An Ontario priest who opened up to his congregation this winter about his past struggles with alcoholism and depression says clergy might be more effective if they worry less about trying to seem flawless.
“We need to talk about our struggles,” says the Rev. Matthew Martin, priest at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Lucan, Ont., diocese of Huron. “If we do have something that we’ve been able to go through and overcome, then we need to be able to share that and not worry so much that we don’t portray an image of perfection.”
Martin, whom some may know for his impersonations of Elvis Presley, replete with sequined jumpsuit and pompadour, reportedly left many in his congregation in tears after preaching a sermon last February 18, the first Sunday of Lent, in which he related how he had found new life in faith, and a call to the priesthood, after many years of living in a “tomb” of alcohol addiction and despair.
Martin tried his first beer as a nervous and insecure teenager, he says in the sermon, which can be viewed on Holy Trinity’s website. From his first encounter with it, alcohol seemed like a “magic bullet” that could remove his social anxiety and make him the life of any party. But it soon became a self-reinforcing habit that took an increasing toll on him, he says.
“It didn’t take long before the gun was pointing inwards, and the magic bullet that took the form of any variety of alcohol was tearing away at my soul,” he says. “I was miserable, I was depressed, I was lonely and anxious, and the more depressed I felt, the more I would drink.”
Alcohol addiction eventually led him to absolute despair. “At one point I remember my desire to escape everything and everyone was so powerful that I found myself hanging out the window of an apartment building,” he adds. “Thankfully, a cop and common sense prevailed that night.”
Eventually, he ended up in a hospital room with a chair and table bolted to the floor. It was there, Martin says, that he experienced an Easter of resurrection. He prayed, and as he did so he felt confident of the gospel promise of new life.
“God’s grace washed over me,” he says in his sermon. “When I was finally given the all-clear to go home, I stood up and I looked at that steel table bolted to the floor and somehow I understood that I wasn’t coming back.”
Since that moment, Martin says in an interview, he has not touched alcohol. And although he had already begun reading and studying the Bible, he says, it was from that moment that he felt with certainty he was called to be a priest.
A number of considerations, Martin says, drove him to speak openly about his experiences in his Lenten sermon. Two events within the previous week and a half had clearly shown an intense need in the community for help with addictions: in that time alone, he received a call from someone who had come close to suicide as a result of an addiction, and addiction had caused the death of someone in Lucan.
He also found he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with a notion some people seem to have of the priest as perfect—likely perpetuated, he says, by the finery often on display in Anglican places of worship.
“If you walk into most Anglican churches, there’s polished brass, we have our robes neatly pressed, we have our chasubles and our stoles, the stained glass—all of these things project an image to those people who sit in the pews,” he says. “And the priests can sometimes be viewed as deities—they’re the people who’ve got everything together. Yet it’s just not true.
“Too often the people sitting in the pews can feel like failures and they don’t realize we’re all struggling,” he says. “We struggle with faith questions, we struggle with questions of prayer, we struggle with, ‘Has God left us? Are we alone?’ ”
It’s possible that priests could help people more with their inner struggles if they open up more about their own, Martin says.
“When we’re able to share ourselves…then we’re leading with love, and I think that’s when people recognize we’re in this together. And I think that’s what Jesus was all about.”
Martin says many of his parishioners were deeply moved by and appreciative of his sermon that day. Since he gave it, he says, he has been approached by a number of people with their own stories of struggle, and he hopes their talking about these struggles will help them in the healing process.
“It’s opened up conversation, which has been incredible,” he says.