The Servant of God, Matt Talbot

Source: St. Isidore Church & Priory

The Holy Trinity, the Virgin and Saints, Corrado Giaquinto

A sermon for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity 
St John's Church June 11, 1995,  by Fr. Daniel Couture

My Dear Brethren,

On this feast of the Blessed Trinity, Holy Mother Church directs our thoughts to the very life of God, his inner life, God in His Three Divine Persons.  Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.

This morning I would like to point out to you the most powerful work of the Blessed Trinity.  What works does God do outside Himself?  Firstly, He creates.  Only an almighty God has the power to create, that is, to make something out of nothing.  "Dixit et facta sunt, mandavit et creata sunt - He spoke and they were made, He commanded and they were created" (Ps.CXLVIII,5).  "All things were made by Him and without Him was made nothing that was made" (John I,3).

However there is something greater than creation.  This is the second work of the Blessed Trinity.  It is called, in the words of the Offertory, a "re-creation": Deus qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti et mirabilius reformasti - O God, who in a wonderful way didst create and enoble man's being and in a manner still more marvellous didst renew it..."  St Thomas Aquinas teaches that "God's omnipotence is particularly shown in sparing and having mercy because in this it is made manifest that God has supreme power, (...) because by sparing and having mercy upon men, He leads them on to the participation of an infinite good, which is the ultimate effect of Divine power" (I, q.25, a.3, ad 3).  When God creates something, He gives this thing a particular created nature.  When God gives his sanctifying grace to a soul which until then was in the state of mortal sin, He shares with this soul His infinite divine being.  That is "the ultimate effect of divine power."  It is called in our usual language: conversion.

Let us see one such conversion which is a source of great encouragement for all of us in our various battles to save our souls and the souls of others.  I want to speak of a man whose death occurred today, on Trinity Sunday, 70 years ago.  A name quite well known, but a life sadly enough less known.  He was a most ordinary working Dubliner.  You have guessed, it is Matt Talbot, an extraordinary man, whose good deeds are not only admirable but also, for the most important of them, also imitable.  They give testimony as well in a beautiful manner to the action of the Holy Ghost in a soul through the seven gifts.

Matt Talbot was born on May 3rd, 1856 and baptised two days later, on the feast of St Pius V.  He was the second child of a family of twelve children, three of which died in young age.  The family had a very hard life as they moved not less than 11 times in the course of 18 years. The cause of this continual instability lies mainly in the father's drink problem.

Matt never went to school.  At the age of 11, he received a few lessons in religion, writing, reading and arithmetic by a very young Christian Brother who was not even 20 years old, one of the zealous souls urged by the Archbishop of Dublin, to save the children who were continually assailed by and urged to join the Protestant street preachers.  At 12, Matt left his teacher and began to work, unfortunately, in a wine store.  Workers induced him to drink and within a year he had to change job and got employment in the Bonded Stores at the Custom Dock House.  The drinking continued.  As a matter of fact, it continued for a solid 16 years.  During all that time, all his money went to drink, every penny, every copper.  He was one of these poor souls, described by St Paul, "cujus Deus venter est - whose God is their belly" (Phil.3,19).  And as one sin leads to another, in order to drink, he began to steal with his friends.  He stole once the fiddle of a poor blind man.  Later on he searched through Dublin for that man, in vain.  He even pawned his shirt and boots for drink.

Until the day the saving grace of God was offered to him.  He was then 28.  Unemployed on that particular day, he had been waiting outside a public house for his "friends" to pass him on their way in and to give him a few "bobs".  He got nothing.  They passed him and gave him absolutely nothing.  The shock of their scornful refusal hurt him far more that the lack of the price of a pint.  Like the prodigal son, he felt the painful nature of that kind of "friendship".  Wounded, he wandered a few steps away at a little bridge, Newcomer Bridge, and leaned over, gazing at the dark waters below.  God, the living water, was there, in the dark water.  A strong grace of God shone in his soul, showed him his life wasted in miserable drink and filled him with shame and disgust.  He would no longer be the spineless good-for-nothing Matt Talbot.  He would offend God no more.  Enough was enough.  He would take the pledge and keep it.  All this lasted a few brief instants.  Yet, this was one of the Blessed Trinity's greatest miracles, one of these "ultimate effects of Divine power".

