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Trains, Faith and Religion

Marty Schirn | Jan 31, 2018

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Marty Schirn | Jan 31, 2018

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

I’m a rail fan with a one-track, two-rail mind. My passion for trains is second only to my passion for the Baha’i Faith

So I want to share with you six things about trains that can relate to the Baha’i teachings.

  1. Someone once said regarding how trains stop people from driving on their way to work: “Trains are like sunrise and sunset: they happen when they happen, and there’s nothing us mere mortals can do about it.” 

This can be likened to the coming of a messenger of God. This event happens when it happens and “there’s nothing us mere mortals can do about it”—it is out of our hands. Whether we accept or reject God’s messenger, he is still God’s messenger. The sun still shines, whether we acknowledge it or not. If we accept God’s messenger, we benefit from recognizing and obeying his laws and teachings. If we reject God’s messenger, we miss out on what God is telling us to do for that particular time in history. 

  1. When I moved from Iowa City to Tucson in 1980, I got a job as a host at a restaurant. I overheard a waitress make a comment to a customer who was a policeman: “I saw a fire truck stop at a grade crossing to wait for a train to come. The train was in the distance and the fire truck was on its way to put out a fire!”

The policeman responded: “Even emergency vehicles won’t take on the Southern Pacific.” 

In the same way no one, not even the powerful clergy, can succeed in taking on God’s messenger. Just as no human being has the power to stop the rising of the sun, no human being can prevent a messenger of God from achieving his mission. 

  1. I was with a friend as we watched a train pass. He commented: “There’s nothing like a train.” 

There’s nothing like a messenger of God, I thought. No human being, however advanced in spiritual behavior and knowledge, can come close to the greatness of God’s messenger. 

We human beings are like mirrors. God is like the sun. Because we are human, our mirrors need to constantly be cleaned and polished to better reflect the light of the sun. No matter how clean our mirrors are, they can never become perfect reflections of the sun. 

In contrast, God’s messenger is a perfectly clean mirror reflecting the light of the sun perfectly in every way. 

  1. The foundation of the railroad is the flanged wheel (a wheel with an inner ridge). The flanged wheel keeps the train on the track. Without the flange, the wheel would have no ridge to prevent the wheel from moving from one side to another, thus preventing the train from staying on the track. 

In his Tablet to the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Baha’u’llah wrote the following:

Hearken, O King (Sultan ‘Abdu’l-‘Aziz), to the speech of Him that speaketh the truth, Him that doth not ask thee to recompense Him with the things God hath chosen to bestow upon thee, Him Who unerringly treadeth the straight Path. He it is Who summoneth thee unto God, thy Lord, Who showeth thee the right course, the way that leadeth to true felicity, that haply thou mayest be of them with whom it shall be well ….

Overstep not the bounds of moderation, and deal justly with them that serve thee. Bestow upon them according to their needs, and not to the extent that will enable them to lay up riches for themselves, to deck their persons, to embellish their homes, to acquire the things that are of no benefit unto them, and to be numbered with the extravagant. Deal with them with undeviating justice, so that none among them may either suffer want, or be pampered with luxuries. This is but manifest justice …. – The Proclamation of Baha’u’llah, p. 47.

A concrete example of “undeviating justice” is a train staying on the track—and not getting derailed. Thus the analogy of the flanged wheel. 

  1. All diesel locomotives are hybrids. The diesel engine (called “the prime mover”) turns a generator that produces electricity that runs electric motors (called “traction motors”) mounted on a locomotive’s wheel frames (called “trucks”), and connected to the axles which drive the flanged wheels. 

We could liken God to the diesel engine, and his messenger to the generator. We human beings are like traction motors. When we recognize and obey God’s messenger, we receive the spiritual electricity required to run our lives. 

  1. Imagine you are on a train that is stopped at a train station. You look out the window and see a parallel train track. The train slowly starts to pull out of the station. Looking out the window, you see the ties and ballast (small rocks used for drainage and stability) moving in the opposite direction. As the train picks up speed, the ties and ballast become blurred. All you see are the two rails running along the side of the train. 

Those blurred fast-moving ties and ballast can symbolize the fleetingness of this life. The two rails symbolize two constants: God and you. Our relationship with the one other Constant in life—our Creator—is by far the most important relationship we can have on this Earth. 

When we accept God’s latest messenger, our relationship with God improves dramatically, because we participate in God’s latest revelation to humankind. With this, we have all the spiritual tools necessary for us to become much closer to God. 

  1. Chicago is the rail hub of the United States. However, because of the tremendous railroad congestion in that city—congestion that greatly impacts the movement of trains—there’s a saying in the railroad industry: “48 hours across the nation; 48 hours across Chicago.”

A partnership exists that is gradually dealing with this problem, which includes the nation’s freight railroads, Amtrak, Metra (Chicago’s commuter rail system), the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.  

In a similar way, when our minds and hearts are clogged with material passions, destructive prejudices, and other unspiritual behaviors, our spiritual growth is slow to stagnant. But when we focus intensely on our spiritual purpose, which means aligning our inner and outer lives and doing everything in our power to develop our souls in preparation for our birth into the next life, our growth is greater and faster.

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  • Randy Burns
    Feb 7, 2018
    I hear that it takes a train to cry, Marty. Thanks for your thoughts. Here's to Iowa City! Cheers, Randy Burns.
  • Ellen Griffiths
    Feb 1, 2018
    Hi Marty, I am not a Bahai (yet), but I really enjoyed your article and will always remember it when waiting at a rail crossing. Actually, I will probably think of it every time I see a train!
  • Warren Jones
    Jan 31, 2018
    Really enjoyed this article, Marty! Trains have long held a lot of significance for me. When I was very young, our home was about a mile from a major freight rail line. At night in bed, I would lie there listening as the very long train would gradually fade into the distance, leaving me fast asleep. I still really love trains, riding them whenever i get the chance. Like you, I have often thought of trains as powerful spiritual symbols. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reflections.
  • Charles Boyle
    Jan 31, 2018
    Thanks Marty - I grew up with trains in the UK, built great model railroads and travelled Europe via trains for much of my young adult life. I look at them similarly allegorically - I love that no how impossibly small might be the tunnel, or low the bridge, overhanging the trees, close to the parallel track or near to the platform edge the train might be, it still thunders through, just as my soul thunders through life despite all its tunnels and bridges, proximities and onrushing threats. It is a spiritual experience for me to see that ...if I stay "on track" I can navigate through it all.
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