A little more Lenten legend. The homily was delivered at Trinity Cathedral’s Evensong on St David’s Day; Dewi’s mother, Non, who figures prominently in the legends, is celebrated the next day, on March 2nd.
On the night that David – Dewi Sant – was born, a violent storm gripped the land of Wales and shook it, such that no one alive could venture out. The stars were ripped apart by lightning, and the thunder growled like a beast scenting its prey. In fact (or in legend, at least), there was a brutish tyrant who had heard from the druids of the imminent birth of a sainted child and who wanted, like the dragon of the Revelation, to snatch him from his mother’s birthing bed, but heaven and nature conspired to keep him from harm. The would-be evil-doer was hemmed in by the storm, and only over David’s mother, Non, the midnight sun shone as though to bathe her in the glory of God as she laboured.[i]
David – Dewi Sant – was a man full of such contrasts. His mother was Non. Recognized as a saint herself, she was a woman of great faith, virtue, inward and outward beauty. His father, on the other hand, a king of sorts – I hesitate to say it – assaulted sweet Non. The very earth was so shocked by the violation that in sympathy with the young woman, and to protect her and keep her and the nascent Dewi safe, that it broke open, forming a refuge complete with a rock bed to pillow her head and her feet.
As he grew in physical and spiritual maturity, David was sent forth to found monasteries, religious houses, which he did from Glastonbury and Bath, and across Wales as far as the western sea, at the place now known as St David’s. In his monasteries he created such rules of life as kept the monks busy throughout the hours of the clock, working by day and praying by night, to give no opportunity for temptation. According to his hagiographer, Rhygyvarch, from whose Life of David most of this legendary information is gleaned, Dewi Sant modeled himself after the desert fathers in austerity and regulation.
And yet by doing so he freed himself to a marvellous compassion.
He was known to feed and to heal the hungry, the bereft, and the blind. When it came to dinner at the monastery, while the meals were mostly bread and water, it is reported that “they provide for the sick and those advanced in age, and even those wearied by a long journey, some refreshments of a more appetizing sort, for one must not weigh out to all in equal measure”. He understood the wearied human need for kindness. When he was summoned to an urgent church council, David hesitated on the way when he heard weeping and lament. He turned aside, while his companions hurried on to satisfy those awaiting him, and upon turning he found a widow whose son had died. And like the prophets of old, the deep compassionate prayer of Dewi Sant, and his tears, which watered the boy’s face, restored him to his life.
So goes the legend. Because, as the apostle writes in his letter to the Thessalonians, that while the saint labours and toils, so it is not in order to lay their burden upon others, but to free them to see the gentleness of Christ, and the kindness of his call, understanding that religion is nothing if it does not ground itself and grow in love(1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12).
St David’s Day, being March 1st, falls frequently within Lent, when tradition has us lean toward some austerity of life, some provision for penance, some fasting and discipline. Yet in Wales, it is (I am “reliably” informed by clergy Twitter) always a feast day, celebrated with enthusiasm, because religion is nothing if it does not lead to the celebration of the mercy and goodness of God, who has given us life, who has fed us with love, our rock and our refuge, who receives all pilgrim spirits that come that way. Lenten discipline is not worth its bread and salt unless it leads us to a greater understanding of the love with which God envelops us, and which God would call out of us.
When David was born, and heaven and earth conspired to keep him and his mother safe from predatory evil, the earth split open once again, in sympathy with her birth pangs, and the rock on which she leaned melted like wax to take the imprint of her hand. Dewi was born into deep mercy.
While she was pregnant with him, Non had gone to a church to make her offering, and heard a certain preacher who found himself, upon her secret arrival, suddenly devoid of the power of divine proclamation, although he could still speak of earthly things. When he found Non, and spoke with her, the priest realized that it was the overwhelming grace contained in the child of her womb that had silenced his fine words: the life of David – Dewi Sant – would itself bear greater witness than a preacher’s words ever could to the strange, creative, earthy, and irrepressible love of God.
[i] All biographical and legendary details are from Rhygyvarch’s Life of David, translated and edited by A.W Wade-Evans (SPCK, 1923), digitized and accessed at https://archive.org/stream/MN5136ucmf_5/MN5136ucmf_5_djvu.txt