There it is again. Every day since late November, when the cold settled in over Northern Illinois, I’ve heard the same sound on my morning walk to work. At just about a quarter past eight, a train whistle blows — a long, low, faraway sound, full of both loss and expectation. It stops me in my tracks each time, then accompanies me, with blasts of varying lengths, as I trudge my way through the snow to the office.
I’m not sure why I first noticed the train whistle in late November. I doubt that the train first started running then. The answer is probably something scientific, antiseptic — the cold air conducts sound better, farther. But the sense of longing that it stirs within my soul is anything but clinical.
When I was a child, a train ran through our small village in Western Michigan. We lived only about five or six big blocks from the tracks, which ran parallel to the main street of the village, but on the other side from us. Every night, I could hear the train, but I only saw it once or twice each year. On those occasions, when we approached the tracks and saw the flashing lights and heard the bell, my father would sigh in annoyance. But for my sisters and me, the moment was magic. We craned our necks to look down the track, hoping to be the first to see the train coming, wondering whether it would be a long cargo train or a short one transporting two or three empty cars back to a nearby rail yard.
About the time that I started high school, the train quit running. The tracks were turned into a bike path, and the nights were quiet, unbroken by the sound of the whistle. It seemed silly to miss it, but I did.
In The Heart, the great theologian and philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand notes that such “affective responses” — what we commonly call “emotions” or “feelings” — are inseparable from their object. My desire to see the train increased as the train came nearer — but it also increased as the time since I last saw the train drew on. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” — but it does so because of the expectation that, one day, the absence will turn into a presence.
When I was a young child, chasing after trains, I did not understand intellectually what seasons such as Advent and Lent were about. But three or more decades later, I can still recall the sense of expectation as my mother baked Christmas cookies and made candy (and packed it all away) for what seemed like months on end, but must only — only! — have been weeks. The excitement when we finally went to cut the tree. The sense of wonder as we put up the Nativity scene, and the overwhelming feeling that something was missing, because we didn’t place the Baby Jesus into His crèche until we had returned from Mass on Christmas Eve.
I lost all of that sometime after the train made its final run. I don’t know why. It would be easy to blame it on the commercialization of Christmas, or the increasing attempt by certain forces to push Christmas out of the public square, but I think it had more to do with growing up and becoming distracted and self-centered and independent and able to satisfy my own desires whenever I wished, without having to wait. When you can see a train whenever you want, the day will soon come when you no longer want to.
I went away to college, and in my first term at Michigan State, I fell away from the Church. That sounds much more melodramatic than it would have seemed to an outside observer, because my entire time away was four weeks. But they were four weeks spent in the depths of despair, knowing that something was missing in my life, knowing that I desperately longed for something, but not knowing what it was.
Until, on the last Saturday in November 1986, I found myself walking, eyes to the ground, through the snow and slush down Michigan Avenue, toward the state capitol building. Tired, wet, and cold, I saw a light on the sidewalk in front of me and looked up to see that it was coming from the Church of the Resurrection. On impulse, I walked up the steps and pulled on the door, not expecting it to be open.
It was, and from the entranceway, I could see that the sanctuary was lit up, too. I went in, and there was no one there. And yet, as I, out of years of habit, turned toward the tabernacle and genuflected, I suddenly realized that there was Someone, and that my month of longing had an object. The sense of peace and joy recalled those Christmas Eves of my childhood, as we placed the Christ Child in the Nativity scene, and I would sneak out of my bedroom late at night to spend some time alone in front of the object of my expectations.
Every Advent over the past 22 years, I’ve found my thoughts turn more and more to that night. And I’ve come to realize that what I had lost, and found again on the eve of that first Sunday of Advent, was a proper sense of expectation. The immediate satisfaction of our desires might seem to bring us happiness, but what it too often means is that the object of our desire is quickly used up and discarded — and we go searching for another.
Advent is about waiting. It is about longing. It is about dying to self, in the expectation of living life more fully. It is perhaps the one time of the year in which we can truly come to understand that the final object of all of our desires is He who humbled Himself to take on our humanity. It is a precious gift of the Church that we, busy with our Christmas shopping and our final push to wrap up the year’s work, too often squander or observe perfunctorily.
And then, when Christmas comes, we have a nagging sense that something is missing. And we’re right, because our expectations cannot be fulfilled if they are not first cultivated. And they will never be cultivated unless we turn toward Bethlehem, toward the true object of our hearts’ desire.
Anything else is just dreaming of trains.