Listen to these beautiful words of Fr. Faber:

"A man goes forth from his house into the streets in a state of mortal sin...  In the streets he meets a funeral, or comes across a priest by whose demeanor he perceives that he has got the Blessed Sacrament with him.  Thoughts crowd into his mind.  Faith is awake and on the watch.  Grace disposes him for grace.  The veil falls from sin; and he turns from the hideous vision with shame, with detestation, with humility.  The eye of his soul glances to his crucified Redeemer.  Fear has led the way for hope and hope has the heart to resolve, and faith tells him that his resolution will be accepted and he loves - how can he help loving Him who will accept so poor a resolution?  There is a pressure on his soul.  It is less than the sting of a bee, even if hurts at all.  Yet it was the pressure of the Creator, omnipotent, immense, all-holy and incomprehensible, on his living soul.  The unseen Hand was laid on him for a moment.  He has not passed half a dozen shop-fronts, and the work is done.  He is contrite.  Hell is vanquished.  All the Angels of Heaven are in a stir of joy.  His soul is beautiful.  God is yearning over it with love and ineffable desire..." (The Blessed Sacrament, Book I, section III)

When he arrived home, earlier than usual, Matt surprised his mother by being sober.  "You're home early, Matt, and you're sober!"  He replied: "Yes, mother, I am."  After a light meal, he said to her on his way out: "I am going to take the pledge".  She smiled and said: " Go, in God's name, but don't take it, unless you are going to keep it!"  He said: "I'll go, in God's name." She added: "God give you strength to keep it!"  And God heard that motherly prayer.  Ah! the prayers of a mother!  As another Monica, she had wept and shed abundant tears for many a year.  Had St. Ambrose been there, surely he would have told her: "The child of so many tears cannot perish!"

He went straight to confession in Clonliffe and the next morning, he received Holy Communion for the first time in many years.  This is the work of the first gift of the Holy Ghost, the fear of the Lord.  When God enters a soul, he breaks the chains of sin and leads it to true contrition.

He took the pledge for a three months trial, then renewed it for one year and finally took it for life.  The first three months were, he admitted later, the hardest of his whole life.  The pangs of renewed craving, the presence of his drinking companions in the following evenings became almost intolerable.  Not knowing what to do, he fled to a far church, entered and cast himself at the feet of the Divine Saviour.  There and then began this lonely and terrible ordeal before the Blessed Sacrament.  Evening after evening, night after night, all afternoon on Saturdays and all day on Sundays, he held tight to his pew, battling his agonising craving, just as Augustine, with unaccustomed prayers.  Our Blessed Lord on the Cross seemed to cry out to him in gasping sympathy: "I thirst!"  Here, in this battle finally victorious, you can see the gift of fortitude.  One day, though, he almost gave in.  He could not stand it any longer; he left the church and went to the nearest pub which was not familiar to him.  Thanks be to God, there was at that moment a little queue, so he had to wait.  His Guardian Angel poked him: "What are you doing here?  Get out quick!"  He left and went back to his kneeler.  He was saved.

He always admitted that he owed the grace of his conversion to Our Blessed Lady.  "No one knows the good Queen that She is to me!"  The chains that were found on his body on his death were primarily worn as a sign of his total consecration to Our Lady.  He had found this practice in St Louis de Montfort's True Devotion to Mary.  This deep Marian devotion is the effect of the gift of piety in a soul.  He joined the Jesuit Sodality of the Immaculate Conception to help him give the due honour to his good Queen.

For the following 40 years, he persevered in his resolutions, in the fulfilment of his daily duty.  History repeats itself, the Holy Ghost does not change: his life recalls the traits of the early Irish Saints.  Through his persevering efforts, he resurrected his faint intellectual acquisitions of one-year schooling and discovered the importance of spiritual reading in the advancement of the soul.  It is really amazing to see the kind of books he actually read over these 40 years.  From simple lives of Saints, to the writings of Father Faber, of Cardinal Newman, and even the encyclicals of Leo XIII on social issues!  Such growth in knowledge of God and matters divine is accomplished in a soul by the gift of understanding.  This daily increasing faith, especially in the Blessed Sacrament, through his daily Masses, visits, spiritual Communions, led him to a very intimate union with God and a profound life of prayer.  That is the gift of Wisdom.

Matt Talbot died on June 7th, 1925, on his way to Dominic Street church, to his second Mass.  It took almost 24 hours to identify him.  Such was his discretion and his humility.  "He that shall humble himself shall be exalted" (Matt. XXIII,12).

May this beautiful example of true conversion, of perseverance in the state of grace regardless of costs, of Eucharistic and Marian Love, of deep spiritual life thanks to good spiritual reading, of fidelity to one's daily duties, be a motive for everyone to trust in the mighty grace of God and an encouragement never to give up the fight for the salvation of our soul and the souls of others.  May Our Blessed Lady, our good Heavenly Queen, obtain for us these graces.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen