When Mrs T and I were visiting Germany and Poland, we had to change trains in Cologne. Since the Cathedral is right by the railway station and we had two hours to spare, our plan was easily made. And efficiently undermined by a delay on the Eurostar, which led to arriving in Berlin 6 hours late. Jerome K Jerome did visit the Cathedral between trains in 1890. You don’t have to agree with every word he says, any more than I do, but he has some insight into silence.
There is little to be said about a cathedral. Except to the professional sightseer, one is very much like another. Their beauty to me lies, not in the paintings and sculpture they give houseroom to, nor in the bones and bric-à-brac piled up in their cellars, but in themselves—their echoing vastness, their deep silence. Above the little homes of men, above the noisy teeming streets, they rise like some soft strain of perfect music, cleaving its way amid the jangle of discordant notes. Here, where the voices of the world sound faint; here, where the city’s glamour comes not in, it is good to rest for a while—if only the pestering guides would leave one alone—and think.
There is much help in Silence. From its touch we gain renewed life. From contact with it we rise healed of our hurts and strengthened for the fight. Amid the babel of the schools we stand bewildered and affrighted. Silence gives us peace and hope. Silence teaches us no creed, only that God’s arms are around the universe.
How small and unimportant seem all our fretful troubles and ambitions when we stand with them in our hand before the great calm face of Silence! We smile at them ourselves, and are ashamed.
It sounded like something Bottom would say in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Listen’, said our daughter, ‘and you’ll hear the daffodils open’. Was she going virally stir-crazy? No, we listened, and we heard a pop as one of these daffodils burst the brown sheaf of the bud as the petals expanded. Another Laudato Si moment!
I was reminded of sitting in the sunshine, waiting for a tube train at the then beautifully tended Boston Manor tube station, well above ground at this point, and hearing, in the quieter moments between Trident jets descending to Heathrow, the sound of broom pods clicking open in the sunshine. I must have been on my way to see her future mother on a Friday evening after work.
Not long before Christmas I took a railway journey across Manchester on one of the darkest days of the year. Since I was visiting my mother for her birthday, I resisted the temptation to continue towards Blackpool North (Pole), but the signaller’s humour was welcome on a bleak morning.
It was also good to see this note from Sam on behalf of the Samaritans, who are well aware that this season is not festive for everybody. Sadly, the railway is often a suffering soul’s chosen suicide spot. Sam’s message may persuade someone to ring them, as may the message on many train tickets.
By the time I was making my return journey, the weather had turned from a saturated mist to a greasy drizzle. Walking to Greenfield station with bright LED headlights shining in my face was no joy.
But Saddleworth Catholic church of the Sacred Heart already had their crib on display in the porch. A reminder of the hope that is in us.
Christian or not, we are given the virtue of hope to see us through the dark times. Christian or not, a helpless babe is not hopeless. He or she reaches out in trust. For those whose ability to trust has been eroded through others’ inhumanity, a word, a smile may make a difference. Few of us will ever find ourselves stepping in to prevent a suicide at the last moment, but we may, all unknowingly, help to do so before that.
From across the main road, my view of the crib was no better than in the photo, but I knew what I was looking at: even in the darkest, murkiest times, there is hope.
Abel’s mother and grandmother were both off work on Christmas day, which does not happen every year. Nurses are needed!
Abel was more interested in some other Christmas workers: the Orange Army of railway engineers. Far more interesting than whatever the grown-ups were doing indoors. There were twenty or more workers near his grandparents’ house, renewing track and the level crossing. They had a big crane and an assortment of other machines. After lunch he took grandad out to investigate. One of the men came and talked to us; railway workers are often friendly to youngsters who take an interest in their work.
The man was guarding the level crossing and two machines, including this one, caught in the last of the sun. Let it stand for all those working this Christmas, on the railway or in other ways, to make life better for the rest of us.
Now four years old, Abel was enchanted when he came to the miniature railway at Bettws-y-coed.* Since he was tiny, unable to walk or speak in words, his fascination with trains has been clear. He would lean in the direction of his local station when being pushed home in his pram, hoping to direct his mother thither.
Full sized trains go places and can be sorted by colour and shape, but they are formidably big. One day a train that grandfather cannot sit upright in turned out to be the right size for Abel. Most of the elements of a railway were in evidence: rails, steam and diesel locos, signals, points, level crossings and bells. Abel felt aggrieved when the signal was red as he passed it, but relaxed when he observed the next light change from green to red as the locomotive pulled the carriages by. I can remember my father explaining this very phenomenon to me on the approach to Birmingham New Street!
Abel was quite right to be concerned. Partly because he likes things to be correct, but also he is aware of the dangers of level crossings and other parts of the railway. His toy trains often crash and rescue services swiftly descend upon the scene.
Despite the inherent dangers, a well-run railway is safe; disciplined staff know their jobs and do them well, thoughtfully rather than mechanically.
A disciplined life is open to the grace that gets us through many dangers, toils and snares, and grace will lead us safely home. All Aboard!
I was leaving a railway station when the Samaritans’ placard caught my eye: it was fastened to the railing at the top of the footbridge, so that everyone could see it as they climbed. A mental ‘thumbs-up’ to them from me!
The following day, on the rails again, I turned my tickets over to find two different messages from the Samaritans. Notice the slogan, ‘small talk saves lives.‘ The life of an individual human being is small when set against the whole of Creation, but it is all that that person knows, through their own direct experience or through conversation, reading, viewing or listening: their one life is the big thing for them, with sensations and experiences arriving constantly from all sides, not all of them welcome, some of them overwhelming.
