The Gift of the Spirit and the Marathon run out of Love

POST BY Ruth

A helping hand at during the London Marathon
Marathon Spirit - by Marcin Kargol on Flickr

Just recently, I met a priest who had run a marathon. I’ll call him Tony. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Marathon is a running race of 26 and one-third miles. And it is very different to most races – for three reasons.
First, because it’s a lot longer than most races.
And second, because most of the contestants don’t actually want to win it: the very great majority are happy just to get through it in one piece.
And third - and this is the bit I didn't understand - it's incredibly popular: last year over 100,000 people applied for the 35,000 places in the London marathon.

So, since Tony is even older, and even fatter, and even balder (!) than I am, I asked him why he had done it. He said that it all started when he got involved with a project to raise money for sick children in the Amazon. These were babies who had been born with serious problems in their hearts that needed operations to fix them - operations that are not available in the Amazon. So, the children have to be sent away to Brazil or Trinidad to have these operations and to do that is very expensive. The government doesn’t have money for that and so people had to do their best to try to raise money for them. He had gone to see one of the children in the hospital and he had been touched to the bottom of his heart by the sight of the little child in the incubator struggling desperately just to go on breathing. And so he wanted to do something to help. Someone suggested that he should go in for a sponsored run – in case you have been so fortunate never to be asked, that is when people give you money to run a particular distance for a good cause. So they set him up to run this marathon and, trusting foolishly to their judgment, he agreed. And, yes, before you ask, this discussion did indeed take place in a pub and drink had been taken.

But, being a man of great wisdom and foresight, before he actually did it, he thought he ought to try it out to see what it was like. So he went for a little run. And he got about 2 miles before he had to stop, panting and wheezing. Suddenly he realised that running 26 and one-third miles is actually quite hard work. So he started to train and for about three months he trained until he got to the stage where he thought he could just about do it.

The day of the race came. And it was very, very hot. Many of the runners who had been entered for the race dropped out because they did not want to run on such a hot day. But Father was determined. He had made his mind up. He had made a promise. He wasn’t going to let anybody down. He was going to do it. So he set out.

He told me later that if he had only been running for himself, he would have stopped after the first mile: He felt exhausted already. After 10 miles, he was in more pain then he had ever experienced in his life and all he could think about was his legs and how much they hurt. He wanted either to stop or to die – and at that stage he really didn’t much mind which, but he wanted it soon!

Then something very odd happened. He got an image in his mind of that baby lying in the incubator panting for breath even harder than he was, not to run - just to stay alive. And he discovered that, so long as he had that image in his mind, his legs did not hurt. When he thought about anything else, his legs hurt plenty! And so he focused as hard as ever he could on that image in his mind of the prize for which he was running. And he said later, “once you are thinking of that, even 26 and one third miles doesn’t seem so far”.

I think that is what happens when: “The Holy Spirit comes upon you and the power of the most high covers you with its shadow.”

You get the power to focus on something other than your own hurts.
You get the insight to see that actually, you are not the centre of the universe.
You get the compassion to feel someone else’s suffering.
And most of all, you get the love to do something about it.

Let us all pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit in our own lives - that we too, like Mary, may be given the responsibility of bringing the goodness of God into the world.

Paul O'Reilly SJ