Going west – a simple man

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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Going west – An uneasy peace

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Where do you begin when you have to write about a cathedral? Each chapel, every corner, every nook and cranny is replete with art and history. The sensory input is so much that all you can do is walk and attempt to catch the aura of the place and snippets of information as you marvel at how much of the past is preserved in wood, stone and colour. For me, outside is a good place to start. Apart from places like Lincoln where the outside is overwhelming as what lies within the walls. It gives a chance to get a feel for the place and seems to put what you will find into context.

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Not that we had a lot of choice… the mayor-making was taking its time and, until they were finished, we were left with the refectory and the exterior to play with. The refectory is a lovely space, with high, clear glass windows overlooking the cloisters. It now holds a cafe and an art exhibition was in progress while we were there, but instead of mangling the ancient architecture, a floating, self-contained mezzanine has been installed that barely touches the old walls. It does spoil the proportions of the lofty space… but it is a practical and not unattractive compromise that allows modern usage of an otherwise impractical height. It also serves tea and, while several of the party lingered over that welcome beverage, I wandered off to look at the walls.

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Not just the cathedral walls, but the remnants of the old town walls built by the Norman lords not long after the Conquest. The walled enclosure dates back to at least the 12th century, and the contours of the earthworks still remain visible. The tower that now houses the bells was added a century later and was once the consistory court of the bishops and also houses the bishops’ dungeon. The gatehouse and taller south tower came a hundred years after that.

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The first religious community here was founded by St David himself. The saintly bishop died in 589, which makes this one of the oldest known religious sites of Christianity in Britain. Between 645 and 1097 the monks faced the incursions of raiders, seeing their brothers and bishops killed, one after the other. A beautifully carved stone that marries the older, Celtic art with the newer, Roman iconography is now housed in the gate-tower, that once marked the grave of the sons Bishop Abraham, Hedd and Isaac, who were killed by the Vikings in 1080.

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Image source: castlewales.com

You can see the antiquity of the place… but only at close quarters. The lower courses of the walls show their earliest origins in places. It has seen much destruction during the past thousand years. The cathedral building itself was begun in 1181. In 1220, the new tower collapsed and less than thirty years later, an earthquake caused further damage. Relics of St David and St Justinian were inhumed in jewelled shrines… until in 1538 Bishop Barlow, seeing their veneration as superstition, had the relics removed and the shrines stripped of their riches. For the next few hundred years, successive bishops added chapels, improvements and extensions, making the building reflect its importance at the heart of the religious and political life of the area…until the forces of Oliver Cromwell devastated the building during the years of the Commonwealth of England.

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It was not until 1783 that John Nash, best known in his later role as architect to the Prince Regent, was commissioned to restore and rebuild the cathedral. He re-used medieval traceries for his great west front and the cathedral rose again. Even this was not the end of its troubles. Nash’s work was not up to standard and began to deteriorate rapidly. It was to be George Gilbert Scott who would finally restore the building in the 19th century; born in a vicarage not far from my home and whose work we have seen at so many places we have visited.

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The great west front now looks back to an older age, wearing the same style as the Norman archways of the north and south doors. It is a curious thing to see the shapes and symbols copied. From one perspective, their uneroded state gives a glimpse of what the older stonework  may have looked like…yet it is as if a child has tried to copy one of the Old Masters.  The form is there… but no more than that. the soul is missing, the understanding of the symbolism not present….or, if present, it is an intellectual comprehension rather than  the knowing of the heart. The carvings do not speak, they merely show.

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After the wonders of the carved doorway and corbels of Kilpeck just a few days before, the contrast is stark. Beautifully executed by their craftsmen, they lack heart. They tell no stories, inspire no affirmation. There is no life, no joy and no humour in the reproduction of these symbols., just the posturing of form that mimics a fluid expression of faith.