If a beloved feels overwhelmed, it’s a big thing for those who care for them. So big that they too may feel overwhelmed and not know what to do or say.
So perhaps Jesus was right to tell us to ‘consider the lilies of the field.’ (Matthew 6:28) Small things, small talk. There was heather encroaching on the Yorkshire station; lovely purple flowers, but too far away on the opposite platform for me to catch the scent and comment on it to a fellow passenger.
On the return journey two sisters and their four teenaged children were on the train, talking about everything and nothing: small talk that meant nothing and everything. Another advert proclaimed that ‘I love you’ is one of the hardest things to say; but every word and gesture in this group announced that message loud and clear.
Even small words are not always needed. I had a profound experience on an underground train soon after a terrorist attack. I found myself standing next to a British Transport policeman. He was very tired, and had seen I know not what. Not a word was spoken, no gesture, no touch, but I prayed in my heart. When he got off he said, Thank You, and disappeared into the night.
The day after I published the post ‘After all the Shouting’, praising the work of the Samaritans’ listeners, I turned up at Canterbury West Station again. This time there were tables outside the door, and a group of Samaritans, my friend L’s colleagues. Sadly, the electric railway does attract those seeking to end their lives; it’s a good spot to raise people’s awareness of the Samaritans’ services.
‘Thank you for sharing our work,’ I was told, when I told how I had posted about them here. The woman I spoke to gave me these cards, so feel free to share the telephone number – or whatever your country’s local equivalent might be.
‘And although we have seventy volunteers, we could always use more to maintain our 24 hour service, seven days a week. We can’t manage that at present.’
For myself, I’ve been drawn back into L’Arche Kent, and could easily find myself involved there 24/7. There’s always something to be done, and a friend or two to do it with, as you’ll appreciate if you’ve followed our recent pilgrimage posts. But where do your gifts and inclinations lie?
Please pray for the Samaritans and for those who turn to them and other helplines in times of need and distress.
The feast of Saint Joseph the Worker seems a good time to share this story. Joseph, I guess, had his workshop in the house or close by. Not so for many in the world today. And how many of us are less than happy with our work, and with getting there and back? Can we improve things for our colleagues by our attitude towards them?
It’s Wednesday evening and I’m at Canterbury West station, chatting to a railwaywoman while I await my chance to slip onto the platform. Hundreds of people were streaming away from an incoming train.
‘You’d think if they were going home they’d look happy!’ she said, and truly, they did not. ‘I’ll get one smiling’, I said, as I saw M coming into view. To be fair, I’d seen him smiling already. I know he likes his job, and I knew he was not going home for long; he was due to attend the SVP meeting (Saint Vincent de Paul Society) about an hour later on that cold windy night. But he smiled and chatted and went on his way.
‘Now you can start working in the other 451!’ said the railwaywoman. (With a smile.)
So maybe I’ll share one of the staff’s efforts to raise a smile at Christmas with this little plum.
We have written before to praise the initiative of the Samaritans and the British railway companies for their efforts to prevent suicides. The ticket shown above is just one way this happens. There has been extensive staff training and there are prominent notices giving the same message at stations and level crossings.
The suicide does not realise how great is the distress for those left behind, as many of us will have witnessed. I remember helping out in a school in a state of shock after a popular teacher died in his car at a level crossing, just before the end of the summer holiday. He could not face the return to his demanding work: the students had emotional and social problems and were difficult to control. However he felt about his role, the staff and students all spoke highly of him. But he could not see that clearly.
This plaque is clear enough. It is displayed on the harbour arm at Whitby in Yorkshire, for there are those, like Virginia Woolf, who choose to end their lives by drowning. We can – and should – read the inscription as praise of the Creator, but it also as a prayer for the would-be suicide, and an invitation to turn again, to repent of despair.
Let us pray that the new year will be a season of hope rather than gloom for those who all too easily see the dark side. And let us have the courage, as a recent Samaritans advertisement puts it, to make small talk at the school gate, in the queue, on the bus.
The BBC Website includes a section on The People’s War, memories of the conflict from all over the world. It is worth visiting to learn how bad and how good people can be in times of stress, conflict and danger.
George Nolan Johnston was in the British army in the Middle East, sent on a long and apparently pointless journey culminating in a crowded train with no opportunity to get food or drink. Did the officer who organised it not know the men could not get food, or did he just not care?
Here is an extract from Mr Nolan Johnston’s story, but do read the rest of it.
We arrived at a way-side station in the sand. A fleet of trucks waited for us, we were transported some miles west into the sun, and dumped on the side of a desert road. Our patch was beside an east-west tarmacadam road bordered to the North and South with sand. The patch was equipped with open ablutions and latrines. We had neither food nor tents.
Shortly after we arrived a dispatch rider arrived on a motorbike. He bore a message from the officer in charge of the next camp, which was a mile up the road. If we cared to walk up, he would supply us with tea and sandwiches, he apparently had been similarly dumped a week prior to us. We were really starving so we queued up with our tummies rumbling and mugs at the ready. The last few yards were torture and when we got a full mug of sweet tea and a large thick corned beef sandwich, we thought we were set. Never before or since have I enjoyed anything better. We were so very much grateful to the unknown officer.