This post is based on the outline of an exploration session presented at The Silent Eye (a modern mystery school) “Leaf and Flame: the Foliate Man” weekend in 2016. Whilst I have attempted to retain some of the flavour, and changes in direction, of the actual talk, the interactive elements of the exploration are absent, and since most of it was done “on the hoof”, it is not really a true reflection of the session. Many of the sections are expanded considerably from that presented on the day…
Sourced from internet. Artist unknown.
Whether we recognise it or not, we receive guidance, often in areas in which we have no direct experience, from what can only be considered an “external” source. This “subconscious” guidance may be considered to emanate from many sources, including “spirit animals“.
Belief in spirit, and spirit guidance, is firmly rooted in the Paleolithic. Much rock art remaining from that time includes the shamanic “conjuring” of animals, the dedication of the hunt, and relies on the primary concept that there is no separation between the physical object, its spirit, and the depiction of that object in art.
This system of belief is referred to as animism.
In animistic society, everything is considered “as”, “containing”, or “of” spirit. In additional to the Gods and the Ancestors, this included objects in nature; stones, trees, springs, mountains, and streams; the forces of nature; wind, rain, lightning, and fire; the inexplicable nomads; the stars, sun, moon, and tides; humans, themselves, and the plants and animals upon which they relied in order to survive.
A core principle, in living a hunter-gatherer existence, particularly at higher latitudes in which times of uncertainty and scarcity would be the norm in certain seasons, was that of gratitude; for each new day, for continuing health, and, particularly, for the sacrifice of spirit made by the animals and plants on which they survived.
[Group discussion: expressing gratitude for everything we eat. The spirit of breakfast and the sacrifices thereof.]
We know how our Paleolithic ancestors thought, because there are still societies who maintain a hunter-gatherer existence. Much of what we know, of course, has been gleaned from cultures destroyed by exposure to European agricultural civilisation: Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals, when first encountered, remained largely unchanged, reliant upon, and completely in balance with nature.
It was our Ancestors of the Neolithic period who began to shift away from merely subsisting. Taming and controlling nature, however, came at significant cost. Whilst periods of food scarcity might be generally avoided, the invention of agriculture ended a hitherto nomadic lifestyle, and required considerable investment of both time and energy to be successful. (Every Monday morning, as you press the snooze button for the third time, it is your Neolithic Ancestors whom you should thank for the invention of work!)
With the move from nomadic to a settled cultural model, Nature slowly lost her spirits. The objects gratitude shifted to the spirit of “things”: land, seed, livestock; leading to a perversion of the relationship between Man and Nature. The Gods, ultimately, supplanted by the veneration of Things.
Two people stand just ahead of the main group at the edge of a Llyn Carrig Bach, the sacred Druid lake which now lies just off the end of the runway at RAF Valley, on Anglesey. Being the weekend, RAF Gnats – the UK’s primary jet training aircraft, made famous by the Red Arrows aerobatic team – are silent.
The two gaze into the setting sun, drinking in the vivid colours of twilight, and give unspoken thanks to the modern forces of happenstance that this most special day could have ended with such a magical event in the early night’s sky.
The last stage of their path, here, with their companions of the weekend, was from the RSPB car park situated at the end of the main road through the small town of Valley. As they walked the sun set, and the final stages of the short climb to the plateau were carried out in the day’s fading light.
This juxtaposition, here, of ancient and modern has its military overtones, too, – which are not lost on the group. The Silent Eye teaches that in the moment, the now, there is continuous magic. This magic conspires to bring to us the ‘bigger’ picture – the work of the spiritual – in what is usually viewed as the ordinary or the accidental. We see what expect to see. When we widen that expectation – in the final analysis, letting go of any ‘us-generated’ expectation – we begin to see a very different world.
In this place, right over the marshy lakes which marked the end of our first day, some of the world’s most advanced small jets hurl themselves into the air with unbelievable speed.
