It’s astounding to know how some people discover their true calling.
Certain events create turning points that make them question the path they’ve chosen and bless them with revelations that lead them to God. For Christian recording artist John Michael Talbot, those events crystallized in the most unlikely of places and inspired him to share his discovery with the world
It was the early seventies, the height of love-ins, hippies and the dawn of the decadent disco era. Eighteen-year-old John Michael Talbot was performing across the U.S. with the rock group Mason Proffit. His group was one of the forerunners of country rock and had shared the stage with some of the biggest acts of the day, including The Byrds, Poco, Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead.
On one particular evening they were opening for the queen of rock herself, Janis Joplin. Talbot watched her backstage as she downed bottles of Southern Comfort like it was soda pop. The sight seized him deeply, and when the concert was over he walked back onto the empty stage. Looking out over the arena floor, he was shocked to see, lying before him a sea of bottles, beer cans and drug paraphernalia littered as far as he could see.
“Suddenly,” he recalls, “the rock star life seemed empty and sad. It wasn’t at all what I wanted my life to stand for.” It was a prophetic experience for the youngster that caused him to question his whole lifestyle as he began to ask, “Isn’t there something more?”
Up to that point he had rubbed shoulders with the rock stars he admired and emulated. He shared stages and dressing rooms with them, which gave him an insider’s view of the rock scene. After meeting some of his heroes and seeing how they really lived their lives, Talbot came to an inescapable conclusion. “There were some real tragic scenarios being played out,” he says, “and it caused me to stop cold and do some serious thinking.”
That thinking led to a revelation after performances at the Ozark Mountain Folk Fair in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in 1973. It was a profound moment that caused him to reconsider the choices he had made. As a result, Talbot left Mason Proffit and began a spiritual journey that went in many different directions before he found what he was looking for.
He spent almost four years praying and searching for answers. He read sacred and philosophical texts, exploring everything from Native American religions to Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism and Christianity. He worked on a farm in Indiana selling vegetables during the day and studying the world’s religions at night, until finally, in a singular moment, it all became clear to him.
“I won’t call it a visionary experience,” Talbot maintains, “but I saw a Christ figure. I knew it was Jesus, and He made everything personalized for me.”
His conversion initially led him into Fundamentalism and eventually to the Jesus Movement. He studied all Christian denominations and found that Catholicism spoke to his heart. “It wasn’t just some vague yearning,” he recalls. “I saw a life in Christ in harmony and in peace.”
“I asked God what I was supposed to do,” he explains, “and God said, ‘Play your music and I will open and shut the doors.’” Staying true to that calling, Talbot started to use his musical talents to express his faith by joining the newly emerging Christian music scene. He recorded for Warner Brothers Records, delivering an album entitled Reborn, and later recorded two additional albums for Sparrow Records, John Michael Talbot and The New Earth.
“As a secular musician I remember trying to do spiritual things without really knowing it. Now as a Christian musician,” he explains, “I’ve honed my craft, writing music that flows out of prayer and becomes sacred.”
Talbot believes that sacred music is sacramental and, from an arts perspective, both reflects and guides the faithful. That music, based on faith, can take the listener on a closer walk with God, actually taking them into the heart of the Lord. “It brings out the mysterious and speaks the unspeakable, bringing to light that which is beyond human reason. Furthermore,” he says, “the role of music and prayer fulfills a prophetic function. Not that musicians are prophets,” he notes, but they do have an obligation to lead.”
Acknowledging that obligation, Talbot has produced more than forty recordings over the years with sales around four million albums. His songs were the first by a Catholic artist to cross well-defined boundaries and gain acceptance by Protestant listeners. Due to his expansive popularity, he was the recipient of several prestigious awards. In 1982 he won the Dove Award for Worship Album of the Year, Light Eternal, with producer and longtime friend, Phil Perkins. Four years later, he became one of only nine artists to receive the President’s Merit Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and, in 1988 he was named the Number One Christian Artist by Billboard magazine.
Talbot is not the type of person who would rest on well-deserved laurels. He has also authored fourteen books, written numerous magazine articles and performs up to fifty concerts a year. “When you have something good to say,” Talbot suggests, “you shouldn’t be afraid to share it.” In fact, Talbot has shared his meditations and music not only with concertgoers, but also with such Christian luminaries as Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.
None of Talbot’s musical successes, however, come close to what many consider his greatest accomplishment. Inspired by the life of St. Francis of Assisi, he sold everything he owned and joined a secular Franciscan order in 1978. He built a hermitage in the woods and fashioned a monk’s habit from used army blankets. “At first, I planned to live a life of quiet meditation as a hermit,” he recalls, “but as I studied the history of the church, I saw that community had always been a part of it.” As a result, he founded a house of prayer called “The Little Portion” to share with others his love of Jesus.
Visitors to the Franciscan monastery began to recognize John Michael Talbot as a man of God and gathered with him to pray, meditate and seek the Holy Spirit. He welcomed them and led prayer with songs he had arranged from ancient scriptures and sacred writings. He created musical celebrations out of his love for early church music and the music of the Medieval and Renaissance eras.
