Looking For The Light At The End Of The Train
Published: September 14, 2006
There were train tracks not far from where I lived when I was a kid. We used to go and sit and watch the trains. There were commuter trains, heading into Hoboken, and long freight trains. We never knew where the freight trains were heading.
I liked the freight trains. They passed slowly before us, and we read the large painted signatures on the different cars. Many of the cars carried the names of different states—I suppose that had something to do with the place of origin, though I am not sure about that.
My favorite car was the caboose. It was always red and sometimes a man or two would be leaning out the window and would wave, and we would wave back. There was a lantern attached to the metal rail on the small platform at the rear, and the lamp would swing back and forth as the train rambled on. The last thing we saw was that lantern as the train made its way to the next town.
Trains have captured many an imagination. There are some beautiful songs about trains, like “The City of New Orleans” and “This Train.” A generous lore has evolved about the lives of hobos and their riding the rails, going from place to place with not much in terms of possessions but seeing so much and not thinking too much about where they have been and where they are going. Trains figure prominently in many films.
Most of the scenes I remember are rather sad—people parting ways as a loved one departs on a train that may or may not bring him or her back.
And there are countless songs of many a broken-hearted lover catching that last train for a new city, a new life.
Trains evoke a sense of things that are passing. Something is moving through our lives, and we are moving right along with it. A train whistle, sounding from afar at night, brings with its sad and lonesome wail a knowing that we share with that distant train an estrangement and a movement through a longer and sometimes darker night.
I did not think about such things as I sat near the tracks many years ago. I just watched, waiting for the caboose and hoping to get a wave from the men on that last car.
Many a thinker down through the ages has pondered the meaning of life. The great religious traditions have as bearers of hope figures who were either human or human with a blend of the divine. The traditions have carried their messages as these have been handed down from generation to generation. The originating inspirations as these have been embodied in a person have served as lights for millions, lights with which to pass this night of life with some hope.
The light I looked for when I was young was at the end of the train.
When the cars passed, it was then and only then that I saw the swaying lamp and watched it fade into the distance.
It seems a truism that we bear within us an expectation that with a better grasp of the light that is God, all of history’s meaning will be known. Yet we see but dimly here as the trains, and our years, pass.
The light that is God is not separable from life. I think that is the meaning, as mysterious as it may be, of the Incarnation. We may look for God as Light apart from all that is about us, but there is no such thing.
The light came into the world and has stayed there, with us, among us.
When I was young, staring at that caboose and its little light as they faded into the distance, I did not think about the lights that awaited me at home—the love of my parents and brothers and sisters, and how that love warmed me, sustained me in countless ways. I did not think about the lights in the windows I saw when I walked home and about the many loves that made those houses homes. I did not think of how dispersed and hard to find the Light of God is, save for all that shines in the goodness, beauty, perseverance and hope that brings to the world a wondrous light, every day and every night.
Light shines in every night.
Life passes, it somehow moves. We all look for some kind of light in its passing. For some it may flicker and sway and recede, and for others it will burn bright and still, and stay a while. For everybody, some kind of light has to shine as the years pass. It seems that we have a choice—to either curse the darkness or embrace the light. Wish as we might that either the light or darkness would speak, we have only our own voices. Then we would know powers greater than ourselves and not fear the loneliness that closes in with the darkness.
Isn’t it strange that life moves? That it passes? It is said that religion offers something to make meaning out of it all, so that the long ride indeed has a point of origin and a blessed destination. But I think something else, or more, is needed these days to help us move along. And that something need not be removed from or foreign to religious insights.
It is a letting go of a kind of complacency concerning certitude so that we might better see the strange but telling lights that pass right before us. They are inviting us to learn again and again the way to take the light of day and move with it, love with it, die unto it. Religion, after all, should not be a bastion of certitude that completely walls out mystery. Religion should be, or is that, which teaches one to trust in whistles and swinging lights, knowing that these carry a power of suggestion that hints at a presence in every sound and light that we know.
The peoples of the world will never have a common religion, a shared ideology or way of being. All we have are our differences and the means to deal with them as best we can. And that difference among us is our common lot. I suppose it is true that every religious system or ideology holds to itself a certain prerogative as to having a unique source of illumination. But there will be those who leave behind the security of certitude in the need to find a way of life that loves and respects the other, the different, the “uninitiated.” And that movement will come from a light that is real, but has no Name. It is only known for showing the way to new beginnings, to new ways of being in this world.
That lamp on the caboose moved from town to town. Perhaps there were others who waited for it and then saw it as it passed, and then vanished, into the night. Some people think the same way about the light of God. I hope we learn some day that he has stayed, and is burning brightly, in all that lives and moves.
Father James Stephen Behrens, OCSO, is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. He is the author of “Grace Is Everywhere: Reflections of an Aspiring Monk,” which is available at the monastery Web store at www.trappist.net.