Unbelievable…. a word that might also describe how those we were gathered to honour – our Druid ancestors – felt, in A.D. 60, knowing that the greatest military machine in the world was a few miles away, waiting for the right time to cross the Menai Straits from the mainland and end the Druid’s magical existence…
Disbelief, perhaps, would be a better word. One theory is that disbelief was so strong that the Druid chiefs assembled here (already a longstanding sacred site) to cast into the waters a large sacrifice of their most precious objects – damaged by themselves so that they were beyond their own use. We have forgotten this form of sacrifice, yet we embed such principles into various logical instruments such as financial trusts.
Swords, shields, slave chains and even a cauldron, all were thrown into the waters of Llyn Carrig Bach only a short distance from where we had gathered in the fading light. What became known as the ‘Anglesey Hoard’ was rediscovered when the airfield was under construction in the 1940s and is now housed in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
Now, on the hilltop overlooking the ancient lake – now largely silted up and with a shoreline protected by sharp gorse bushes – the two light candle flames and gathered their spiritual kin to begin the simple rite…
A day such this can be focussed on either its beginning or its ending. At the summer weekends, we focus on the dawn, symbolising the rising power of life – a universal, magical event, that we all take for granted.
For the winter solstice, we view the sunset as the event around which gather; and the whole of the Saturday on Anglesey was constructed to support that…
We had begun with the vast history of life and pre-life on Earth, beautifully illustrated in the twin climbs (down and up) of the cliffs at South Stack.
Back at the top, after the struggle of the ascent – representing the long climb of evolution – we visited a wonderful ancient village that has such a special feel that it could still be inhabited by the happy ancestors who lived and thrived there…
From there, we travelled in our car convoy to a strange dolmen located in the middle of a large and very muddy field.
Both Barbara (in the stone) and I had been moved by the folk-tale of a family who, in relatively recent times, had made a home beneath this ancient structure in their times of dire need. The contrast with the ‘happy’feel of the Holyhead Mountain group could not have been stronger and emphasised how mankind’s structures have played a pivotal role in the ascent of the species.
Our brief (soup) lunch had been at Rhosneigr, where, after our simple meal, the beach provided a contemplative place to each select a pebble to be used as a sacrificial token during the sunset ceremony at Llyn Carrig Bach. Each person was asked to imbue the stone with something that had served them well, but which they had outgrown.
Our penultimate destination, with the sun setting fast into the ocean, is one of the most beautifully situated burial chambers in Britain – Barclodiad y Gawres. Located on a clifftop near Aberffraw, this site has been reconstructed with a roof of concrete, newly covered in soil and grass, and is most strongly associated with the Druids, as this picture site guide shows. The facial decorations were mirrored in the headland stones.
Here, we had a place of ritual splendour which, sadly, is now locked behind steel shutters to prevent vandalism – a sad contrast to the reverence of our ancestors.
On one of the previous visits, the early fencing had been bent back and we were able to spend a few moments inside.
Then, with the light fading, and fearing that we were too late to bring the Saturday to the conclusion we had planned, we had set off for Llyn Carrig Bach, arriving just as the sun set on the western horizon. The sacrificial site is a few hundred metres across a field, and the final ascent to the raised plateau overlooking the lake is a bit of a scramble…
But, we need not have worried. Everything was waiting for us, as perfectly arranged and timed as we could have asked for…
The small ring of pilgrims collect their lights and their blessings from the priest. In complete silence they take light and token to the high edge over the water, where the priestess is waiting. She greets them with a sign and her own blessing, standing back so that they can cast away into the sacrifical water what they no longer have need of, and which is holding back the embrace of their spiritual future.
The simple rite ends. There is a feeling of great peace. It has been a day well spent. The moon and venus have borne witness to this gathering. We are blessed.
The Silent Eye School of Consciousness offers a low-cost, three-year home study programme which delivers a deep and experiential understanding of the human spiritual journey using the Magical Enneagram.
There are at least three dimensions to one of the Silent Eye’s discovery weekends. There’s the place itself, with its features – ancient and modern; there’s the social side, most present in the evening when we mellow into the chosen restaurant and share good food and a glass or two of wine; and then, there’s the way the whole event unfolds, which is the most important of all.
