The article of the month

Living Stones: Saints of Our Isles by Roy Peachey

Saint David

As recent debates about Saint David’s Day in both the National Assembly of Wales and the Westminster parliament have shown, Saint David remains a figure of national and international importance to this day, and yet we know very little for certain about his life. As far as we can tell, he was born in west Wales in the 5th century, but it wasn’t until the 8th century that a significant number of references about him appeared in the documentary record, and it was only in the second half of the 11th century that the first comprehensive Life was written.

However, it was worth the wait because Rhygyfarch’s Life of Saint David, which was based on what he called “very old writings”, is a fascinating book.

Rhygyfarch tells us that David’s father was king of Ceredigion and his mother a saintly nun called Nonnita (or Non), who was violated by the king. Thanks in large part to his mother’s faithful devotion, David eventually became a priest. He led an ascetic priestly life, possibly on the Isle of Wight, before founding several monasteries, the most significant of which was in the Vale of Ross, near Menevia. The monks in David’s monasteries were clearly inspired by his personal example, since he spent the whole day, “unshaken and unwearied, in teaching, praying, and genuflecting, in care for the brethren, and also in feeding a multitude of the bereft, orphans, widows, the needy, the weak, the infirm, and pilgrims”.

Despite the rigour of his rule, or maybe because of it, many men sought admission to these monasteries. To ensure that their vocation was genuine, David insisted that any candidate should be made to wait ten days “at the doors of the monastery as one rejected”. Only those who persevered were able to enter.

Writing shortly after the Norman conquest of Britain, Rhygyfarch clearly believed that the church in Wales was threatened by the new regime and so he emphasised David’s role as a national leader, telling his readers that, even before the saint’s birth, Saint Gildas prophesied that “God had given him status and sole rule and primacy over all the saints of Britannia for ever”.

While some of Rhygyfarch’s stories have become well known, David’s association with leeks cannot be attributed to Rhygyfarch’s Life. Its origin is now obscure but its popularity today can be traced back to Shakespeare’s Henry V and Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, in which he wrote:

That reverend British saint, in zealous ages past,
To contemplation lived; and did so truly fast,
As he did only drink what crystal Hodney yields,
And fed upon the leeks he gathered in the fields.
In memory of whom, in the revolving year,
The Welchmen on his day that sacred herb do wear.

Rygyfarch, by contrast, tells us that when Saint David died on 1 March, his monastic community was gathered round him. “Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about,” he told them. “I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

“Do the little things” or “Gwnewch y pethau bychain” remains a popular phrase in Wales and perhaps reminds us of the words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Saint David’s little way, though less well known, remains an inspiration to this day.

Roy Peachey lives in Surrey, England, with his wife and children. He is the author of several books including 50 Books for Life: A Concise Guide to Catholic Literature (Angelico Press) and Did Jesus Go To School? (Redemptorist).