St. Augustine, who had a past of his own, once said, “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”
Perhaps at some point you’ve had the thought that you’ve drifted too far from God for Him to love you — that you’ve made too many mistakes to be forgiven. It’s a common feeling, but, the truth is, it’s not true. If you’ve ever wondered how God could still love you or how you could reorient your life toward God, consider the case of the Venerable Matt Talbot.
We all, at some point, struggle to shake off some sort of chains, be them large or small. For Matt Talbot (1856–1925), his chain was alcohol. Matt had his first drink before he even hit his teenage years.
He was the second of twelve children born in a working class family in Dublin, and money was tight. At age 11, he went to work to help put food on the family table. He was barely literate, as his schooling had been sparse.
His first job was working for an alcohol seller. One drink at a time, his addiction developed. Young Matt saw nothing wrong with this — after all, his father was an alcoholic. And amid harsh working conditions and needing some escape, drinking proved to be a welcome release.
One drink led to another, and by age 13, he was an alcoholic.
As he entered into his teenage years, his need for a drink drove his life. At this time, he fostered a strong work ethic, but it was so that he could spend his wages on alcohol. For awhile, on the outside, everything looked fine. The problem is, on the inside, he was sinking deeper into his own need for a drink.
When he lacked his own money, he would beg friends for a drink. What started as an escape quickly became his vice.
His father protested his son going down the same path he had taken, even beating him to make him change jobs. Matt did, but addictions do not just go away, and his need for a drink didn’t diminish just because he left his job. He no longer drank at work, but once he was off the clock, he was one-track-minded and heading to the nearest pub. When he attended a social function, drinks were the first thing on his mind. At one point, he even pawned his own boots. Another time, he stole a violin from a blind beggar so that he would have money for a drink.
It seemed alcoholism was his lot in life.
One day, when he was 28 years old, Matt went to a pub hoping a drinking buddy would buy him a drink. He hadn’t worked in a few days and was out of money. One by one, his friends passed him by, and no one offered to buy him anything.
On that summer day in 1884, Matt began to realize how empty his life was. Sober, he went home at an early hour. By the time he reached home, he decided he’d had enough. There, he informed his mother that he was off to a nearby seminary to “take the pledge,” a temporary vow to abstain from alcohol.
He took the pledge for three months, and he successfully abstained from alcohol during this time. He then renewed the pledge for six more months and continued to abstain. Eventually, he pledged to be free of alcohol for his entire life.
It wasn’t easy. The thing about Matt is that he never stopped struggling with alcoholism. He just stopped drinking. Every day, he found himself on a battlefield fighting for sobriety. Externally, much of his life remained the same: he still lived in Dublin, working manual-labor jobs and going about his daily regimen. But he made small changes. He didn’t carry money on him. He stopped joining his buddies at the pub.
He also began to attend regular Mass and spend time in prayer. In 1891, he joined the Franciscans as a Third Order layman. His addiction never left him, but with God’s grace, he was able to resist the temptation. It wasn’t easy, but God makes all things possible.
“Never be too hard on the man who can’t give up drink,” Matt 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.”
He passed away on Trinity Sunday, at the age of 69, collapsing on his way to Mass at St. Saviour’s Church. After he collapsed, it was discovered that he wore small chains underneath his garment: a reminder of his daily struggle and of God’s ability to overcome it. He was buried on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1925.
And now, Matt Talbot is on his way to sainthood. In 1975, Pope Paul VI declared him venerable (the third step toward sainthood). To be ‘venerable’ means that the Church has declared that person to have lived a life of heroic virtue, but they are not yet confirmed to be in Heaven (the next step in the canonization process).
Venerable Matt Talbot, pray for us!