The legend of St. Christopher was a popular subject of devotion during the mediaeval period and it was popularly believed that whoever saw an image of the Saint would not die a violent death that day.
—Visitor pamphlet describing 14th-century wall painting of St.
Christopher in St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, Baunton, Gloucestershire
St. Christopher strides across the river. Both hands grip a walking staff bracing him against the current, his calf muscles flexing as fish swirl about his legs. He is looking up at the infant Christ perched birdlike on his right shoulder. This is perhaps the moment in which the Saint, who does not yet know the identity of the child, is said to ask Him, “Why are you so heavy?” and Christ answers, “Because I bear on my shoulders the weight of the world.”
I am with my husband and our ten-year-old son, visiting this twelfth-century church along our five-day, thirty-five-mile walk on the Monarch’s Way from Stow-on-the-Wold to Cirencester. Every Cotswold village, no matter how tiny, has its parish church. The churches we visit date from Norman, Saxon, or even earlier times. Though communities are now organized as civil parishes, rather than religious ones, each village seems to have at least a handful of citizens devoted to maintaining its ancient stone church, tending the graves of their loved ones buried in the churchyard, and communicating the church’s history to those who pass through.
My son realizes he’s lost one of the two feathers he discovered along the trail a couple of days ago and fastened to his blue baseball cap. The one missing is a long, colorful quill from a pheasant. He and my husband jog back looking for it while I guard our backpacks on a bench just inside the churchyard. After a few minutes, an elderly man enters through the wrought-iron gate and, startled, greets me: “It’s good to see someone making use of the bench.” Not knowing how to reply, I explain about the feather. He nods, excuses himself, and walks toward a grave covered by potted primroses and geraniums in bloom. When he begins speaking to the grave, I quietly gather up the backpacks and lug them inside the empty church. This is how I first encounter the mural of St. Christopher: as a traveler, carrying on my shoulders the accumulated weight of my family’s necessities.
My husband and I made three separate walking trips in England and Scotland before 2005, when our son was born. The U.K. has over 10,000 miles of public footpaths, most of them ancient pedestrian links between farm villages and nearby market towns. Other paths originated as arrow-straight Roman roads or medieval pilgrimage routes, and modern additions include repurposed canal paths and defunct railway lines.
My husband and I are drawn to these footpaths by a sense of pilgrimage—not to the great cathedrals and their holy relics, as medieval pilgrims were—but by the act of walking itself. On foot, we don’t get to explore a vast sweep of territory, as we would using motorized transportation. But as pedestrians, what we do see, we encounter close-up. We experience the landscape intimately, placing ourselves into it as we walk, slowly, through it. We meet the wildlife and the livestock, exchange trail notes with other walkers, and make ourselves available to the weather.
It’s a stripped-down existence: we carry in our backpacks just water, lunch, rain gear, a toothbrush, and one change of clothing. Each night, we do sink laundry at the inn or bed-and-breakfast where we find lodging, and hope our socks will dry by morning. Each day, we trust that our minimalism, our vulnerability, will be rewarded by the enjoyment of basic pleasures: verdant pastoral scenery, sustained conversation with each other (including lengthy, amiable silences), and just enough physical tiredness, offset by judicious amounts of excellent local cheese, to feel like we’ve earned a good pub dinner. It’s a destinationless pilgrimage whose destination is, of course, a truer, more peaceable sense of self, of couplehood, of family. The walk is a microcosm of each of our lives, lived together.
This minimalist approach to travel, while our favorite, is not without hazards. On our previous long-distance walks, my husband and I were menaced by dogs, swarmed by galloping horses, and caught in two different lightning storms. In the Yorkshire Dales, the only thing separating us from an agitated bull was a single strand of un-barbed wire, and in Scotland, we were drenched by hard rain for twelve out of fourteen days. Along the Cotswold Way, we had frequent trouble finding lodging, requiring us on some days to walk much farther than we’d planned, to the next village, or the next.
On this trip, in which we are introducing our young son to foot travel, and knowing the limits of his stamina, I have booked ahead for each night. I have also added children’s vitamins, ibuprofen, cold medicine, spare socks, bakery treats, and souvenir money to my pack. My husband and I want him to enjoy this as much as we do; we want him to want to do this with us again.
