Oh taste and see ...

purificatorchaliceIt's would be very hard to write a feature-length obituary for an internationally known Roman Catholic priest while avoiding religious images and content. I am happy to report that the Baltimore Sun included some Christian and even Catholic themes when writing about the two lives of Father Joseph C. Martin -- the life he lived as an alcoholic and the life that he lived once he dried out, only to pour out his life in service to others who were trapped inside bottles of booze.

Martin was, of course, the co-founder of Father Martin's Ashley, the famous alcohol treatment center in Harford County. Here's a key piece of the obituary:

Father Martin's "Chalk Talk on Alcohol" and "No Laughing Matter" have become standard tools used by recovery centers, schools and employee assistance programs the world over. ...

"He helped thousands and thousands directly and indirectly with his message all across the world," he said. Mike Gimbel, a substance-abuse expert who was Baltimore County drug czar for 23 years and now directs an anti-steroid program at St. Joseph Medical Center, is an old friend. "Father Martin has done more to educate and treat those suffering from addiction than anyone in the past 50 years," Mr. Gimbel said. ...

Born in Baltimore, the son of a machinist who was a heavy drinker, Father Martin was raised in Hampden. He was a 1942 graduate of Loyola High School and attended Loyola College from 1942 until 1944. He studied for the priesthood at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park from 1944 to 1948, when he was ordained a priest of the Society of St. Sulpice.

Martin's work was completely ecumenical in nature and life his story includes a fascinated subplot, centering on the work of housewife Lora Mae Abraham -- the daughter of a Baptist minister -- another alcoholic who eventually helped Martin begin their famous treatment facility. The "Ashley" part of the center's name was in honor of her father, the Rev. Arthur Ashley.

Thus, this telling detail -- a salute to the strength of their friendship -- in the story's final paragraph:

Father Martin is survived by a brother, Edward Martin of Lilburn, Ga.; two sisters, Frances Osborne and Dorothy Christopher, both of Baltimore; Mrs. Abraham and her husband, Tommy Abraham, with whom he lived for 30 years; and many nieces and nephews.

It's a fine piece and I have only one complaint.

Over the years, I have written a few stories about priests who have wrestled with alcoholism. If you stop and think about it, there is a poignant, yes sacramental, theme that is hard to cut out of their stories. It is hard, you see, for an alcoholic priest to avoid the sweet yet bitter irony of that chalice on the holy table.

You can glimpse this theme in one painful passage in the Sun obituary:

Father Martin began drinking while he held teaching positions at St. Joseph's College in Mountain View, Calif., from 1948 to 1956, and later at St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville from 1956 to 1959.

"I drank from the age of 24 to 34," he told The Sun in a 1992 profile. "I was afraid to go near the altar to say Mass six days a week. I did go on Sunday, but shaking all the while."

What, precisely, was the nature of Father Martin's fear?

"Oh taste and see, that the Lord is good."

Indeed. It is hard to live in fear, when approach the central miracle of one's ministry. How did he wrestle with that part of his life and work?

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