Steam Trains As A Spiritual Metaphor

Swanage Railway, Dorset, England

When it comes to steam trains I can certainly get sentimental and nostalgic.  Whenever I hear the expression, “you do not have to do it under your own steam”, my first association is with steam trains.   Perhaps people under age 50 are not familiar with the association, because they do not remember any form of steam power.   Steam, water and coal were the primary sources of energy used to power the industrial revolution in the beginning, and they were used extensively until 1950s or so.  I was a child in the 1950s and remember with fondness the last of the steam trains running on British Rail.  The transition to diesel engines happened in the USA about the same time.  My earliest memories of visiting grandparents or going to the seaside during summer holidays are intertwined with memories of steam trains: leaning out the windows, breathing the smell of engine smoke and eventually the salt air of the sea.  Those were the days of station stops in every town and village along the way – with lovely names like Leigh-on-Sea, Westcliff, Benfleet, Chalkwell, Thorpe Bay and Shoeburyness (the London to Southend-on-Sea line).

When I take a trip on a steam train (like the Swanage Railway in England or the Essex railroad in Connecticut) I am filled with good memories of childhood relaxation and freedom from responsibility.  I am “on holiday” as the English say and relax completely.  No driving on congested roads, no rushing to be somewhere, just a slow, rhythmical journey as I hear the puffing of the engine, the occasional whistle, and the clickety-clack of the wheels over the tracks.  Alighting from the train it is obligatory to take a closer look at the engine and marvel at the way steam can power this 150 tons of metal plus passenger coaches.  But most of all I am glad for the opportunity to relax and be carried along by something much greater than me.

My first parish was in New Hampshire and in the village there was a railway line and one freight train a day used to come through before noon.  I would go outside sometimes just to wait and look and wave at the engineer, thankful to see one thing I did not have to push!

Fire and water, which produce steam, are both Biblical images for the Spirit of God.  There is a deep spiritual truth that we must learn – that letting go of our need to control things is a prerequisite for spiritual growth, as we allow the Spirit to have reign over us.  It is Spirit that powers our life, not our own strength.   The Spirit flows through us like “rivers of living water” (John 7:38) and alights on us like “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3).  Although daily meditation practice takes discipline and commitment, at its heart meditation is an act of resting and waiting for the Spirit to empower our lives.   It is the ultimate in “not doing it under your own steam!”

(For more on Christian meditation see

About John Fisk

I am a retired pastor, who served churches in New England for 33 years. I emigrated to the USA from England in 1974 and completed two graduate degrees in theology and pastoral practice at Andover-NewtonTheological School. In retirement I am focused on the teaching of Christian meditation, providing spiritual guidance, leading retreats and occasional preaching. I am particularly interested in contemplation, the mystical path and social justice.
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3 Responses to Steam Trains As A Spiritual Metaphor

  1. Jane Dodridge says:

    What a wonderful comparison between the power of steam and the power of the Spirit. The act of letting go isn’t easy especially letting someone else reign over our lives. Good job we have a capable, loving and wonderful ‘driver’!

  2. Frank Mello says:

    Goof morning! John. Finally, i get an opportunity to read your steam engines “Still Point”. The imagery is so restful, so filled with unexpected delights as we travel through time and memory.
    Thank you, and may we continue to hear the “All aboard” God’s train to glory.

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