St David’s Day – Introducing St David
In an exclusive article for Endeavour Public Affairs to mark St David’s Day, The Most Reverend Barry Morgan introduces St David and writes about his relevance for Wales today.
Barry Morgan is the Bishop of Llandaff and Archbishop of Wales.
Much of the history of our National Patron Saints is shrouded in myth and legend. It was the tradition of the early Christian period, to blur the boundaries between the natural and supernatural and early Christian historians regarded it as perfectly reasonable to use myth as a way of conveying truth. So the story is told that such was David’s great gift as a preacher that the ground rose up under him to allow him to speak clearly to the heathen, thirsty for God.
Fanciful stories they may be, but what gave rise to these myths was a certain holiness, some characteristic of otherness that set these men and women of the early church apart. Their biographers put them at the centre of great story telling, building them up with tales of extraordinary adventures, walking with the powers of light, wielding the Gospel instead of a sword. It was easy listening when for most people; life was a miserable journey of toil, disease and death.
This holiness set these saints apart, because they continue to live in the imagination, surviving the passing of ages, where most of the countless millions of men women and children who belong to the centuries past, lie utterly forgotten, as if they had never existed.
David, or Dewi as we know him in Wales, is a character who is known to us today through myth and legend. Very little is known about him. He certainly lived in the sixth century and is reputed to have been an abbot-bishop in West Wales. The Life of David written by Rhygyfarch around 1090 was concerned about upholding the claim of St Davids to be independent of Canterbury. Although this was an eleventh century issue, Rhygyfarch invokes Dewi to support the claims of the See of St Davids. Dewi was reputed to be the son of a Cardigan chieftain whilst his mother Non had great faith and devotion to God and had clearly influenced the young Dewi. He is credited in this hagiography with founding twelve monasteries and was consecrated bishop in Jerusalem. He took part in two councils, at Brefi in Cardigan and Caerleon in South East Wales. At the first of these councils it is alleged he was recognised as primate of Wales in place of Dubricius (or Dyfrig) who had founded the See of Llandaff and was, by the close of the eleventh century and early twelfth century, a rival for consideration as the patron saint of Wales. Dyfrig, whose relics were translated from Bardsey to Llandaff in 1120, had strong Roman affiliations since he had, under Roman governance at Caerleon, become the “Archbishop of Caerleon”. For the Normans in later centuries, Dubricius (Dyfrig) seemed a rather more reliable patron then the more mysterious Dewi of the Celtic church far to the unconquered West. Trying to restore the reputation of Dewi, Rhygyfarch in 1090 exaggerated Dewi’s cause. According to this version of events, it is Dewi’s candidature that was considered the stronger and upon being recognised as Primate at the council of Brefi, Dewi moved the See from Caerleon to Menevia (the place today we call St Davids) where he eventually died.
It seems more likely however that Dewi was born at Henfynw in Cardigan. As an abbot he was responsible for a large monastery in the place now known as St Davids in Pembrokeshire. It was a life of strict asceticism and we do know from Irish annals, that several of the Irish saints were pupils of Dewi. It seems likely that both he and the monastery, over which he presided, had an influence on monastic developments in Ireland, including the great monastery of Clonmacnoise on the banks of the Shannon.
It all makes for wonderful material for school children in Wales, pinning daffodils and leeks to their clothes on March 1st, celebrating our national identity and the riches of a culture that is infused with poetry and music, with history and hope for better things. But is it right to use these patron saints as a fig leaf for that which we really want to celebrate, ideals that have to do with the Gospel that centuries ago, wove its way through the lives of these extraordinary people?
If we are to appropriate these heroes of the faith to undergird our national identity and pride, then we must recognise that the Gospel principles by which they lived, are the very foundation stones of what a self respecting national character should embody; respect for neighbours, unconditional acceptance, justice for the broken, love, compassion, reconciliation, and healing – these are the basic hallmarks that allow a society to develop an identity that sets it apart from tribal chaos or dictatorship. Dewi’s message, his response to the Gospel, is as relevant today for the Welsh Nation, as it was in the day it was first preached. We may have our own national traits and characteristics but our goal is to live side by side with every nation in friendship.
And that is something we have to work at day by day often in just small ways for as Dewi is alleged to have said “Noble brothers and sisters, be glad and guard your faith, and do the little things which you have heard from me and which I have shown you”. Little things do count. In Middlemarch George Elliot writes of Dorothea “The effect of her being on those around her were incalculably diffusive, for the great good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts”. Doing little things day by day enables the kingdom of God to grow in our midst.
Published: Friday 28 February 2014
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Photograph: © Copyright of The Church in Wales
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.