Were you not raised to life with Christ? Then aspire to the realm above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, and let your thoughts dwell on that higher realm, not on this earthly life. Col. 3:1
1. Sister Pauline Mary was an elderly Anglican nun to whom I had the privilege of ministering in the days before she died. As she slipped in and out of sleep, or maybe even in and out of consciousness, she would awake and describe her meetings with the saints – even describing what they were wearing and doing and saying. I still don’t know if they were the hallucinations of a dying woman, or if indeed she was having a genuine conversation with the saints, although what had been certain throughout her 60 years as a nun was that she always felt that she was surrounded [as the letter to the Hebrews puts it], ‘by so great a cloud of witnesses’. The saints were not only God’s friends, they were also hers.
2. The saints have always played an important part in the lives of those who are often described as Celtic Christians – the saints are part of our history and culture. The Celtic saints largely belong to the first six centuries of Christianity before that period of history when Augustine came to convert the English. The Diocese of Monmouth and its Cathedral in Newport have as their patron saint, St Gwynllyw although it is said that the English had difficulty pronouncing it so they called him St Woolos.
3. Gwynllyw was born around 450 AD and is described as a king and confessor although others have been known to describe him as a tribal chief and a pirate! The account of his life – his Vita – was written in the Middle Ages and the problem with the medieval lives of the saints is that we are relying on legends that have been passed down for 600 years and which are coloured with exaggeration, romanticism and contradictions, but out of all this it is possible to get a glimpse of possible history, and when I am in my cathedral I am very conscious that I am worshipping on a site that has been hallowed for fifteen hundred years as a holy shrine, and where there is a tomb in the centre of the most ancient part that clearly belongs to a prominent Christian, possibly St Gwynllyw himself.
4. St Gwynllyw was King of Gwynllwg (named after him) in South Wales and his name is recorded in lists of Welsh kings. Tradition says that he was a feared warrior and that accompanied by 300 men he abducted Gwladys, the daughter of a king of Brecon who had refused to let Gwynllyw marry her. The Life of Gwynllyw makes no mention of this battle and says that the marriage was accomplished peacefully – and Gwladys is herself counted among the Welsh saints. Gwynllyw and Gwladys had a son, Cadoc (Cattwg) who became a monk and an abbot and also a saint, and tradition says that his holiness of life and his godly preaching was what persuaded Gwynllyw to abandon his life of warfare and violence and to pursue a life of holiness. It is often said that people will not be persuaded by intellectual argument alone but when they see holy lives, lives that have been changed by an encounter with God, then that is persuasive.
5. Then Gwynllyw had a dream. Now dreams are important in the biblical and Christian tradition as a means of listening to our souls, and Freud said that dreams are the royal road to the unconscious. In his dream, an angel spoke to Gwynllyw and he saw a vision of a white ox with a black spot on its forehead. A little later walking on a hill, Gwynllyw saw the white ox with the black spot that he had seen in his dream, and there [on what is today called Stow Hill] he built a wooden hermitage and Gwynllyw said these words, ‘There is no retreat in this world such as in this space that I am destined now to inhabit. Happy therefore is the place, happier then is he who inhabits it’. There Gwynllyw was to become a hermit and following his death his cell became an important shrine and a wooden church was built there. Later in the 9th century, it was rebuilt of stone and stone churches were rare in Wales in those days which points to the significance of his shrine. The cathedral that stands on that site today has the Saxon remains from that stone church, and has been extended over the centuries with its Norman arch and roof timbers dating from the early 15th century.
6. St Paul wrote to the Colossians, ‘let your thoughts dwell on that higher realm not on this earthly life’ and by becoming a hermit, Gwynllyw gave up his kingship and his worldly power, abandoned his life as a soldier to become a soldier of God and the stained glass window in the cathedral dedicated to Gwynllyw, Gwladys and Cattwg depicts Gwynllyw in mediaeval knight’s armour. His decision to abandon worldly power and seek a life of prayer is a common theme amongst Welsh saints and St Illtyd is said to have done the same.
7. To be a hermit is not the same as being a recluse, and there have been hermits in the Christian tradition from the fourth century. Vatican II restored the Order of Hermits and there are a number of hermits in Wales (and elsewhere) today. When Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion and the persecution of Christians ended, the so-called ‘red’ martyrs gave way to the ‘white’ martyrs, – men and women who went out into the deserts of Egypt and Syria to be hermits and to live lives of asceticism, fasting and prayer and to imitate the example of Jesus who went into the wilderness to battle with spiritual and human temptations in order to prepare himself for ministry.
8. You may be wondering what happened to Gwladys when her husband become a hermit. Well, she joined him and they lived together on Stow Hill, fasting, eating a vegetarian diet and walking naked each day to bathe in the cold waters of the River Usk. It conjures up an Adam-and-Eve type scene of a man and woman in their innocence walking hand in hand to taste of the waters of life, although for those of us who live there, we know that Newport is not the garden of Eden, and the picture is one of punishing the flesh – perhaps to ensure that whilst living together they would nevertheless live lives of celibacy and chastity.
9. For Christians, water is a powerful symbol of life. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well and asked for a drink, he engaged her in conversation. He knew that she had had five and a half husbands and he offered her water springing up into eternal life. But why had she had so many husbands? There could only be one explanation – she was barren so they kept divorcing her. Water is a symbol of life and fertility, and of course, it finds its fullest expression in Christian baptism as the waters wash away human sin and we are born again – maybe that was why Gwynllyw and Gwladys went skinny dipping every day –as a seeking after spiritual cleansing and re-birth. Later Gwladys moved away to a hermitage of her own.
10. The cult of St Gwynllyw grew after his death and not only the Welsh, but the Saxons and Normans who came to settle in Newport also revered him. Many miracles were attributed to him and today there is a renewed interest in the legends that tell of his former life as a pirate, a thief and a man of violence who was to become a saint. He also had a brother St Petroc who is revered by the Cornish and the Bretons and his son, St Cattwg was a major contender to be patron saint of Wales.
11. If you come to Newport, do visit Newport Cathedral, the site where St Gwynllyw lived and where he is buried. You can also see the wonderful modern sculpture by Sebastian Boyesen in the centre of Newport which is called The Vision of St Gwynllyw depicting the ox that Gwynllyw saw in his dream, but above all as we recall the Celtic saints and those who have been canonised throughout the centuries, we need to be reminded that we are surrounded by ‘so great a crowd of witnesses’ and that we, like them, are called to be saints.
Rt. Rev’d Dominic Walker, Bishop of Monmouth
5th February 2012