Life of Matt Talbot – Chapter VII – Fasts and Mortifications

cover of the ebook 'Life of Matt Talbot, by Sir Joseph Aloysius Glynn'The extraordinary severity of Matt Talbot’s austerities has caused many inquiries as to the possibility of there being an error in the account given of them in the original little Life. So far from there being any error, the writer is convinced from all investigations since made by him that the Life contains an exact account of Matt Talbot’s fasts. These began almost with his conversion, and continued, with increasing severity, until illness compelled him to make some small concession to his bodily health. His sister, Mrs. Andrews, as already stated, says that his fasts began while he lived in lodgings in Gloucester Street, some years prior to his father’s death: He concealed his fasts very successfully from his fellow-workers and from friends outside his immediate family by a rule of not persisting in refusing food if pressed to partake of same.

M. D., a sawyer in Messrs. Martin’s, who was a very old friend of Matt Talbot, states that he prepared Matt’s midday meal for many years, and that it consisted of a cup of tea and a slice of dry bread. If it were a fast day Matt took no milk in the tea. The lunch, however, was a very hurried meal. Matt arrived about 11.15 a.m., when M. D. had the water boiling and the tea made. Matt then hurriedly ate the piece of bread which, he had brought in his pocket, drank the tea and rushed back to his work. If M. D. had not the tea ready, Matt did not wait for it but left the shed. In the many years that M. D. prepared the midday meal he only saw; Matt bring a little meat on three occasions. In 1920, M. D. met with an accident and was retired on pension, after 50 years service. It was then that Matt asked Mrs. M. to prepare his tea for him. M. D. says; that it was always tea he took prior to 1920 and the cocoa would appear to be a later addition. Matt’s lunch hour being an unusual one, M.. D. had to accommodate himself to Matt’s ideas and take his own lunch at the same time as Matt did. M.D. states that Matt Talbot during nine months of the year would never eat meat.

When stock-taking was on, Matt was sometimes kept in the office on a Saturday with one of the foremen, W. G., to whom the housekeeper sent some tea and bread and butter. W. G. divided the bread and butter with Matt, who, having carefully scraped the butter off the bread, ate the dry bread without comment. In consequence of Matt Talbot’s rule of not refusing food, a friend of nearly 30 years’ standing did not realize the full nature of his fasts because when his friend invited Matt to his house to lend him books and persuaded him to wait for tea, Matt invariably made an excellent meal. Mrs. H., who knew his Secret, made use of her knowledge to make him take a meal in her house whenever he called to see’ her. To this friend he stated that a hearty meal did not agree with him owing to his abstemious habits. One old friend (J. G.), who had many interesting stories of Matt Talbot, said that Matt spoke to him about fasting and tried to get him to do severe fasts. J. G. replied that he could not do more than he was doing. Matt then mentioned some of his own fasts and told J. G. that he should punish his body and “not be studying the gut,” that being his homely way of describing too much attention to matters of food.

The fasts which he performed when in his usual good health, that is until about two years before his death, were as follow:

During Lent complete black-fast every day on two slight meals without meat or butter. During June, in honour of the Sacred Heart, a similar black-fast. Every Saturday and every vigil of a Feast Day, a black fast. Every Wednesday no meat, but, occasionally, a little butter. Probably the full Franciscan fasts after their abrogation by Pope Leo XIII. At other times of the year his routine was Sunday, his ordinary dinner at 2 o’clock, that being his first meal of the day; if this were fairly substantial, he did not eat again, but if it were a light meal, he partook of cocoa or tea and bread about 6 p.m. Monday, dry bread and black tea. Tuesday, if not a vigil of a Feast or in Lent, breakfast consisted of cocoa and bread and butter; dinner of a little meat. Thursday was as Tuesday, and Friday a full fast. When he was getting old he found a difficulty in swallowing dry bread and to enable him to eat it without butter he got his sister, Mrs. Fylan, to boil a whiting and to steep the bread in the water in which the whiting had been cooked. He did not eat the whiting itself, which Mrs. Fylan took home. Later on, to avoid the expense, he got Mrs. Fylan to bring with her some of the water in which she had boiled the fish for her own dinner and this he used with his bread. When his health broke down completely and he had to abstain from work, he ate whatever was recommended and would take meat, an egg, or bread and butter.

