PILGRIMAGE: The Channel Tunnel, England—Waiting For The Lord by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

The Channel Tunnel, England—Waiting For The Lord by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

8:09 a.m.  Ping-pong-ping!  The electronic chimes sound their warning.  The shiny silver doors of the Eurostar train slide closed, and we roll smoothly out of Paris’s Gare du Nord.  On its second day of regular operation, the train smells of new carpeting and upholstery.  Everything around me is sparkling and high-tech.  This streamlined train, specially designed to run through the new tunnel under the English Channel, will whisk me to Waterloo Station, London, in three hours and six minutes.  The sooty slate-blue of the November morning glides past my window as the train hums through suburban Paris.

8:20 a.m.  We’re now in high gear – 186 miles an hour.  The farm fields are pouring past like a river of pea soup.

9:36 a.m.  An announcement in French and English warns us that in one minute we will be entering the Channel Tunnel.  The automatic doors at each end of the car slide closed, and I begin watching for the tunnel entrance.  A concrete wall starts running along on our left side, getting higher and higher.  I glimpse a part of an arch that covers the tracks like the corner of a giant’s mouth.  Whoom!  We dive into the dark.  I look out the big window and see nothing but my own neon-colored reflection in the glass.  By shading my eyes against the light and leaning my head against the cold windowpane I can make out a dark brown-gray blur of wall.  There won’t be anything to see out there for twenty minutes.

9:57 a.m.  Sunshine.  Welcome to Great Britain.  Please turn your watches back one hour.  The constant high-pitched whistling sound that the train has been making in the tunnel disappears and the scenery takes up where it left off: rolling hills of green.  Sheep graze under a clear blue sky.  A strip of black road cuts under the railway, with two cars driving on the wrong side of the road.

9:28 a.m. (British time)  Passing through Tonbridge, the first town since Paris to show me its name on a station platform.  We are not moving as fast as we were in France, riding on old tracks laid through one of the most densely populated parts of the United Kingdom.  In the Channel Tunnel train system, the British tracks are one of the problems still to be solved.

9:44 a.m.  We slow to a crawl of maybe sixty miles an hour and glide through Orpington, a town of brick houses and clotheslines that back up onto the tracks.  We’re still thirty minutes from Waterloo Station.

9:50 a.m.  We’ve stopped.  From high up on our embankment we look down onto row houses and a gasworks.

9:51 a.m.  The train starts rolling, but very gently now, like a science-fiction monster picking its way carefully among the backyards.  Sunshine is bathing the forty-four empty seats – there are only twelve passengers in the car on this almost-maiden voyage.

10:00 a.m.  We stop for the second time.  It seems odd to be sitting on top of a railway embankment in this sleek futuristic cabin looking down into the narrow wintry backyards of brick row houses.  An old man in a gray tweed cap is spading up his garden patch not a hundred feet away.  Rich, brown soil, probably nourished with kitchen scraps and lawn clippings.

I’m struck by the contrast between the leisurely pace of his garden and the headlong rush of my high-speed train.  The old gardener patiently turns under last summer’s stubble to prepare the soil for the winter.  Then he’ll wait for spring planting time and then wait for the seeds to sprout.  Then he’ll gently nurture and weed and water his vegetables – and patiently wait for them to ripen.

This train, on the other hand, is designed to cover the greatest distance in the least possible time, delivering passengers efficiently and without ceremony from one city to another.  In the process it reduces trees and flowers near the tracks to a nervous blur.  For it to actually stop dead on the tracks like this is simply an unthinkable outrage.

It occurs to me that when I set to work at something, I’m a lot like this streamlined train: efficient and effective, zipping along my gleaming rails as fast as I can go.  Heaven help anyone or anything that gets in the way.

The man in the tweed cap stops his digging a moment and rests his crossed forearms on top of the spade handle.  He squints up toward the shiny metal cars and stares at the twenty-first century, which has just expired up here on the tracks.  He is looking right at me.  His glance cuts through the window and touches me like an icy finger.  A moment later, he turns back to his gardening.