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The 12th century south door and its northerly counterpart are completely different from the west front. In spite of centuries of weathering, they are alive with movement, detail and expression. The contrast between the old and the new makes me wonder about how we have chosen to live, pursuing the outward forms of integration and conformity, while leaving little place for joy. In the organised forms of religion, we now see mostly the rigidity of ritual. Through the years that we have been wandering ancient sites and visiting the holy places of our forefathers, we have seen how the representations of an inclusive reverence for nature and the life of both body and soul, have given way gradually to a culture of sin and the need for repentance, illustrated by many of the medieval wall paintings depicting hell and damnation in no uncertain terms and with graphic detail for the sinner to contemplate.

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I do not subscribe to the doctrine of eternal condemnation for sin. Of the saints whose stories we know form their own writings, few have entered into beatitude without struggling with their very human demons. We do not see the whole story of humanity, so cannot see how our little fragment of the tale fits into the whole, taking its unique place in the completion of a greater picture than we can perceive. We do not always see the good that may come from the seemingly bad, even if it serves only as a contrast by which we can appreciate the difference between light and shade, rigidity and movement. We make mistakes, take a wrong path, commit harm and it is from having made such choices that we can choose to learn and grow. We do repent. Not in the mundane sense of the word, where we admit guilt and say we are sorry, but in the true sense of turning ourselves around with a change of heart and mind. A change of consciousness. Like the cathedral, we live an uneasy peace, ever poised on the edge of change, but like the cathedral, the light shines within, opening the doors to a promise of beauty.

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Whispers in the West – part four (final part)

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Whispers in the West – part four (final)

On the Saturday night, replete with the adventures of the day and a large meal from the Sloop, we could do little else but retire early and sleep the sleep of Kings. The following morning was to be one of the highlights of the trip – St David’s, itself. The famous Cathedral was to be the final destination for the weekend, but first, Lizzy, our guide, had other local gems in store…

A misty St David’s Cathedral, our final destination.

Most of the group were staying a mile or so along the coast in or near a small, family-run hotel (The Ocean Haze). Lizzy had planned it so that we could approach St David’s from the coastal path.

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As you can see from the photographs, Sunday was a very different day from the sun-baked Friday and Saturday. A mist pervaded the coast (and, sadly, the photography), though the weather was mild. The coastal path here offers intense beauty, no matter what the weather, though I have been accused of being a bit of a masochist when it comes to walking in the rain…in my view, it’s all part of the fun as long as you’re dressed correctly!

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After what seemed like a short walk, we emerged from the footpath and directly into our first stop – St Non’s Well and the ancient and modern versions of St Non’s Chapel.

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To quote the signpost, “This ruinous Chapel stands on the spot where St Non gave birth to St David in the sixth century.”

The single site, of about an acre, is home to the Well, the old (ruined) chapel, and the more modern chapel, which is old enough to have its own, interesting history. There is also a retreat centre above the newer of the two chapels.

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St Non’s Well.

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The sign tells us that St Non’s Well is said to have sprung up during a thunderstorm when St David was born, about 500 A.D. The waters are said to cure infirmities.

A Survey of St David’s, done in 1717 (see below) says of it:

“There is a fine Well beside it (St. Non’s Chapel), cover’d with a Stone-Roof, and enclos’d within a Wall, with Benches to sit upon round the Well. Some old simple People go still to visit this Saint at some particular Times, especially upon St. Nun’s Day (March 2nd) which they kept holy, and offer Pins, Pebbles, Ec at this well”

(Survey of St. David’s by Browne Willis, London 1717) quoted from the website at:  http://www.stnonsretreat.org.uk/history.html

There are two versions of St David’s origin. The first is that he was sired by a local nobleman; the second that St Non, then a nun, was raped and made pregnant, but chose to keep the child and bring him up within the church… The gritty truth is often ‘sanitised’ in church history. Either way, St David became a very influential figure in the life of West Wales, and far beyond.

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St Non’s Well is regarded as one of the most sacred wells in Wales. It was fully restored and re-dedicated by the Passionist Fathers in 1951. At the same time a small shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary was placed opposite the well.

