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Religion And Health By James J. Walsh Characters: 18240

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Practically all religions have enjoined fasting as a part of their practice, either as a sacrifice made to higher powers or a recognition of the fact that occasional voluntary abstinence from food gave man a power of control over himself which represented a real religious gain in his relations with the deity. We have heard not a little in modern times of the evils to health consequent upon the abuse of fasting and of the limitation of food generally. Appetite must rule the quantity to be eaten, and this must not be interfered with by religious motives or health will suffer. Undoubtedly imprudent fasting, like the abuse of anything else, no matter how good in itself, has done no little harm. So much has been said, however, of the hysterical and neurotic conditions which resulted in women particularly, who out of an exaggerated sense of piety ate less than was necessary to support their bodies properly, that a rather violent prejudice has been created in many minds with regard to fasting as if it were an old-fashioned superstitious practice which our progress in knowledge and in the proper understanding of man, and his relations to the higher powers had enabled us to see the foolishness of and do away with for good and all.

Careful observations made in the course of the advance of modern scientific medicine have, however, made it {110} very clear that periodical abstinences from food, or at least certain foods, especially among people who are accustomed to eat rather heartily, instead of being in any way a detriment to health, are practically always a distinct hygienic advantage. Physicians are not likely to take seriously such expressions as that most people dig their graves with their teeth or that eating too much is the bane of the race, but they appreciate very well that there are a great many people, especially among the better-to-do classes, who eat more than is good for them. It is just the people who have least exercise and need the least food who are tempted by the variety and tastiness of modern food to eat too much. Any practice that would limit this would undoubtedly be good. Fasting and abstinence, because periodic, would be especially valuable, for they are likely to do less harm than any continued limitation of food. The one phase of modern sanitation and hygiene, as made clear from the mortality records of the departments of health of our cities, that has been seriously disturbing in recent years, has been the increase in mortality among people above the age of fifty. We have been very properly proud of the fact that we have reduced municipal death rates and made the average length of life much longer than it used to be. We have done this, however, by saving more young children and by greatly lessening the infectious diseases among young adults, but the deaths from apoplexy, Bright's disease and heart disease, just when life is at its most valuable stage, have increased and not diminished. The tendencies to these serious degenerative diseases are due, it is well understood, ever so much more to overeating than to undereating. This is particularly true as regards the overeating of meat and other foods {111} rich in proteid materials which have been the special subject of religious fasting regulation.

Religion then, by inculcating the practice of fasting and abstinence from flesh meat at certain times, has conferred a great benefit on the race. One fish day in the week, for instance, all the year round, has in the minds of a great many physicians given nearly as much rest to the digestive tract and certain of the more delicate metabolic processes of the body as Sunday freedom from labor has given to the mind and the body generally. The fact that a large part of our population will eat no meat on Friday and must have fish leads to a commercial provision of fresh fish on that day in the week, of which practically all the community, including those who feel no religious obligation in the matter, takes advantage.

Abstinence from meat, however, is quite a different thing from fasting, and Friday is a day of abstinence and not of fast. The fast days come at certain periods of the year, as in Advent and Lent, and certain days which are specially designated. The keeping of Lent, during which for forty days people are expected to eat one third less than they have been accustomed to, is a very valuable institution. I am not one of those who think, that everybody eats too much and who like to be constantly insisting that people are destroying their lives by overeating, but I know very well that considerably more than half of humanity eat more than is good for them. I know, too, that about one fourth of humanity does not eat enough for its own good, and that unfortunately a good many of these are taking the warnings with regard to eating to heart, though those who need them most are neglecting them. Practically everybody who is overweight is eating too much and exercising too little. A {112} good many people who are underweight are eating too little. Considerably more than one half of adult mankind, however, would be benefited by keeping rather strictly the regulations for the Lenten season. The fact that the Sundays are not in Lent and that good, hearty meals can be eaten on that day gives assurance that people are not likely to be hurt by the fast. I think that most of the physicians of the world would agree that the great majority of men and women would be benefited by the rest and change which their metabolic processes receive as a result of limitation of eating, and the observance of ecclesiastical regulations as to the modification of food.