Good unfolding is the essence of a good weekend, and it does not come about by accident. For “Of Ash and Seed’ The organisers made two separate trips to Anglesey during the year leading up to December’s pre-solstice weekend. Each time we were ‘sensing’ how the plans would flow into a near-solstice day which is very short. We work on the basis that, social time, aside, December allows us only the daytime hours of ten till four and then the darkness wraps around us.
If the weather is foul, as last year’s was, then we also need places of retreat along the way. Last year, for example, the long-term forecast was dreadful so we booked a Christmas lunch at a nearby pub (The Jolly Crofters, Bolton) – one on the same height level as the top of Leverhulme’s gardens, leaving us only to stagger through the gale force storm to get to it…
But even those grumbling by then were the first to admit that it made the day very special.
When you start planning such an event, you look a the meagre list of places you want to include and your first thought is: there’s not enough! That won’t fill a day and we’ll have a ring of people looking expectantly at the sodden itinerary that has just been raced through…
Cafés…. I confess to finding great happiness in cafés, liberally scattered through the day so that a pleasant half hour can be spent out of the wind, rain or sandstorm… Can’t beat it. They also come in handy when you’ve lost the leader of your party and you need to wait somewhere predictable so you can be found. I’m very predictable… you’ll always find me in a café – ideally one that (rapidly) serves big pots of tea, with anytime cream teas… I’m a simple soul.
The climb back up South Stack, with its four hundred-plus steps, is demanding, but there were many stopping places where we could rest the legs and take in the splendour of the views. Being December, bird life – in abundance on the RSPB cliffs during the warmer months – was scarce, though several beautiful choughs, with their orange-red beaks, were gaily in abundance.
It is important to go at the pace of the slowest, and we take that seriously. This is why such days need to have lots of ‘elastic’ in them – think tea rooms…
The RSPB café, part of the visitor centre, is just down the road from the top of the South Stack steps and well-placed. Gratefully, we trundled in and the sound of relatively happy people sipping good tea and coffee was soon to be heard. The day was going well… allowing for the aches and groans the four-hundred steps were always going to induce.
For those deeply into the mysteries of the ancient landscape, there was a treat in store, just across the road from the cafe.
The Holyhead Mountain Hut Circles Group, to give it its full name, is the remains of about twenty dry-stone-built huts and associated field systems, belonging to a series of prehistoric and later farmsteads. I could go on to describe it, but Sue has done such a good job with her post of the 13th December, that I can simply put in the link, here… and add a few photos of my own:
The last photo – of the gorse and the site of the ancient fortification – marked a particularly poignant moment. Having discovered that there had been a hill fort on the top of Holyhead mountain, I could imagine how warrior guards would have been stationed up there, in the freezing and exposed conditions of winter, to guard over the settlement below. The mountain offers views right across to Ireland, on a clear day, and history records that it was a point of security of both Druid and, subsequently, Roman guards.
The lasting impression of this place was one of peace. Despite the settlement being very old, there remains a feeling of great tranquility, as though it is still lived in, in some form. You get the other-worldly feeling that its inhabitants were happy here, under whichever guardian paced the mountain fort, above…
Our own offerings to this lovely settlement took the form of poetry and the first of three scrolls between a Roman Centurion, Amathus, and a Druid High Priestess, Camma. Amathus, the centurion, had spent time in his wandering youth and fallen in love with the Druid tribe who adopted and trained him in their lore and wisdom.
Later, his travels took him away, but his skills saw him co-opted as centurion into the Roman Legion of Seutonius Paulinus, the much-feared leader of Rome’s campaigns in Africa, now sent to exterminate the last of the Duids, shored up on the Ynys Môn–present-day Anglesey.
These scrolls, which were to foreshadow the playing out of a tragic sacrificial death at Bryn Celli Ddu on our Sunday morning, were published in the run-up to the weekend and can be read here.
Another tearoom beckoned, one next to the beach in the lovely coastal town of Rhosneigr, but before that, we needed to visit a mysterious dolmen in the middle of an easy-access, but muddy, field.
The Silent Eye School of Consciousness offers a low-cost, three-year home study programme which delivers a deep and experiential understanding of the human spiritual journey using the Magical Enneagram.
Four hundred steps… six hundred million years… It’s a lot, especially when they descend one of the steepest cliffs in Britain.
But it’s worth it. To travel through the known geological history of the Earth in the few minutes it takes to hum ‘Morning has broken’ is a soul-warming experience; and nor is the song out of place when you’re experiencing one of the brightest and most beautiful December mornings ever…
With the exception of Friday night’s walk around the moonlit crescent of Trearddur Bay, on the farthest western peninsula of the ancient island of Anglesey, this, the Saturday morning, was the start of the Silent Eye’s ‘notorious’ winter weekend – notorious for its dubious seasonal placing within the pre-solstice, December weather.
Last year’s December workshop had ended, prematurely, amidst the worst UK floods in living memory, as we battled the elements to climb the rain-soaked west-Pennines in the search for the meaning of the lost landscape of Viscount Leverhulme.
Thankfully, we had all enjoyed the Saturday, including a splendid Christmas lunch at a local pub, enough to abandon the Sunday…
No such woes, now. At the bottom of South-Stack’s vertical cliffs – an RSPB nature reserve in its own right – we were treated to light, dappled clouds and frequent winter sun. Bright and just cold enough to feel distinctly festive as we all looked up at the light sky, and wondered if it would hold…
We needn’t have worried. For the entire weekend, we were increasingly bathed in gold, blue and, as the days ended, a very rare and crystal-clear obsidian black, which was to play a great part in a spiritually- uplifting two days.
Looking up the cliffs at the rock-written history of our beautiful planet, we asked the Companions of the weekend to visualise how many times the Earth had curved on its seemingly never-ending orbit of the Sun, spiralling through the backdrop of galactic space of which we have little conception. Back through our Western history to its roots; and prior to that, to the pre-history of Britain, in which the Celtic and Druid tribes had their origin and their zenith.
In the case of the Druids, that zenith came to a brutal end on the Isle of Anglesey, their last refuge from the ruthless Roman army, in two massacres – A.D. 60 and later in A.D. 77.
What does it feel like to know that your civilisation and everything you love and treasure is coming to an end? There are obvious parallels with the uncertainties of the present chaos in the world’s politics, but our focus was not on doom, but on how to face dark uncertainty with hope and a heart filled with the seeds of the possible–the real future.
Hardship, and its extreme characteristic, destruction, is a necessary, though little-considered part of evolution. The ancient Hindus understood this well. Their primary ‘Trinity’, though a single threesome, contains the Gods of existence, preservation and, at the end of useful life of structure, destruction.
We have no idea whether the Druid priests and priestesses communed with their own gods and goddesses of destruction as they stood on the beaches of the Menai Straits, gazing across the deadly waters, as they considered the end of their world. Perhaps they invoked The Morrigan, that three-fold goddess: shape-shifter, crone and warrior in one entity…perhaps a more native Welsh god was invoked. We may never know, and nor is it of great importance for this exercise.
For the Druids, forest groves and bodies of water were of special significance. Lakes, in particular, held the power of the ‘liminal’ – a nether world between two others: neither one thing nor the other, such as life and beyond life; a place where offerings could be made, and communication with higher perspectives could be achieved.
Such places, often embedded, now, in modern urban landscapes, may still have a very special energy, as we were to discover at the end of this most special day, at Llyn Carrig.
In the day and a half before us, we meant to use the spirit of the approaching winter solstice to explore the liminal edge of the end of the Druids…
To be continued in Part Two
The Silent Eye School of Consciousness offers a low-cost, three-year home study programme which delivers a deep and experiential understanding of the spiritual journey using the Magical Enneagram.
For an event that lasts for one whole and two half days, ‘Of Ash and Seed’ has taken a lot of preparation!
The issue is not that it is more complex than previous workshops, it’s simply that doing such a weekend in the depths of December is a challenge in itself. The first consideration is the length–or rather, shortness–of the day. Over the years we’ve learned that the ‘working day’ for these Winter pre-solstice weekends begins at ten in the morning and ends at four in the afternoon. That’s not a lot of time….
The second is the weather – December can be very unkind.