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A short distance from the well is the ruin of St Non’s original chapel. There is very little to see apart from the partly-demolished walls – with one exception. In the ruins of the Chapel built over the place of St Non’s house can be seen a 7-9th century creed stone with an incised Latin ring Cross. with a vertical line that descends from the Celtic circle in a very unusual way. This has come to be known as the Cross of St Non. Knowing it to be original I looked at it for a long time after photographing – it had a powerfully, peaceful effect, standing alone in the misty morning of that Sunday.

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Just up the pathway from St Non’s Well is the ‘new’ Chapel of St Non, known as the Chapel of Our Lady and St Non.

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This was constructed  in 1934 by Cecil Morgan-Griffiths, a solicitor from Carmarthen, using stone from ruined local chapels. He had built a house (which is now the retreat) on the site, and decided to build a church, there, too. This resulted in the construction of the most westerly church in Wales and one wonders if he sported a wry smile with reference to nearby St David’s in the process…

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The chapel is a very simple structure and measures 25 feet long by 12 feet wide. It has beautiful stained glass windows of  St Non, St David, St Bride, St Brynach and St Winifred. Cecil Morgan-Griffiths died the year after the new chapel was completed.

It is a truly beautiful place and we all drank in the humble simplicity, which was to contrast, later, in my mind at least, with the sheer size and magnificence of St David’s Cathedral.

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The window to St Non.

We made time for a group prayer, for one of our Companions fighting a terminal illness, then left quietly, bound for the final destination, the Cathedral of St David’s.

Coming from the coastal path, and St Non’s Well, we entered the Cathedral precinct by the ‘back door’, so to speak.

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St David’s has to be one of the most beautiful Cathedrals in Britain, if not the world. It’s location may seem remote to modern minds, but in mediaeval times St David’s occupied a strategic position at the junction of major land and sea routes between England, Wales and Ireland.

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Originally a monastery, St David’s dates back to around 600 A.D.

In its fifteen hundred year life, it has seen tumultuous change. During the first four hundred years of its life, it was attacked and destroyed many times by tribal raids. Two early bishops were murdered in later Viking raids. In the 9th century King Alfred turned to St David’s for help in rebuilding the intellectual life of Wessex.

The Cathedral was visited by William the Conqueror in 1081, when he came there to pray. Then in the twelfth century Bishop Bernard, appointed by King Henry I, secured a “privilege” from Pope Calixtus II, allowing St Davids to become a centre for pilgrimage – an honour it continues to enjoy, today.

During the English civil war, much of the building was destroyed by Parliamentary soldiers. The present structure began to emerge in 1181, when Cathedral status was secured.

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The list of prominent saints and bishops associated with that long history would require a volume or two, in itself. Better, perhaps, to take a few glimpses of the splendour of its wonderful spaces.

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There are so many separate interior spaces that it would take days for the visitor to feel comfortable that she or he had a meaningful mental ‘map’ of the place.

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The main ceiling are so beautiful that you just want to bend your neck and stare – which becomes a strain after a minute or two… Ideally, we could lie down on a blanket and just drink it in!

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The magnificent vaulted ceiling of the tower.

All too soon, we had to go, but not before a light lunch to prepare us for our long journeys home. This part of Pembrokeshire is very beautiful and warrants a return visit or six!

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We said our goodbyes back at the hotel, thanking Lizzy and John for a truly wonderful time. Next year we hope to visit Scotland for our Summer ‘solstice’ weekend. Watch this space for details…

Previous posts in this series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three


The Silent Eye runs four such weekends per year; in April, June, September, and the start of December. Apart from the main April workshop, which combines mystical drama with teachings, they are very informal occasions, but a good way to meet some of the names and faces from the Silent Eye School of Consciousness. Everyone is welcome – we simply wander in a landscape and get to know each other.

The formal teaching programme of the Silent Eye School is a three-year correspondence course, studied at home and in the individual’s daily world, with personal supervision via email, and workshops. The teaching programme is based on a guided journey through the spiritual layers of a nine-pointed figure called the Enneagram (below). The Silent Eye is a not-for-profit organisation and charges as little as possible for its work.

The Silent Eye's version of the enneagram has a few extra features added to the core (but unchanged) symbol.
The Silent Eye’s version of the enneagram.

You can find details of the forthcoming events for the year on our website.

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