While I am inside St. Mary Magdalene’s Church studying the mural of St. Christopher and the historical information provided for visitors, I see through the door as the elderly man goes back and forth, carrying a watering can from a hose bib behind the church and up the small hill to the grave. Later, when I am on the way out of the churchyard with my family, the man is no longer there. I glance at the name on the headstone of the brightly flowering grave he has been tending and speaking to. I finally see: it’s the same woman’s name as on the memorial plaque affixed to the bench where earlier, I had been sitting with the backpacks.
I think all day about the woman whose memory this man works so diligently to keep alive. Her loss must still be fresh to him; the date on the headstone was just year before last. If she was a parishioner of St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, she would have seen that image of St. Christopher every time she attended. I hope that she died on a day when she did attend. In my heart, I hope—which is about as close as I have the courage to approach to prayer these days—that her death was peaceful.
The following afternoon, we complete our walk into Cirencester. Rainstorms begin, with lightning in the forecast, and we take shelter under the doorway of St. John’s Church. Stunningly intricate organ music beckons us inside, and we end up staying for more than two hours, listening to the organist rehearse and visiting the twelfth-century side chapels extravagantly ornamented by fifteenth-century wool merchants.
These layered church histories fascinate me: the holy edifice built onto an older holy edifice built onto an even-older holy edifice, all in attempt to capture and re-create—to keep alive the memory of—someone’s encounter with the sacred. In the St. Catharine’s Chapel, probably the oldest part of this church, which was expanded to near-cathedral proportions in the Late Middle Ages, we encounter another painting of St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child. This image is much-faded and barely visible; we wouldn’t even be able to identify it if not for a note in the visitors’ pamphlet. Washed-out though he is, I am secretly grateful to see an image of St. Christopher today.
Why this obsessiveness and deep dread, I wonder. My intermittent faith in a higher power doesn’t do much to calm my anxiety, since I would call myself not so much religious as superstitious. I’m skeptical of doctrine, but deeply receptive—pathologically susceptible—to symbols. Faith-allergic, but mystically prone. Bad at long-haul, every-Sunday devotion, but more than likely, when clouds of connection or illumination loom, to get struck.
My husband and my son do not succeed in finding the lost pheasant feather. However, we still have three more days’ walking ahead of us, this time on a short section of the Cotswold Way. We have been seeing wild pheasants all through the Cotswold Hills, and we vow to look hard for another pheasant quill. Thankfully, our son still has the second feather, which he also found along the trail: this one, too, is long, but with barred brown and white coloring, perhaps from a raptor. A man we chat with at the pub in North Cerney thinks it’s from an owl; another is certain it’s from a buzzard. After losing the pheasant quill, our son no longer wants to keep this one in his baseball cap and begins to fret about how to keep it safe. Putting the feather in his pack won’t work; it would get rumpled or crushed. He declines my husband’s offer to tuck it inside our guidebook, concerned that it might fall out. Finally, we propose a solution he agrees to: at the next town with a post office, we’ll ship the feather home in a mailing tube. We accomplish this in Stroud, sending the treasured object on a journey across the Atlantic. The postal clerk tells us it should arrive at our home, north of Seattle, about the same time we will.
I find myself becoming uncomfortably attached to the legend of St. Christopher. Each remaining day of our trip, I fish the pamphlet from St. Mary Magdalene’s Church out of my backpack and stare at the tiny photo of the mural of the Saint reproduced there. Dissatisfied by the lack of detail in that image, I scroll through my phone to get to the slightly-larger photos I’ve snapped myself. Casually, to conceal my anxiety, I slide the pictures in front of my husband and son and say, “Check this out. Wasn’t that big mural amazing?” I want both of them to see the image of St. Christopher every day. This is, I acknowledge, the weirdest form of travel insurance. But I can’t prevent myself from wanting it, and wanting it to work, to keep my beloveds safe as we carry ourselves, and are carried, on our way.