If my life is like this speedy Eurostar, then being on this sabbatical year is sort of like being stalled on the tracks.  I’m able to pause and look at myself.  This morning this old gentleman and his little garden are challenging me to examine my approach to life.  He moves slowly, while I rush around at 186 miles an hour.  He spends most of his time waiting patiently – for spring to arrive, for seeds to sprout, for tomatoes to ripen.  I spend all my energy trying to make things happen on or ahead of schedule and according to my specifications.  He works gently within the limits of the situation – a tiny patch of land, a given kind of soil, a certain amount of sunshine, his own decreasing strength.  I fight my limits on every side – squeezing more minutes into one hour, reaching beyond the bounds of my own physical and mental energy, refusing to accept that certain things are just the way they are.

10:08 a.m.  The Eurostar begins laboring forward at walking speed.  We tiptoe through the tiny suburban station of Kent House, with tarmac platforms closing in on both sides.

10:14 a.m.  We’re now late.  Ping-pong-ping!  “Ladies and gentlemen, due to certain difficulties, we will be traveling at a slower speed than usual.  We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.”

10:17 a.m.  We leave the residential suburban scene and jump into a dark tunnel where we pick up some speed.  I wonder what the engineer’s thinking right now as he gazes at his flickering computer screen.  The Eurostar travels so fast that visual train signals along the track become useless blurs; the engineer has to rely on a computer screen for all his information.

I have to admit that sometimes I start zipping along so fast that I can’t see any of the warning lights, and I miss important signals about slowing down for my own good or for the sake of others around me.

10:20 a.m.  Out of the short tunnel… Sydenham Hill Station… Herne Hill… apartment buildings and row houses… worn-out neighborhoods of brick and asphalt… rough, shuddering tracks… a double-decker bus below… a wide river alongside – probably the Thames.

I think about the little man in the gray cap, and a snatch of scripture from the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind.  God’s chosen ones, he declares, “will be like a well-watered garden.”  Hum.  What if I were less like a speeding train and more like a watered garden?

If my life were a garden, then my heart would be a place of calm, patient waiting for things to come in their own due time: seasons of blossoms, seasons of plenty, and seasons of sleet and snow and seeming sterility.  If my life were a garden to be tended, then my desire to control everything would no longer make sense, because a garden can’t be forced or pushed or hurried along; a garden needs to be nurtured, not driven headlong like a train on a track.  Then my efforts at prayer or work would take on a different meaning, because anything that a garden produces comes not as my accomplishment but as a mysterious, beautiful gift of nature’s bounty.

I’m startled by the familiar electronic bell: Ping-pong-ping!

The triumphant announcement comes in two languages – we’re arriving at Waterloo Station, London.  Sorry for any problems caused by the delay.  My ticket says, “Arrival Waterloo Int 10:13.”  We’re pulling in at 10:35.

Being twenty-two minutes late is really embarrassing if you’re an express train, but it’s not so important if you’re a well-watered garden.

Reflection

If your life is a garden, then Lent is not a project to be accomplished, but rather an opportunity to let God help you to look carefully at your garden and help it be more fruitful.  Prayer, fasting, and works of charity are traditional ways of doing this.  If your life is a garden that needs to be watered and weeded but cannot be forced or controlled, ask the Lord to help you this Lent to let go of your need to control, and to teach you how to be patient with God’s slow way of doing things.

Is there an area of your life where you tend to be especially impatient?  Think of the people you interact with most often.  This Lent try to treat each of them like a well-watered garden in need of nurturing.

Sacred Scripture (Isaiah 58:11)

Then the Lord will guide you always and give you plenty even on the parched land. He will renew your strength, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose water never fails.

Rule of Benedict (Prologue, v. 4)

First of all, every time you begin a good word, you must pray to God most earnestly to bring it to perfection.

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