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Religion And Health By James J. Walsh Characters: 20104

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

If religion had done nothing else for mankind than insert holydays into the year, which came to be holidays in the best sense of the word, the health of mankind would have a great deal for which to thank it. Humanity is deeply indebted for the breaks in the routine of labor which came as the result of the institution of Church holydays of various kinds and especially for the Sundays. That every seventh day man should be free from labor was indeed a blessing. How few there are who realize that the Sundays, taken together, fifty-two of them, make seven weeks and a half of vacation in the year. Seven weeks of continuous vacation are usually too much for most people to enjoy properly; so long an interval palls on them. Coming once a week, however, the Sundays are probably the most wonderful aid to health and the conservation of strength and the keeping of people in good condition that we have.

One of the things for which we find it hardest to forgive the French Revolution is that when men tried to rule themselves by what they thought was pure reason, they changed the observance of Sunday every seventh day into a day of rest every tenth day. There seems to have been no other reason for that except that the French were introducing the decimal system, and ten seemed to be {121} the number that appealed to them. Perhaps there was the feeling that seven was a sort of mystical number often mentioned in the Scriptures and deeply connected with religion. Their thoroughgoing reaction against the mystical made them reject it. Seven is, however, a much better number on which to regulate the day of rest than ten, and the seventh day has been extremely valuable for mankind.

Practically every one who has thought about the subject has recognized this, and yet it usually needs to be called particularly to their attention to have people generally appreciate it properly. Mr. Gladstone once emphasized the great benefits which he himself had derived from it and which he felt ought to be accorded to every workingman.

"Believing in the authority of the Lord's day as a religious institution, I must, as a matter of course, desire the recognition of that authority by others. But, over and above this, I have myself, in the course of a laborious life, signally experienced both its mental and its physical benefits. I can hardly overstate its value in this view; and for the interest of the working-men of this country, alike in these and other yet higher respects, there is nothing I more anxiously desire than that they should more and more highly appreciate the Christian Day of Rest."

Macaulay, the well-known English historian and essayist, emphasized particularly the fact that the rest of Sunday, instead of proving a detriment to mankind, was actually an advantage. During the war the British had to learn that lesson over again. Men and women in munition factories were at the beginning, owing to the high wages, but with the full approval of the government {122} authorities, encouraged to labor in the factories on Sunday as well as on other days in the week. It was very soon found, however, that continuous labor, instead of enabling the operatives to keep up a greater production than before, was soon followed by a diminution in the power of production which sadly reduced the output. The restoration of the Sunday rest was promptly followed by an increased output, for nature seems to need such a rest, or after a while there comes a lassitude and relaxation of muscular power which actually prevents men and women from accomplishing their tasks with anything like the energy that they have under a regime of six working days followed by a day of rest. Only the most menial of routine labor, requiring no thought for its accomplishment, can be kept up without definite days of rest for relief and recuperation of forces.

Macaulay declared: "We are not poorer but richer because we have, through many ages, rested from our labour one day in seven. That day is not lost. While industry is suspended, while the plough lies in the furrow, while the exchange is silent, while no smoke ascends from the factory, a process is going on quite as important to the wealth of the nation as any process which is performed on more busy days. Man, the machine of machines-the machine compared with which all the contrivances of the Watts and Arkwrights are worthless-is repairing and winding-up, so that he returns to his labours on the Monday with clearer intellect, with livelier spirits, with renewed corporeal vigour."

During the ages when organized religion had the power to regulate human life much more than it has at the present time, there were many more days of rest than the Sundays. It is surprising now to find how many days {123} in the year there were on which the Church forbade servile labor. All the Holydays of Obligation, so-called, were days of rest. From the very earliest time in Christianity there were at least two dozen of these in the year. The feast days of the Twelve Apostles, for instance, were twelve holydays of obligation with no work, and then there were of course nearly another dozen important celebrations in honor of the Lord. Christmas, and New Year, the Annunciation on March 25, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and usually two or three days in Easter week, Whitmonday and, as time went on, certain feast days in honor of the Mother of the Lord were added and then certain local saints' days in particular regions, as for instance the patron saint of the church of the place and often of the country. All together there were some thirty of these Holydays of Obligation, that is one extra day every two weeks and a little more than that was a holiday, on which no work was done. As the vigils of all first-class feasts were free from labor after the vesper hour, two in the afternoon, and as no work was done on Saturday afternoons after the same hour, there were actually well above one hundred days in the year free from labor.

One of the awful things that happened in the social order in modern history was the obliteration of these holydays shortly after the Reformation. We are engaged, now that we have waked up to the necessity of working people having days of recreation, in putting the holidays back into the year. We in this country have Lincoln's Day, Washington's Birthday, Decoration Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and in most of the States Columbus Day, Election Day, and Thanksgiving Day as well as Christmas and New Year. In England, in {124} order to make up for some of the holidays that have been lost, or rather so unwarrantably taken away from the working classes, they put in the bank holidays four times in the year, having them occur on Monday always, so that from Saturday afternoon until Tuesday morning people are free from the obligation of laboring. We know now how wise, from a human and merely natural as well as the divine and spiritual aspect was the insertion of holydays in the year. We must have more holidays; there should be at least one every month, and the old custom of having at least one every two weeks would be much better.

