Thursday, March 1, 2012

Saint of the Month: Saint David of Wales!

Saint David of Wales in stained glass at All Saints' Episcopal
Church, San Francisco.  Photograph by AJ Alfieri-Crispin,
and shared with one of those open-license dealies.
Saint David of Wales

AKA: Dewi Sant, Degui.
Feast Day: March 1st.

Really Existed? Definitely.
Timeframe: Sixth Century.  Died 601, or possibly earlier.
Place: Wales.

Credentials: Canonized by Pope Calixtus II in 1120.
Martyrdom: None

Patron Saint of: Wales, doves.
Symbolism: stands on a small hill, with a dove on his shoulder. May be represented by leeks or daffodils. Has own flag.

Here’s what’s known more or less for sure about St. David of Wales: He was a Welsh bishop in the Sixth Century. He was involved with the Synod of Brevi, a big church meeting that was probably intended to crack down on the spread of the Pelagian Heresy (look it up, if you’re interested) in Britain. In 569, he was in charge of another synod held at someplace called Lucus Victoriae. Tradition holds that he died in 544, but since the source document for that date is highly spurious and since we know he was still hosting synods 25 years later, tradition is probably wrong. 601 seems like the best bet.

So, the historical record is a bit thin on the ground. The St. David legends are, by contrast, a great deal more colorful. He is, for instance, King Arthur’s nephew, or perhaps his uncle. An angel foretold his birth to St. Patrick thirty years in advance. Indeed, David was a saint among saints: his mother was St. Non, his first tutor was St. Illtyd, and he did graduate work under St. Paulinus.  On the occasion of his baptism, which was performed by one St. Elvis of Munster, a blind man was restored to sight by the baptismal water. When some monks tried to poison him, St. Scuthyn crossed the Irish Sea on the back of a sea monster in order to warn him of the danger. He “worked with” Saint Columbanus, Saint Gildas the Wise, and Saint Finnigan, although my source does not specify where or at what task. He traveled to Jerusalem with St. Teilo and St. Padarn, and it was there that St. Dubric and St. Daniel invited him to take his stand against the Pelagian heresy.

At the Brevy Synod, the ground where he was preaching miraculously rose and became a hill; this allowed everybody to hear him better which, along with his great eloquence, completely flummoxed the heretics. A dove may have also landed on his shoulder on this occasion. At a separate event when he was having trouble being heard, he spread a handkerchief (!) on the ground from which a pillar sprouted; this made him easier to hear, but probably really got people’s attention too. He founded twelve monasteries, in which he enforced the practice of a rigorous austerity: “Their days were filled with hard manual labor and no plough was permitted in the work of the fields. ‘Every man his own ox,’ said St. David.”  He raised a guy from the dead. He lived to be 147. St. Kentigern saw his soul borne up by angels into heaven.

The Catholic Encyclopedia notes, with what I may only imagine to be smirking understatement, that “it is impossible to discover in this story how much, if any, is true.” Most of it, however, seems to have been cooked up from scratch around 1100 in an attempt to support the claim for a Welsh religious establishment independent of the Bishop of Canterbury.

St. David’s base of operations was in the settlement of Mynyw, which the Romans had renamed Menevia; today it is known as “St. Davids.” With somewhat under 2000 people, it is far and away the smallest city in Britain – the presence of a cathedral being to the Brits the defining characteristic of a “city.” St. David’s Cathedral dominates the place, as indeed it would almost have to. It is no longer quite the pilgrimage draw that it was in the middle ages, when Pope Calixtus II had said – or was believed to have said – that two pilgrimages to St David's were equivalent to one to Rome. But, along with the attractions of the nearby Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, St. Davids nevertheless continues to bring in a steady tourist trade.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that St. David has his own flag!  It's a good one:

Despite the lack of a clear historical record or even, it seems to me, any real signature event in his folk tradition, St. David is apparently quite a popular figure among the Welsh. Indeed, March 1st is the Welsh national holiday. This may have to do with the Armes Prydein, a tenth-century epic poem that foretells the Welsh and Celtic peoples uniting under the banner of St. David to destroy the English. (The Armes Prydein also introduces the character of Merlin, who would later go on to have his own show.)

Dydd gŵyl dewi hapus 2012!!



St. David does have a great flag-too bad it is not as well known as other Welsh flags, or is black/yellow a common international flag combo.

Cornwall (the land of my father's family) has a similar flag (St. Piran, with same black, but with white (tin) cross.)

St. Petroc and his green, white, black flag represent Devon.

Michael5000 said...

I do love me the Cornish flag. I went walking on the Cornish coast sometimes when I lived in Exeter, and liked seeing it flying on the little fishing boats. Didn't know it was saint-associated, though!

UnwiseOwl said...

I dunno man, old flag with a great big stinking cross on it. Not really much of a surprise, is it?

Eavan said...

Also, the colors say "Do not eat me, I am poisonous!" Although St David had not visited the Amazon, so he can perhaps be forgiven for that one.