The Train as Cloister

The Train as Cloister December 1, 2016
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo, CC0 License

From a commuter…which could be the editor…or could not be…

Trains are weird things…

I read on the train going into work. When I do so one tends to zone everything out, until that crick in your neck or the soreness in your eyeballs kicks in and you need to lift your head to look at more distant objects and realign your vertebrae. Till then, your surroundings do not really become the focus of your attention. Heck, with trains, there really isn’t much to focus on apart from the omnipresent glare of advertising and the back of people’s heads. Then you have the silence.

This morning proved to be different…

Whilst on the train going into work (and reading), I looked up and saw someone I recognised from college circles. He was on the same row of seats, but across the aisle. He was staring down, not into a book, but into his phone, at a game he just downloaded. I figured I would try and get his attention subtly, first through a messaging app, telling him to look right. He got the message and looked right.

Now, a normal conversation would have erupted, punctuated by the “Oh, hi. Long time no see!” and suchlike. Only doing so would have broken the solemn pall of silence that seemed to become institutionalised on this train. It was almost as if the very human act of spontaneous conversation would have ripped through a sacred tapestry of contemplation. So what did we do? We continued chatting from across our respective sides of our aisles, on the messenger app. Small updates on one’s life, big changes in one’s circumstances, all that become relayed from across the aisle through the app. In the midst of typing, I wondered why we were even doing this. The man is a couple of meters away, for crying out loud! But did I dare be that guy to tear through this holy silence of commuters, making their solemn – and bloody silent – procession into their respective chapels in the city?

In the end I typed “this train seems almost monastic”.

We both looked around us. Virtually every commuter was doing what we were doing, staring down – submitting to that heavy pall of silence – at their smartphones. However, there was something else. There was the uniformity of row upon row of heads bowed down, focusing on their screens, whilst sitting in that long metallic tube that enclosed our viewoverhead, yet had windows large enough to view into the vignettes of the urban landscape that would stream past our view in a constant blur of buildings, roads and signposts. If I didn’t know better, I would say I had stepped into something resembling a cloister in some Benedictine abbey.

So there you have it, I had sat in on the abbey of some pin-striped, office-suit clad co-ed contemplative order.

Which raised the question: on what were they contemplating? What was on their phones that required such focus, such holy attentiveness? Maybe they had all downloaded an app to get them into the holy period of Advent. Maybe their phones were a mirror to reflect back onto themselves, an occasion for an examination of conscience, to prepare their souls and selves for the Incarnation of the divine Logos in twenty-four days’ time. Maybe they had realised, as Augustine did, that the things of this world were as mutable as the mist and that they needed to reorient themselves to the things eternal. Maybe their smartphones were the occasion for just such a reorientation, a portal if you will from the world of earth, concrete, cloth and letters, to the lofty heights of the angels in eternal praise of the Almighty.

Well, they did say that hope was a virtue…

I arrived at my station, and the congregation began to stir. The pall of silence was lifted, and then I was able to have a few words – actual spoken words – to my friend, but nothing more than a quick follow up to our text-based conversation and a goodbye. The embodied communion was interrupted by the crush of bodies heading towards the exits of this metal cloister as it gradually slotted into the narthex of the station. Then, as if like a chapel bell, the “beep…beep” of the door signals came and the congregants were finally released from their liturgical duties. We then processed up the stairs as one, not as silently but still in a solemn refusal to speak to the other, and then fanned out to the various exists and to our various private chapels, no doubt to further contemplate the finer details of Augustine.

You notice the darnest things on trains..


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