There are not a few people, especially in our strenuous time, deeply intent on human productiveness rather than on human life and happiness, who seem inclined to think that so many holidays in the year sadly hamper the power of humanity to get things done and, therefore, represent a very serious waste of time. Those who think that, however, are usually in quest of some personal advantage of some very sordid kind and are not interested in the real achievements of humanity. After all, human accomplishment, like personal advance, depends not on how much we get done but how well it is done. It is not from extremely tired, overwrought mortals, whose physical forces are always in tension because of the almost continuous strain to which they are subjected that we can ever expect to get any products that are really worth while. Slave labor may be exploited thus, and it is possible to build barracks and railroads and even pyramids in this way, but to erect structures of any noble kind which comprise in material form beautiful expressions of the artistic feelings of mankind, there can be no rush of tired human beings, but time must be taken.


The late Mr. Standish O'Grady of Dublin, to whom probably more than to any one else is due the modern revival in Irish literature which has been such an incentive for better poetry throughout the English-speaking world, once discussed this question of the achievement of mankind when men are released from the obligation of continuous labor and are free to think and have the opportunity to invite their souls and be inspired to higher things. It was at a dinner here in America, and he was remarking the fact that every one whom he met over here in this country was busy, busy, BUSY! They did not apologize for the fact, as a rule, but on the contrary seemed to be proud of it and to think that it must be the normal state of man to be so occupied with what he was about that he was ever deeply intent on it. He reminded his American audience that leisure was the foster-mother of nearly everything that mankind had ever done that was worth while, for the worth-while things must have thought in them, and thought requires time and leisure for its fulfillment.

Mr. O'Grady recalled the fact that twice in the world's history when men accomplished results so great that the world will never willingly let die the monuments then created, the most important feature of life was its leisure. Actually one third of the time of the men of Greece in the Periclean period, that Golden Age of achievement, was spent in the preparation for and the celebration of religious mysteries. Their greatest architectural monuments were their temples; their finest sculptures were the figures of the gods and goddesses, but what is not usually realized is that their literature was the product of the leisure afforded for competitions in their great religious fest

ivals, and their painting had a similar origin. The {126} Greeks, like the medieval Christians, had a great many feast days during the year, and on these they held games and contests of various kinds, not only athletic but poetic, dramatic and literary of all kinds, for Herodotus read his great history before the assembled multitude in the celebration of a religious festival at Athens and was awarded a prize equivalent very probably to ten thousand dollars in our time.

What was true of the Greeks was true also, as has been said, of the Middle Ages. The generations which made the great Gothic cathedrals which we have come to look upon as such triumphs of construction, which built the magnificent abbeys and town halls and hospitals of the later Middle Ages, enduring monuments of their genius in construction, spent one third of their time in the celebration of and the preparation for religious festivals. Twice in the history of the world, once in the later Middle Ages and in the older days in Greece, dramatic literature originated anew in religious mystery and morality plays. The men who gave us Magna Charta and all the great charters of liberties that lie at the basis of modern rights and privileges in practically every country in Europe had the time to think out the solutions of their problems in the leisure afforded by the fifty-two Sundays and thirty Holydays of Obligation which they were accustomed to celebrate. The undying literature of the thirteenth century, the Cid in Spain, the Arthurian legends in England, the Nibelungen in Germany and Dante all came at a time when men set apart days for religious meditation and a contemplation of higher things than the sordid concerns of everyday life.

So far from one day of leisure in three interfering with human productivity in the best sense of that word, the {127} custom actually added to it. Men who work continuously from day to day without intermission can make a quantity of trivial things, but they cannot make anything that would be enduringly interesting, for they have not the time. I have often said that I thought that the greatest expression in American literature is those famous words of Thoreau as to the relation of time and money. The Sage of Walden found that by working about one half a day in the week he could support himself, and he used the rest of the time for the study of nature around him and for inviting his soul in the woods and along the streams. He feared that the business of making a living might keep him from really living. It is easy to understand that his thrifty Yankee neighbors failed utterly to comprehend any such attitude toward what they conceived to be a workaday world. Especially at harvest time when they needed help it seemed a shame to see Thoreau wandering apparently lazily and aimlessly while they were working so hard and looking for workers whom they were willing to pay what they thought was very good wages. They stopped Thoreau and offered him better pay than they were usually accustomed to offer, but Thoreau replied very simply, "I have no time to make money." There seem to be a great many people in our day who apparently are of the opinion that the only reason for which time is given is to make money. The Sundays and holydays, as arranged by the religious authorities, made excellent recreation days. After their morning spent in church, listening to a sermon by some favorite preacher, but having the eye and the ear and even the nose appealed to by the rest of the celebration, the people were then free for recreation. The old Church had no Puritanic scruples about people playing on the {128} Sabbath; there were sports of various kinds on the green in front of the church and their parish priest might be the referee; neighboring parishes held contests in archery or at bowls or in what the Irish call hurling and the English call shinney. At certain seasons the guilds offered prizes for these contests; the young were encouraged to go into training for them for weeks beforehand, and the prizes were conferred rather gloriously before all those whom the young folks most loved and respected.

