The Welsh do not forget their saints, and they have a heck of a lot of them. Basically, if, back in the sixth century, you planted a church or set yourself up as a holy man next to a holy well or renounced killing people in battle and became a monk, you would automatically be regarded as a saint. There were some Welsh saints who did proper saintly stuff like throwing big rocks at giants and that sort of thing but, on the whole, Welsh saints were quite down to earth types, more like Peter and the apostles than Merlin the Magician. Their ordinariness shrinks the years between them and us and makes visiting their shrines and churches a matter of fact, unfussy spiritual experience, an exact opposite to the Walsingham experience and other over catholisised pilgrimage destinations that I have been to. And, to be honest, it feels like something of the presence of the Welsh saints is still here, where they lived. I’m afraid that I have always felt that the Northumbrian saints have long since left the building but I expect that is mainly down to evangelicals and liberals being in charge of the Church up there for so long. The only Anglo-Catholic clergy in Durham and Newcastle are the worst type of Anglo-Catholics who would certainly feel more at home bitching about women in their Walsingham boarding houses than roughing it in North West Wales where you would never pick a fight with the local woman (you should see the muscles on them).
Yesterday, we went on pilgrimage to the village of Aberdaron at the Land’s End of Wales, the westerly tip of the Lleyn Peninsula. This is where pilgrims would rest and take refreshment before setting off to sail two miles across a treacherous sea channel to Bardsey Island. The isle has been an important religious site since Saint Cadfan built a monastery in 516. In medieval times it was a major centre of pilgrimage and is, once again, popular as such today. But primarily, at least, we were not there to pay our respects to long dead saints but to a saint of a far more modern vintage, the great British (correct word) poet, R. S. Thomas ((29 March 1913 – 25 September 2000), who was the Anglican vicar of at St Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron from 1967 until he retired in 1978 and where his legend is most strong.
In 2008 the church became the centre of controversy when the vicar, Jim Cotter, blessed a gay civil partnership, after approval by the local church council. The vicar was reprimanded by Barry Morgan, the Archbishop of Wales. Referring to the archbishop’s protests, the vicar stated “There was a bit of a to-do about it”.
The church seems to attract creative priests who dance with doubt and madness. In another world where I speak Welsh and bishops don’t need to be right about everything, I might have been a priest in such a place.
|The beach at Aberdaron|
|The old post office in Aberdaron, designed by
Clough Williams-Ellis, architect of Portmeirion.
|People write prayer request on pebbles and leave them in a cairn inside the
church. On Sea Sunday, the pebbles are returned to the sea.
|The tombstones of two 5th-century Christian priests,
found in the 18th century on farmland near Mynydd Anelog
|Ynys Gwylan-Fawr and Ynys Gwylan-Fach, which together
are known as Ynysoedd Gwylanod (Seagull Islands).
|St. Gwynhoedl was an evangelist on the Lleyn Peninsula.
He is buried in the church which bears his name.
|A replica of St. Gwynhoedl’s handbell.
The original was stolen from the church by Cardiff Museum
|An extremely ugly chair|
|An equally repulsive, modern votive candle stand|
by R. S. THOMAS
Moments of great calm,
kneeling before an altar
of wood in a stone church
in summer, waiting for the God to speak; the air a staircase
for silence; the sun’s light
ringing me, as though I acted
a great rôle. And the audiences still; all that close throng
of spirits waiting, as I,
for the message.
Prompt me, God;
but not yet. When I speak,
though it be you who speak through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.