Thoughts for June 8 from Fr Willie Doyle

Venerable Matt Talbot
Venerable Matt Talbot

I do not want, in fact I forbid you, to be imprudent in the matter of corporal penances. But, my dear child, if you let a whole fortnight go by without any self-inflicted pain, can you honestly look Jesus in the face and say, “I am like to Him”?

COMMENT: The idea of self-inflicted pain is not popular in contemporary spirituality. Oddly enough though, it seems wildly popular in modern secular culture with its fad for physical fitness and punishing bodies in the gym in order to make them ever more attractive… 

Physical mortification was the norm in Fr Doyle’s day – there was nothing unusual in it all. While Fr Doyle was quite severe on himself on occasion, he always urged caution on the part of others. However, despite his caution, he issues an interesting challenge today – do we really imitate the crucified Christ if we do not do penance ourselves, even in some small fashion? The self inflicted “pain” Fr Doyle speaks of need not be something very big or burdensome. Getting up a little earlier, going to bed on time, reducing time wasted on television, starting work on time, biting our tongue when we want to criticise someone, not taking salt on our dinner… There are many ways that we can practice a measured asceticism that is discreet, balanced, humble and will improve both our spiritual and temporal lives.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of Venerable Matt Talbot, but we had three other posts on that day, so we are only finding time to commemorate Matt today.

Matt died in 1925. He was close to the Jesuits and attended the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street almost every day for many years. Fr Doyle was based in Belvedere School (about 200m from this church) for about a year around 1909. It is probable that he lived in the community in Gardiner Street. It seems more than likely that Fr Doyle crossed paths with Matt Talbot at some stage. However, we have no record of such an event, so we can only speculate. Similarly, we have no record of Matt having read O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle. Yet, Matt – despite being an unschooled labourer – was a voracious reader of spiritual literature and especially of spiritual biographies. It would be most strange if he never read this wildly popular book about a heroic local Jesuit. We know that he used to give books away or lend them to others, so perhaps he had it and passed it on. We shall never know… 

Matt Talbot is a great model for lay people today. An alcoholic at an early age, he had a profound and unexpected conversion, and he suddenly “took the pledge” and gave up alcohol forever at the age of 28. This was against all expectation, and shows us that nobody is beyond help or hope. His example is important for a culture in which many people are addicted to one thing or another. If it is not alcohol or drugs, it may be food or sex or work or even the internet and social media. 

Matt is also a great model because he did his work well, and lived an ordinary life inn the middle of the world. He was an ascetic and a mystic and an ordinary man who looked after others and defended the rights of workers and of the poor. He kept his feet on the ground. 

Matt became a Third Order Franciscan and was utterly devoted to the Mass, regularly attending several Masses each day. As is well known, Matt dropped dead on the street while on the way to Mass. It was this sudden death that allowed his penitential chains to be found on his body. There is a tendency now to downplay the ascetical significance of these chains, with the suggestion that they were simple, light and non-penitential chains that signified his consecration to Mary as her slave. That may well be accurate. But in the popular imagining, the chains were most definitely penitential in nature. I remember being told, as a schoolboy in the 1980s, that the chains were so tightly wound around Matt that they were embedded in his flesh. Again, whether or not this is completely accurate is not relevant to the point I am making today – many people believed that the chains were indeed embedded in Matt’s flesh. Matt is held in very high esteem all around the world, but especially in Dublin. His harsh penances did not repel people – on the contrary his asceticism is fundamentally part of his charm for many. His chains are important relics and an important part of his story and spirituality. And there was a lot more to Matt’s asceticism than chains. He lived in strict poverty, giving away most of his money. He fasted very strictly, and rose at 2am each night to pray and work for several hours before commencing his work as a labourer. He slept on a plank of wood and had a wooden pillow. Matt is not alone in this – many of the most popular saints lived deeply penitential lives, and it has not diminished their popularity one bit. How odd then if anyone were to think that Fr Doyle’s asceticism would make him less appealing to the public… 

Matt’s example also teaches us a profound lesson in avoiding sin. After his conversion, he was determined not to fall back into alcoholism. He prayed hard, but he also took action – he organised his life in such a way that he would not face temptations. He kept himself busy and away from pubs and he even made it something of a rule never to carry money with him in case he was tempted to buy a drink. There is a suggestion that Matt cut the pockets out of his trousers so he would not be able to carry money around with him. Do we avoid temptations with the same determination and single-mindedness that Matt had? 

Matt’s heroic virtues have been formally recognised by the Church; now a miracle is required for his beatification. Ireland needs saints! We need beatifications and canonisations! Let us remember to pray through the intercession of Matt Talbot when we are in need of help.

Prayer for the beatification of Venerable Matt Talbot. 

Lord, in your servant, Matt Talbot you have given us a wonderful example of triumph over addiction, of devotion to duty, and of lifelong reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament. 

May his life of prayer and penance give us courage to take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. 

Father, if it be your will that your beloved servant should be glorified by your Church, make known by your heavenly favours the power he enjoys in your sight. We ask this through the same Jesus Christ Our Lord. 

Amen.

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