One of the few things my husband remembers from his sporadic Catholic education is that the name “Christopher” means “bearer of Christ.” Thinking about it along our walk, it strikes me that this name closely parallels a Greek title for the Virgin Mary: Theotokos, “God-bearer.” Both Mary and St. Christopher bring Christ across a perilous divide to make him available to the world. Both passages are miraculous, mythic. In the wall mural at St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, Christ is not just a child, but an infant: the total size of His body is no larger than the length of St. Christopher’s white, bushy beard. In His right hand, Christ holds, in the words of the visitors’ pamphlet, “an orb” approximately the size of His own head. It’s not certain whether the orb represents the world, or His own pierced, future heart. A heavy-looking cross is affixed to the top of the orb. The cross certainly represents holiness, and Christ’s own violent future. The cross adds even more weight to the world, to which the adult Christ will affix His own body in order to save.
St. Christopher both knows and does not know these things. He is certain only that this Child he carries makes his own feet press deeper into the riverbed. Lest the viewer forget that these waters are dangerous, an image in the lower right corner of the mural, at the bottom of the river next to the end of St. Christopher’s staff, reminds us: there is a sunken ship, a fish swimming among its masts. And it is not only against the current of the river that the Saint braces himself with his walking staff. He braces under the enormous weight of the world and its future Savior, to prevent himself, and all he carries, from sinking. The iconography of the wall mural, and of many such paintings of St. Christopher, suggests an entire cosmology: the river is actually a perilous sea is actually the whole realm of existence, and St. Christopher is the sacred vehicle who carries the Savior, who Himself carries the faithful, safely through.
I can’t keep going with the theological gravitas, here, for long, because of Monty Python, the comedy troupe whose brilliant wit and irreverence I have always cherished. I think it must have been medieval images like this one, of the cross-sprouting orb, that inspired them to invent the scene in their movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail about the Holy Hand Grenade. Monty Python parodies the image, re-imagining the sacred orb as a pull-pin bomb. The foe against which King Arthur uses the grenade is ominously named the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog. After much gory and grandiose description as buildup, the camera zooms in to reveal this fierce beast: a bunny, tiny and cute. Following quickly upon this humorous anticlimax, however, is another reversal: the bunny really is a Killer Rabbit, abruptly dispatching three of King Arthur’s knights with violent ease.
In comedy and in theology, as in art, existential oppositions break down. Apparently clear categories—of lethal and harmless, savior and saved—are blurred, erased, or even reversed. The world can be a heart, waiting to be pierced. The world can be a bottomless river, and it’s saints all the way down. The world can be a weight, or a baby, or a cosmos, or a bomb.
Our first day struggling along a short section of the Cotswold Way reminds my husband and me why we chose a different long-distance path for our son’s first taste of walking in Britain. While it is one of the most magnificently scenic long-distance routes in what is perhaps the most gorgeously pastoral region of southern England, the Cotswold Way achieves its sublime and ever-changing vistas by ascending and descending the westward-facing escarpment over and over again, sometimes a dozen or more times in a single day’s walk. In the nine-mile stretch between Crickley Hill and Painswick, we seem to log more vertical feet than horizontal ones. The path dives into a wooded glen, steeply plumbs the lowest reach to cross a stream, then rises dizzyingly, lung-burstingly, to the top of the escarpment again. Puffing our way along, we marvel at yellow-green beech groves, fast-changing cloudscapes, blue-green wheat fields rustling with pheasants, and cottages built from honey-colored Cotswold stone. The same stone forms networks of walls bordering pastures of cattle, horses, and sheep. We stop constantly to take pictures, and to catch our breath.
By about mile five, our son is worn out, so after a rest break (with extra Stilton and apples), my husband, who is very fit, straps our son’s backpack to the top of his own, our son’s smaller pack perching there like a bird. By mile seven, I’m also fading, and my knees are sore from the steep descents. Reluctantly, gratefully, I accept my husband’s offer to carry my pack, too. He puts it on backwards, across his chest, to counterbalance the weight on his back. Seeing him carry it reminds me what it was like, for over a year, to carry our son in a frontpack when he was a baby. Doing so made my hips and my shoulders ache, but I did it anyway, knowing the time would come soon enough when he would grow too heavy for me to carry at all.
The second morning of our walk along the Cotswold Way, we awake at our bed-and-breakfast to news that a passenger flight from Paris to Cairo has disappeared over the Mediterranean during the night. Subsequent days of our trip bring further reports: at first, of false leads; then, of luggage, wreckage, and body parts found drifting in the sea.