We have seen that every night he slept on a plank bed with a wooden pillow, covered with a half blanket, summer and winter, or with a few sacks in very cold weather. This he had done for many years, as his sister, Mrs; Andrews, states that he first used the plank bed when he lived in Gloucester Street. The effect of the wooden pillow was that in later years his face became numbed and his hearing impaired. On this bed he slept in chains. These he appears to have worn for about fourteen years prior to his death, though some of his most familiar friends were unaware of the fact that he wore them, as he confided this information to very few; and then only with the object of encouraging them to do likewise. One lady who greatly desired a spiritual favour for a near relative was advised to wear a chain and did so. J. G. tells the story of the chain with not a little humour. Matt and J. G. were good friends as they lived near each other in Middle Gardiner Street, and Matt often visited J. G. in the latter’s room, J. G. being a bachelor. One Sunday, Matt informed J. G. that he had read of a devotion which lifted him from earth to Heaven, and, in reply to J. G.’s inquiry as to what it was, said it was the wearing of a chain. J. G. asked if he had it on him and Matt said “Yes” and showed a, small chain wound round his leg. It was the same class of chain as was used to hang the weights of a clock. Matt lent J. G. the life of Saint Catherine of Sienna, and J. G. asked Matt if he had read in that life that Saint .Catherine wore a chain. He looked confused and said he supposed, she did. J. G. then said that she wore it round her waist and that after her death it was found embedded in her flesh, an exact parallel of what happened in the case of Matt Talbot himself. It was, however, the book of Blessed Grignion de Montfort which caused Matt to wear chains. He induced J. G. to wear a chain and brought the latter to Clonliffe College, where he had him enrolled in the chain by one of the priests. At first Matt wore the principal chain around his shoulders, but as this prevented him from carrying the timber he changed it to his waist. He told this to Mrs. X, when speaking to her about wearing a chain. The following is the statement made by those who undressed Matt Talbot’s body in the mortuary at Jervis Street Hospital when he was brought in dead from the street: “On Sunday, June 7th; 1925, a dead body was brought in the Corporation Ambulance to Jervis Street Hospital. On the body being identified, it proved to be Mr. Matt Talbot and when we the undersigned undressed the remains we found chains, ropes and beads on the said body. Around the middle of his waist were two chains and a knotted rope. One chain we took to be an ordinary chain used as a horse trace, and the other a little thinner. Both were entwined by a knotted rope and medals were attached to the chain by cords. Both were deeply embedded in the flesh and rusted. Also on the left arm was found a light chain tightly wound above the elbow, and on the right arm above the elbow a knotted cord. On his left leg a chain was bound round with a cord below the knee, and on the right leg, in the same position, was some heavy knotted cord. Around his neck was a very big beads and attached to same were a great many religious medals. Some of the medals were as big as a half-crown and others ordinary sodality medals.”

Charles Manners, Laurence Thornton
Jeryis Street Hospital.

All my devotions whether in church, or at home, or even in the timber yard were, as we have seen, performed on his knees. Even for his spiritual reading he did not sit down. As he had, by the ingenious device of splitting the front of his trousers, bared his knees, it follows that he always knelt on his bare knees. Nor, as we have seen, did he rest his arms or hands on anything when praying, but knelt perfectly erect often for seven hours at a time in church on Sundays.

His eyes he mortified by keeping them fixed on the ground when passing through the streets, and by not reading either newspapers or placards. The ordinary news of the day he ignored, so much so, that the anti-conscription campaign of 1916-1917 had gone on for six months before he heard of it from a friend.

