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   Chapter 17 LONGEVITY

Religion And Health By James J. Walsh Characters: 20867

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

In spite of the Psalmist's warning that threescore years and ten are the years of man and that life beyond that is likely to be filled with all sorts of discomforts, practically all men are anxious to live long lives. They are satisfied to take the diseases of advanced years provided only there are surceases from pain at intervals and they are able to occupy themselves for some part of the time with their usual interests. It is true that a certain sadly increasing number in our time shorten existence by their own hand, and at an ever younger age on the average and that some at least of those who do so are not insane in any justifiable legal sense of the word, but they are felt by all to be unfortunate exceptions who prove that the rule of love of life and desire to cling to it through sad and evil case is practically universal among men. Life may be, in the words of the cynic, a chronic disease, whose termination is always death, but most men prefer that the disease should last as long as possible.

The most important factor for long life is of course heredity. The man who wants to live long should have been careful to be born of long-lived parents and grandparents. Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that the physician would often like to be in the position to treat in the persons of his patient's grandparents a {295} number of the diseases that he sees in his consulting room. Whatever truth there may be in that, there is no doubt at all that there is very little hope of a man living long if his parents and grandparents have been short-lived, unless of course their taking off has been due to accident. After family heredity, however, undoubtedly the most important factor for longevity is an abiding sense of religion. A great many religious people live beyond the average age, and a great many clergymen live to be very old men and yet retain their faculties and physical powers very well. They are not longer lived than other professional men on the average, because many of those who become clergymen are delicate by nature and only rarely so robust as other college men.

In recent years the insurance companies have come to recognize very clearly what is called the moral hazard in life. A man who lives a quiet, simple life without excesses in eating or drinking, getting his full quota of sleep and his meals regularly without temptations to high living of various kinds is much more likely to outlive his mathematical average of expectancy in life than the man who does not follow that sort of existence.

Almost needless to say it is seriously religious men-all clergymen do not necessarily come under this head-who live these very regular lives and do not allow themselves the occasional divagations in life which may not in themselves prove serious but which often lead to conditions and developments that impair health and shorten existence. There are undoubtedly a good many men who have sowed their wild oats very freely when they were young and who have continued all their lives to be rather free livers, and who yet have lived on to good round old age. What we speak of here, however, is the average {296} length of life which in men who live without excesses and without over-solicitude about the future or the present is sure to be longer than in others.

The old proverb says that "worry and not work kills men." Undoubtedly worry rather than work ages men before their time and breaks down their vital resistance and makes them much more susceptible to the many diseases that may shorten existence as the years go on than they would have been liable to had they lived regular lives. Religion is the great salve for worries. When genuine it lessens the irritations of life, makes them more bearable, renders the disposition more equable and more capable of standing the stresses and strains of sudden trials or serious misfortunes than it would otherwise be. Religion does not change nature essentially, but it lifts it up and modifies it to a noteworthy degree. Even Christ did not come to change human nature; He assumed it and showed men how to live. Religion does not make a passionate disposition mild, but it confers upon the passionate man the power to control his passions to no small extent and often so thoroughly that even those who know him best have no idea of the storms which start to brew within him but are suppressed.

Almost needless to say the moderation in all things which religion counsels and which its training fosters is extremely conducive to long life, if there is any underlying basis for that in the nature of the individual. Religion is like oil for machinery. It lessens the friction, prevents the development of heat which would only be destructive and serve no useful purpose, soothes the temper against reactions and smooths out life's ways. Some one once suggested that it represented the rubber tires of the modern automobile, but that is not a good figure, for the inflation {297} on which a man is smoothly carried may blow out at any moment and leave him to run on the rim. That is much better represented by sentimentality and the motives drawn from it rather than from religion.

The direct influence of religion on health can very probably be estimated best by the comparative death rate of occupations. Clergymen, according to English statistics which are gathered rather carefully, have the lowest death rate, even below that of gardeners and nurserymen whose constant outdoors life gives them such an advantage and whose simple laborious occupation without excitement is so favorable for long life. After these come the farmers and then the agricultural laborers, and then a long distance afterwards the schoolmasters and grocers and mechanics generally. The highest death rates in occupations occur not among the laboring classes occupied at the particularly unhealthy trades-plumbers and painters who are subjected to lead; file makers and knife grinders whose lungs are seriously hurt by dust; and earthenware manufacturers who are subjected to the influence of both dust and lead-but among the inn-keepers, spirit, wine and beer dealers and above all the inn and hotel servants among whom the moral hazards of life are greatly increased and over whom religion fails to have the influence that would be beneficial.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the effect of religion in lessening the wear and tear of life, thus proving conducive to its prolongation, is to take the statistics of the lives of those who devote themselves so thoroughly to their religious duties that they are called by the name religious. They give themselves not alone to the daily but almost to the hourly practice of religion, and its influence has a thoroughgoing opportunity to exert {298} itself over their lives. Most of them live very simply and abstemiously, and indeed many people would be inclined to say that they did not take quite sufficient food to nourish them properly and that they allowed their sleep to be interrupted by religious duties in such ways as not to afford themselves quite rest enough. They are all very early risers, at five o'clock in the winter at the latest and in summer at four, while not a few of them get up at some hour during the night to sing some portion of the office, the full round of which has to be completed every day. Their beds are usually rather hard; there is no carpet on the floor in their cells, their lives to most people would seem rather narrow and without adequate diversion, and yet they are noted for living beyond the average age, except in cases where work in hospitals or the like subjects them to the danger of infection.

