk, a low-life, and a selfish man, but he died a saintly man whose cause for canonization began in 1931. He shed everything in his old life that encapsulated his sins and instead became a true zealot for everything that encompassed holiness: living for and in God’s abundant grace so that he could gain eternity by embracing a life of extreme simplicity and penitence, prayer and self-denial. Who knows how many sufferings Matt silently offered as a sacrifice to God in reparation for his sins and for the sake of many other souls? Yet that is precisely what makes his story so beautiful: he is one of us, and his life’s journey serves as a hopeful reminder that anyone in a state of darkness and sin has the potential to become a great saint when s/he cooperates daily in the act of total abandonment to God’s love and mercy.
Matt Talbot knew God’s mercy well, because he was cognizant of the enormity of God’s love for him and for all souls. He is an excellent patron for those we all know who suffer from the disease of addiction, and what hope we can all gain in knowing and sharing his legacy with those who have lost all hope.
McGrane, Janice. (2006). Saints to Lean on: Spiritual Companions for illness and disability, 81-93. Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press.