July 25 is the feast day of St. Christopher, who, in Catholic popular piety was revered as the patron of travelers. His image was—and perhaps still is—found around the necks of Catholics who have a devotion to him.
About the Saint
Several months ago, we received the gift of this touching sculpture of St. Christopher—his name means Christ-bearer—crossing a river with the Christ child on his shoulders. The statue has found its home in an enclosed breezeway that is traveled daily by most of the women and men who work at Sacred Heart Convent, so it’s become a favorite of sisters and coworkers alike. Its presence in our home prompts this reflection on the blessings of having in our lives a saint—a friend of ours and a friend of God’s—who bears and shares our burdens and guides our journeys through life. Christopher is most likely this saint’s title—the Christ-bearer—and not his name. His attributes seem to have been attached to one or more holy men who in the third century were on their own journey to become followers of the Risen Christ.
Legends about Christopher’s size earned him the reputation of being a giant—something akin to the American tall tale tradition that includes Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. Some say Christopher gave his life to the service of carrying heavy burdens—even people themselves—across a very deep, almost unpassable river. He provided this service for some time when, one day, as the story goes, a small child asked Christopher to carry him across the river. Christopher thought it would be easy since the child was so small. But the further into the river he trudged, the heavier the child became. Finally, they reached the other bank of the river and Christopher gently deposited his passenger on the ground. Christopher could not resist asking the child why he was so heavy. To his amazement the child told him he was the Christ, and that he was carrying the burdens of the whole world on his shoulders.
About the sculpture
This sculpture of St. Christopher’s was carved by the 20th century English Benedictine monk and spiritual writer Hubert van Zeller (1905-1984). It may have been created near Springfield, possibly at Our Saviour Parish, Jacksonville, where van Zeller was known to stay while visiting his U.S. publisher, Templegate in Springfield in the 1970s.
Among other van Zeller works in Jacksonville are the gate posts at Calvary Cemetery, a delightful bas relief of St. Dominic’s dog in the cornerstone of the old Our Saviour parish convent, and inside the convent dining room, a moving bas relief of the last supper.
Van Zeller himself suffered from ill health that caused him great pain throughout his life. He was known as a person who carried his own suffering humbly and patiently. Perhaps, along with the generous gift of his writing and his artwork, his personal suffering became a way to give himself wholeheartedly to God.
Praying alongside St. Christopher
We Dominican Sisters have a custom that connects us to St. Christopher, though we do not necessarily have him in mind. It is a prayer we offer together every time we get into an auto, for long and short trips. In it we ask that God protect us and those around us as we travel. This is a prayer we have repeated for generations; we know it by heart. It is our way of pouring out “traveling mercies” on driver and passengers, so that, as we begin any trip, we intentionally ask God to be with us and to keep us safe.
Traveling this summer?
You might want to start your journey with this prayer, and a nod to the Christ-bearer—Christopher—who once bore the burdens of the world on his shoulders in the person of Christ himself.
Lend your ear to our supplications, O Lord,
and guide, prosper and protect the journeyings of your servants,
so that amid all changes their paths and their lives
be safeguarded by your helping hand. Amen.