The tradition with regard to this prolongation of life among the religious has existed since a very early time in Christianity and indeed was noted before the Christian era among the men and women who, as among the Buddhists, lived in monastic seclusion lives of great abstinence and occupation with the contemplation of the hereafter. In the very early days of Christianity a number of the men who withdrew to live the lives of solitaries in the desert regions of Egypt and of Syria exceeded the Psalmist's limit of life, though the account of their neglect of food would seem to make that almost impossible. A number of them lived to be beyond seventy and not a few beyond eighty and some of them over ninety. St. Anthony, who is often spoken of as the first hermit, lived to be beyond one hundred.

It is a matter of never-ending surprise to find how many {299} people who dwell in monasteries, where their occupation is mainly some simple work of the hands varied by long hours of reading and prayer during every day in the year, live to be very old. It might be surmised that their opportunities for introspection and thought about themselves would be so frequent and extensive that they would get on their own minds and probably be the victims of various nervous symptoms that would shorten existence through worries over trifles. So far is this from being the case, however, that some of the most striking examples of group longevity among people who are unrelated are to be found in what are known as contemplative monasteries, that is, institutions where there is only enough active life every day necessary to maintain health and supplies for the simple physical needs of a monastery, and the rest of the time is spent in reading, prayer, meditation and the saying of the Divine Office.

The modern religious orders, which imitate some at least of the austerities of the old solitaries and those who in the early days of Christianity lived in communities, have a record of longevity quite equal to that of their forbears. What an absolutely regular life under deep religious influences, where practically every hour of the day has its allotted task, where no meat is eaten and two Lents a year are kept-that is one third less is eaten for about one fourth of the year-will do to prolong human life, can be seen very well from the vital statistics of the well-known Trappist Monastery at Gethsemane in Kentucky, which are before me as I write. The average age at death of the members of this community for the last twenty-five years is nearly seventy-three. A number of them lived to be beyond eighty, and as the Abbot has written to tell me, the most satisfactory thing for the {300} community lies in the fact that the old members, even at

fourscore years and more, can practically always join in the common life of the community and do not need to be specially waited on or taken care of. Their death is likely to be quiet and rather easy, the flickering out of the spark of life rather than its extinction.

One of the Benedictines has furnished me statistics for that order here in America, for there might be the feeling that in other countries life would be different and that longevity would occur for different reasons than those which occasion it in this country. A great many among the Benedictines live to celebrate their golden jubilee, and life among them has been calculated to be at least ten years more than that of their brothers and sisters who remained in the world.

Of course it might be said that only the people of very placid disposition who take things very quietly and are not inclined to worry would enter such institutions as these, and there is some truth in the statement. It is not nearly so true, however, as most people would imagine, for a great many of those who enter convents and monasteries were rather lively and gay when they were younger; indeed it has often been said that it was the liveliest, happiest and most charming girls at the convent schools who were destined to enter the convents afterwards.

As regards the monasteries for men, the same rule of longevity holds, and yet a great many of these men were not only lively and gay, but some of them had rather stormy careers before they settled down to the contemplative life after something of remorse over the foolishness which had led them astray in their younger years.

The men and women who enter religious orders are of course the more serious characters who take life rather {301} placidly, and this adds to their expectancy of life, for it is worry rather than work or suffering that shortens existence, but it must not be forgotten that not a little of their placidity is not natural to their dispositions, but is rather acquired as the result of their deep religious feelings and their recognition of the fact that God's Will will be accomplished anyhow and there is no use worrying about things.

Undoubtedly one of the principal reasons why the death rate among women at all ages is so much more favorable than might be expected, in spite of their apparent tendency to worry more, their nervousness about many things, and the dangers of maternity as well as their weaker physical constitution, is to be found in the fact that religious influences are much more profound over them and have a more calming effect than over men. A very old expression calls women the devout female sex, and the influence of their devotion to religion is reflected in their mortality statistics. Doctor Woods Hutchinson, in his "Civilization and Health", [Footnote 16] has a chapter on "The Hardy Nerves of Women" in which he brings out the fact that women resist the corroding effect of the strenuous life of modern civilization better than men and are not subject to the factors which have made modern health statistics so disturbing. For while we have been lengthening the average term of life and reducing the death rate in general, we have been shocked to find that the mortality above forty-five has been increasing rather than decreasing, so that men are being taken off just at the prime of life and at the height of their usefulness more than ever before, in spite of all our hygiene and the development of sanitary science.

[Footnote 16: Boston, 1914.]