How far all these fasts and mortifications were performed under spiritual direction we do not know as those priests who could tell are dead. Father James Walsh, S.J., knew Talbot very well and, possibly, knew of his mode of life. The Right Rev. Monsignor Hickey, D.D., V.G., when President of Clonliffe College, also was very well acquainted with him. Matt Talbot went frequently to Confession to Clonliffe College, and Monsignor Hickey was in the habit of visiting him in his room in 18 Upper Rutland Street. This was verified in an unexpected manner after the first life appeared. Monsignor Hickey had been appointed parish priest of the Haddington Road parish and one of the Vicars General of the Dublin diocese, a few years before Talbot’s death. He did not live long to enjoy his new position and died suddenly in 1924. Some three weeks before his death he was dining with a parishioner when the conversation turned on answers to prayer. Monsignor Hickey stated that when lie wanted a very particular favour he always got a poor old man named Matt Talbot to pray for it and that his prayers had never been refused. When the person in question had read the life of Matt Talbot the conversation with Monsignor Hickey came back to her memory and she communicated the incident to the present writer.

Talbot was very shy of speaking to priests, and Brother F., of Saint Francis Xavier’s Church, states that he never disclosed his identity to the priests there but went in and out unobtrusively. Even with Brother F. he would only speak when addressed. The same statement holds good for the Franciscan Church, Merchant’s Quay, as the spiritual director of the Third Order did not know him by name. This is not remarkable when it is remembered that in both, churches the men at their meetings filled the churches to their utmost capacity. Although Father M., the spiritual director of the sodality of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Francis Xavier’s Church, could not recall him by name, when asked by the present writer, yet Matt Talbot was recalled to his memory by a very characteristic action of Talbot’s which was related to Father M. by Mrs. Fylan, after the appearance of the first life. She asked Father M. if he remembered a man who had handed him a substantial sum of money in the confessional on a certain date. She knew the amount as she was in the habit of keeping, Matt’s. money, for him. and he had asked for £5 which he said he intended to give to Father M. for charity. Father M. then remembered a poor man asking him to take some money for charity. Father M. took it casually and then seeing that it amounted to some pounds asked his penitent what he wished done with it. The latter told him to do, what he wished with it, and Father M. said, he would give it to the poor. As he turned to inquire as to the identity of the donor the latter got up and left the confessional at once. This occurred only a few weeks before Talbot’s death. Although he never revealed himself to Father M. he had a very great love for him and spoke to the head of his section in the sodality of Father M. with sincere affection and respect.

His action in this and in other matters was typical of his very great humility. People who thought they knew Matt Talbot intimately were astonished to learn after his death of his chains, his fasts and the various other mortifications which he had successfully concealed from them. In fact, when he did reveal any of them it was for a definite purpose affecting the person in whom he confided. He certainly spoke openly of God amongst his friends and this, on one or two occasions, led them to feel uneasy lest there was anything of self-complacency in his action. One very great personal friend stated that he once spoke to Matt Talbot on the danger of feeling any pride in his great spiritual gifts. Talbot listened very respectfully and then simply said that he could not feel pride in anything he had done when he thought of the actions of the great saints. He was not hurt by the remark of his friend, and, indeed, afterwards referred to this conversation. The same friend gave an interesting note on Talbot’s mode of life which is worth quoting: “Those who read the smaller Life were puzzled as well as amazed, that a poor fellow like Matt could have set his mark so high and then consistently worked up to it. The explanation seemed to me to lie in his clear, logical, mind. He was convinced that if the truths of Revelation, as regards the Incarnation and Redemption were accepted as true, there should be no limit to our service save the impossible. It was this view, in my opinion, that urged him on to his, life of extreme penance and enabled him to persevere to the end.”

This statement seems to the present writer to contain the true explanation of Matt Talbot’s whole life from the day of his conversion to his death. Neither the present writer, nor his correspondent, mean to convey that such, austerities as were practiced by Matt Talbot are essential to true sanctity, nor, indeed, that they are the things which in Matt Talbot’s life are most worthy of praise and exact imitation. A saint has been well described as one who, in order to please God, does his ordinary duties extraordinarily well. This definition was fulfilled in every respect by Matt Talbot. His life shows, apart from his extraordinary penances and long hours of prayer, the resistance to temptations, which is the duty of everyone, and the perfect fulfillment of the simple duties of his daily life which should also be our aim. The motive with which, he performed these duties made them perfect, and in the end led him to heights of sanctity which it is given to few to attain. If we cannot imitate him in his austerities we can, at least, look up to him with the admiration which lives such as his compel in all men of good will.