The recent BBC series The Detectorists often portrays a comical pair, metal detector in hand, gazing over an empty field. Camera trickery then rebuilds a historical scene, step by step, giving us an account of how a certain artefact ended up on that spot. Unfortunately, neither archaeologist nor historian has that luxury. Trenches are needed meticulously to peel back layers of turf. Once that is done, fragments can be uncovered. In this article, we’re going to examine some fragments from the life of Dewi.
However first, a warning.
Hagiographies are complex. Derived from the Latin Hagiographia meaning Life of Saints, these works are often sneered at by modern day evangelicals for being too Roman Catholic or superstitious. Even more recent historical studies on subjects like revival are often written off as being ‘hagiographical’ – a kind of patronising pat on the head – if they do not conform to what we perceive as being scholarly or believable.
Before you condemn me to the ranks of popish superstition, I urge you to pause. We shouldn’t so easily scrap these ancient saints on to the piles of heretics that we have curated in our minds. Having said all that, we should be aware that the story of Dewi – the patron saint of Wales – is pieced together primarily from a work written five hundred years after his death. This is evidently problematic.
As we begin this brief survey, may we don the archaeologist’s eye – a sensitivity which spots gold in muddy trenches, and light in those so-called Dark Ages.
Fragment 1 – Llannau
We know very little about Dewi ap Sant ap Ceredig ap Cunedda. Dates of birth are variously given between 460 and 520. His mother’s name was Non and his father’s name was Sant or Sanctus. Blue blood? His name suggests it. Kings, heroes, celebrities and even Arthur are mentioned in his family tree.
He was born in an exciting period of change. Wales was experiencing a religious revival. Known as the ‘Golden Age of Saints’, the evidence we have for this spiritual movement may be familiar to you. Llanelli, Llandaf, Llandeilo, Llanbadarn Fawr… The word ‘Llan’ means ‘enclosure’, but from the earliest days it was used for the land surrounding a religious building. The word following the ‘Llan’ is usually the name of the church planter. Take a map out and highlight all the Llans. You’ll be amazed!
Pause. These fragments should not be ignored. Placenames and family trees are significant in oral cultures. People would not only remember these church planters, but the message they preached. People were not only dazzled by fancy names, but they were also reminded of a story passed down from generation to generation. That old, old story of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Fragment 2 – The gravestone of Paulinus
GUARD OF FAITH, AND LOVER OF HIS LAND,
LIEGEMAN OF JUSTICE, HERE PAULINUS LIES.
This fragment is a curious inscription on a gravestone dating from the mid-sixth century. In school, I remember hearing how Dewi’s first miracle was healing his teacher, Paulinus, an old scribe who had lost his sight.
We believe that Dewi’s teacher was a disciple of Garmon (c.378-448), an important figure who came to Wales to combat the Pelagian heresy. Pelagius (c.355-420), another Welshman we think, played down the corrupting effects of sin. Garmon, on the other hand, taught that all people were under God’s condemnation because of sin in their nature and in their lives.
Pause. Theology was important for these early saints! It’s evident from figures like Paulinus, Garmon and Dewi that they were concerned that people should not be fooled. They taught that the sinner’s one hope is God’s grace which the great Augustine defined as free mercy towards those who deserve divine wrath. The inscription on this gravestone suggests a period when the old faith needed guarding against every ‘wind of doctrine’ (Eph. 4:14).
Fragment 3 – A sermon
As Dewi grew, his labours seemed to be centred around St David’s in Pembrokeshire. He was reputed to be a tall man (about 6 feet) and a powerful speaker. Scholars suggest that he went on preaching missions with other ministers like Cadog, Padarn and Teilo. One story mentions his first sermon at a church congress in Llanddewibrefi (c. 545). Sources tell us that Dewi ‘was heard as clear as a bell, and as far away as Llandudoch (St Dogmael’s).’ The ground, then, apparently rose at his feet so that all could see him.
Pause. An interesting story! We know that the aim of that sermon was warning his fellow preachers about the dangers of Pelagianism. Dare we speculate? Is it possible that the Holy Spirit anointed his preaching that day in such a manner that later chroniclers tried to explain that strange day as best as they could?
Fragment 4 – Dyfrwr
One of the most characteristic features about the Celtic church was its monasticism. We must be careful here that we do not medieval-ise this in our minds. What about Dewi? Was he a recluse? Highly unlikely. A simple life? Definitely. One fragment talks about Dewi being a ‘Dyfrwr’ or ‘Aquaticus’. The best way to describe this would be to think of him as a kind of Nazarite, abstaining from alcohol and meat. He is also reputed to have stood in the sea for hours, up to his neck, reciting the Psalms.
Pause. What is hinted at in these stories is a desire for holiness and dependence on the Lord. It reminds us of Daniel and his friends living ‘simply’ amongst the glamour of Babylon. What about us? Are we travelling light as pilgrims, or are we heavy laden with riches and the cares of this world?
Fragment 5 – Last words
‘Lords, brothers and sisters, rejoice and persevere in your faith and your belief, and do the little things that you have heard and seen in me. And I shall walk the way our fathers walked and fare you well.’
Fragments. That’s all we have. His last words are recited in schools and churches across Wales on the 1st of March, David’s Day.
He calls on us to rejoice in the Lord à la Philippians 4.
He calls on us to persevere in the darkness, walking in the light of 1 John 1:7.
He calls on us to imitate him, as he imitated the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).
We may not know much about him, but we can see traces of power and life in the fog of history; these elements can only be found in the pure gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
A Light in the Land by Gwyn Davies
The Book of Welsh Saints by T. D. Breverton
Photo credit https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Non%27s_Chapel_-_Fenster_5_St.David.jpg