Father Merkle Combines Physical, Spiritual Exercise

Father Charles Merkle reported to St. Ann Parish in Arlington as the new parochial vicar on Jan. 8. He started walking three days later and hasn’t stopped. Father Merkle set out, on that afternoon in January, carrying a large, wooden rosary, hand-carved in Bethlehem by Palestinian Christians. Since then, he has walked "every street, cul de sac and alleyway in the parish." While praying for the people in the houses he passes, he has hiked along Glebe Rd., through the older neighborhoods off Wilson Blvd., up George Mason Dr. to Lee Hwy., down to the East Falls Church Metro and along the Custis Memorial Pkwy. to the bike path along Rt. 66 that leads back to St. Ann School. On Tuesdays, his day off, Father Merkle’s walks have extended past St. Rita Church in Alexandria, all the way to Potomac Yards, or west to Falls Church. One Saturday, he walked eight miles from a festival in Old Town Alexandria back to St. Ann. He said that it is an hour’s walk to St. James Church along the bike path or an hour and five minutes to St. John in McLean. He knows that it takes two decades of the rosary to walk to Arlington Hospital, where he visits patients. Father Merkle also walks to eight or nine homes that he visits each First Friday. Father Merkle walks every day, rain or shine, for one and a half to two hours. On days when he says 8:30 a.m. Mass, he walks from 5-7 a.m., but when he has the 6:30 a.m. Mass he fits in his walk around 3-5 p.m., just before dinner. Father Merkle may set off on his walk attired in his baseball cap, shorts and a T-shirt or clerics, collar and backpack if he is going on a pastoral visit. On a recent afternoon, the schoolchildren at St. Ann ran to greet him as he headed toward the bicycle path with his backpack slung over his shoulder. Sometimes parishioners wave or beep car horns when they see Father Merkle walking in the neighborhood. Others ask if he needs a ride. Father Merkle said that his walking has stirred up some debate among parishioners as to whether or not he has a car. Parishioner Paul Starzynski said he admires the "fine combination" of exercise and prayer in Father Merkle’s routine. Father’s walking has extended to the Appalachian Trail, where he walked 108 miles between March and the end of May, six miles at a time. He has also traversed the entire length of the C&O Canal from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md. "Exercise makes me take time out," said Father Merkle. Walking provides quiet time, a chance to slow down, time to pray, to talk to God, to think about his "life journey" and to plan Sunday’s homily. Father said that getting out for a walk is the best remedy when someone feels down. "Endorphins are my best friends," he said. Father Merkle’s exercise routine has had physical as well as spiritual benefits. His doctor had advised him to walk each day to lose weight. In addition to losing 30 pounds, Father’s blood pressure is down and his cholesterol level has dropped 30 points. Father "looks forward to walking each day" and recommends it to anyone in need of some "quiet time." "Quiet time is very important. Just to be out in nature. You see God in everything," he said. Father Merkle’s example provides food for thought for people who say they don’t have time for prayer. "We can sanctify everything we do by using the time for prayer," said Father Merkle.

Copyright ?2001 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2001