As the number of visitors continued to increase, Talbot’s spiritual advisor, Fr. Martin Wolter, suggested that he start his own community and begin a music ministry. In 1982 he moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and founded “The Little Portion Hermitage”. “I had sold everything,” he laughs, “but no one would buy the twenty five acres of land I bought in the Ozarks while on tour with Mason Proffit. It seemed that God had a special purpose for it.”
That purpose became a community built on the monastic heritage. “It is an applied way of life so that everything is focused on being with God,” Talbot explains. “Our impetus is one of contemplation, a spiritual life that some have labeled a ‘monastic ambiance’.”
Today this community, “The Brothers and Sisters of Charity,” has about forty members living at the monastery and some five hundred more domestic members in their own homes worldwide. It is the only community in North America with canonical status from the Catholic Church and one of only ten communities in the world to encompass celibates, single people, married couples and families. All take evangelical councils of chastity, poverty and obedience appropriate to their state of life.
Although the community is largely self-supporting, growing much of its own food, it is Talbot’s music career that acts as one of its main benefactors. Additional revenue sources include donations, food sales and a record distribution network Talbot has implemented for other Catholic artists.
As for his music, it has evolved quite a bit from his early rock stylings. Talbot now has a more reflective, meditative style that combines his crystal-clear tenor vocals with his magnificent classical guitar. He is best known for creating albums designed for worship and quiet meditation.
To support his prolific writing, Talbot formed a record label in 1992 and named it what people have been calling him for years, “Troubadour for the Lord”. Under its banner Talbot has released several of his own albums and works with other Christian artists. “The music I write isn’t gospel, contemporary Christian or grandiose. It’s sacred, which touches upon all those categories but isn’t really a part of them. It’s a unique niche,” he explains, “and having an independent label gives me the focus I need.”
That focus, according to Talbot, can best be described by a metaphor, one that he has used in an earlier work called, “Master Musician”. “I think of Christ as the conductor of an orchestra,” he says. “The faithful are the players following His direction and the notes on the charts. Great players are able to take those notes and make beautiful music. But, the whole orchestra must also be on the same page and play the very same notes. If anyone decides to improvise, rather than following along, the symphony will become chaotic.”
Talbot’s goal today is to curb that chaos and spread the word to as many people as possible through his music, books, videos, retreats, and concerts. “People are frightened and confused because society is degenerating at an alarming rate,” he proclaims, “and I sense a hunger for spirituality because our values are crumbling and, God help us, even our churches and communities are falling apart.”
During these times, Talbot believes there’s a powerful need to reach out right now, to all ages and to show them that there is a better way. He believes that Christian musicians have a responsibility to uphold the faith and morality of Christianity. That they should demonstrate how music can be God-inspired and that, “Their music should excite people about their faith by not only being appealing, but also by attracting the faithful to its message.”
Beyond a simple faith in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, Talbot encourages practical disciplines such as spiritual readings, vigils, fasting and manual labor to help overcome personal weaknesses. He also carries within him a radical concern for what is happening in the world today.
In the tradition of St. Francis, he will regularly visit people in their homes, offering to help them in any way he can. He organizes “Itinerant Prayer-Walks” to coincide with his concerts, where he, and the Brothers and Sisters of Charity with no money, food or lodging for themselves, will go from town to town ministering to those in need. On a global scale, Little Portion Hermitage is a major supporter of Mercy Corps International, an organization that, in 1999 alone provided more than $93 million in emergency and humanitarian aid to people in 24 developing countries including Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia and countries in Africa. Talbot himself has traveled with Mercy Corps to the Middle East, Central America and the Philippines.
As such, it’s clear that to simply call John Michael Talbot a successful Christian artist would be a gross understatement. Although he uses his art to communicate his beliefs and love of God, he also feels a responsibility to those who may not be aware of Christ and His teachings. “The world’s a community,” Talbot explains, “and it’s completely interdependent. Everyone is affected by what other people do, and there is a wonderful array of things we can do for God, for Christ and for His church.”
To that end, Talbot strives to keep his community focused and viable in the fast pace of the new millennium. “It’s an alternative living experience,” he says, “but we’re not fanatics about it. We try to use procedures and policies that are balanced and healthy and that recognize the rights of the individual. That may seem radical to some, but we have the checks and balances of the Catholic Church to keep us on the straight and narrow should we go wrong.”
So, how does John Michael Talbot manage to keep it all together? He smiles and credits the Lord for his success. “Jesus said, ‘I have come that you might have life and have it to the full.’ He doesn’t waste anything. He’ll redeem us all if we let Him.”
Indeed, as he reflects on his life and all that has been accomplished, Talbot sighs, “Jesus has been good to me. He’s offered me salvation and a way to help others. In fact, the more I live this life, the more I see our job as a community is to simply be faithful to what God has given us. In that way,” he concludes, “We will be living, nothing more or less, than the gospel of Jesus Christ.”