It’s likely you’ve seen him. Patron of motorists, watermen, and all things travel-related, the image of St. Christopher is familiar to many. Even if we don’t know his name, the silhouette of a man crossing a river with a child on his shoulder is repeated on pendants and belt buckles and visor clips across the globe. His likeness is kept on trains and sailboats and automobiles, often bearing the inscriptions: St, Christopher, Protect Us, and St. Christopher, Be My Guide.
My own St. Christopher necklace comes from a mishmash of sources. The chain is from a trip to Ireland, the medal from a seller of vintage charms in San Diego and is so faded, you have to squint to see it — even then, engraved silver disc could be a lotus blossom or a honeybee. Look closely, you’ll see the outline of the saint, but one so understated, he’s practically a whisper.
The last person to notice him was my friend from church.
“Who’s that you’re wearing?” Mary leaned forward and pursed her lips. Such questions normally refer to designer handbags or perfume, but 97-year-old Mary was clearly talking saints.
“Christopher,” I said and she didn’t frown so much as give a nod, reach into her shirt, and pull out a jangling collection of medals.
The Virgin of Guadalupe medallion was hefty and gilded with scalloped edges. Clearly my friend wanted to provide me with a more dynamic saint, because while she’d never say so outright, when it comes to patrons, Christopher can seem, well … a tad vanilla.
As of 1970, his July 25 feast day isn’t even included on the official liturgical calendar. Christopher medals are right up there with Francis of the birdbath and upside-down St. Josephs for home sales. Garden-variety saints. Loved by everyone and his brother.
What I did not tell my friend, even as I thanked her, is that just as Christopher has become less churchy, so have the rest of us. I did not say that I’m not quite comfortable with religious jewelry in general, and in this case, don’t even wear the medal for safe passage. Instead, St. Christopher is a reminder of beautiful imperfection and radical acceptance — the patron saint of just right.
He was huge. Some say 7’ 7”, others say 7’ 5”. Variations are to be expected, given that the saint straddles the line between man and myth. It’s unclear, in fact, whether Christopher was a distinct 3rd-century figure or a composite of several — Christopher itself is less a name than a designation (“Christ-Bearer”). But whether he began as Reprobus from Canaan or Menas in Egypt, everyone agrees that he was big. If he were your houseguest, Christopher’s elbows would skim the top of the refrigerator, his feet would dangle like tennis rackets from your king-sized bed, your great-grandma’s teacups would sit like dainty coins in his hand.
A fierce warrior (early accounts describe him as monstrous), Christopher’s goal was to serve the mightiest king on earth. After finding the most powerful king, he was disappointed to realize that even he feared the devil. So Christopher began to serve the devil and all was fine until he saw a criminal sidestep a cross in the road. Christ must be stronger than the devil, he thought and found a hermit to instruct him in Christianity. Once converted, he tried to become holy and began to fast and pray, but his body wasn’t built for meditating half the day. His stomach grumbled. His muscles twitched. Eventually, he decided to use his size to help travelers cross a treacherous river where many had died. One night, a voice called out and Christopher found a child waiting. He hoisted the child onto his shoulders and stepped into the river, which grew suddenly wild. The child became heavier with every step. Christopher sputtered and gasped. When they finally reached the other side, he said it felt like he’d carried the weight of the world, to which the child replied: You have carried the world and the one who made it, for I am Christ your king.
A good story, all around. It’s his strength we’re meant to admire — his ability to carry the child, no matter how wild the storm or how utterly exhausted he became. But I actually find Christopher’s vocation as a one-man river ferry most inspiring — how embracing the same qualities that kept him from fitting into any conventional posture of holiness is precisely what made him a saint.
Holy men and women excelled at fasting and prayer, everyone knew that.
But Christopher couldn’t do it. It must have been a humiliating failure for one so strong, but it was an exquisite failure — a necessary failure — one that forced him to sink deep into his ungainly oversized self and locate the goodness there. Once he did this, Christopher became the kind of saint only he could be and not even the weight of the world could stop him from the work he was called to do.
I have searched and spun and tried forcing myself along well-marked spiritual paths. I’ve left the church, returned again, and worried when I didn’t fit neatly into any theological box. Only lately have I begun to see that what I seek is too vast to fit neatly into any box and, when it comes to cultivating the sacred in my own life, I have finally recognized that I can only ever be myself. The wondrous news, St. Christopher reminds us, is that this is entirely enough.