The reduction in meat eating and the production to some extent of a taste for the white rather than the dark foods generally, for butter and eggs and creamed vegetables rather than the meat soups and meat sauces and the dark, heavy meats, so rich in the irritative extractives, is undoubtedly of distinct hygienic advantage. Of late years particularly, probably much more meat than is good for people has been eaten. The better-to-do classes have gradually come to the fashion of removing the fat, cutting off all the connective tissue portions of their meat and serving it or eating it in solid muscular masses, which is neither conducive to good digestion and elimination nor to the proper building up of the body. Too many irritant materials are thus consumed, and it is no wonder that that properly dreaded disease, arterio-sclerosis, the hardening of the arteries, representing premature lessening of the elasticity of the tubes which convey the blood on which vital processes depend to so great a degree, has begun to be much more frequent than it used to be. There is agreement among physicians that {113} a rich meat diet has much to do with this and that excessive meat eating is a growing evil in our time.

Only religion could accomplish a change in this tendency, for there is an allurement about meat which grows as more of it is taken. This can be noticed in children very readily, and human habits in civilized countries have unfortunately followed a direction in this matter that requires some profound influence to modify them. Not that meat is of itself a deleterious substance, nor one that should not be eaten, for there is no reason in nature for vegetarianism; but excess in eating it, like excess in anything else, may do serious harm. Nature, and when we use the word we mean nature's God, set an index that is infallible as to the variety of our diet when we were given cutting and tearing as well as grinding teeth. The presence of both these varieties of teeth, though the meat-eating animals have only the incisors and canines, while the plant-eating animals have only the molars or grinders, makes it clear beyond all doubt that human beings were meant to eat meat, but in this, as in everything else, excess must be avoided, and if it is not serious consequences follow.

A great many are inclined to think of abstinence as representing abstinence from food alone, but it must not be forgotten that as understood in connection with religion it represents abstinence from all the harmful things. For instance, it represents abstinence from sleep when that is being taken to excess, and as a rule any healthy human being above the age of twenty and under sixty who sleeps more than eight hours in the day needs to practice such abstinence. There is literally such a thing as oversleeping and thus accumulating more energy than one has use for. The surplus energy is then used up {114} within the individual to the disturbance of functions of various kinds. Many a woman who has no children and who lives in an apartment hotel and has no duties that she has to get up for eats breakfast in bed, and does not rise until after eleven o'clock, after having gone to bed the night before sometime around midnight, and then wonders why she feels so miserable. Nothing would do her more good than to be out a little after eight in the morning briskly walking somewhere with the idea of helping some one else. She needs to practice

abstinence of a very definite kind.

Then there are others who abstain too much from exercise. Whenever they go out they ride either in a trolley car or in a machine; the idea of walking a mile is disturbing to them and walking three or four miles seems utterly out of the question. Some of them are gaining in weight and are already overweight; they are wondering why they cannot bring themselves down and perhaps they are practicing abstinence of all kinds for that purpose. The famous English statesman. Lord Palmerston, who lived in good health to be a very old man and was for sixty years very prominent in English politics, was well known for the amount of exercise that he took. His maxim with regard to it should be very well known. He said, "Every other abstinence will not make up for abstinence from exercise." There are a great many people who are abstaining too much from exercise and need to abstain from rest. If they would do so for religious motives, and there are a number of people who keep themselves going when they are tired by these motives, they would not only accomplish a very great deal for their health, but they would at the same time make their religion mean ever so much more in a practical way in life.


The religious custom of setting a day of fasting before a feast day and of introducing three Ember Days before some of the larger feasts and at certain seasons of the year when, owing to the abundance of food provided for the day of rejoicing, people are likely to overeat, has been extremely beneficial as a simple matter of health conservation and prophylaxis against the effects of overeating. It has always been the custom to provide better and ampler meals on the feast days and if these are prepared for by a day of fasting, when one third less at least than usual is eaten, the stomach and digestive tract generally come to the full table much more ready for the feast. An old medical friend once suggested that the only things in the world worth while considering in matters of health are contrast and microbes. From the fast to the feast one gets the contrast and the variety in life distinctly makes for better resistance against microbic invasion. The Church believes in the satisfaction of reasonable appetites and encourages the feast days and their celebration by a larger provision of good things, but conserves health and disciplines the moral character at the same time by inserting the fast days before them. The occurrence of feast days at regular intervals so that a special gratification of the appetite is looked forward to has been declared by most physicians who have considered the subject to be an excellent thing for health. Monotony of diet begets sluggish digestion.

