To be preached at Leighton tomorrow . . .
A few years ago I was given a copy of Michael Palin's book about the nations of new Europe, which he wrote to accompany a TV travel series, describing a journey that began in Slovenia, a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but haven’t managed yet. Palin went on from Slovenia to visit Moldova, Estonia and Slovakia among others. All of these are nations that did not appear in my school atlas. Some of them are quite small, and have been formed when bigger nations broke up; indeed, some of them show distinct signs of breaking up further into smaller nations still. Moldova, for example, which nestles between Romania and the Ukraine if I’ve got my geography right, contains two more or less autonomous republics neither of which pays much allegiance to the Moldovan government.
One thing Michael Palin discovered was that each of the small nations he visited had a strong sense of its own national identity, and religious faith was often an important factor in that. Even Albania, for many long years a Stalinist regime in which all religion was banned and churches and mosques were knocked down, seems to be rediscovering its faith, and within that faith its national patron saints.
Saints come in many shapes and sizes, but the patron saint we honour today was at least born and raised in the land of which he is patron. That’s not the case elsewhere in these islands: George of England was a native of Capadoccia in modern Turkey; Andrew of Scotland was one of the Twelve apostles of Jesus; and even Patrick of Ireland was almost certainly either a Welshman or a Cumbrian. David certainly was a Welshman, though perhaps he himself would have preferred the title Briton. He was born of a Welsh mother, and schooled in the Welsh monastic tradition. And if we take the story of his life at face value he became nothing less than Archbishop of Wales.
How much of the story of David can be taken at face value is another matter, and the answer is probably not all that much. David died in the year 601, and the very earliest written evidence about him comes from a hundred or so years after he died. And that does little more than mention him by name, though it does clearly inform us that he was a bishop. But by about the year 800 March 1st was being kept as David's feast day, and by the 12th century he was regarded as patron saint of all of Wales. The oldest sites linked with David are in fact all in the south of Wales, though. He's also claimed as a founder of the monastery at Glastonbury. To what degree was the real David ever a saint for Gogledd Cymru?
The problem with saints, and David is no exception, is that most of the good stories we have come from long after their own time. It's hard to give them much credence. So what do we really know about David? Probably he and his monks followed a strictly vegetarian diet, and it may well be true that David drank only water, so that he was known as Aquaticus. He seems to have based the monastic rule of life he established on that of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity.
We can also be fairly sure that David did attend the Synod of Brevi in around 560. The story goes that his preaching there met with such acclaim that he was made archbishop, and his monastery at Menevia (or St David's as we now know it) became the metropolitan centre for the Welsh Church; but that story is much less likely. The legends go on to say that David in fact travelled to Jerusalem to be consecrated there as bishop. Frankly that is extremely unlikely to be true. And of course, there is the famous story of how at Brevi the ground rose up in a miraculous way beneath David as he was preaching, so that all the crowd could see him. Suffice to say, the first record of that story comes from hundreds of years later.
But, as I’ve said, by the 12th century David had become the patron saint of this land; and in fact two pilgrimages to St David's were regarded as equivalent to one pilgrimage to Rome. Among the many people of note and standing who made the pilgrimage to St David's was one William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror. Make of that what you will.
But why do we acclaim David as a saint when we know so little for sure about him? Well, the first thing to say is that he was celebrated very soon after his death, and that in itself indicates that this was a man who shone with the light of Christ in a specially attractive way. That's why people remembered David, and it’s also why they were drawn to compose stories about him that we may find a little hard to credit; behind those stories is the simple fact that this man had been what all Christians should aspire to be: a faithful witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, bearing his name and his cross.
So this man is a saint; but we also celebrate David as the patron saint of Wales. To do that says something about identity, tradition and rootedness. In this secular age, surveys continue to indicate that most people in Britain regard traditional values, including religious faith, as in some way important to them. A sense of national identity is part of this, by which I don’t mean the yah-boo nationalism that says 'We're great and you're rubbish', but simply a sense of who and what we are and where we stand and belong, our responsibilities as citizens and our responsibility as a nation. When nationalism is turned into fascism or extremism it becomes something poisonous and deadly, but nationalism doesn’t have to be like that. To know who we are and where we belong can help us build a stable and compassionate society. For the people of Wales to take pride in who they are, what better base could we have but a man renowned for his service, simplicity and faith?
St David's Day this year falls further into Lent than usual, but it usually coincides with this time when our thoughts turn to discipline, prayer, and the forty days our Lord spent in the desert. Saints help provide a bridge to Jesus; David is said to have founded ten monasteries, and all of them would have used a regime of study and work, and of simplicity and acts of mercy to draw people closer to the example of Christ. A patron saint is not simply a badge to wear, a lucky charm behind which to seek protection. In David we find someone we can look to with pride and aspire to follow; a man who offered others a way to Jesus through an example of sacrifice and service.
Jesus said: To follow me you must renounce yourself and take up your cross. Whether in the former Soviet bloc or on the Celtic fringe, it may be that the small nations of Europe have a stronger sense than most of the cross, from their own histories of hardship, struggle and foreign domination. But what does it mean today for us to bear the cross of Christ? David was first and foremost a missionary, a man who lived and shared his faith. That has to be our task too. May we be ready as David was to bear the cross, to offer ourselves in the service of our Lord, and to be together a holy nation sharing a call to live lives that make a difference, lives of mercy, compassion and care.