Matthew Talbot was an Irishman born in Dublin in 1856. His parents were very poor and he was the second of twelve children. Most everyone in his family was an alcoholic. At the age of twelve, as was the custom, Matthew left school and began working to support his family. His first job was in a store that sold wine. It wasn’t long before he was sampling the wine in the backroom. At age sixteen he got a job with the Port and Dock Board where he worked among the whiskey stores. While still a teenager Matthew Talbot was a confirmed alcoholic.
When drunk he became very hot tempered, he got into fights, and swore heavily. He spent most if not all of his paycheck at the bars and pubs of Dublin. And if he didn’t have enough money he would buy drinks on credit or sell his possessions, selling anything that might get enough money to buy just even one drink. And if desperate enough he would even steal. He refused to listen to his mother’s plea to stop drinking.
After drinking for sixteen years Matthew finally lost his own self-respect. One day when he was totally broke, he loitered on a street corner waiting for his friends who were leaving work. It was payday and he was hoping that one of them would buy him a drink. None of them did. No one offered him a drink. Dejected he went home and publicly resolved to his mother, “I’m going to take the pledge, and I’m not going to drink anymore.” His mother smiled and told him, “Go, in God’s name, but don’t take the pledge unless you’re going to keep it.” As Matthew was leaving the house she called out, “May God give you strength to keep it.”
After leaving the house Matthew went straight to confession and took the pledge not to drink for three months. The next day he went to Mass and received Holy Communion something he hadn’t done in years. From that moment on in 1884 when he was 28 years old, Matthew became a new man. After he had successfully fulfilled his pledge for three months, he made a life long pledge never to drink again.
And he never did. But it wasn’t easy he told his sister, “Never look down on a man, who cannot give up the drink, it’s easier to get out of Hell.” But with the grace of God he maintained his sobriety for the next forty years of his life. He found strength in prayer, daily Mass, the Eucharist, Confession and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He studied his faith and read the great spiritual masters. And he got a new job away from the whiskey. With this new job in a lumber yard he paid all of his debts and became very generous with the poor. The converted Matthew never swore, was good humored and friendly to everyone.
At the age of 69 as Matthew was walking to Church he collapsed and died. In his coat they found a note that read, “Three things I cannot escape: the eye of God, the voice of conscience, the stroke of death. In company, guard your tongue. In your family, guard your temper. When alone guard your thoughts.” After his death Matthew was recognized as one possessing heroic virtue, something with God’s grace that he had grown into. At this time Matthew Talbot has been declared venerable by the Church. He’s on his way to canonization.
Now suppose we were to pose a question to someone who knew Matthew during his dark days and we were to ask, “Do you see Matthew as a child of God?” and “Do you see Christ in him?” They probably would have a hard time saying yes. But as Christians we always try to see the face of Christ in others, even if we only see a dead Christ within the tomb. I once had a discussion about this with my cousin Bill and my Mom. Mom was a nurse and she always tried to see the face of Christ in her patients. And it was easier with some patients than others, she told us about one patient she always had difficulty in giving him his meds. He just wouldn’t take them even in applesauce. So Mom kept reminding herself, “face of Christ, face of Christ, face of Christ.” But my cousin Bill asked her, “Do you think that patient saw the face of Christ in you?” Mom had to answer no, “He probably saw someone who was impatient and very irked.” It works both ways. We look for Christ in others as they look for Christ in us.
In today’s Gospel Jesus comes home and at first he is met with curiosity and amazement but then the criticisms begin. They didn’t see the divine in Jesus, they didn’t see Christ the Lord in Jesus, they thought they had him all figured out, they asked themselves, “Who does he think he is?” “He’s just one of us.” “How come he thinks he can preach to us, the people of his hometown?” It was only with time that they gradually realized who Jesus was. He was the Lord. He was divine.
I want to end with two observations, the first about Jesus and the second about us. First Jesus, how were his neighbors in the village and his relatives to know that the child who grew up in their town bore within him such a secret, that he was God’s Son made man? His everyday life in Nazareth was too unassuming. It is a little bit like that today. God’s presence in our midst is often hidden and easy to overlook. Think of the Eucharist, think of your neighbor. Today, too, Christ is with us but He’s with us in, “everyday clothes,” and only the eyes of faith perceive him, perceive Him in the everyday ordinary clothes of bread and wine and in the ordinary clothes of our neighbor.
The second observation is about us. How often are we mistaken about those people closest to us? Every one of us has his or her unsuspected qualities. It’s often an outsider who is more aware of these qualities than our own family. How great it is when we discover the treasure within those people closest to us the treasure within those people sitting next to us.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley