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Religion And Health By James J. Walsh Characters: 25760

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

As has been suggested in the last chapter on Holydays and Holidays, religious institutions have been the most effective organizers of recreations sane and safe for the mind as well as for the body of man, and recreation is one of the most important factors for the preservation of human health. The man who does not take the time for recreation and above all who does not know how to recreate is almost inevitably drifting toward a premature aging of tissues, or often is laying the foundation for an acute breakdown in health. Recreation is an absolute need of humanity, adding to health, strength, efficiency, length of life, and power of accomplishment. Instead of being a waste of time, it is a time saver and above all a saver of suffering, mental and physical, as the years roll on.

Dissipation is, however, the very opposite of recreation. What corresponds to these two words in human conduct is confounded in the minds of a great many people probably as often as the activities which respond to those other much abused words, liberty and license. Recreation, as the etymology indicates so clearly, means the building up of energy, while dissipation signifies the scattering of it, usually to no purpose. It is extremely easy for what is meant to be recreation to become {133} dissipation, and religion has been the most important factor in life in controlling the tendency to dissipation which exists among men, not only from the moral but also from the intellectual aspect of life. Religious motives have succeeded better than any other factors in lessening this tendency and securing such genuine recreation as would serve to rebuild men's minds and bodies after they had been more or less worn out from work, and at the same time tend to keep them from immorality and afford such relief from the strain of serious occupation as would provide real reconstruction for them.

Unfortunately in our time, just in proportion as religion has lost its hold on men, recreation has become largely a matter of dissipation of mind when not also dissipation of body. More and more barbaric or merely bodily modes of recreation are preoccupying the leisure time that men have outside of their regular occupations in life. It must not be forgotten that the way a man or a generation spends its leisure is the best possible index of the character of the man or the generation. It is the way that a man spends the time that he is free to use any way that he wishes which reveals what he is. It was a great philosopher who said, "Tell me what a man does with his leisure, and I shall tell you what sort of a man he is." We all have to work a certain portion of our time, and often what we work at is not a matter of choice but necessity. What we do during our leisure, however, is dependent on ourselves and represents our tastes.

The recreation of our time reveals that people are ever so much more interested in their bodies than they are in their minds and hearts and souls. Very often the recreation of the older time consisted of hours spent with all the advantages of outdoor air, exercise, and fine {134} satisfaction of mind, perhaps in visiting the poor or the prisons or the hospitals, or in encouraging the sports of children, or in arranging for outings of various kinds in which the pleasantest of social intercourse between friends and neighbors was associated with such recreation of body as gave a good healthy weariness after a day's outing. More and more these old-fashioned modes of recreation are passing, and sophistication has brought in occupation of mind with a lot of unworthy things.

Instead of taking an active part in what is supposed to recreate them people must now be amused. Whenever this happens and participants pay for the amusement, the character of the amusement degenerates because it must appeal to as great a number as possible. As a consequence, in our day recreation, especially for young folks who ought of course to be actively engaged in sport and not merely onlookers, consists in attendance at "shows" and games. The "shows" have an appeal merely to the senses, they have not an idea lost in them anywhere; the music is a caricature of real music founded on the fact-which the most primitive of savages have always discovered for themselves-that a rhythm appeals to men and gives them a certain bodily satisfaction, probably because of some ill-understood interaction with the heart beat. The main feature of appeal is really the sex element that enters into the show and produces feelings. The lyrics are, if that term for them were to be taken seriously, a crying shame, for the words of the songs usually mean absolutely nothing. The rule is to take certain words that rhyme, like kiss and bliss, and love and glove, and for the rest to talk about the moon and some sentimental twaddle. There is not a glimpse of poetry about them in any sense of the word.


The attendance at games of various kinds in which people watch other people exercise is a favorite occupation in our time, but it is only the shadow of recreation. It is usually associated with feelings aroused by the desire for one side to win, either because of betting or some other sentiment often entirely artificial. Whenever anything occurs to disappoint the desire, there is likely to be an exhibition of some of the ugliest feelings of mankind. Men invade the field, take up quarrels, and sometimes not only threaten but actually attempt bodily injury of the players and particularly of the umpire. Probably nothing could be more unworthy as recreation for human beings than this passive interest in the exercise that other people take, and the elevation of the contests of paid professionals into something to occupy men's minds seriously and even arouse their feelings deeply.

More and more bodily interests are drowning out higher interests, and prize fighting and wrestling command ever larger audiences, while the sums of money that are paid for such exhibitions grow in size, showing the importance of bodily interests to the general public. There is an old story of Cimabue's Madonna causing the stoppage of business in Florence in the old days, but the transport of no mere picture along the street, no matter how beautiful it might be, would have any such effect nowadays, though the arrival of a prize fighter who had just won a heavyweight contest, if his coming were announced beforehand, would almost surely interfere seriously with business for some time in the neighborhood of the station.

Just as in the days of Rome when the amphitheater was the center of attraction, recreation is becoming mere barbaric dissipation for a great many people. {136} The cultured, intelligent Romans-at least many of them were educated-went to see gladiators fight with wild beasts or with each other unto the death, or to get a special thrill by seeing the Christians thrown to the lions. The other shows they attended were mainly the dancing of slave girls scantily dressed, whose actions were meant to excite sex feelings. At Rome the women had no virtue and the men no courage; they were interested in their bodies and degeneracy had come. No wonder the real barbarians came to replace their counterfeit presentments in the pseudo-refined Romans.

Even our mental occupations are very largely taken up with bodily interests. Reading is supposed to be an intellectual diversion, but it has become a matter of attention to sex and other bodily emotions. My friend. Doctor Austin O'Malley, suggests that one of the most important criteria of intelligence is contained in the rule "the book that you like is like you," to which may be added, of course, that the play that you like is like you and the magazine that you like is like you. If our generation is to be judged by its occupation of its leisure, the estimation will not be very high. Most of the leisure time of men is spent in reading the newspapers. Indeed, it may be said without exaggeration that the greater part of civilized mankind now spends the major portion of its hours of relaxation over the newspaper. News was defined by an old-fashioned editor succinctly as sin. The definition has enough of truth in it to give us pause when we consider that every one is occupied with the newspaper for an hour or more each day. We want to know the last details of the ugly sex crimes and the misfortunes of various kinds that have happened to people, perhaps with a feeling that things might be worse for us {137} than they are, but the suggestive effect is almost the worst that could well be imagined, and the recreation of mind becomes a sad dissipation of mental energy.

Religion brought the holydays, which were in our modern sense holidays, into the year, but did ever so much more than this by suggesting, organizing and encouraging such occupation of them as afforded recreation for men and women in definite contradistinction from dissipation. On all the Sundays and holydays men rose to attend services and usually spent some hours in this occupation. Attendance at religious services in our time has become very largely a matter of duty, requiring considerable self-denial and control for its accomplishment. The religious ceremonials of the older time were, however, extremely interesting, and people looked forward to them. They had to attend them as a matter of duty, but the great majority of them found a pleasure in the duty because of the appeal that the Church ceremonial made.

Various societies associated with religion in one way or another organized the recreations for the afternoon of the holydays or for the vigils or eves of the great festivals, on which there was no work done after the vesper hour. The guilds, for instance, most of which received saints' names, and many of which built chapels of their own and were closely affiliated with the ecclesiastical authorities, offered prizes for athletic exercises among the young folks, both boys and girls, and arranged contests in archery, in the pitching of quoits, in the old-fashioned form of hockey and the like, between the inhabitants of neighboring villages, and then there were also individual athletic contests of various kinds. Banquets were held four times a year on the special feast days, to which a man was expected to bring either his wife or his {138} sweetheart. They did not believe that it was good for men to be alone in their feasting, and realized that there was likely to be much less of excess and ever so much less of a tendency to quarrel if the women were present. The banquets were held in the afternoon, and there was dancing on the green afterward for the young folks and games of various kinds, all of which were meant to give the young particularly innocent enjoyment and bring them together for proper matchmaking.

Religious authorities have always recognized the necessity for recreation. Besides, they have always tried to keep recreation on that higher plane where it may do good and not harm. Dancing, for instance, has very often had a place in religious ceremonials. Rhythmic movements of the body can add to the significance of even the deepest thought. They may, of course, be reduced merely to the expression of sensuality or constitute an invitation to it. David danced before the Ark, and dancing has always had a place in the expression of religious feelings. The old Greeks employed dancing to great effect, even in their higher religious ceremonials. The great Greek dramatists wrote choric odes which are among the most beautiful lyric poems ever written. They were on such subjects as life and death and man and fate and all the other great mysteries with which man is confronted. The chorus, in singing them, danced, and the reason for the dance was that it added to the significance of the beautiful words that had been written. The Greek plays were staged as a part of the religious ceremonial in celebration of the festivals of Dionysus; his name has been translated by the supposed Latin equivalent Bacchus, but the Greeks meant the god of inspiration and not the god of intoxication.


Religion then proved a source of a great deal of genuine recreation. It emphasized the joys of existence rather than merely the pleasures of life. It encouraged family participation in everything and found a place for the children. There is a great distinction between joy and pleasure that is often missed when religion is in decay. Joy is a profound feeling usually associated with the performance of simple duties and rather easily attainable by every one. Pleasures are often expensive, frequently are followed by remorse, and more often than not do harm rather than good to those who indulge in them, especially to any excess. Joy, however, inspires human beings to the further accomplishment of duty, gives a supreme sense of well-being, b

rings light-hearted sleep and is very precious in the memory. Joys are usually associated with domestic duties and religious observances and the celebration in family groups of the great festivals. What religion did in bringing joy into life is one of the most precious factors for real recreation that we have.

The main feature of religion's work for recreation, however, consisted of the development of dramatics. Twice in the world's history, as I have noted in the chapter on Holydays and Holidays, dramatic literature has developed out of religious ceremonials. These ceremonials very naturally take on the dramatic form, and the evolution of this in the course of time led to additions to religious services which soon came to occupy so much attention as to deserve a place and time for themselves, and then they were transferred to the temple porch in the older time, or to the open space at the foot of the steps, or in the Middle Ages to the churchyard or the green in front of the church.

This encouragement of recreation with a deep appeal {140} to the emotions and the higher feelings which at the same time brought satisfaction for the intellect, proved of the greatest possible service for health. Men need to have thoroughgoing diversion of mind from their ordinary occupations. Such diversion of mind is, in my opinion, even more important than exercise of body. The effort in our time is concentrated on doing nothing with the mind, as a rest for it, or doing something that is so trivial that it is supposed to provide opportunity for mental recreation. Almost needless to say it is impossible to do nothing with the mind. The mind will keep right on thinking about something or other, and unless thought is diverted it is very inclined to recur to the last worries and troubles which the individual has experienced. The attempt to occupy the mind with trivial matters does not divert it. To read the newspaper or some popular magazine or a light novel will enable the person to kill time, but up through the print will always come obtruding itself the worry or anxiety that occupied it before. What is needed for true recreation is that the mind shall be interested in something very different from its ordinary occupation. This interest must be deep and abiding and holding, or it will not prove so successful as would otherwise be the case.

Some form of intellectual hobby makes the very best recreation, but not every one has either the time or the money and above all the intelligence to cultivate a hobby that will be absorbing in its appeal. Religion, then, with its universal appeal, its deep touching of the feelings, its sense of supreme satisfaction when people believed, its presentation of ceremonies that have even a sensory attraction, formed in the past a fine avenue of escape from the sordid considerations of life for a great many {141} people and can still be an invaluable resource for those who take it seriously. In the midst of trials and hardships the folk of the older time learned to turn to religion as a consolation that occupied their minds and promised them divine help in their difficulties. Religion as organized in the later Middle Ages, with its great celebrations on the festival days in the beautiful Gothic churches, on the background of great art, served this purpose of diversion of mind extremely well. If that had been its only purpose it would have been quite unworthy of the great intellectual and artistic accomplishments which religion aroused. But as a secondary consideration this must not be forgotten, and the absence of an appeal of this kind makes for that tendency to dissipation of mind which is so unfortunate because [it is] so unworthy of human nature and at the same time proves so ineffective as providing any real recreation of mind.

In the old days when the Puritans went to a sermon two hours long, they listened with rapt attention to the preacher, and in so doing their minds were occupied with an entirely other subject from that which ordinarily attracted their attention. Such a diversion, even though it may seem to be pretty hard work, represents a real mental rest because the part of the brain that is usually occupied gets its rest, the blood being diverted to other parts of the brain. This may seem a paradox to some people until they are reminded that men who have lived very long lives have usually been men who turned from one form of mental work to another for diversion and rest. Gladstone, for instance, who was Prime Minister of Great Britain when past eighty years of age, was an intensely hard intellectual worker all his life, but found recreation from his political cares in the study and {142} discussion of the problems of Greek literature. Leo XIII, who lived to be ninety-three, concerned to the very end with the administration of the Church-an immense task-found his recreation in the writing of Latin poetry, though that might seem to some people too hard work of itself to be classed as rest. For a great many of these hard-working, long-lived people, as was true of both Leo XIII and Gladstone, prayer was a recourse in time of trial that made anxiety less and took the edge off solicitude and occupied the mind with the profound thought of the Providence that overrules and somehow cares for us.

I have often said before medical societies, and in articles for medical journals, because the expression represents a definite medical conclusion in my mind, that the reason why nervous and mental diseases were growing commoner in our time was that men and women had no real mental recreation. They go to trivial shows of various kinds, vaudeville, musical comedy and the movies, and they laugh a little and feel a great deal, but think almost not at all. They try to forget their ordinary occupations and worries, and indeed plays and novels are now advertised as "the kind that make you forget", but they do not succeed very well in this effort and their minds are not really diverted. For diversion the mind should become occupied rather deeply with some other subject, so that the blood which has been going to a particular part of the brain in order to call up the memory of things associated with the special interests of the individual may be diverted to another part. This will give the portion of the brain previously occupied a rest as almost nothing else will. Doing nothing with the mind is impossible, though some people apparently come very {143} near it. Doing very trivial things will not divert the current of attention so as to allow of real rest. Attention is probably a matter of increased blood circulation to a particular set of brain cells. These will go on working in spite of the wish to stop, unless the blood is actually diverted elsewhere in the cerebral tissues or the individual sleeps, with its accompanying brain anemia.

For believers religion has this deep appeal and strong interest which represents very definite diversion of mind. Of itself, then, it may afford genuine recreation, though so little associated with recreation in the modern sense of the term. It is the most cogent reliever of worries. It affords the best neutralization of such intense preoccupation with merely sordid concerns as may prove dangerous for health.

Religion has always insisted that idle dissipation of mental and physical energy was an extremely dangerous thing. The devil finds work for idle hands is an expression that has come from very early Christian times. While the Church has appreciated thoroughly the necessity for occupation of mind and enjoyment and amusement and has put the holydays into the year in large numbers and made true holidays of them, it has also recognized clearly the dangers there might be in recreations of various kinds. Fashion has often been strong enough to override religious counsels in the matter, but at least they have served to restrain to some extent, and they have always pointed out the dangers so that young folks have not gone into them unseeing and unthinking; thus a good many have been saved from grave risks and absolute moral and physical injuries which might have proved serious as the result of religious regulations and advice.


Dancing has always been one of the modes of recreation with regard to which religion has felt the need to exercise surveillance and inculcate the necessity for proper supervision. There has been no unthinking opposition to it and no mere bigoted intolerance. The dance has always been recognized as an excellent exercise of the body and a very definite mode of expressing beautiful thoughts in graceful postures and movements; the dance has actually been used in Church ceremonies, and its symbolism made to lend significance to the body's share in worship or in the expression of beautiful thoughts. When graceful dancing was to a great extent discarded and the essence of the dance came to be the intimate contact of two persons of opposite sex in the lively movements of modern dancing measures which were almost sure to arouse passion, no wonder that religion counseled prudence in order to prevent harmful developments which are often the source of so much danger for health of body as well as for holiness, that is wholeness of spirit. The restraint exercised in this way over the control of occasions that might lead to serious consequences makes religion an important factor for health.

It is quite true that religion does not often succeed in her well-meant efforts in controlling such tendencies to dissipation and sometimes seems utterly to fail, but that is largely because in recent years there has been an unfortunate decadence of religious influence, and people do not live up even to the principles of religion which they themselves hold. Among those who still maintain the religious life, the restraint exercised as regards many of these unfortunate dissipations means a very great deal for health of body and mind. Certainly social evils would be much worse only for the presence of a great {145} conservative institution exercising restraint and calling on people to practice self-control and self-denial in these matters, no matter how alluring they might be nor how much they may have met with the approval of what is called society.

Probably the most important element for health in the modern time is the conservation of the distinction between recreation and dissipation. Almost inevitably recreation becomes dissipation; that is, the relaxation of mind and body so necessary for health becomes a dissolution of physical and mental forces to the serious detriment of the individual, unless there are strong, impelling motives to prevent the degeneration. Such motives may be drawn from human respect or from the desire to maintain the body in healthful vigor, but these lower motives very often fail of their purpose and at best apply only to a comparatively few among mankind. For the great majority of men, motives with a deeper appeal than mere self-respect or the respect of others or even the preservation of the body from impending disease are necessary. In youth particularly bodily degeneration seems a distant possibility, almost surely to be escaped without much difficulty, especially if one has any luck, and even if serious disease be incurred it will surely be cured rather easily by the means that science now has at her command. The general appeal that is necessary to give men a fixed point of support in maintaining recreation on a high level and not letting it slip down into dissipation is to be found in religion.

The reason why recreation and dissipation have so often come to be confounded in our time, or at least that recreation has sunk to a much lower level than it used to occupy, is the diminution of religious influence over a {146} great many people. The old religious family life made it much easier to maintain such discipline in the lives of growing young folks as kept them from the tendencies to dissipation almost sure to develop unless there are strong safeguards in the household. Where the young folk themselves are firm believers in the great truths of religion, their control is much easier and is exercised much more by themselves than by any external measures. It is the having a fount of incentive to what is good and deterrents for what is evil within oneself that is the best possible auxiliary for the neutralization of tendencies to evil that are as natural as they can be and that represent one inexplicable phase of that mystery of evil by which we are surrounded in the world.

The only satisfactory explanation of that is to be found in faith, and it is from this that strength can be derived to prevent the lower nature of man which shares so many animal proclivities from governing the individual to the detriment of both sides of his being.


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