The difference in mortality between men and women after the age of forty-five, that is, just at the time when religious feelings are likely to represent so much of a resource for the devout female sex, is so striking as to deserve to be noted particularly, and the contrast continues more and more to be emphasized as the years go on.

The average age at death has risen during the past generation from about thirty-three to slightly above fifty, but this improvement has been chiefly effected by saving the babies and children from death from unclean milk and the acute infectious diseases, and young adults from the great plagues of past generations, typhoid and tuberculosis. Doctor Hutchinson goes on to say:

"Naturally this preserves a much larger number of individuals to live to, say, the age of forty-five. And, as we must all die sometime, we begin to drop off somewhat more rapidly after this point has been reached-that is to say, the stupid and helpless creature, man, does. Woman, however, is far too shrewd for that. While man's mortality, after falling off markedly up to forty-five years, begins after that period to increase distinctly, woman's death rate, on the other hand, continues to decrease until fifty-five years of age, beating man ten years; then yields to the force of circumstances only to the extent of about one tenth of the increase man shows between fifty-five and sixty-five; and after seventy proceeds to decrease again."

Incidentally, it may be remarked that the total increase of mortality after forty-five in man is only about six per cent; besides which, the race need not worry much about what happens to the individual after fifty-five or sixty, provided he has done his share of the world's work. But {303} women pass men three laps to the mile, for their increase of death rate after the age of fifty-five is barely one per cent, or one sixth of man's.

The lessened death rates among women at all ages are notable, particularly among those who have taken life seriously and religiously. Typical examples of similar longevity which they themselves would surely have declared to have been influenced more by their religious attitude of mind than by any other single factor are noteworthy in the lives of the two English cardinals of the nineteenth century, Newman and Manning. Both of them were men who accomplished a very great deal of work in their younger years and who then went through the serious mental strain of giving up friends and ways that had been very near and dear to them and making a great revolution in their lives. Both of them lived to be well past eighty, and indeed Newman lived to be past ninety in the full possession of vigorous power of mind until the very end of life. He himself had not looked for long life, but on the contrary had felt that he was one of those fated to die rather young; indeed, in the sixties, he had begun to think that he would give up work, and his friends had settled down to the idea that he would not be long with them, when an attack on his sincerity aroused him to a magnificent response that is one of the precious treasures of nineteenth-century literature and then for nearly thirty years longer he was a great intellectual force.

This same thing is very well illustrated in the lives of the Popes of the nineteenth century, that is, during the period when modern hygiene and sanitation have developed to such an extent as to make the conservative influence of religion on health felt to the best possible effect. The {304} Popes all down the centuries have lived far beyond the average of humanity, in spite of the burdens of responsibility placed on them, and even the shortening of life by martyrdom of so many of them at the beginning. Our nineteenth and twentieth-century Popes have proved wonderful examples of what placidity of mind can do under the most difficult circumstances in keeping worries from wearing out life energies, in spite of the fact that the life stream in some of the cases did not appear to be very strong at its source and long life seemed almost out of the question.

These long lives might very well be matched from the lists of old pastors from all the denominations and the sects who have outlived the years of the Psalmist without incurring the physical evils which he prophesied. Old clergymen are particularly likely to retain the full possession of their senses and to live on to a quiet, peaceful old age. I once heard one of them say-I believe that it was a quotation-that he used to think that all the pleasure of life was contained in the first eighty years, but now at the age of eighty-five he knew that there was a great deal of life's satisfaction to be found in the second eighty years.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and most of us would think that they are the sort of exceptions that prove the rule. There is an old saw in many languages which says that the good die young, but physicians are likely to think that this old-fashioned expression is founded on nothing more than the fact that a good many of the weaklings born without very much vitality develop into harmless nonentities who have no strong impulses to either good or ill, and who have but very little resistive vitality and die of the infectious diseases in early youth {305} or are carried off by tuberculosis a little later. It must not be forgotten, however, that it is as much of an accident to run into a bacillus as into a trolley car, and indeed often more serious, and though all that too is in the hands of the Lord, in the order of Providence secondary causes work out their destined effects. Quite contrary to the tradition that the good die young is the world experience that a great many of the good, that is, men of sterling character and worth who have proved thoroughly capable of doing what is best in life for the benefit of others rather than for themselves, live on to be a source of inspiration to those around them for many, many years of a long and physically active life, even though sometimes they may run into the rule that whom the Lord loves he chastens, and they may have had many trials.

The Scriptural promises made over and over again were that the years of those who should keep His word should be long in the land. That promise has been fulfilled so often as to make it a commonplace. Three hundred years ago Shakespeare summed up at least the physical effects of keeping the law when he had old Adam say in "As You Like It":

"Though I look old, yet I am strong and lusty;

For in my youth I never did apply

Hot and rebellious liquors in my blood;

Nor did not with unbashful forehead woo

The means of weakness and debility;

Therefore my age is as a lusty winter.

Frosty, but kindly. Let me go with you:

I'll do the service of a younger man

In all your business and necessities."


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