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Posted October 11, 2007

How Honest Are We Priests With Our Health?

Eugene Hemrick

A Chapter from Gene Hemrick’s soon to be published New Book

A man ought to handle his body like the sail of a ship, and neither lower and reduce it much when no cloud is in sight, nor be slack and careless in managing it when he comes to suspect something is wrong. Plutarch, Greek biographer and philosopher.

As a solid prayer and intellectual life are undeniably essential to the health of the priesthood, so too, is physical fitness! “Health,” the French essayist Michel de Montigne counsels us, “is a precious thing, and the only one, in truth, which deserves that we employ in its pursuit not only time, sweat, trouble, and worldly goods, but even life . . . As far as I am concerned, no road that would lead us to health is either arduous or expensive.”

Why place fitness on the same level with prayer and study? The reason is because prayer and a sound intellectual life require our whole being to be successful. When we are fatigued and limping around, chances are our ability to function energetically will limp. Fitness is one of the best antidotes against falling into slumps! The dividends it pays are just what the doctor orders: lower blood pressure, better eating habits, proper sleep, true relaxation, more uplifted moods and energy, to name a few. I can attest to this personally.

During my priesthood I have been blessed to be able to participate in marathons and triathlons, and to have cycled through this country and Europe. I say “blessed” because a person needs to have a propensity for intensive exercise, and a body that enjoys physical exertion. These athletic endeavors have conditioned me into making exercise a lifelong priority. They also taught me that other priorities follow automatically. Eating proper foods and getting proper sleep are a must. Stretching and breathing exercises become a daily routine. Water and energy drinks are preferred to less healthy liquids. When possible, taking a walk after lunch and dinner become essential. More important than this is that the desire to feel good about doing something good for you becomes a daily priority. The result of these priorities is greater alertness, energy, and enduring patience.

Like most of us, I detest meetings because of the Spartan patience they require. Interestingly, the virtue of patience means not letting anything break our spirit. When we are fit, fitness not only strengthens our bodies, but also our spirit, and enables us to endure tedious hours of listening and negotiating required by meetings. It’s especially helpful for throwing off petty annoyances.

When we examine the reasons for this resilience, the principal reason is that fitness makes us feel we are doing something extra special for our self. When we feel good about our self, we treat life better. I wonder if this isn’t what Christ meant when he said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Note. He emphasizes self love in order to love another. When we do something really good for ourselves, we tend to love ourselves more, and therefore to be better disposed toward life and others.

On our website www.jknirp.com , we post success stories that are especially aimed at helping priests stay physically, mentally and spiritually fit. The newspaper story below captures one of those successes.

“A unique 12-week fitness project for Baltimore City priests developed by Good Samaritan Hospital and sponsored by The Catholic Review, Baltimore archdiocesan newspaper is helping priests become fitter and significantly reduce their risk for heart disease.”

“The experimental program allows archdiocesan priests, who rarely have time to exercise regularly, access to the hospital's Good Health Center any time of day or night.”

Fr. Florek, a priest of the Archdiocese says: ‘If it hadn't been for that time flexibility, I don't think I could have kept up the five times a week I was able to do.’”

“This was seconded by other priests who said the program reduced feelings of stress and improved their attitude toward staying healthy as major benefits of the experience. And all of them want to continue the exercise program.”

“Other priests from the archdiocese like Father Joseph L. Muth Jr., 52, reported that the program provided ‘a feeling of time-out’' by helping him turn down his stress level and trim his waistline.”

“Father James P. Farmer, 53, lost 10 pounds and increased his strength and flexibility. He also found the program ‘helped to improve my ability to relax.’''

“Father Richard J. Bozzelli, 40, ‘developed a new attitude toward health,’ becoming enlightened about how easily it can be obtained ``with just a little effort.''

“His overall risk for heart disease was reduced by 11 percent.”

“Father Patrick M. Carrion, 45, worked out with some regularity before entering the Good Samaritan program, but found it ‘challenged me to do even more. It raised the bar for me personally.’''

“Those priests who invested the most time reaped the most health rewards. Most encouraging of all, was the participants commitment to the program and the desire it provoked in them to increase or add to their lifestyles regular exercise and more thoughtful attention to their diets.”

Note the soaring spirits of those interviewed after participating in the Good Samaritan Hospital program. Notice also the physical benefits that accrued, and the way this changed their lifestyles. Stories like this cause us to wonder how much more energized our priesthood might become if more priests committed to similar programs.

As we know, most priest convocations today are devoted to raising the spirit of diocesan and religious community priests. Here truth would ask: given the above testimonies, would it be far fetched to recommend programs similar to that of The Good Samaritan Hospital program for energizing and raising morale? Perhaps other hospitals learning of the success of this program might reduplicate it? If this isn’t possible, why not have a priest convocation on fitness that explores imaginative ways of jointly working together toward better fitness? As ironic as it may sound, we might just raise our love for our people and ministry substantially by first loving ourselves through fitness.