These Church holidays were associated with various celebrations, such as May Day, the Feast of the Innocents or Fools; the beating of the bounds when in procession the parishioners on the Rogation Days walked round the various properties of the parish and asked the blessing of heaven on the crops; the carnival time when, before abuses crept in, the Church encouraged the celebration that would mark the beginning of Lent and make everybody ready to bid good-by to the pleasures of life for a while. Then the various fairs and markets were usually so timed that they immediately followed some important festival day in the year and afforded people an opportunity for a little vacation and an outing in connection with the feast, while at the same time they were able to buy what they needed.

Above all, religion insisted that some part of these days of recreation, the holydays of the years, should be spent not merely for one's own selfish pleasure, but in bringing pleasure to others. It was suggested, for instance, that there could be no better occupation for a portion of Christmas and Easter or of some Sunday afternoons than visiting the sick or prisoners or bringing consolation to those in need. Kings and queens washed the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday, and there were {129} similar practices at other times in the ecclesiastical year. The people were encouraged to bury the dead reverently and then to keep their graves green and to visit them occasionally on the holydays as a sign that their memory had not faded, though also as a reminder of the fact that sometime they hoped to be with their dear friends in another world. This may seem a rather solemn occupation for recreation, but taken in the open air, while the children played around the graves and the old folks sat and tallied, it was ever so much better than that unconquerable tendency to crowd together in hot, dusty places which afflicts people on our holidays. The old graveyards represented the parks in even the smallest towns, and the inhabitants had a pride in keeping them in order and found a pleasure in visiting them occasionally. In the unfortunately crowded conditions in which they often lived, the only lungs for some of their villages were to be found in the churchyard. There was scarcely a town in this country two generations ago that had anything approaching a public park, except its cemetery.

There is a constant tendency to encroach on the Sunday rest for commercial and industrial reasons of one kind or another, and only religious influences have saved the Sabbath for mankind. Even as it is, the decadence of religion in many countries has led more and more to neglect of the Sabbath-day rest, and in certain of the European countries particularly, Sunday, instead of being a day of rest for the small tradesman, is sometimes his busiest day. Here in this country religious influences were the only factors that kept the saloons more or less closed on Sunday and kept the rest day from being an orgy of dissipation for many people. Selfishness continues to encroach on the precious day of rest and various {130} forms of trade try to present some necessity for their being open on the Sabbath. This has always been the way, and the religious sanction in the matter has been the most precious safeguard.

At the present time, there are a good many stores open for a while or for the whole day on Sunday for which it is hard to find any necessity. Some of the fresh food and milk stores have a certain justification, but why tobacco stores should be open, seeing that their product will keep perfectly and that any man can rather easily lay in a store to carry him over a day at least, is indeed hard to understand. [Footnote 5]

[Footnote 5: There are probably several hundred thousand men in this country who have to work on Sunday because the tobacco stores are open. This is an abuse corresponding to that with regard to the saloon, which will almost surely bring about a reaction in the public mind against the traffic in tobacco generally.]

Another abuse of the public confidence is the opening of all drug stores on Sunday. As a consequence hundreds of thousands of men are deprived of this day of rest in the week. Drugs are extremely important and should of course be available at all hours, but there is no more reason for all the drug stores to be open every Sunday than there is for all the drug stores to be open all night. Certain drug stores should be open, but as St. Antonius suggested five hundred years ago, there is no good reason why there should not be an arrangement by which the drug stores should be open in rotation on Sundays, so that drugs would be always available and only the absolutely necessary articles needed for emergencies should be sold on that day. There is no reason at all why the modern department store annex of the large drug corporations which happens to have a small corner of its store space set off for the filling of prescriptions should {131} do business on Sunday than for an immense department store to put in a prescription department and then sell goods all over the house because they have to keep their drug department open on Sundays. Only the religious element in life will save us from this commercial invasion, with the harm which it does in depriving so many people of their day of rest.

The future of the Sunday as a needed day of rest is dependent more on religion than on any other factor. The insidious selfish quest for money will find excuses for the violation of the day in one way or another. The institution and maintenance down the ages of the Sabbath day of rest is a wonderful example of what religion can accomplish for man in the face of the corroding power of selfishness and is the best demonstration of its living influence for the bodily as well as the spiritual and mental health of mankind.


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