Health and Holiness


A balanced approach to the subject of health written for Catholic teachers….

From The Catholic Teacher’s Companion, 1924

An ounce of sanctity with exceptionally good health does more for the saving of souls than striking sanctity with an ounce of health.—St. Ignatius

Carlyle remarks that health and holiness are etymologically first cousins. And Dr. James J. Walsh has pointed out that health and holiness “have many surprising relations, and some of them contradict current notions; but it must not be forgotten that they are really coordinate functions.

For while we talk about the influence of the mind on the body, and the body on the mind, we must not forget that these two constitute one being; and there is quite literally no idea which does not make itself felt in the body, and no emotion which does not make itself felt in the mind. Wholeness of body and soul that is, health and holiness—work together for good in that mysterious compound we know as man.”

The Claims of Body and Soul

Body and soul are twin gifts from God, and bring with them responsibilities, and it is no sign of superior care of the soul to be slothful and neglectful in regard to the body.

Asceticism is another and quite a different thing. It is one thing to discipline one’s body; it is quite a different thing to neglect one’s teeth, or wash one’s body, or see that one’s food is digestibly prepared, or masticate it properly, or take reasonable exercise and fresh air.

Habits of this sort may quite as easily be owing to slothfulness as to superior spirituality. The distinction is not always observed. The wisdom of the ancient sages proclaiming the demand of the sane soul for a sane body has been further established by the insistence of the Christian saints, notably the founders of Religious Orders, Sts. Benedict and Ignatius, of Bernards, the Franciscans, and the Teresas.

St. Benedict’s Rule contains wise provisions for the bodily as well as the spiritual well-being of its followers. If the monks were to work, they were adequately to eat.

Think of it! “A pound of bread daily and two dishes of cooked food at each meal!”
“The habits that are to be worn are to fit the wearer, be sufficiently warm, and not too old.”
Again, each of the brethren is to take “from six to eight hours of unbroken sleep daily, with the addition of a siesta in summer”; each likewise is to have “a blanket, a coverlet, mattress and a pillow!”

St. Francis of Assisi strictly enjoins the Superiors of his Order to “take special care to provide for the needs of the sick and the clothing of the friars, according to the places, seasons, and cold climates.”

Health and Long Life

These are some obvious illustrations of how wisely the saints provided for the body—other folks’ bodies especially: they did not seem always to mind so much for their own.

Our sisters should take their teachings to heart for, as a rule, they neglect unduly the care of their bodily health. The Rev. Arthur Barry O’Neill, C.S.C., has made a thorough study of this subject and we shall follow him as a reliable guide in the matter.

We agree with him that an examination of the mortality statistics of our Religious Communities of women will probably show that the longevity of Sisters is by no means so notable as one should expect.

It may sound somewhat extravagant in the statement, but it is probably verifiable in fact, that from thirty to forty percent of American Sisters die before “their time comes,” their death being of course, subjectively, entirely in conformity with God’s will; but being, objectively, merely in accordance with God’s permission, which is quite another matter.

Now, long life is a blessing. As Spirago says, “It is a great boon, for the longer one lives, the more merits one can amass for eternity.”

So precious a boon is it that God promised it as a reward for keeping the fourth commandment, a fact of which St. Paul reminds the Ephesians, “Honor thy father and thy mother . . . that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest be long-lived upon earth.”

Accordingly, any procedure, any scheme of life, which contributes even indirectly to the shortening of one’s days assuredly needs unusually strong reasons to justify it; and, with all due deference be it said, such procedure, negative if not positive, is not uncommon in our convents.

Neglecting to take daily exercise out-of-doors may appear a small thing in youth or early middle life, but there is nothing surer that such neglect is seriously detrimental to health; and, exceptional cases apart, poor health is correlative of a truncated career rather than of normal length of days.

Underlying this disregard of the open-air exercise which all physicians declare to be essential to bodily well-being, there is probably in the minds of many Sisters an inchoate, if not fully developed, conviction that vigorous, robust health is more or less incompatible with genuine spirituality, that an occasional illness of a serious nature and a quasi-chronic indisposition at the best of times are, after all, quite congruous in professed seekers after religious perfection, incipient followers of the saints.

That is a pernicious fallacy of which their spiritual directors and confessors should strenuously endeavor to rid them.

Ill-health directly led by God is doubtless a blessing; but it is also an exception. In the ordinary course of God’s providence, men and women, in the cloister as in the world, are in duty bound to take such care of their bodies as will result in the greater efficiency of their minds and souls, and in an increasingly acceptable service of their whole being to their Heavenly Father.

Health is to be sought for, not as an end, but as an excellent means, most frequently indeed an indispensable means, of attaining the true end of both religious and laity, which is holiness, or sanctity.

Theory and Practice Among the Saints

The saints themselves thoroughly understood this truth, and their preaching frequently emphasizes it, even though the practice of some of them, in the matter of austerities and penances, does not apparently conform thereto.

Apparently, for in many a case it was precisely the superb health of the saintly body that rendered the austerities and penances possible.

Like the trained pugilists of the present day, those old-time spiritual athletes could “stand punishment” to an extent that would permanently disable physical weaklings.