It’s common to envision physical fitness as some type of intensive exercise. In the article The Softer Side of Fitness, Dana Dowd, who is the Coordinator of Fitness and Physical Therapy at the Saint Luke Institute in Silver Springs, Maryland, gives us another very legitimate way of seeing it. “A client once explained to me that he did a triathlon (three -event work-out) every time he went to the gym: the sauna, the steam room, and the whirlpool. While he thought he was making a joke, I actually commended him on his efforts because he had made a commitment to do something that was good for his body, and he used a variety of treatments.”

Dowd teaches us that true physical fitness depends as much on embracing exercises that don’t necessarily employ physical exertion as it does focusing on tough workouts. What is important is the mind-set that physical well-being depends on doing “something” physically good for ourselves.

Dowd then goes on to list ways for staying in shape other than employing extreme exertion. “On the other end of the continuum [of intense exercise] are relaxation exercises. These include anything that decreases our stress responses, e.g., lowers heart rate, breath rate, blood pressure, sweating and muscle activity, and increases temperature at the extremities. This phase includes meditation, feldenkrais, biofeedback training, massage, tai chi, certain aspects of pilates and yoga, stretching, and breath training. These types of activities deactivate the body, promoting muscle relaxation, proper breathing patterns, and healing.”

During one of the yearly seminars convened by the J.S. Paluch Company in Chicago for vocation directors, the presenter startled us when he seemingly went off on a tangent and talked about the healing powers of rest. I thought to myself, “Why talk about the need for rest and healing with vocation directors?” Then it dawned on me, “Because it’s one of the most neglected practices of those in labor intensive positions. Rest and healing are seldom, to never prioritized. But why is this so? One reason is that some don’t consider them essential for effective and efficient ministry. There have been numerous times during my marathon training or playing golf when the comment was made, “When do you work?” Some people tend to have the erroneous idea that when you’re exercising it’s playing. In their minds it’s connotes a distraction from what they think is really important.

No doubt the American workaholic atmosphere we live in has much to do with this false understanding. Being a part of this environment, we also tend to be workaholics. Nothing is wrong with being in earnest about work. What is wrong in not knowing when we have crossed the line and are endangering our health? It’s usually not until we go down and are forced to rest, or are mandated to go on an exercise regime by our doctor we realize we have crossed that line. In becoming workaholics, we often diminish our ability to celebrate life. This leaves us to wonder how much of workaholic practices carry over into our celebration of the sacraments and cause them to lack the brightness and joy they are? The Roman politician and writer, Pliny the Younger would remind us, “The body must be repaired and supported, if we would preserve the mind in all its vigor.” We might add, “and also to preserve the vigor of our ministry.”

During an unsettling time in my priesthood, a priest friend happened to be living with us who reminded me that when we become overly anxious and depressed, it’s time to take time out and to radically change the way we cope. During a walk on Capitol Hill one early morning, I came upon him performing tai chi or some other type of oriental exercise next to the fountain that faces the U.S. Capitol. On first appearance, it didn’t impress me as a legitimate exercise. After all, I was running marathons. As I watched him, all I saw were silent, still poses without much action.

Later I learned it was his way of not only starting the day relaxed and focused, but also of combating depression. It taught me that perhaps the marathons I was using to stay balanced weren’t all that more beneficial. Perhaps I needed exercises that helped me to focus better and relax, rather than exercises that kept me running. Living with the Benedictines taught me one of those exercises.

In the early years of Saint Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois, it had a seminary run by the Benedictines. A story has it there was an old professor who would periodically tell his students, “You got enough under your scull caps, now it’s time to get dirt under your fingernails.” And off the seminarians would march to work in the monastery garden or on the grounds.

The lesson of this old monk has been a salvation for me. I remember once falling into deep depression. Suddenly I recalled his wise words and dropped all intellectual work and spent a week cutting lawns, weeding and pruning trees. I literally came home each night covered from head to foot with dirt. My depression not only disappeared immediately, but my mood soared and I really felt good about myself. The connection with nature and physical exertion was just what the doctor ordered.

Later I told the Archabbot of Saint Vincent’s Benedictine Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania about my experience. He replied, “We have several older monks who have gardens.” He fully concurred that there is a beautiful spiritual wisdom in working with nature and being outdoors.

The Greeks coined the motto “sound body, sound mind.” Truth would ask: how earnest are we in cultivating physical fitness? How much are we growing not only in our spiritual and intellectual life, but in it? Do we balance all three of them? When last have we conducted an inventory on what we eat, how often we exercise and the methods we have cultivated to reduce stress and get fit? Most important of all, have we ever reflected on how much of the success of the new millennium priesthood depends on balancing the intellectual and spiritual with physical fitness?

As young seminarians, we would joke about those who were forever working on fitness. We called this “body cult,” and considered it inappropriate for the priesthood and its spiritual life. It just didn’t fit in with the philosophy and theology needed to be a church leader. There’s no more joking about it these days. Too many diocesan medical plans are paying enormous medical bills for priests who have failed to remain fit. Too many priests are in rehabilitation centers for psychological problems that might have been fended off had they worked on their physical health. Psychological and physical health is strongly correlated! So, too, is the health of the church correlated to the health of its priests.