St. John declares that words make us human. That words, even, make us exist. It is words, and not pictograms or tools or logic or emotions. And so St. John is the patron saint of writers.
I mean St. John the Evangelist, theoretical author of what is known as John’s gospel. I don’t know or care who wrote the thing. The prologue is one of my favorite pieces of literature. (St. John also theoretically wrote Revelation, but Martin Luther and I don’t approve of Revelation.)
“In the beginning was the word.” And part of Jewish, and Christian, creation tradition has held that the world was made with words. This “God” or “Lord” character speaks to make things be.
At the art museum here, we have a stained glass window that was made in medieval Europe, showing St. John holding a cup with a snake in it. The story is, St. John and his buddies were captured by some bad guy, and the bad guy forces St. John and his buddies drink poison. This bad guy must be building the grand tradition of unnecessarily elaborate execution techniques honored in “Austin Powers” with my favorite “sharks with lasers.”
St. John is so uber powerful that he drinks his poison, and then his buddies’ poison, and he’s fine. Well, maybe he has a little food-poisoning type digestive discomfort, but the point of the story is that poison cannot kill him. He is a badass.
Some people find St. John’s gospel a little airy. Some people say that Jesus’ feet never touch the ground. I don’t see that. What I see is a writer who had an experience of the Christ, rather than Jesus the man, and painted a more abstract picture. The author struggled to find any language that would put the power of a Christ figure into focus. Any language that would contain the experience at all. St. John’s gospel explodes the Jesus notion into the Christ idea. It says, you have no idea what this Christ thing means. You have no idea how big this is. You have no idea the force of love over ambivalence, confusion, or loss.
When I was in Rome last summer, I searched all over the Vatican City for a St. Giovanni Evangelista medal. I’m not Catholic, and I have never bought or owned a medal, except, perhaps, the Libra medal that my step-grandma bought me when I was little. I don’t think that counts. In each little shop, I walked past the counters of rosaries and small towns of statues to bins of medals. “St. Giovanni,” I told the salesclerks. They nodded. “Evangelista,” I added. Their lips pursed pessimistically.
Only at one spot, directly across the street from St. Peter’s, did I find a silver St. Giovanni Evangelista. He wears the usual Bible-person type robes, and he has a book in his lap. His buddy animal (the patronage goes on and on) is the eagle, so an eagle perches on the book. St. John and the eagle are both too tiny to have real facial expressions, but I think the eagle looks like he’s thinking, “Whassup?” I bought the medal, and put it on immediately.
At my church, St. John is the right-hand side of the triptych. Christ in the middle, St. Peter on the left. St. Peter holds his keys, which always makes him look like an annoying older brother. Jesus left me with the keys, y’all, so, watch it! St. John, as usual, has his snake cup. He take the poison for himself, and for anyone else who’s feeling weak. That’s what makes him such a good man to have around, not just for writers, but anybody who runs into a bad guy now and then.