Tuesday, 7 January 2014

St David of Wales

The local scholar, St David, established the pattern of Welsh Christianity in the late 6th century. His legacy was immense, but was largely swept away when the Pope re-established control of Welsh Christianity. David is now the patron saint of Wales.

The various tales about St David were collected together in the 11th century by the monk Rhigyfarch. Unfortunately for later scholars, Rhigyfarch was a devoted admirer of St David.

Rhigyfarch was so keen for readers of his ‘Life’ to admire St David, that he inserted all sorts of legends and fables which served to inflate the importance of the saint. Tales of miracles and divine intervention were included, even when they were lifted from older biographies of other saints. Amid all this adulation and make believe it is difficult to discern exactly what is true and what is false.

Undoubtedly, however, St David was born in the mid to late 6th century in Ceredigion along the west coast of Wales. Carrying the Welsh form of his name, Dewi, David at first had an upbringing as good as any that could be expected at the time. His father, Sant, was the ruler of Ceredigion. His minor court would have been a strange mix of late Roman learning, barbaric military might and Celtic artistic beauty.

Early in life, Dewi showed a skill for book learning and was sent to Llanilltud Fawr to be educated. During his teens, Dewi showed that he was not only a remarkably bright scholar but also an ascetic of unusual devotion. For David there was no time for worldly luxuries such as he had known as a child. Fine clothes and fine food were merely a distraction from the contemplation of God and the study of Holy Scripture.

It was only some 30 years since Gildas, a noted scholar of his own generation, had railed against the sins of the rulers of his day. The writings of Gildas were highly popular and influenced the thoughts of many. When Gildas contrasted the failure of modern British rulers to unite against the English attacks with the glories of an earlier period, people listened. When he denounced the sins and luxuries of rulers and said they sapped the will to rule wisely, Gildas struck a popular chord.

Young Dewi grew up in a world shaped by the thinking of Gildas and his contemporaries. Indeed Gildas may have still been alive when Dewi wen to Llanilltud Fawr. This set the scene for Dewi’s enormous success as an advocate of the monastic ideal. Dewi travelled through the lands of the Britons calling on holy men to withdraw from the sins of the world to live in monasteries. There they could devote themselves to study and prayer without the distractions which were proving so disastrous to the British.

After founding monasteries in such places as Bath and Chester, Dewi became Bishop of Menevia. This Roman town in the heart of Ceredigion was dying as an urban centre, but Dewi made it a seat of learning. According to legend Dewi chose the site as his mother, Non daughter of King Cynyr, grew up there. On a nearby hill was a small chapel founded by St Patrick on his way to convert the Irish. Non had worshipped there as a teenager and Dewi made this secluded place the seat of his ministry.

By this time Dewi was the acknowledged leader of British Christianity, welcoming bishops from Scotland and Ireland to his remote church. He organised two synods, one at the unidentified Roman town of Lucas Victoriae and the second at Llanddewi Brefi. The second and much larger synod set British Christianity on the same pattern as that of Ireland. Monasteries became the heart of Church life, with bishops fulfilling a more minor pastoral role.

Back at his isolated church at Menevia, Dewi lived out his final years in severe ascetic conditions. His life and works became models for others to emulate. After his death Menevia was renamed St David’s. It continued to decline as a town, and now has barely half a dozen streets. But it is still the seat of the bishopric and site of a fine cathedral.

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