The little things – a sermon from 1st March 2020

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus! Today is St David’s Day – St David being the patron saint of Wales as well as for poets and vegetarians too!

That evening we talked about who St David was, how he had a special skill to recover the sight of others, how some monks didn’t like him especially (to the point they tried to poison him!) – but how ultimately he could prove how through the small things, great changes can occur.

Today is St David’s Day – and I thought for this evening, it might be good to find out a bit more about a man whose life meant so much to many that not only would he be canonised as a saint – but further be named the patron saint of Wales. He’s also the patron saint of vegetarians and poets as well. I think that’s vegetarians and poets separately – although perhaps you’re doubly blessed if you’re a vegetarian poet?

Myth, rumour, legend and exaggeration I’m fairly sure are key parts of the tale of St David – but I’d like to think that in any myth there’s a nugget of truth: some of his story may seem fantastic, but it’s clear to see that for the people his life touched, a lasting impression has echoed through the ages to this very day.

Before I get too far into this evening’s talk however, I’d like to apologise in advance; I’m ashamed to say I am not a fluent Welsh speaker and I have no doubt I’m going to mispronounce some Welsh names and places in due course.

With that caveat in mind, I’ll continue.

St David’s earthly story ended over 1400 years ago, at his death on the 1st March 589. A Tuesday, if you were curious. His last words were as follows:

“Brothers be ye constant. The yoke which with single mind ye have taken, bear ye to the end; and whatsoever ye have seen with me and heard, keep and fulfil.”

St David

Rolling back the clock a little further, and David started his life in the South Wales town of Caerfai, and was a son of an aristocratic family. His father was a prince called Sant, son of the King of Cardigan; his mother, Non, was the daughter of a local chieftain – and rumour has it, possibly the niece of King Arthur.

There’s a bit of drama and scandal around David’s conception; David wasn’t the child of a love-filled marriage – rather, he was born after his father either seduced or raped Non, who after David’s birth went on to become a nun.

Non left her family and gave birth by the sea. It is said that so intense was the birth that her fingers left marks where she grasped the rocks. As David was born a bolt of lightning from heaven struck the rock and split it in two.

As an infant, David was baptised by Saint Elvis of Munster, and it is said that a blind man was cured by the water used for the baptism.

David was schooled at the local monastery, Hen Fynyw, which is south of present day Aberaeron, and was taught by Paulinus, a blind monk. The gift of sight wasn’t only through the waters of his baptism however: David cured Paulinus of his blindness by making the sign of the cross.

Realising that David was a special and holy person, Paulinus sent him off as a missionary to convert the pagan people of Britain.

As an adult, he founded a Celtic monastic community at Glyn Rhosyn on the western headland of Pembrokeshire – at the very same spot where St David’s cathedral stands this very day.

David was a proponent of the virtues of an ascetic lifestyle, but whilst many ascetics would withdraw from the world for their practice, David rather adopted a frugal lifestyle. A life that renounces material possessions and physical pleasures with time spent fasting and concentrating on the reflection spiritual matters, David was a teacher – and spread ascetism amongst Celtic Christians: so much so, that his teachings helped found around twelve further monasteries.

Upon his death, the monastery he founded at Glyn Rhosyn became an important Christian shrine and pilgrim destination. Indeed, four visits to the shrine at St David’s were considered the equivalent of two to Rome, and one to Jerusalem!

It is of course the actions, teachings and values of an individual that are remembered through the centuries and in the twelfth century he was formally recognised by the Catholic church as a national patron saint for Wales. But the brief history I’ve outlined above isn’t really enough to explain why he should be recognised such – for that, let’s expand on those last words again:

“Brothers be ye constant. The yoke which with single mind ye have taken, bear ye to the end; and whatsoever ye have seen with me and heard, keep and fulfil.”

St David

By the sixth Century, Christianity had filtered into Britain through a variety of channels. The Roman Empire had fallen, the remnants in the west dying away at the last, being wiped away by invasions coming from the north and the east. It was a time of change, of flux and a time where new ways of thinking were coming in.

The overwhelming conquest of the eastern half of the British Isles by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were bringing Christianity along with the conquest: but Wales, Cornwall, Galloway and various other points to the west saw “the Old Ways” continuing.

Enter then David, a man of Christian virtue born into a land that did not fully understand or embrace the Christian message. A man who was born into a time of change, his faith lead to him becoming first priest and then abbot and finally bishop to his community – a who helped to spread Christianity among the pagan Celtic tribes of Western Britain. A man who was affectionally known as “the water drinker” for he was said to drink nothing else, his ascetic beliefs reportedly lead to his refusal to let monks drink alcohol. He’s also said to have insisted that the monks pull their plows themselves rather than use draft animals. At one of his monasteries David became so unpopular with his monks for the life of austerity he made them live, that they tried to poison him.

David was warned about this by St Scuthyn, who travelled from Ireland on the back of a sea-monster for the purpose. David blessed the poisoned bread and ate it; and came to no harm.

He undertook a number of missionary journeys through Wales and Brittany, and also took the time to complete a number of pilgrimages: including one to Jerusalem. That’s no small feat even now, but at a time before EasyJet flights would certainly have been an impressive undertaking.

David was a vegetarian, leeks grow well in Welsh soil and it’s probably why leeks are synonymous with St David. Myth tells however how once, during a battle with Saxon invaders, the Welsh were unable to distinguish between friend and foe on the battlefield. St. David suggested that the Welsh fighters wear a leek on their hats. They did, and they won the battle: therefore ever since, the leek has been the national symbol of Wales. On Saint David’s Day, the tradition is to wear a leek on your lapel or on your hat.

Perhaps the best-known story of David took place at the Synod of Brefi. It was called to condemn the heretical teachings of Pelagius, a man who denied Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin and believed rather in a radical free will – that humans could fulfil the law without divine aid. During the Synod David, spoke out so eloquently against this as heresy with a persona so intense that a miracle occurred – a small hill is said to have lifted him up as it rose beneath him as he spoke. To really reinforce the point he was making, a dove is also said to have settled on his shoulder, a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit which gave him such great eloquence.

This is why, in iconography today, St David is pictured with a dove on his shoulder, stood upon a hill.

Living a life that was devoted to faith in preference to personal pleasure, to defending Christian values and with a desire to help those around him, David’s most lasting contribution to the Welsh people and to us is a phrase said to have been part of his last sermon just before his death.

He said: “Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.”

“Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd” or “Do the little things in life” is a well-known phrase in Welsh, and it reminds us that even in a time of great transformation, the work of faith is still in the little things: most clearly in the relationships of those around us. It’s in everything: in the daily work we have been given to do, in the small, incremental changes that we all can make.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, referring back to these words at St David’s last sermon, states that “it reminds us that the primary things for us are the relationships around us, the need to work at what’s under our hands, what’s within our reach. We can transform our domestic, our family relationships, our national life to some extent, if we do that with focus and concentration in the presence of God.”

So, if we stay focused on doing the little things with God, then God will give the growth. Of course, there are great actions taken by great people – but from the mightiest to the lowliest, each of us can make a difference in God’s earthly kingdom. And it can all start with the smallest of things.

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