A Saint for Travellers
Saint Christopher is one the world’s most popular Catholic saints. According to legend, to serve his fellow-man he took on the task of carrying people on his back across a fierce and dangerous river as a kind of human ferryboat. He did this for quite a while; he was a really huge, strong guy so it wasn’t much of a problem for him. But one day, a little child appeared. The strong man threw the boy across his back and started across the river, as always, but this time, the little child became heavier and heavier, until at last the man was nearly unable to make it across. Finally reaching the bank on the other side, the child explained that he was Christ, the Redeemer of the world. Ever since, the strong man has been named “Christopher” which means “Christ-bearer.”
It seems like an odd little story on the face of it, but for obvious reasons Saint Christopher became the patron saint of travellers and especially mariners (who had to cross dangerous waters). And by extension became a protector of pilgrims, who had to travel long distances in foreign lands.
St. Christopher in Cologne
I love Cologne Cathedral; it’s huge, gothic, and covered with all manner of enigmatic, weird, and fantastic art, including half-human, half-bird or half-bat people playing hurdy-gurdies and other medieval instruments. Incredible.
It also houses a large statue of Saint Christopher, carved in the 1400’s. Now, Cologne Cathedral was a very popular pilgrimage site in medieval Europe, and Saint Christopher often graced the entrances and doorways of noble churches as a sort of psychopomp into the spiritual realm (which makes sense because he guides travellers). But the folklore for this particular statue was that, upon entering the southern door of the cathedral, if a pilgrim made eye contact with the statue, the pilgrim would be blessed with good fortune for that day, and need not fear death.
The door on the south side is no longer open for visitors, but I could see, from walking all around inside the cathedral near the statue, that if one did enter the south door, this large statue would seem to suddenly loom up in front of you. Very impressive. But there’s just one little problem.You CANNOT make eye contact with him! The way the artist carved him, his eyes are looking up and sort of off to the side, and it doesn’t matter which way to approach him, he just ain’t gonna be looking at you! No eye contact, no blessing.
A Dirty Trick on Pilgrims
Now, back in medieval times there wasn’t anyway a pilgrim could know this until they had already travelled hundreds of miles and maybe spent most or their money. No TripAdvisor back then! So, either someone was really playing a cruel joke on the hopes of many, or something else is going on.
Of course the whole legend of Saint Christopher sounds like a pilgrim’s burden, carrying Christ, and the weight of all the sins of the world, on his shoulders. Saint Christopher, after all, wasn’t blessed by the Christ child in the story; we presume that carrying Christ was itself a blessing, even though it seemed mighty hard at the time. We all have to carry our cross too, whatever it may be. And sometimes, after carrying it a good while, we realize the effort itself has changed us. We don’t really need to find the gold at the end of the rainbow; chasing the rainbow is a treasure in itself. Maybe the artist who made the Saint Christopher in Cologne had this idea in mind. Maybe what Saint Christopher is really telling us is, “Look, you can do this. You can get through this struggle just like I did. Follow my example, but don’t look to me to fix it for you.”
Well, with that thought in mind, here’s an Ethiopian folktale that has the same message. This story also involves a burden and a child.
The Lion’s Whisker
(as retold by Skywalker Storyteller at storyteller.net)
Haile was a happy little boy living with his mother and father in their home in Ethiopia. But, one day his mother died and Haile was so hurt, and so confused, and so angry. A year passed and his father decided to remarry. But, Haile remained so hurt, and so confused, and so angry. So when Zeynab met him and hugged him he pulled away from her. When she fixed him his favorite foods for dinner he didn’t eat. When she made him a play suit out of fine cloth he ran through the woods and played so roughly he tore the clothes up. Whenever she spoke to him he ignored her.
One day when her husband was gone hunting, Zeynab went to Haile’s bedroom to talk to him.
“Haile, I love you so much and I really need you to love. . .”
Before she could finish Haile jumped up and said, “I hate you, you aren’t my mother. I’m running away.”
Haile ran past Zayneb and out of the house. Zayneb sat down and cried and cried. When her husband returned she told him what had happened. He told her to go on and cook dinner and not to worry that he would find Haile. Haile was at the river in his favorite spot. The two walked home and ate dinner without a word.
That night, as the other two slept, Zayneb got out and walked deep into the forest to the home of the witch doctor. The witch doctor was a very wise woman who knew the ways of peoples’ minds and hearts.
“I need you to make me a love potion so my step-son will love me,” said Zayneb.
“Well,” the old woman said slowly, “Before I can give you a love potion, you must bring me the whisker from a ferocious lion.”
Zeynab’s eyes grew large as she said, “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Use your imagination,” said the witch doctor.
Zeynab went home and slept just a few more hours. She got up before the sun rose and put several large pieces of raw meat in a bag and headed toward the hills. She walked until she found a cave which had large paw prints around it. Zeynab took a piece of meat out and placed it in front of the entrance to the cave. Then she hid in the bushes about 50 feet from the entrance and waited.
After a few minutes a large, very ferocious looking lion stepped out of the cave, looked around, smelled the meat, and ate it all up.
Zayneb waited for a couple of hours then she walked up to the entrance of the cave and placed a second piece of meat in front of it. Then she moved back only 25 feet and didn’t hide in the bushes. After a few minutes the lion came out. He looked around, stared at Zayneb, smelled the meat, picked it up, and ate it all up.
Zayneb waited for a couple of hours then she walked up to the entrance of the cave and placed a third piece of meat in front of it. She moved back only 5 feet and didn’t hide in the bushes. After a few minutes the lion came out. He looked around, stared at Zayneb, smelled the meat, picked it up, and ate it all up.
Zayneb waited for a couple of more hours then she walked up to the entrance of the cave and placed a third piece of meat in front of it. She moved back only two steps. After a few minutes the lion came out. He looked around, stared at Zayneb. She stared back at the lion. Although she was shaking inside, she didn’t move her body. She just stared right back at the lion’s large brown eyes. The lion smelled the meat, picked it up and began eating.
Very slowly Zayneb extended her hand, grabbed a whisker and quickly pulled it out. The lion kept eating as slowly, very slowly, as if walking on a tight rope, Zayneb backed away toward the bushes. When she got into the forest she ran back to the witch doctor’s home.
Breathing heavily, she rushed into the witch doctor’s house and held up the whisker. “See, here, I brought you a lion’s whisker. Now, give me a love potion.”
The witch doctor looked at the whisker. “Ah, this does look like a ferocious lion’s whisker. But, I don’t have any love potions.”
“What, what do you mean?” screamed Zayneb.
“Now, tell me, how did you get that lion’s whisker?” the old lady calmly asked.
“Well, I had to be very, very careful and patient. I was very gentle and very quiet, and persistent.”
“Yes, and you were very courageous. See, you have all of the skills you will need to get your stepson to love you without a magic potion.”
Then Zayneb understood. She returned home and treated Haile nicely as before. But, she did not make any special efforts to win his affection. She was just her sweet, giving self. When Haile was rude to her or ignored her, she continued on as if he had said nothing. In three weeks Haile began to smile and speak to Zayneb. In six weeks he offered to help her with chores. In nine weeks he invited her to walk with him to his favorite place at the river. One night about 12 weeks later, just before he fell asleep Haile looked up in Zayneb’s eyes and said, “Zayneb, I love you.”