Saturday, January 28, 2017

Venerable Matthew Talbot (1856-1925)

Matt Talbot near the end of his life
True lovers love extravagantly, and Matthew Talbot was an extravagant lover of God. This Franciscan tertiary's penitential practices might come across as excessively severe today, but they were in fact unabashed outpourings of a soul totally abandoned to the Lord.

Talbot was born in Dublin, Ireland, the second of 12 children in a poor working-class family. With only a single year of formal schooling from the Christian Brothers, the 12-year-old Matthew started working to augment his father's meager wages and help support the family. His first job was running messages for a wine merchant, and Matt Proved himself to be a hardy and dependable employee.

Through the influence of his mother, Talbot was initially inclined to moral living, but the bad example of his fellow workers took its toll on the impressionable youth. Talbot's work afforded him easy access to alcohol, and his introduction to strong drink quickly developed into a full-blown addiction. He always managed to keep down a laboring job of one kind or another, but Matt's drinking inevitably disrupted his personal affairs. His wages were increasingly devoted to purchasing liquor instead of helping his family; he once sold his own shoes for another drink.

By the time Matt was 28, his derelict condition had progressed to the point that even his drinking buddies avoided him. Desperate, ashamed, and abandoned, he approached a priest one night for confession and followed it up by taking a three-month pledge of abstinence. Talbot doubted his ability to stay sober for any length of time, but he prayed hard, took one day at a time, and did indeed stay dry. He subsequently pledged to forego alcohol permanently, redirecting his focus toward personal mortification and the interior life.

Talbot took to sleeping no more than four hours a night, and that on a bed of planks with a pine wood block for a pillow. He arose every morning for several hours of prayer on his knees before attending Mass at 6:00 a.m. Then he was off to the lumberyard, where he worked a 10-hour day as he had before his conversion, but now silently communing with his Savior as he labored, and taking every opportunity to exhort his co-workers to sanctity.

Matt fasted often, but even when he didn't, he routinely skipped lunch, spending that time on his knees, and eating only a very light supper after work. He spent his evenings in prayer, or attending a variety of pious gathering, before retiring to bed by 11:00 p.m.

The list of his regular devotional practices is extensive, including 15 decades of the Rosary and the Way of the Cross daily, novenas prior to every feast, substantial spiritual reading, and a variety of popular devotions. On Sundays he would remain in his parish church most of the day to attend every mass. Talbot's was a life wholly given over to the things of God, and he took the greatest joy in lavishing himself on his Creator.

Upon the recommendation of his confessor, Talbot joined the Third Order of St. Francis to add structure to his devotional life and further reinforce his sobriety. It was an ideal match, for Matt had already adopted a Franciscan way of life as if by intuition. Like the Poor Man of Assisi, Talbot embraced poverty and got by on only a fraction of his already meager income. He donated the rest to charity and the missions, and often supplemented the take-home pay of fellow workers who headed large families.

Statute of Matt Talbot, Dublin
Matt also mirrored St. Francis in sharing Christ's physical agonies. But whereas Francis bore that suffering literally in the stigmata, Talbot took it on by means of heavy chains wound around his body – a mortification that was hidden his whole life and only revealed as nurses prepared his body for burial.

The glow of sanctity attracted many to the simple Talbot, and he gained a reputation as a powerful intercessor, despite his efforts to remain hidden in his life of devotion. So it was that he was sorely missed by many when his penitential lifestyle so strained his health that he had to be hospitalized for lengthy stays on two different occasions. In the end his ill health caught up with him, and he died outside his parish church on the way to a second Mass on Trinity Sunday, 1925. Pope Pius XII introduced Talbot's cause in 1947, and a decree on his virtues was issued in 1975.

A version of this story originally appeared in
Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.