Colleen has a Master’s degree in English Literature and is an author of stories and articles focusing on the dynamics of human relationships
“He’s been decanonized,” Mom half-shouted, almost before I could switch on my phone. I must confess, had I known it was Mom, especially in full cry, rather than answering, I would have phoned her later, when finished with the pitfalls of my day. Mom’s ring tone was 'Ave Maria', but in my half doze, I had not remembered.
For her part, she had forgotten, as she often did, the time zone difference. Within two hours, I would be obliged to present one of my first lectures to a group of PhD candidates, regarding what aspects of the brain draws people to seek pathways and avenues of strength via religion.
“Did you hear what I said?” Mom demanded, as if there were some chance I had escaped.
My mind and body craved a quart of coffee, and maybe a bagel or baguette, topped with butter, filled with cream cheese, smoked salmon, and every other self-imposed taboo, their guilt erased by my disrupted slumber.
Seeking a pretext to phone her back later, I realised I could not be such a brute, given her anguish. For now, I had to let her badger me, as if I had somehow contributed to St. Christopher’s mishap.
“Mom,” I said, “try to calm down, OK? You sound as if someone dear to us has been garrotted or decapitated.”
“Yes, in a way, he has. Maybe you have not heard, or cared enough to notice, given your lofty work as a professor.”
Perhaps because I let her arrow pass, she continued in a more entreating vein “St. Christopher is, or was, your patron saint. Dad and I named you in his honour, hoping he would take extra care of you, and everyone in our family, come to that.”
“And he has, hasn’t he?” I asked, doing all I could to hide my yawn of irritation.
“Yes, more-or-less,” Mom said, although there was that weekend when-”
I could not bear one more reiteration of our finding a taxi tyre flattened, en-route to the airport for our long-awaited Christmas plan of touring Rome, especially that section of the Vatican open to visitors. Hence, as my stained glass patience, already cracked, showed signs of shattering, I said, “Please, Mom, I know you’re disappointed, but tell me why you are so overwrought.”
Panting a little, she replied, “Yesterday, the Vatican decreed St. Christopher had not accomplished enough noble deeds to justify his being called a saint. Did they forget he was beheaded by some king or emperor because he would not renounce his Christian faith?”
Before I had a chance to answer, she said, “I need to take a headache tablet, Chris. I will be back with you in just a minute.”
“Fine, Mom,” I said, hoping it would take a good deal longer. Beneath my seeming nonchalance, this knowledge of St. Christopher’s exclusion troubled me more than I was ready to accept, to Mom, or even to myself, at least as yet.
Having been born into an Irish Catholic family, all eight of us named as saints, when St. Christopher’s Church was being built, across our street, my name, Christopher, the only one in our parish, took on a glint of splendour. Our new priest, Father Flynn, made me feel almost as if St. Christopher had been named for me, rather than me for him, although I always understood the difference.
Now, Mom, having picked up her phone, said, “Don’t you remember when that church was built?”
“Of course I do, Mom; how could I forget?”
My first communion was the earliest held there. Father Flynn gave me a gilded statuette of St. Christopher, cradling the infant Jesus to his chest. It was a replica of that hand-carved statue in the church foyer. However, many times I had relocated, I had kept this statuette with me, just as I had the medal on a chain, a further memento from Father Flynn, in order to commemorate that day.
After my first Communion, before I headed off to school each morning, I lifted that statuette from my bedside table and said a prayer. Aware my only travelling would, in all likelihood, be on the school bus, and maybe later biking with a friend, or skate-boarding.
You can do very little with faith, but you can do nothing without it.
— Samuel Butler
Then it all changed. Following what must have been years of inquiry and investigation, Christopher had somehow fallen short of those deeds which had once exalted him.
Undoubtedly, the Vatican had reasons. Standards for sainthood had to be maintained, with rigid protocol. While knowing this, the only saint I sensed had been my friend, someone I could believe would keep me safe, had been Christopher, or 'Chris', as I had come to think of him.
Sensing Mom needed me to say something, I asked, “So, what happens now. Will the church be renamed after whatever saint the Vatican has chosen?”
“I doubt it will,” she answered, sounding, to my relief, a lot more grounded. "I think they will change its name to 'The Church of All Saints'.”
“They can’t go wrong that way, can they?” I said.
“Clever as ever, aren’t you?” she derided. “Still, at some point you can’t imagine now, you might reach out to find a saint to pray to, and feel an emptiness inside your soul, where St. Christopher would have been if you had not shunned him.”
Feeling a sudden fear of isolation, I said, “Christopher will always be sanctified, for those of us who believe he deserves it. He chose to be beheaded rather than renounce his Christian faith.”
“It still feels horrifying,” Mom replied.
“Mom,” I said, “human beings claimed he was a saint. Now, later human beings have decreed he should be deleted from the roster.”
“You may be right,” Mom said, “maybe you and I can talk longer, later.”
With that, she set down her phone. Rarely, if ever, did she say “good-bye”. I sensed, as the years went by, she found the word too final to express. Even before I had switched off my phone, I opened the front window in order to let in a few early rays of sunlight.
Focusing on my bookshelf, I knew, between those tomes, I would find my missile, the small, exquisite book given to every child, aged seven, deemed worthy to receive first communion. Behind my missile, I knew there would be the statuette of St. Christopher.
Bringing it into the light, I saw its gilded surface, thinned and faded, almost into that bronze from which it had been moulded, much like my faith. Still, why should I discard my own St. Christopher, or 'Chris', due to some ruling which, to me, held no significance?
Sleepily sauntering towards my kitchen, I recalled that frost-filled day of the Christmas party at my kindergarten. St. Nicholas looked portly and rotund, his “Ho-ho-hos” sounding more-or-less authentic, and yet, not quite.
Then, as he bent forward for a moment, I saw beneath his pillowed paunch, work boots, dented and scuffed, in those same places where my Granddad's were.
How had that happened? Soon, I understood.
Granddad, a custodian in our school, must have been called in without much notice, altering everything he could, in order to appear as Santa Claus. The one thing he had forgotten had been to change his work boots to those snow shoes Santa Claus was meant to wear. Sitting through this charade, my phalanx of fantasies began to fall.
If there was no Santa Claus, in all likelihood, there was no Easter bunny, tooth fairies, unicorns, leprechauns, elves or mermaids even.
One of Santa Claus’ names was St. Nicholas. We were told he lived at the North Pole. None of us questioned where that pole might be. The idea of eight reindeer driving St. Nicholas’ sleigh, throughout the frost, ice and misting skies, had brought those children we had been, a peace which seemed complete and infinite.
Now, decades later, never believing I would do so again, I clasped St. Christopher’s medallion against my chest, and then stood still, warmed by its memories.
© 2019 Colleen Swan