It is to be remembered, also, that some of these unmerciful castigators of their bodies–St. Ignatius and St. Francis of Assisi, for instance-frankly avowed in their later years that they had overdone the business of chastising the flesh.

St. Ignatius took good care to offset the influence of his Manresa example in this matter by making due provisions, in his rule and his counsels to his Religious, for proper heed of bodily health.

Time and time again he gave, in varied phrase and amplified form, the advice stated in this, his general precept: “Let all those things be put away and carefully avoided that may injure, in any way whatsoever, the strength of the body and its powers.”

Since sanctity is, after all, only sublimated common sense, it is not surprising to find other saintly founders, reformers, and spiritual directors of Religious Orders giving the same judicious counsel. “If health is ruined how is the Rule to be observed?” pertinently asks St. Teresa.

Writing to some of her nuns who were inclined to follow their own ideas in the matter of prayer and penance, the same great Carmelite advises: “Never forget that mortification should serve for spiritual advancement only. Sleep well, eat well. It is infinitely more pleasing to God to see a convent of quiet and healthy Sisters who do what they are told than a mob of hysterical young women who fancy themselves privileged. . .”

“Govern the body by fasts and abstinence as far as health permits,” says the Dominican Rule. “I have seen,” writes St. Catherine of Siena, “many penitential devotees who lacked patience and obedience because they studied to kill their bodies and not their self-will.”

To every Religious Order and its members may well be applied the words of a Jesuit General, Father Piccolomini, to his own subjects: “It may be said that an unhealthy Religious bears much the same relation to the Order of which he is a member as a badly knit or dislocated bone does to the physical body. For just as a bodily member, when thus affected, not only cannot perform its own proper functions, but even interferes with the full efficiency of the other parts, so when a Religious has not the requisite health, his own usefulness is lost and he seriously interferes with the usefulness of others.”

Health – A Great Good

Were further testimony needed to expose the fallacy that health is something to be slighted, rather than cultivated, by a fervent nun, it could be furnished in superabundance. “Health,” says Cardinal Newman, “is a good in itself, though nothing came of it, and is especially worth seeking and cherishing.”

In 1897, Pope Pius X, then Cardinal Sarto, reported to Rome concerning his seminary in Venice: “It is my wish, in a word, to watch the progress of my young men both in piety and in learning, on which depends in a great measure the exercise of their ministry later on, but I do not attach less importance to their health.”

A distinguished director of souls in our times, the late Archbishop Porter, favored one of his spiritual children, a nun, with the following sane advice:

“As for evil thoughts, I have so uniformly remarked in your case that they are dependent upon your state of health, that I say without hesitation: begin a course of Vichy and Carlsbad. . . Better far to eat meat on Friday than to be at war with every one about us.

I fear much, you do not take enough food and rest. You stand in need of both, and it is not wise to starve yourself into misery. Jealousy and all similar passions become intensified when the body is weak. . . Your account of your spiritual condition is not very brilliant; still, you must not lose courage. Much of your present suffering comes, I fear, from past recklessness in the matter of health.”
This is merely repeating in other words what St. Francis of Sales, three centuries before Archbishop Porter, wrote to a nun of his time: “Preserve your physical strength to serve God within spiritual exercises, which we are often obliged to give up when we have indiscreetly overworked ourselves.”

What has been said should disabuse some minds of the idea that disregard of bodily well-being is a condition, if not an essential, of holiness; or the other no less dangerous prejudice that adequate reasonable care of the body, if carried out with the proper spirit and intention, does not of itself include thorough discipline of the soul.

Francis Thompson has well said in the preface to his Health and Holiness: “The laws of perfect hygiene, the culture of the ‘sound body,’ not for its own sake, but as the pliant, durable instrument of the soul, are found more and more to demand such a degree of persevering self-restraint and self-resistance as constitutes an ascesis, a mortification, no less severe than that enjoined by the most rigorous masters of the spiritual life.”

Supernaturalized as it surely will be by the purity of intention so characteristic of Sisters, such mortification will be no less a spiritual asset than a physical boon.

What Bishop Hedley says in his Spiritual Retreat for Religious is very much to the point: “There are certain things which are the best promoters of health and cheerfulness—viz., fresh air, exercise, and recreation.

They are duties, too, in a Religious Community. In such houses it is a very common thing to meet with nervous complaints which entirely arise from the neglect of these three powerful tonics of the human system.

I do not say that this is the case with all. But it is a remarkable fact that those members of a Community who have the most active duties are usually the most healthy in mind and body, while the others are the reverse.

These two things, fresh air and exercise, are of the utmost importance even from a spiritual point of view. They are not material, but really supernatural matters. The same is true of recreation. The three ought to be combined.”

“Who shall blame a child whose soul turns eagerly to the noise and distraction of worldliness, if his parents have failed to show him that love and peace and beauty are found only in God?” – Mary Reed Newland

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Dear Young Lady, You are at a very important crossroad in your life. In the next short while your vocation will be settled and you will roll up your sleeves and fulfill God’s will in that role. This will, ultimately, be your means to happiness in this life and in the next.

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