Fortunately, Anglesey is sufficiently compact and rich in ancient sites to be able to accommodate this kind of event. The guide books suggest that the island can be split into three ‘tours’. We’ve opted to convert this into two events – one this year and one to follow in a subsequent year, possibly with a changed date of September, as we’re mixing up the team dates for next year to assist the 2018 April dramatic workshop in Derbyshire.
To help with our limited length of day we are carrying out three routes across the island, starting from our base in Trearddur Bay, on the ‘Holy Island’ peninsula in the West, near Holyhead.
The Friday afternoon will see us gathering at one of the hotels, then taking a walk around the whole of Trearddur Bay, drinking in the winds, the crescent beach, the winter sea and whatever else the weather throws at us; in other words, being open to the ‘now’ – something at the heart of what the Silent Eye teaches. We do not visit ancient landscapes because we’re wedded to ancient times, we visit them because they are a beautiful part of our spiritual heritage. We may never penetrate to the heart of their mysteries, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is our presence, with an open intent to be present in these spaces in a way that invites something greater than the little group who huddle from the wind and rain!
And it works… every time. Ask those who have been our guests and who are not Companions in the School, they’ll tell you how magical things can get.
Friday will end well. We know that for a fact, because there will be good food and a little wine; but not too much. We don’t want to spoil the big day.
Saturday 2nd of December – the big day. We’ll meet at the hotel, hopefully collecting one of our Companions who can only join us by rail and for the day. We’ll then set off for South Stack and the Neolithic village next to it. If you’ve been there, you’ll know how spectacular this place is, as the CADW photograph here shows.
There are four hundred steps down the huge cliffs to get to the RSPB bird sanctuary on the old lighthouse island. As long as it’s not icy (we won’t go if it is) the descent is well worth the climb back… but I have to convince the others that this is the case… I am reliably told that there is a new, all-year cafe at the bottom, so I’m hoping that swings it, as there are no facilities at the top!
We will emerge, whole and triumphant, to visit the Neolithic remains, which are spectacular. You get a real sense of being in an ancient village in this place, perched on the edge of the wild seas.
Then it’s on to Presaddfed burial chamber, one of the best on the island. These two neolithic structures, once covered by a mound of rocks or earth, were part of ancient communal life. They were used for burial but not exclusively so. The latest archaeological findings indicate that their greater function was to be a physical and spiritual centre of a community in which the consciousness of the whole was much more central to life than we know it, today.
Our lunch will be taken in Rhosneigr, a busy and friendly surfing resort on the edge of RAF Valley’s runways. Here we will recharge our batteries before each selecting a pebble from the adjacent beach; a pebble we will invest with meaning to be used at the close of the light at the ancient Druid lake of Llyn Carrig Bach, the site from which the famed Anglesey Hoard was recovered in 1943, during the initial construction of the airfield at RAF Valley.
Before that, we will travel to the region of Aberffraw, once one of the three most important locations in ancient Britain, to scramble over the cliff path to find Barclodiad y Gawres – a large burial chamber in a spectacular location. The monument is currently undergoing restoration, but its main features are clearly visible through the protective grill erected to keep us out. Private viewings may be made, but not, sadly, during the days of our visit.
Above: Barclodiad y Gawres clifftop burial chamber
We will then adjourn to the comfort of the Oyster Catcher Cafe set in the lovely sand dunes of Rhosneigr to review the day, do some personal readings, and await the coming of twilight – our cue to drive the ten miles to the once-sacred lake of Llyn Carrig Bach to make mystical and personal use of the pebbles we will have been carrying since lunch.
We will make our way back to the cars by torchlight, then drive in silence to Trearddur Bay for our main social evening with good food, wine and company.
Sunday will see us travelling across the island to Penmon Point, from which there is an unrivalled view across the Menai Straits to Puffin Island and, further, to The Great Orme, above Llandudno. The remains of Penmon Priory house a small but important museum whose artefacts span millennia of Celtic and Christian civilisation in this remote place.
Our final site visit will be to one of the best examples of a Neolithic chambered tomb in the world, with a partially restored entrance passage and mound, on the site of a former henge monument.
Bryn Celli Ddu (pronounced ‘bryn kethli thee’ – the ‘Mound in the Dark Grove’ – is probably the best-known prehistoric monument on Anglesey. It is set within an older pre-history henge and can be entered and explored. Here we will carry out a little chanting and enact a small ceremony that honours the Druids of the island who waited to be murdered by the advancing Roman army… or did they?
Our weekend will close with a light lunch at the friendly Spinning Wheel Cafe in Beaumaris. Then, there will be goodbyes and hugs and many a ‘Merry Christmas’ as we make our ways back to our respective homes.
It will no doubt have been cold, windy, short and utterly wonderful… And we’ll all say we can’t wait to do the next one…
Môna Insula was the Roman word for the Isle of Anglesey, the location for the Silent Eye’s December 2016 pre-Solstice weekend and the last stronghold of the Druids in A.D. 60.
Friday started early; there is always that sense of excited, nervous anticipation as the day of a workshop dawns. While our companions for the weekend were making their way from distant corners of the country, two of us were driving through crepuscular suburbs toward the open moors for a final morning of reconnaissance. The lightening sky lit the pathway through the fading heather towards what would be our first destination, a little bridge across a stream. We had, on our initial visit, intended to climb the hill by the obvious route, only to find the ground to be a boggy and impenetrable morass. The stream had helped itself to an offering of chocolate from my companion’s pocket…which he had retrieved and unwrapped before giving it back to the water. Retreating, we had been directed to follow the path to another crossing point and we had both remarked that it looked like the troll bridge from Billy Goats Gruff when we had first seen it. This had given us an idea, one that would evolve as the workshop drew closer and we listened to the story of the land as the wind…perhaps…had helped itself to further offerings from our hands.
By Friday morning, however, our plans were clear. I lingered on the path while my companion went down to the bridge to check lines of sight, then followed him down, reciting a poem from Tolkien that seemed appropriate to the moment, so we could check when approaching voices could be heard. “The Road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began…” As I reached the bridge, the sound of small birds filled the air, rising to protect their young from the silent wings of a hawk.
The birds were not the only watchful creatures… we were watched by interested eyes as we paced out our intentions and learned the space we would be using for our opening. While the rest of the sites we would be visiting are familiar to us, we had only been here once before and we have learned that spatial memory can be unreliable. What you think will work beautifully in a space may bear little relation to what you can actually do there.
We had decided upon a theme and a loose, flexible structure, adding in some more carefully constructed elements to tie the workshop together. Most of the weekend would be allowed to unfold in the moment, relying on memory for facts about the sites we would visit and on the landscape itself for inspiration. This first entry into an ancient place, though, was something we wished to mark, sealing the intent of the company and our search for a deeper understanding of the old places and mankind’s eternal questioning of what is and what might be.
The all-pervading damp of the early morning mist was chill, yet the light was soft and beautiful, giving hope for a lovely day ahead. It was not until we turned our gaze to the east that we realised that, in this magical little valley, the sun had yet to rise. We watched in hushed awe as white fire erased the horizon and our day was born. There was yet another place we needed to visit before we headed home to prepare for the start of the workshop… and we were unprepared for what we would find there…
Behind the High Altar of St Davids Cathedral there was once an empty space, open to the winds. In the early 1500s, Bishop Edward Vaughan created a chapel there which, for me, is the loveliest part of the cathedral. The Holy Trinity chapel seems to be a very simple space of hewn stone; such is the sense of harmony there that the intricate carvings of the fan vaulted ceiling barely register as being ornate.
Instead, the eyes are drawn to the altar and to a niche through which one can just about see through to the High Altar and the shrine of St David. Both the altar and the niche use carvings far older than their construction…fragments of history that were recognised as such five hundred years ago. In the niche, a sanctuary light burns before the ancient carved crosses that frame the little window. Above the altar, the reredos shows St James, St Andrew, St Peter and St Paul flanking a scene from the Crucifixion, with a Latin text,”Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”.
There is a sense of being enclosed here in an atmosphere of peace hallowed by centuries of prayer. Bishop Vaughan himself was buried in front of the altar. It seems an odd contrast… the churchman was responsible for many of the restorations and improvements that were added to the church in the 16th century and himself had an illustrious career… yet here he lies in an aura of simplicity.
