All Trains Lead to Bethlehem

Roy was raised Catholic but his point of reference in life was the railroad. As a boy he ran down the hill to wait at the tracks for the Northern Pacific (NP). When he was old enough he got a job in the NP switching yard. He learned how to work and how to drink.

He told me stories of the railroad days, like the Friday he drank up his paycheck at the bar, and careened away in his ’57 Chevy. Caught between the river and the road, Roy split the difference and ran the Chevy into a bridge pylon. Rescuers sawed away the car door and pulled him out. They asked if he was okay. Spitting out blood and teeth, Roy said, “Yeah, I always look like this.”

The Chevy never ran again, but Roy did. His life was a train going somewhere else, anywhere but where he was. At age fifty his train took him to the state hospital, where I was assigned as his county social worker. He told me sobriety made him “nervous as a blind dog in a meat locker.” Medications didn’t help. Neither did shock treatments. It took a year to get him out of the hospital and into a halfway house. It took another year to get him out of the halfway house. Roy didn’t like change.

One day I took him to see a model train display. Roy explained the different types of trains, the freight they pulled, and various mechanical details. Next time I saw him he asked me to take him to a model train store. He bought track and a miniature NP diesel. Roy began to rebuild his train, and his life, on a miniature scale.

I showed him an apartment in a public high-rise. He signed the lease the next day. Later he told me he took the apartment because from its window he could see the spire of the Catholic Church where his mother and father are buried. If not for that view he would have stayed in the halfway house.

One of the last times I saw him he gave me a little train. It was a present for my son, he said. Roy made it himself, using pennies for wheels, and a cotton ball for diesel smoke. Painted red, it always seemed like a Christmas train to me. We are not supposed to take gifts from clients, but to turn this down would have been an insult. For awhile it sat on a shelf in our living room. When we moved it got put into a box, and I haven’t seen it since. I got hired by the state to do social work in another county, so Roy and I parted ways. His train had brought him back to his origins without the solace of the bottle. He was sober when we said good-bye. I picture him keeping solitary vigil at the window: for his parents, for himself, for the children he’ll never have. Maybe he’s waiting for another train.

From the windows of our new house we can see the Mississippi River. The trains run along the river nearly every night, and the whistles blow up the bluffs at us. I used to hear train whistles at night when I was a boy. I remember liking the sound. When I grew up I hopped a train and left everyone and everything. Like other children of wrath I was intentionally mapless, bent on finding Truth by dint of naked resolve.

Illusions came and went. My resolve waxed and waned. Stiff-necked enough to reject chimera after chimera, I became so muddied in the process there came a time I wouldn’t have recognized truth if it bit me. My train ride was shorter than Roy’s, but faster. My ticket got punched when I was thirty. My angel guardian grabbed my scruffy neck and tossed me off my train like so much extra baggage. This was embarrassing, but more than I deserved.

I remember seeing the train disappear from sight. The whistle faded – was it calling me or mocking me? The train ride was over, for now. I got clean and sober and started practicing an approximation of Christianity. Not the most original solutions in the world, but they worked for me. The next few years were a gradual introduction to the world of grace. Eventually I was received into the Church. As I entered a voice followed. Either my angel or a demon made clear to me: “Boy, you made it just in time.”

The wages of sin are not only death, but the memory of death. I remember the train whistle, and it remembers me. Like a lover scorned it calls: “Your faith is a lie, you’re chasing illusions, you will ride me again.” The call itself is a fraud because faith is beyond truth or lies: it is an act of the will. Faith and the grace it opens into is an invisible reality much like memory. The years of faithless living are real, the years of living in grace are real, and so are the in-between years when I did both. I hope the world of grace is more stable and forgiving than I am. If not, we’re all in trouble.

One Christmas I bought my son Dylan a train set. When it went round the track too many times he got impatient and derailed it. Then his choo-choo, like an over-extended metaphor, lay on its side, wheels churning uselessly. Like his dad, Dylan had a hard time leaving well enough alone. When he was a child he at least knew how to stop his train. When he grew up he derailed his entire family.

There’s nothing like children to remind you of what you’ve lost – and of how much you have. In a world where reason can be a self-devouring rationalism, and where children of wrath grow up to become old, wizened, large children – in this sort of world only God makes sense. The rates of exchange in the divine economy are mercy and compassion. Mercy: to shield his grandeur from our darkened consciences, coming to us in the innocent smile of a divine infant, and under the guise of bread and wine.

Compassion: to draw refugees and reprobates – train passengers and hoboes all – to himself. His justice is another face of love: requiring us to renounce our pride and adopt instead the unquestioning faith of a child that allows us to love and worship God in His unlikely guises. Divine Mercy gave me a chance at grace and I boarded what I thought was the last train to Bethlehem. Now I know that God exists outside of trains, and the limitations I try to place upon Him. When I pray I see myself, Dylan, and Roy. We are no longer separated. Together as little boys, we kneel at the manger with glistening eyes and gentle smiles…

O Come, Let Us Adore Him.

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