The Word Among Us

Lent 2015 Issue

Seize the Grace!

Lenten lessons from Matt Talbot, the holy alcoholic.

By: Woodeene Koenig-Bricker

Seize the Grace!: Lenten lessons from Matt Talbot, the holy alcoholic. by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker

Sometimes it seems like changing bad habits takes forever. But is that an illusion? Is change fast, or is it slow?

I think most of us would be inclined to say that change comes slowly, especially when it involves deeply entrenched patterns of behavior. We think of long hours at the gym to lose weight or months of struggle to overcome an addiction like smoking. Change feels like a long, grueling process, which is why so many of us fail to even attempt it. Except, perhaps, when we make resolutions for Lent or the New Year.

But consider, for a moment, the “I do” at the altar, the cry of a newborn, or the words “You are a priest forever.” In a split second, lives are changed. Never again can the couple not have been married, the woman not have been a mother, or the man not have been a priest. Everything is different from that point forward. Or think of Confession: our sins are erased in much less time than it takes to commit them!

In one sense, then, change is very fast, even instantaneous. But living it out? Now that’s a different story. So the question is: once we receive the grace to get serious about overcoming some compulsion, addiction, or bad habit, how can we keep acting on this decision over the long haul? While there are no easy answers, it can help to look at people who have experienced this “fast change, slow change” dynamic. One exceptional model is Matthew Talbot, the Irish workman whom Pope Paul VI declared venerable in 1975.

Seize the Grace! Born in Dublin in 1856, Matt Talbot was an alcoholic. Not a nice “society drinker,” but a down-and-out drunk from a family of heavy drinkers. The Talbots were poor, and Matt attended school for only a year before leaving at age twelve to work in a wine shop. He began to drink there, and before long was a full-blown alcoholic.

To support his habit, he went on to work in a warehouse and a construction company. All of his wages he spent in the pubs, often with his father and brothers. He was known to pawn his clothes and boots to get money for drink; once he even stole a fiddle from a blind street musician.

For sixteen years, Matt lived only for booze, careening from work to pub and back again, falling further and further into the grip of addiction. Then one day, when he was broke and none of his buddies would buy him a drink, Matt suddenly realized what a mess he was making of his life. In a grace-filled flash, he determined to “take the pledge” to stop drinking for three months. He went home and told his mother, who had been praying for his conversion but advised him not to make the promise unless he truly intended to change. “God give you the strength to keep the pledge,” she said, as Matt went off to seek his first Confession in many years.

Decide and Tell. Matt’s mom was on to something: the first key to changing is to decide. Not to just think about it, but to seize and act on the grace to make a decision. Often we “want to want” to change, but when it comes right down to it, we aren’t all that keen on actually making an irrevocable decision to change. However, that’s where it all starts. And as with Matt, it can happen in an instant.

When we are brutally honest with ourselves, we know when we have really decided and when we are just playing games. A real decision comes from deep within the soul; we know for certain that we have crossed a line, and there’s no turning back. It’s like Jesus, when he “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). When Matt Talbot took the pledge, there was no looking back.

But that’s just the beginning. Along with making a decision, it’s essential to tell someone about it. Life coaches call this “accountability.” A decision made in private and kept secret is all too easy to dismiss. In Matt’s case, his mother was a witness and reminder of his decision to give up drinking. When we change, we too must let someone know. After all, that’s one reason weddings and ordinations are public events: everyone attending is a witness to the change.

It is also one of the reasons that we confess to a priest. As part of the sacrament, we say that we resolve to sin no more. The priest is witness to our decision to change, and the penance he gives us is our reminder that we have made that decision before God.

Cultivate Self-Discipline. While Matt Talbot’s instantaneous decision set him on a course of holiness, it took the rest of his life to live out the change. He did it by learning self-discipline, by living out his resolution over and over, day by day. This is the slow part of change—the part that isn’t as much fun.

“Never look down on a man who cannot give up the drink. It is easier to get out of hell!” Matt once wrote his sister. But he kept at it. After three months, he extended his pledge to six months. Eventually, with the help of a priest friend, his sobriety became lifelong.

Matt did more than just resist the urge to drink. Some of his additional self-discipline came in the form of physical mortification: he slept on a plank, ate very little, and even wore hidden chains around his waist, arm and leg (a physical discipline recommended by his spiritual advisor). He also maintained a cheerful attitude, gave most of his money to the poor, and put in a honest day’s labor for his wages.

Although some of Matt’s ascetical practices were extreme, most of us would also benefit from cultivating self-discipline. We too can learn to control our attitude, work diligently at our occupations, and put the needs of others before our own wants.

“Jesus, Mercy!” So is the “fast” part of change mostly God’s work, and the “slow” part mostly a matter of our own striving? Not at all! No amount of resolve and discipline can guarantee success. This is another lesson from Matt Talbot’s life: the whole process of changing requires the grace of God. Right away, Matt realized that he couldn’t overcome his addiction on his own; he had to surrender to God and allow the Holy Spirit to provide the strength he lacked.

The morning after he took the pledge, fearful and anxious about not being able to keep it, Matt went to Mass and received Communion. He did this every day for the rest of his life. He was on his way to Mass, in fact, when he died of heart failure on June 7, 1925.

Especially in his first three months of sobriety, Matt learned to throw himself on God’s mercy. One day, plagued by an inner voice that kept saying, “It’s no use. You’ll never stop drinking,” he knelt with outstretched arms on the cathedral steps and prayed, “Jesus, mercy! Mary, help!” Another time, after going into a pub and almost ordering a drink, Matt spent the rest of the day in church, praying for help against temptation; he also decided never to carry money again.

If we’re making a change, we too can draw strength from frequent reception of the Eucharist and Confession. We can turn to the Lord in prayer. Devotions like the rosary are a great aid, as is spiritual reading—beginning with the Bible. Spending even ten minutes a day reading something uplifting can help us both rely on God and grow in resolve to face the challenges that come with living out real change.

Seek the Change that Matters. To his friends and even his family, Matt Talbot looked like an ordinary, hard-working man with a strong religious bent. On the inside, though, he was a warrior waging a spiritual battle that lasted forty years and made him a hero of the faith. His story shows us that the deepest and longest-lasting changes aren’t the showy, splashy announcements. They are the inner decisions that may only take a second to make but require a lifetime to live out.

This Lent, let’s ask the Holy Spirit for his guidance and power to help us address the areas in our own lives that need changing for the good. And as we do, let’s remember Venerable Matt Talbot, who stopped drinking in a moment—and spent the rest of his life making good on that change.

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes often about various aspects of the Christian life. For more reflections on Venerable Matt Talbot, see her book Facing Adversity with Grace: Lessons from the Saints (available from amazon.com and The Word Among Us at www.wau.org).

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