In some very serious diseases, as for instance occasionally in Bright's disease and rather more frequently in diabetes, fasting periods of short duration have been found particularly valuable as therapeutic measures. In certain forms of digestive disease fasting is also a valuable adjuvant, though it needs to be used under the {116} direction of a physician, for people who prescribe their own fasting often fail to realize that they may weaken their digestive organs rather seriously by the process. The stomach has a very good habit of passing on to the other organs the nutritious materials that come to it and will sometimes drain itself of necessary nutrition in following out this good habit in this matter. People who are overweight particularly are often benefited by a fasting period, though here too care must be exercised.

Ecclesiastical regulations which have introduced fasting at intervals, but with proper interruptions on Sundays, even when there is a prolonged period of fasting, have certainly been beneficial to mankind. The loosening of the bonds of religion in modern times and the very general persuasion that somehow we are not capable of standing such abstinence from food as was insisted upon for the people of long ago are almost surely mistakes. All the nations of the world found during the war that their men could stand a great deal more than either they themselves or any one else thought they could. The soldiers taken out of the comforts of our cities lived in uncovered ditches in the open fields winter and summer, spring and fall, rain or shine, hail or snow, often with wet feet and clothes frozen upon them, with coarse food and not too much of it, taken at irregular intervals often in cold and unappetizing form, with interrupted sleep amid war's alarms and yet they actually came out of it in better health than they were before. We hear much of hurting human nature by deprivations, but it seems very probable that the old-fashioned habits of religious discipline with even fasting rigorously enforced, for all who are in normal health, would do good rather than harm. Not only could men stand them, though so {117} many fear they could not, but they would be actually benefited by them. Nothing is so relaxing to the physical fiber of mankind as overindulgence, especially if continued persistently.

Undoubtedly the old-fashioned ecclesiastical regulations would do good to the moral as well as the physical side of man and also to his mental power. An over-abundance of food sets up irritations of many kinds which make people restive in mind and body and adds fuel to passion. The expression in the Scripture is "My beloved waxed fat and kicked." The people who kick over the traces of the ordinary rules of conduct in life are much oftener well fed than underfed. I refer, of course, to the sins against self and others rather than to the sins against property. Fasting was always recognized as an extremely valuable adjunct in helping in the control of the passions. The practice of it made a man much more capable of controlling himself. The passions are all serious for health when permitted to get beyond bounds. Many a case of indigestion is dependent on that irritability of temper which so often develops in good feeders and then proceeds to form a vicious circle of influence, perpetuating itself. Irritability of tissues is often in direct ratio to irritability of temper, and not a few men owe both conditions to overindulgence in the pleasures of the table and failure to acquire, to some extent at least, such habits of self-control as the practice of fasting at intervals would help them to secure.

The bodily passions, especially those related to sex, are particularly likely to be influenced by overeating and to be brought under subjection by fasting, while at the same time the practice of this gives strength to the will in overcoming appetites which is a very valuable auxiliary {118} for self-denial and self-control. All the authorities in the spiritual life, that is to say, to use a modern way of putting it, all the students of psychology in the olden time who devoted themselves to finding out how man could best regulate his instincts and train his will to self-control are agreed in declaring fasting particularly valuable for the proper regulation of certain very natural physical tendencies that may readily prove the source of serious temptations involving danger to health as well as to morals.

If fasting had done nothing else in the olden time but help men to control tendencies to sexual excess, religion, by its encouragement of the practice, would be a great creditor to health. One of the reasons why young folks, particularly nowadays, find it so hard and indeed some of them seem to think almost impossible-to control their sexual impulses, is that they have had no practice in building up habits of control of bodily appetites and no exercise of their will power to help them to suppress the natural tendencies, whenever these threaten their own good or that of those around them.

Perhaps modern hygiene may in the course of time find it advisable to reintroduce days of abstinence from certain foods and definite periods of fasting into the year for the sake of their mere physical benefit, just as holidays have been reintroduced in the last generation or so to replace the lost holydays of the older time. There are undoubtedly corresponding benefits for humanity in both movements. Some of these have been indicated more in detail in the chapters on Purity, Mortification and Suffering, so that the specific benefits of the practice of self-denial with regard to food and drink which religion has always encouraged may be seen in them. Religion {119} has always counseled plain food for growing young folks, pointing out the dangers particularly of overeating, feeding the sex impulses, or at least making them extremely difficult to repress. This is particularly true as regards the richer foods specially prepared with condiments that tempt the appetite and lead to the accumulation of heat-forming materials for which there is no natural outlet except hard physical exercise. Sugar and the sweets generally are particularly undesirable in this respect, hence the benefit of the pious practice which makes many young folks abstain from candy during Lent.


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