As most regular readers will know, one constant aspect of my first year in the Jesuit novitiate thus far has been preparing to run the London Marathon in aid of Jesuit Missions. On Sunday 24th April I completed the marathon and so now it feels right to reflect on and share what I have taken from this experience.
The Day Itself:
For the running enthusiasts reading I should start by recommending running the London Marathon. It was an incredible experience from start to finish. A lot of it is a blur due to the physical exertion but a few strong memories stand out in my mind. I loved running through the various areas of London, each with its own character: jingling cowbells in Greenwich, Gospel choirs and steel drums in the Docklands, bagpipes near Tower Bridge and, my favourite, the pulsating ska beats in Bermondsey and Limehouse. Whoever decided to play The Specials and Madness as I ran past shaved several seconds off my time!
Another memory was, at one point, feeling left out since no-one was shouting my name (I decided not to have it printed on my running vest) until a young boy misread my Jesuit Missions vest and cheered me up by shouting “GO ON… JESUS!” I can also claim I beat an Olympian, overtaking Iwan Thomas somewhere around Canary Wharf. He may be in his forties but I’m still claiming it as an achievement! When times got tough in the final few miles there were also a few Hail Marys to push me over the line, as well as thinking about all of those who had helped me make it this far while I prayed. To be Ignatian about it, the day was a huge burst of consolation.
Reasons for running:
My original reasons for running the marathon were threefold. First of all, I hoped that my participation would help deepen my understanding of the British Province of the Society of Jesus, its works and its people by allowing me to learn more about Jesuit Missions. Secondly, this fundraising marathon run would enable me to share my vocation with many people, helping me to grow in confidence of speaking about my faith and also open up the ears and hearts of others of the call to the priesthood and the Society in general. Thirdly, and more importantly than my personal reasons, it was a great opportunity to raise funds to help people in the most vulnerable parts of the world (the funds we raised for Jesuit Missions will go to fund a JM-JRS project to offer emergency healthcare to Syrians in the war-torn cities of Homs and Damascus).
The Marathon as an ongoing novitiate experiment:
Overall the marathon experience has not only fulfilled these hopes but has surpassed them – it became a prolonged, ongoing experiment that has taught me lots about myself and enriched my time in the novitiate. It pushed my limits, opening up new possibilities and achievements that I never thought possible. On a physical level I have never been as fit as I was on Sunday 24th March. Furthermore, as I ran past the Temple Walkabout bar I used to drink in at university which is placed along the final stretches of the race I reflected on just how much my life has changed and my faith has deepened since leaving university almost ten years ago. Staying strong to finish the marathon in good time was a final feat of deepening determination that I have felt grow along the different training milestones of the past eight months: the first time I ran a half marathon just before Christmas, overcoming the frustration of being injured and unable to run around the hills of Wales in winter, running 16 miles along the London riverside and Richmond Park and my final training run of 20 miles around the canals and walkways of Birmingham. This all left me as psychologically prepared as I was physically.
It may seem like a small thing at first but initially I found it difficult to run without music. (We don’t bring electrical goods to the novitiate, so my iPod did not travel to Manresa House, Birmingham with me). While this initially made the task ahead seem more difficult, in fact it became one of the secrets of my training and a great piece of learning. Without the distraction of music my running time became one of deeper thoughts and prayers. It taught me a valuable lesson about avoiding distractions, listening to my conscience, listening to my body and ultimately listening to God, often in the minutiae of daily life and not just training runs.
New people and places:
Another way in which this marathon ‘experiment’ has hugely enriched my time in the novitiate is in the way it has opened up my life to new people and places. As well as running the marathon for Jesuit Missions I was sent on experiment for five weeks to work at the Jesuit Missions office with the team there. While there I made great friends with my colleagues and look forward to experiencing those friendships develop as we all continue following our shared yet diverse paths of faith and being involved with the Society of Jesus in various ways. I was also blown-away by receiving donations from people I have never met via the fundraising website – such generosity was extremely touching and I’d like to thank all who donated online a final time. Thank you.
Back in Birmingham, I felt that training for the marathon alongside Jacques, a fellow first-year British novice, gave us a unique way in which to bond and deepen our friendship. Jacques is a brilliant athlete and the fact that he ran the marathon in a Womble costume to boost awareness of Jesuit Missions rather than running for a sense of personal glory certainly taught me a lesson in humility. I will always be grateful to him for this and for the continuous support and accompaniment he provided me over the past months. Regardless of where God guides us in future, we’ll always be able to look back on this shared novitiate memory with mutual fondness.
My fundraising appeals saw me share my story in many different places. I began with somewhere I knew well – my home parish of St Mary’s, Hexham – where I made an appeal the weekend after Christmas. As well as being warmly welcomed by faces I had known for years I was extremely well-supported by donations which got the fundraising ball well and truly rolling. Perhaps nicest however was sharing in the local community’s excitement at their vocations prayers bearing fruit in myself and hopefully others in future. A few months later I visited St Anselm’s, Southall and was generously supported by a donation from the community. I was also spiritually nourished by the warmth of the parish who welcomed me over the weekend to a variety of events, which remain strong in my memory as formative milestones on the novitiate journey. I must also mention the kindness of St Anne’s Primary School in Digbeth, Birmingham, where I help out on apostolate work on Thursday afternoons. The week before running the marathon they gave me a timely boost by offering me a share of their Lenten Appeal donations but again, the verbal support of staff and students meant just as much when it came down to running the 26.2 miles on the day.
So, to conclude this marathon-themed (and marathon-length!) blog post, perhaps a final reflection can be how it is possible to unite people from different backgrounds, beliefs and places around a difficult situation such as the one I was running to raise funds for. This gave the marathon a shared sense of mission and motivated me to complete the run. On an individual level, I also learnt lessons in faith and friendship that can hopefully see me continue on the path of discipleship that I began eight months ago when I entered the novitiate and signed up to run the London Marathon.