Reflecting on St David’s Day
The first day of March is always a red-letter day for Welsh people around the world – and indeed for anyone with a fondness for Wales, its culture and traditions, including its rugby! St David – or Dewi Sant, as he is known in Wales – has long been celebrated on this day. In many places the celebrations often come with other Welsh customs: traditional costumes and music, leeks and early spring daffodils.
This year, the cathedral itself has celebrated St David’s Day with a special Welsh-language service created around readings, hymns and medieval plainchant. Yesterday, we welcomed visitors from across the Liverpool and Merseyside Welsh communities, including the Welsh-speaking worshippers of Bethel Welsh Presbyterian Church near Penny Lane. The guest preacher on this occasion was the Dean of our nearest Welsh cathedral neighbour – St Asaph, just over an hour’s drive from Liverpool.
Dewi Sant himself would surely have approved of this coming together across borders and denominations. Though most of his missionary activity was centred on Wales, his influence is also strong in many places across Offa’s Dyke. Here in Liverpool, where the Welsh community has been especially prominent since the building of the docks in the 18th century and Welsh street names abound (Denbigh Rd, Snowdon Lane, Barmouth Lane), St David’s day remains special to many. Three Anglican churches within the diocese even carry his dedication: those of Rocky Lane Childwall; Carr Mill, St Helen’s; and Haigh and Aspull in the parish of Wigan north east are all dedicated to St David.
So what do we know of Dewi Sant? He lived in the seventh century and is regarded as the greatest figure in that early Welsh ‘Age of the Saints’ that helped spread Christianity among the pagan Celtic tribes of Britain. His biographers report that he died on 1 March in 589, and his beautiful medieval shrine can still be seen in St David’s cathedral, Pembrokeshire – the largest of the Welsh cathedrals in the smallest of the cities of Wales. It remains a great place of pilgrimage, and tradition still has it that four pilgrimages to St Davids count as the equivalent of two visits to Rome, or one to Jerusalem!
Dewi Sant was nicknamed the ‘Waterman’ by those who wrote about him. He was reputedly a teetotaller (as well as a strict vegetarian), and regularly spent time in penance up to his neck in icy cold water, reciting all 150 psalms. The newly-commissioned artistic representation on his shrine in St Davids Cathedral (pictured) suggests something of that austerity. He is shown with serious face and bare feet, with his hair cut in the kind of tonsure favoured by Celtic monks. A dove hovers near his right ear, the sign of a holy man divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit.
But although he was renowned for his tough lifestyle and great self-discipline, Dewi Sant seems also to have been a man of gentleness and understanding, with great compassion for those around him. Many must have been attracted to his simple way of life and his holiness, even if they had little hope of achieving that closeness to God themselves.
St David is a good companion for us to journey with at this time of year – whether we make the pilgrimage to one of the churches associated with him, or simply ponder the way of life that he followed. The message he gave to his community on the Sunday night before his death remains just as relevant to this day: ‘Byddwch lawen, cedwch eich ffydd a’ch cred, a gwnewch y pethau bychain a glywsoch ac a welsoch gennyf i.’ ‘Be joyful, keep your faith and your belief, and do the little things you have seen me do and say.’
Dewi Sant offers us three rules to live by in that message. He urges us to savour the joy in our everyday lives, which often comes from the simplest things and our most precious relationships. He tells us to work at building our faith with the help of God and those around us. And perhaps best of us, he encourages us to focus on ‘the little things’ we can do for others, even when the needs all around us seem so great. I always find St David’s message full of hope – a realistic one we can work towards. Had he lived in more recent times, perhaps he would have found much in common with a much more modern saint – Mother Theresa of Calcutta. She said something similar: ‘Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love’.
Revd Dr Sally Harper
St. Asaph’s Diocese, and a visiting member of clergy to Liverpool Cathedral.