At the conclusion of our walk on the Cotswold Way, we board a train from Stroud to London, then another to Heathrow Airport. Our flight from there to Boston has a layover in Iceland, where we change planes. Just after taking off from Keflavik, we hear a loud mechanical grinding noise coming from below the fuselage. The noise continues, and after several minutes, the Captain makes an announcement in Icelandic; at its conclusion, numerous passengers groan. Then, in English: There is a mechanical problem. We are going to return to Keflavik. However, before we can do so, we must circle for an hour and a half to burn off fuel. With its tank full for the long flight, the aircraft is too heavy to land.
I have already looked at St. Christopher today: I have lingered over the mural photos on my phone, expanding parts of the image to examine various details, while riding the train to London. Now, I pull the rumpled pamphlet from my backpack and open it to the page where St. Christopher is centered, still crossing the river, still steady and strong. I hold the pamphlet in front of my son, seated next to me, and pass it to my husband on the other side of him, saying, “Remember this painting? Look at how different it is from the one we saw in Cirencester.” They both glance at it, nod, and go back to reading their books. I resist the urge to show the image to other passengers seated around us. It occurs to me that I could show it to the flight attendants; I could even ask them to show it to the pilot and co-pilot. If none of the crew die a violent death today, then we passengers will be safe, too.
Even as these thoughts are passing through my head, I quell them. I’m ashamed of my illogic, my irrationality. I fold the pamphlet and hold it closed in my hand. I vow not to inflict my anxiety on the people around me.
Instead, I listen. A man behind me tells his seatmate that the grinding noise—which has continued all this time—sounds like the landing gear trying to retract; he thinks it’s stuck in the “down” position. He says the aircraft can’t get to cruising altitude or fly long-distance this way, because the landing gear creates too much drag. I relax a little. If the landing gear is truly down, then we’re that much better-prepared for landing. As we circle Iceland, I look out the window and try to enjoy the glaciers, the snow-covered volcanoes, the dramatic fjords in view—but I notice the Captain is not announcing these points of interest, like pilots often do. And I wonder exactly how much fuel we are deliberately wasting while we motor around above the land and the sea. I imagine all our carbon footprints growing ten sizes: sooty tracks planted across the snowfields, sinking deep into the ice and volcanic rock beneath.
We land, finally—hard: the aircraft still carries most of the fuel needed to cross the Atlantic. Jolted but safe, we disembark. Because my family and I have been seated near the back, we are among the last passengers to exit the plane. Just behind us, we see the pilot and co-pilot emerge. They look exhausted, harried, haunted. They look like they have borne the weight of the world.
We are rebooked onto another flight the next day, and after visiting relatives in Boston and taking another long flight to Seattle, we arrive home three days later. A day after that, our mailing tube from Stroud is delivered. The plastic cap is missing from one end, and the tube is empty. A small U.S. Postal Service sticker next to our address notifies us, “Contents missing upon arrival.” My husband surmises that U.S. Customs opened the tube to inspect it. The inspector may have confiscated the feather, deeming it a forbidden agricultural product or a potential carrier of disease.
Our son is not too upset, but he is disappointed. Several times, he repeats his lament that after worrying so much about how to get the raptor feather home safely, his careful efforts have failed.
A few days later, he and my husband come home from a bike ride, and he rushes into the house with a large feather he has found. It’s silver-gray and white, unmistakably from a seagull. Having lost both the pheasant feather and the raptor feather, he’s thrilled to have this one, delighted that he doesn’t have to go to difficult and fallible lengths to transport it home safely. I’m pleased that such a gift would present itself to him, and in such a timely way. Even more, I’m relieved that his experiences of loss so far have been not life-altering traumas, but merely disappointments, and that his resilience is being rewarded.
For three days, I’ve been performing an experiment. Since arriving home, I have prohibited myself from looking at an image of St. Christopher. My goal is to demonstrate to myself that I can live through a day, through multiple days, without seeing the Saint and without dying a violent death. So far, I’ve succeeded, and this evidence is confusing my obsessive anxiety and dread. The experiment—and, I remind myself, the lingering jetlag—make me feel slightly hazy, slightly washed out. I seem lighter to myself, as though I’m not fully materialized. I feel a little hollow, like my emptied-out backpack; like the shaft of a quill, or the near-weightless bones of a bird. In my mind’s eye, I picture a gull, soaring over water and land, buoyant: able to lose a feather from its wing and continue, tranquil, to float.