Sermon preached by the Bishop of Monmouth at Jesus College Oxford on St David’s Day, 2012
- Yn Enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân. Amen.
- May I begin by bringing you greetings from the Diocese of Monmouth on
feast of Dewi Sant. I am aware that some of you may have doubts as to whether Monmouth is really in Wales but Monmouthshire was the county for which your first Principal, Dr David Lewis was the Member of Parliament and when he died in 1584 his body was brought back to Monmouthshire – to the Priory Church of St Mary in Abergavenny where it still lies in the Lewis Chapel which is named after him.
- My mother was born and brought up in the heart of the Monmouthshire valleys as one of nine children, and the daughter of a miner, so I have cousins by the dozens and as a child we often spent some of our summer holiday visiting them. My Welsh mother loved seeing her relatives but my English father had great concerns about crossing into what he regarded as foreign territory and being required to spend Sundays with my mother’s Welsh Baptist relatives in a country where the pubs were closed on Sundays! Together with an uncle of mine my father would find an excuse to go to Chepstow and sneak over the border for a drink.
- Had my father lived in the sixth century I doubt that he and St David would have become drinking buddies because, as you will know, David was nicknamed Waterman because it was believed that he was a teetotaller and was a strict monk and a disciplined bishop. Tradition claims that he spent time in monastic silence and lived on vegetables, bread and water. But David was not confined to one monastery but went around Wales as a missionary and founded twelve new monasteries and several churches. His travels took him to the south and west of England as well as Cornwall and Brittany. Tradition also says that he went to Ireland and on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
- As with many of the sixth century Celtic saints the accounts of their lives were
written centuries later and it is difficult to distinguish fact from fable, but the best known story about St David is said to have taken place at the Synod when he was elected Archbishop of Wales. The Synod took place at Lllanddewi Brefi (made famous by the television programme Little Britain). Here it is said the crowd complained that they could not see David and at that instant the ground rose up beneath him till everyone could see and hear him. The first reading this evening recalled the prophet Ezekiel being raised up by a spirit and being commissioned for his task. It is claimed that the monasteries that David founded were very strict and the monks lived lives of prayer, austerity, hard labour and caring for guests. David himself practised great self-discipline and yet he obviously had a gentleness and compassion for others who were attracted by his holiness of life. People are rarely attracted to Christianity by intellectual argument but they are attracted by people of holiness and those whose lives have been changed by their encounter with God.
- A few years ago, I had a call from a friend who was hoping to be chosen as a contestant on the TV programme Who wants to be a millionaire? He asked me if I would be at home one particular evening because he needed to have a number of friends he could ‘phone as a life line if he had difficulty with a question. Fortunately, I had a confirmation service that evening so I didn’t have to risk our friendship or display my ignorance before the nation. But every Wednesday and Saturday night millions of people dream of being millionaires and of what they would do with the money if they win the lottery. For a very small minority their dreams will come true and then they have the nightmare of handling such wealth and discovering friends and relatives wishing to share their good fortune. But saints like David remind us of the futility of such aspirations and how the real human quest cannot be satisfied by money or possessions. John Cottingham, a retired professor of philosophy wrote
As we struggle through life, we seem compelled to acknowledge, sooner or later, that our human good, our flourishing and fulfilment, depends on orienting ourselves towards values that we did not create. Love, compassion, mercy, truth, justice, courage, endurance, fidelity…which command our allegiance whether we like it or not. We may try to go against them, to live our lives without reference to them, but such attempts are always in the end self-defeating and productive of misery and frustration rather than human flourishing. Why Believe?, Continuum 20109. We all know that there is nothing like a personal crisis – bereavement, the loss of employment, the breakdown of a relationship, the diagnosis of cancer – to make people question the meaning and purpose of life. Time with family and friends can suddenly be more important than work or possessions. In different parts of Wales, over recent months and years, there have been times when young people have taken their own lives and many of them live in deprived communities where there is little hope, and yet for the church that is our ‘unique selling point’ for our hope is in a God who ‘pitched his tent’ amongst us and shows us the path to life. The saints were those, who in life did the same, and in death continued to draw people to visit their shrines on pilgrimage. The shine of St David became so important that two visits to St David’s was deemed as being the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Rome and three visits as the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
10. The Celtic spiritual tradition of which St David is part has become very popular today. It encourages people to discover God in his creation and its popularity has resulted in best selling ‘paperback spirituality’. I know one Welsh bishop who thought much of it is bogus and he said it should be produced for export only! I remember teasing one of my priests who after a remarkable time as a missionary in Africa returned home and took a sabbatical year to complete a MA in Celtic spirituality at Lampeter. I asked her, ‘Do you really believe all that stuff about finding God in the trees and the butterflies and talking to the bees?’ She rightly reminded me that this is not what Celtic spirituality is about. She said, ‘It is about being up to your neck in ice cold water reciting all one hundred and fifty psalms’ and of course, it is said that is what St David the Waterman, did.
11. My guess is that the reason that David was such an inspiration was that whilst he was disciplined and tough on himself and encouraged others to live lives of austerity, that he also had an understanding and gentleness towards those who could not manage to achieve his spiritual heights. We are told that the Sunday before he died in 589, he preached a sermon in which he said, ‘Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us’. That phrase, ‘Do the little things’ should fill us with hope – we may not attain the sanctity of Dewi Sant but we can do something to build God’s kingdom by doing the little things. Amen.