All Saints 2019
Many years ago I recall seeing an article in a newspaper that had a graphic of a railway carriage seating plan, with passengers of various shapes and sizes, and above each seat was a price. The purpose of the illustration was to show that each person in the carriage had paid a different price for their ticket, even though they were making the same journey and having exactly the same experience in terms of journey time, comfort, weather conditions and so on. One could imagine the same graphic for an aeroplane, although not so much for a London bus, when passengers tend to pay £1.50, or nothing. This is perhaps a phenomenon peculiar to the UK, where trains are concerned: in some other European countries the price is per kilometre, and a return journey costs twice the price of a single. In Britain the return fare can sometimes be a few pence more than the single. Going home can be almost free.
Sitting on a train, one has no idea what the other passengers have paid for their ticket - they may have a railcard; may have booked way in advance, paid on their phones (in which case they won’t have a ticket at all), or may even be a fare dodger who leapt over the barrier when no-one was looking. They may even be an employee of the company, or a secret policeman who has a legitimate free ticket. Just as we don’t know anything about this, we also don’t know anything else about our fellow passengers. We might examine them - if we dare - to see whether they have muddy shoes, or make up, or any other tell-tell signs of their inner or outer life, as Sherlock Holmes might, but not only do we not generally do this, we might cause offence.
Perish the thought we might actually speak to them and strike up a conversation. I was on a tube train once and the person next to me asked me a question about the weather. He was Australian and simply did not know the unwritten protocol: never talk to anyone on the London Underground unless you already know them! I remember distinctly that the rest of the carriage bristled with a mixture of fear and curiosity, and also that a very pleasant little chat ensured before one of us had to get off. Perhaps that is one of the reasons people do not start conversations on short train rides: one never knows when the journey is going to end suddenly, when in mid-conversation everything is curtailed as someone’s journey ends.
For as well as not knowing what someone has paid for their journey, or anything about them, we do not know where they are going. On a railway journey the options are limited of course, there are only so many stops, and unless our fellow passenger is James Bond, getting off between stations is not generally an option! Not everyone is going to the end of the line, and some people’s journeys are shorter than others. So, in general, on a train the only people who talk to one another are families or folk who already know one another. And nowadays some of the conversations we overhear are one sided, as the other person could be anywhere else in the world, connected by mobile phone, being shouted at in full hearing of everyone else. Trains are quieter than they used to be though, because WiFi and mobile technology enables people to immerse themselves in noise-cancelling headphonic soundworlds and electronic visual stimulation (ebooks or videos). Trains do not need compartments any more because most people are in a virtual compartment of their own making.
The next time you are on a train, or indeed any public transport, look around you and reflect on who your fellow passengers are. They are literally, fellow passengers, on the same mode of transport, travelling in the same direction, towards the same destination. All our journeys end the same. But they are also fellow passengers metaphorically and spiritually. We know very little about them, but they - and you – and I, are on the same journey. As strangers and pilgrims we travel together in the same direction.
I enjoy train rides: looking out of the window; passing through unknown and familiar places alike; listening to music; reading, writing even. A journey has a purpose, but it can be a pleasure in itself. Or not: some journeys are awful, delays, bad weather, crowded carriages, traumatic events or accidents. Commuting into London every day can be a miserable, expensive, soul-destroying experience. Our railways bear us on journeys that metaphorically reflect the full range of human spiritual and emotional experience. Meanwhile railway lines are dangerous and trains can be lethal vehicles.
A trainload of passengers is a community, engaging differently with the journey, enjoying or hating it to one degree or another. In communion as one body they are borne forward, both by their own will, and in submission to the control of a greater force. They are free beings, whisked down prelaid and prepaid tracks to an inevitable destination. They may or may not be enjoying the experience.
They may or may not be reflecting on the nature of their journey, what they want from the journey and where they can reasonably expect to end up. Nowadays many travel unthinkingly and unreflectively. They do not actually know where they are going, because they haven’t thought about it much; they just find themselves on the train, and having put their headphones on, are listening to whatever music pleases them and whiles away the time. Nevertheless there is a destination and the train will stop, and there is no going back. In the journey of life, there are no return tickets.
Having travelled as a community of pilgrims or tourists on life’s journey, they may well find that they are welcomed at journey’s end into the community of saints, or... or what? None of us knows for sure. But what we do know is that if we travel as purposeful, reflective pilgrims trusting in God as the source and driver of our lives, we will arrive at a destination of peace and fellowship, rest and resurrection, in communion with our Lord Jesus Christ and all the saints.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 03/11/19