Just outside the little chapel is another, very simple, where priests and knights rest in stone. Above the altar a depiction in stained glass of St David himself. The image is stylised and idealised, bearing little resemblance to the dress and accoutrements he would have habitually worn. St David was known as a simple man in life, yet his shrine is decked with gold.
Dewi Sant he is called by the Welsh and he is the nation’s patron saint. Little is known about him apart from those stories that have been passed down through long memory and the legends that arose about the saint. In the Middle Ages he was believed to be the nephew of King Arthur, but in truth little is known about his family history for certain. The tales say that he was the son of St Non, born at the place where the chapel now marks the site of her house within an ancient circle of stones. The Annales Cambriae say that he died in 601, although others suggest the date of his death to be AD544. He is reputed to have been over a hundred years old when he died… and legend has it that he lived till he was 147.
Much of what is known of the saint comes from the Buchedd Dewi (“Life of David”), written by Rhygyfarch around five hundred years after David’s death. Scholars doubt the veracity of many of the stories the book contains, believing that the author sought to use them to aid the ecclesiastical politics of the time. The Celtic version of Christianity had remained at St Davids far longer than most places and it was not until the 8th century that Roman Rule was accepted. At the time of Rhygyfarch’s writing, there was still a battle for equal status with Canterbury and certain details may have been being used to score points.
St David founded several monastic communities adhering to a strict and ascetic Rule of absolute poverty, where the monks worked hard, ate little and prayed much. He was renowned as a teacher and preacher and as a good man. There are a good many miracles attributed to St David. The best known was when he was preaching to a large crowd at the Synod of Llanddewi Brefi. The crowd could not hear him, but a hill rose up from under his feet and a dove landed on his shoulder… a clear sign that the Holy Spirit was with him. He had raised a widow’s son from the dead on the way to the Synod too. Perhaps my favourite is that the phenomenon of corpse candles is attributed to the strength of his prayers and love for his people. He prayed that they might be given a sign when their end was near so that they could prepare themselves to meet their Maker. In a vision he was told that from that day forward, those who lived in the lands of Dewi Sant would see the flickering lights of tapers to warn them of their approaching demise. The size and colour of the flames would denote who they were for. Corpse candles are spheres of light, commonly reported in Welsh legends, that travel close to the ground, especially upon the corpse roads the night before a death.
Another legend tells of his travels across the sea and how he sailed back upon a stone… the very same Sapphire Stone that is now housed in the cathedral. The simple, broken slab of blue stone may have been David’s portable altar and the tale more symbolic than true. A great sapphire altar is also associated with the saint that was his gift to the Abbey at Glastonbury, where his plans to rededicate the church we changed by a vision of Jesus, telling him that the chapel to His Mother had been dedicated already and needed no dedication by human hands. David built and extension to the Abbey instead and gifted the great sapphire altar. Curiously, a great sapphire was mentioned centuries later in the inventory…
The shrine of St David contained his relics, along with those of the French St Denis and St Justinian. They were removed by one bishop in an attempt to halt his veneration and the shrine later desecrated by the religious politics that damaged so much of our heritage and history. Now the shrine has been restored, with beautifully executed and gilded portraits and is once again a place of pilgrimage. In the niches below the pictures are reliquaries that are said to have contained the saints’ bones. Recent analysis of the relics shows this to be highly unlikely, the bones thought to be those of the saint coming from three different individuals and one of them a woman.
It doesn’t matter. Those who now visit the shrine are not credulous Medieval peasants with a superstitious belief in the power that resides in a shard of bone. Education allows a better understanding and even the best authenticated relic is now seen as representative of that greater Power that inspires faith. The shrine is still hallowed… by the faith of those who pray there. Whatever we fix our eyes and hearts upon in reverence is no more than a focus… a symbol through which the inexpressible can be wordlessly approached and the intellectually unknowable Known. When St David died it is told that the monastery was filled with angels. His last words to his followers have been softened by time and usage and ‘do ye the little things’ is a well-known phrase in Wales. Legend has become the heart of a people and through such stories we learn and grow. Things do not always have to be real in order to be True.
