The Pedalling Padre rides again
by Roger Dawson SJ
Last month I cycled again as Chaplain – or ‘Pedalling Padre’ - to the annual Help for Heroes Battlefield Bike. This year nearly 200 cyclists rode from Tournai on the Belgium border, up through Eindhoven and Nijmegen to Arnhem, following the route of the 1944 British Operation Market Garden. This bold airborne operation aimed to capture key bridges and bring about an early end to the war, but met with fierce resistance and the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem never succeeded in achieving their objective.
Riding with us this year were about a dozen servicemen and women who are wounded, injured or sick, so with very visible injuries – Royal Engineer Josh Biaggi has lost both legs and part of one arm and completed his fifth ride on a handbike! – and others who have struggled for long periods with post-traumatic stress disorder. Over £600,000 was raised for the charity which seeks to support and enable veterans injured in combat and to help them to rebuild their lives.
Each day there was a moving simple wreath-laying ceremony, accompanied by the Last Post and two minutes silence and followed by the mournful lament on the bagpipes, Flowers of the Forest. I would speak at each of these ceremonies and my task was to get the riders to reflect and in some cases to pray. This is a largely secular group, but the experience of riding for Help for Heroes takes the riders into a ‘liminal space’, rather like a pilgrimage. The ride is great fun with a lot of humour and camaraderie and celebration, but the riders are also confronted with wounds and injuries, war and suffering, the best and worst of humankind. I am trying to help them to reflect on this, covertly using Ignatian spirituality and prompting them to look for the beauty, truth and goodness around them, rather than the ugliness, lies and evil. This is the eighth time I have been the Pedalling Padre on the Battlefield Bike Ride and it is not hard to ‘find God in all things’ on this ride. It is also, I think, one of the ‘existential peripheries’ where Jesuits ought to be.