I must be the only person I know who can be thrown out of an empty room for doing nothing more than praying in silence and encountering the Divine. Such was my lot as I sat in the Chapel of The Virgin Mary inside St Davids Cathedral on the far west coast of Wales. I was apparently not allowed to be there due to health and safety reasons as Choral Even Song was taking place. I must confess I found the episode all rather ‘pythonesque’ as the overly zealous Verger and I had a cryptic conversation about the unfortunate eventuality of the Cathedral burning down whilst I was praying alone in a Chapel designated for prayer.
How would he explain this to the police when my charred remains were pulled out of the incinerated building? Couple this to his perceived need of me to join in with everyone else in the main religious ceremony designed by others to meet my needs, I guess I was operating outside of his worldview. I did suggest that he would be forgiven in the unlikely event of an ecclesiastical inferno and that in truth I would be much happier on the other side of a fire anyway, but I am not sure he really grasped the metaphysical point I was making. I explained that I was praying, which seemed to catch him off guard as clearly he was more used to dealing with tourists than the small minority who were on a long desired, if short, pilgrimage to discuss with St David a need to shed unhealthy appetites in pursuit of ‘the deep silence and union with God’.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and over the last few years as my journey into the mists of Celtic Christianity has progressed, I have come to discover that ‘the great company of heaven’ that has proceeded us are not dead, they are very much alive. Logically when one thinks about it, to call the saints of our eternal family dead is to deny the resurrection and to deny the resurrection is to deny the core of the Christian faith, that holds resurrection as the explosive centre. Yet my initial exploration has turned up no easy solutions to the imitation of our aboriginal apostles of faith in the British Isles. Men like David were highly disciplined aesthetics, more akin to modern Zen masters, than our jolly rolling monk image of popular devotion. The idea of following in their footsteps thrills me from the comfort of my arm-chair, but the rigour of practice, I confess, I am currently too weak of spirit to fully enter into.
I wanted to visit David to talk. To discuss his world, perhaps to encounter him in the same way I did Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral as I prostrated myself on his tomb and felt the tangible warmth of his heart soak into my then tired skin. I wanted to understand David in context. The David who prayed, who battled, who lived a hermetical life. The David whose simplicity of faith was a profound weapon in winning over so many followers to Christ. A David who walked in the footsteps of the eastern monastic fathers and whose diet of bread and water would have daunted even the most hardened vegan. All of these parts of his life I know from books. The little knowledge I have gleaned has created an image in my mind I needed to test in context and conversation.
Yet the silence offered no response to me that evening. David did not set my heart racing in the confines of his Cathedral building. Instead as I was unceremoniously shoved out of a side door, I laughed at the absurdity of the encounter and set off to find St Non’s Chapel, the birth place of St David. I hoped to find her more hospitable than the newer institutional manifestation in her sons name that was so clearly concerned for my health and safety.
Over the last few years I have taken to learning sections of scripture by heart. I have found the process very meditative as well as uplifting. Motivated by the early Celtic saints love of scripture and their aesthetic devotion to prayer, the internalising of scriptures as prayer has become a goal for me. No longer are the words purely an external two-dimensional intellectual exercise, digested from a book. They are becoming a living breath, welling up from inside and taking flight in voice as it carries on the air. As I stood within the walls of St Non’s and began reciting the prologue of Johns Gospel (v 1-18), the Word emerged from within my breath and a Whinchat flew up onto the fence post not five yards from my vantage point, over looking St Non’s Bay, cocked it head to one side and stared intently at me. We watched each other closely and I found myself no longer reciting with the land, but to the bird. This tender little creature sat motionless until I got to the end of the prologue and as John the Baptist entered (v19), my little friend broke out of his apparent trance like state and flew on his way.
Away to the left the newer Chapel of St Non stands in the grounds of a Catholic retreat centre. Walking into this tiny space I am greeted by burning votive candles and an intensely blue stained glass window of St Non. The chapel is small, intimate and welcoming. As I walk over the threshold, from behind I hear the flutter of tiny wings and look to see a Wren fly in behind me. For a number of minutes my tiny friend flew round the chapel singing a song of such intensity I was amazed that such a sound could fit into so small a frame. My intention was to pray Psalm 63, but his voice was captivating and melodious and beautifully distracting. We were in such close proximity and seemingly shared the same intention, to give our voice of thanks to our Creator.
This subtle entrance into the presence of the creator on the Welsh coast was both sublimely beautiful and wholesome, yet revealed a layer of tension and disconnect within my own being. If the landscape we call St Davids was teaching me anything, it was that in simplicity we find the highest, purest form of originality. I had intellectually gone looking for God and without noticing, my soul had walked in the presence of God and been held by creation. Perhaps the greatest service a follower of Christ can give to the fractured world we live in would be to establish that most ancient of friendships again between heaven and earth.
It would seem to me that the disconnect we all live with will not be solved in the analysis of the problem, the objectifying of that problem into a ’cause and effect’ and the articulation of a solution through political activity whether secular or religious. This profound sense of disconnect our current society feels with itself and its neighbours, whether consciously or intuitively needs the ‘active contemplative’ to bring the warring parties to peace in their own body.
As I open my soul to the presence of Christ in creation, I recognise the heart beat of Christ in the rhythms of the seasons, the lungs of Christ in the tides of the Oceans. My co-joining and participation in Christ means I am co-present with creation in Christ. How can I therefore act against the very nature of that which gives me life, for to do so is to destroy life and in the process destroy myself.
David taught me a lot on my brief visit. I have glimpsed that ‘the landscape’ is a primary source of revelation and a mediator of peace and wholeness. This glimpse can only serve to whet the appetite for more. A generation later Columba would write, ‘be alone in a separate place’, clearly St David and St Columba understood that a well-chosen location could accelerate God’s grace in our lives.