It has been a week or more since the last post about our recent workshop in Wales… illness got in the way of finishing the series, but it would be a shame not to share the interior of the Cathedral at St Davids…
I had barely raised the camera to start photographing the interior of the great cathedral at St Davids before a gentleman approached and told me that I could not… or, at least, not without paying for a permit. Now, I know that these ancient churches cost a good deal to keep standing and pay for their conservation, but I have a problem with those that demand exorbitant entry fees before forcing a ‘no photography’ rule on unsuspecting visitors. Especially when they quote ‘copyright’ as the reason; I fail to see how something the best part of a thousand years old can still enforce copyright law.
St Davids, however, is more than reasonable… no entry fee is charged, donations are at the discretion (and therefore within the means of) visitors and the photography permit costs next to nothing. I paid without a qualm and wandered around with my official ‘photographer’ badge proudly displayed on my chest… until someone kindly pointed out that I was wearing it upside down.
Somehow, though, that seemed to fit. Little at St Davids seems to be quite ‘right’..at least not if you are looking for straight lines and accurate angles; the cathedral building bears the scars of a long and troubled life. Building began around 1181 and the Norman arches of the nave are typical of that period… each differently decorated with carvings. The ceiling would normally be vaulted stone, but between the collapse of the tower in 1220 and the damage caused by an earthquake damage in 1247/48, the 15thC wooden ceiling is kinder.
Everywhere the scars of an uneasy past blend with the natural evolution of a great church over the centuries. The ghosts of older arches still mark the ancient walls above their more recent counterparts.
Window embrasures seem to smile wryly at their displacement writing in stone and in warped and bent wood the story of a long and interesting life. Yet the church wears her age well, smiling serenely through her wrinkles, knowing they have been written upon her face by both sorrow and joy, tragedy and love.
Many have passed through her embrace… kings and princes, beggars and saints. Some have remained, to sleep within her protection, others have left their shadow upon her walls. On one pillar in the south aisle, like a photographic negative, the spectral shade of a Prince still stands guard.
Along the aisles, the great and good have their tombs. Many of them have lost their faces… most have lost their names, bearing only the carved initials and signatures of centuries-old graffiti, carved as if in some desperate attempt to leave a mark upon history by lacklustre lives. In some things, humanity changes little.
Is it, I wonder, the only way some feel they are able to be part of the stream of time? It is the lettered, not the illiterate, who carve their names thus in such a place. Is it with advancement and education that dissatisfaction with one’s lot may begin to rear its head for those already insecure in their own skins?
It seems a strange thing to me that it is those with enough of an education to be able to carve their names who choose to deface something long held sacred. Or is it perhaps some attempt to associate themselves forever with the sanctity of a holy place of pilgrimage? To some things, there will never be a single answer.
Many feet have traversed these aisles over the centuries. In 1123, Pope Calixtus II officially recognised St Davids as a place of pilgrimage, and, given the importance of the saint’s shrine, decreed that two pilgrimages to St Davids was equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem.
Many rest here, adorned with the names of those who came to stand by their graves, yet whose own names have a place at the heart of Welsh history. The great and the good of history, about whom stories are still woven and told. Some of them wrote thir name into the history books… some of them wrote the histories. People like Rhys ap Gruffydd, one of the most important princes in the history of the country, of whom Geraldus Cambriensis wrote that he was “a man of excellent wit and quick in repartee.”
And Gerald himself, a scholar and one of the ecclesiastics who were excused from the Crusades to work on the building of the cathedral. Walking through the quiet aisles of this cathedral, you walk with ghosts and shadows of a past unforgotten yet whose storries have passed into myth and legend. The sense of history is alive here and whispers in wood and stone of the continuity of life. The same qualities that animate our own hearts and minds once carried these people through their days… from strength to ambition, from curiosity to simple faith. We are not so different today from how we once were. The scarred walls, for all their magnificence, serve to remind us of what we have in common with our ancestors… and each other… at a very human level. Most of us will pass faceless into history. What, if anything, remains of our individual stories will pass from fact into a telling more akin to fiction than to truth as we are remembered through lives and perceptions other than our own. The only lasting memorial we can leave is how we walk the earth and how we touch the lives of others. In that, every day, we change the world.