On a wheel and a prayer
With St. Christopher riding shotgun, faithful motorists hope to have a safer journey.
With the fluctuating price of gas this past year and the growing economic crisis, the most common prayer uttered from behind the wheel these days is probably a plea for relief from the expense of filling up. While many families are suffering from job losses and other financial woes, I remember another, more serious supplication shared by my family at the beginning of any family road trip.
After my father would pack the trunk of our Volkswagon Beetle (later a VW Rabbit-no spacious minivan or SUV for this family of four!), we would take our places in the car: Dad behind the wheel; Mom riding shotgun, map in hand; and my sister and I in the cramped back seat. As we pulled out of our suburban Milwaukee neighborhood and headed toward the freeway, my parents would remind us to pray for a safe trip. Then they would lead us in an Our Father and a Hail Mary, punctuated by, "St. Christopher, be our guide," a nod to the patron saint of travel.
Then, and only then, did the radio go on, the car bingo games come out, and the pestering of "How long till we get there?" begin.
I later learned that the church had dropped St. Christopher's July 25 feast day from the liturgical calendar in 1969 out of concern that his story was based primarily in legend, although local and personal veneration is still allowed. It seems the tale of an 18-foot giant, perhaps with the face of a dog, portaging people across a dangerous river and later martyred, didn't pass the historicity test.
But the image of St. Christopher (literally "Christ-bearer") carrying people to safety still resonates, even in a century in which travel is so much safer that many of us don't even think about the danger involved in leaving our homes. The brisk sale of St. Christopher medals and statues attest to the desire for some totem to the gods to protect us while traveling. A bobblehead dashboard Jesus, who promises to be your "co-pilot through the valley of gridlock," is a more modern, kitschy version. Even Icon brand motorcycle jackets-most likely not purchased primarily by devout Catholics-often feature a St. Christopher medallion in an inside pocket.
I don't have a Jesus or St. Christopher statue in my car, but for years I have carried a St. Christopher medal in my passport wallet for overseas trips. Better safe than sorry.
Now that Hummers are out and hybrids are in, Americans may be spending less time on the road, whether out of economic necessity or concern for the earth. Unfortunately I am not one of them.
After five years of somewhat sanctimonious non-car ownership and reliance on public transportation, I purchased a used Toyota Camry, which I now drive a total of almost 100 miles round-trip, two or three times a week, to my job. I have become an über-commuter, joining the average American who spends more than an entire work week in his or her car each year.
Although it's easy to go on auto-pilot while driving the same route every day, I am occasionally graced with even more time to contemplate my new driving habits while I'm stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic caused by summertime construction or a lane-closing accident.
The latter reminds me of the sobering reality that I am maneuvering a several-thousand-pound machine. With some 6 million car accidents a year in the United States and a car-related fatality every 13 minutes, getting in the car is still one of the more dangerous things people do each day.
And in times of danger, we Catholics turn to our faith and to prayer. In the 1950s a Catholic priest founded the Sacred Heart Auto League to encourage "prayerful and careful" driving. Membership is free, but for a small donation you can receive a dashboard statue or visor clip to remind you to keep it under the speed limit and to be courteous to the guy who cuts you off.
A few years ago the Vatican also encouraged Catholics to take the high road with its "10 Commandments of Driving" in "Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road."
While the media had a field day with this quirky story, it's hard to argue with the church's advice to avoid road rage, help victims of accidents, and avoid drinking and driving. And though some may have chuckled at the recommendation to start each trip with a sign of the cross, it didn't seem odd to those of us who ask for God's guidance before putting the keys in the ignition.
I still do. Sometimes it's just a quick, "God, let me be safe" or "Be with me on this trip." Like many Catholics, I also pray when an ambulance passes by or when I see a disabled car or an accident. Both my sister and I and our families still start each long road trip with an Our Father and a Hail Mary.
St. Christopher, be our guide.
This article was published in the June 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 6: pages 37-38).