One of the main myths or misunderstandings I faced when telling people that I was entering the noviciate was their belief that I would be cutting myself off totally from the world. While this was true of sorts for the period of first probation (when we weren’t able to contact family or friends), it is most certainly not the case about noviciate life in general. Indeed, we are very much out in the world on our ‘apostolates’ (volunteer work on a Thursday and parish work on a Sunday).
Also, our Saturdays are ‘days off’ when we can do ordinary things, whether that means going to the cinema, having lunch out, visiting local tourist attractions, walking, cycling, window-shopping etc, with the only limit being our £40 a month personal budget. Our way of engaging with the world is changing, indeed, but sometimes only subtly and slowly rather than in an absolutist fashion.
And just as we aren’t removed from the world, we are not artificially cut off from previous interests and passions.
One of my own personal concerns about noviciate life, before arriving, was that I would not be able to continue my favourite sport, Crossfit. Crossfit is a fairly new sport and is described by participants as ‘The Sport of Fitness’, much to the annoyance of others in the more established fitness world. In this, I can’t help but find parallels with the annoyance of some in the established religious world at a group of 16th century newcomers who had the audacity to call themselves ‘The Society of Jesus’ . . .
Crossfit is based upon the idea that we get maximum fitness benefit from a constantly varied programme of functional exercises performed at a high level of intensity. Workouts change every day and the programme is designed to give us confidence that we can face any physical challenge to a reasonable degree.
Beyond the audacious name, it has distinct Ignatian qualities, at least I like to think so. The focus on functional fitness (i.e. exercises that have a parallel in regular life or are useful for regular life) is similar to the idea of Jesuits as contemplatives in action – our spiritual exercises and preparation are for a real world use. The mentality of the sport is to always strive for more. We almost always have the ability to get in that extra repetition and we never just give up because something is difficult. It is about mental strength and physical preparedness.
In my previous life, I used to go to my local Crossfit box 4 or 5 days a week and sometimes for up to two hours a time. It had become a big part of my life, in part because it provided a complete mental break from work, but also because I enjoyed the challenge and the strong sense of community that is central to the Crossfit ethos. And, I was learning new skills and pushing my physical and mental boundaries.
I entered the noviciate with the knowledge that I might have to give up, or severely curtail, Crossfit, and was just about content to accept that outcome, while hoping that it would not be the case.
The good news is that I have been able to continue, but in a different form. I started off doing limited work outs in the garden, 2 or 3 days a week (weather permitting). Then, with good fortune, it turned out that my Thursday apostolate is right next door to a new Crossfit Box, which means I am able to go to a properly equipped gym once a week. We can also use the local health centre gym for a limited number of hours for free and it turns out they have a ‘functional fitness room’. So I’ve been able to squeeze 2 or 3 visits in each week. All in all, there has been more than adequate opportunity – much to my surprise.
A central concept in Crossfit is to constantly change types and combinations of exercises, so I’ve also been able to do the odd afternoon of running (with Chris, who is in training – and fundraising – for the marathon), some cycling and, when I can get up early enough, a crack of dawn swim. Taken together, and rather unexpectedly, my training is now more varied than before.
I’m not alone in finding a way of keeping up previous practices and pastimes. The guys who had an interest in music have found plenty of opportunity here, both formal and informal, and last year one of the novices was able to continue his passion for painting (the excellent evidence of which can be seen in various places around the house).
These personal projects are very much part of the mix, and are part of what makes the noviciate experience, so far, such a rewarding one. The Society recognises the things that nourish us in our lives – whether art or music or exercise – and we are given a degree of space, and encouragement, to take these things forward.
It may seem odd to say, but often my Crossfit workout is the thing I am most grateful for in my daily examen prayer. So much of our time is spent focused on the intellectual or the spiritual, so it is a joy to celebrate the physical too. Over the years, I have found God in a very different and enriching way through exercise and I am glad that it is still a part of my life today.