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“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago — the other day. . . . Light came out of this river since — you say the Knights? Yes; but it is like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — what d’ye call ’em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north… Imagine him here — the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here. Oh, yes — he did it. Did it very well, too, no doubt, and without thinking much about it either, except afterwards to brag of what he had gone through in his time, perhaps. They were men enough to face the darkness. And perhaps he was cheered by keeping his eye on a chance of promotion to the fleet at Ravenna by and by, if he had good friends in Rome and survived the awful climate. Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga — perhaps too much dice, you know — coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him — all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination — you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.”
Joseph Conrad – Heart Of Darkness
It was as dark as the Dark Ages got, then, in Britain. Classical civilization, what was left of it, hugged the shores of the Mediterranean during the Indian Summer of Theodoric’s Ostrogothic kingdom. Like the blood in the arteries of a severely wounded accident victim, it refused to circulate to the extremities. It was at this time, a century or so after the departure of the legions and a century yet before the arrival of the Roman mission, that a holy man was born. He had the sad misfortune to be born in a very hardscrabble time, in a very hardscrabble place. People didn’t have much time or inclination to record their doings, indeed, it would be hard to imagine that the people who lived at this time would have thought their struggle for survival worthy of recording.
So what survived were stories, stories vivid enough to be remembered. Stories such as the one about the wandering Briton princeling who was travelling far from home when he came upon a maiden bathing in a stream and was overcome by lust. He forced himself on her, and she conceived. It was a brutal age, and it appears the leaven of the Gospel had little power to soften men’s passions among these jettisoned folk, and none among the pagan Saxons already coursing far inland. She carried the child for nine months, refusing on one occasion to allow a local ruler to terminate her pregnancy. She gave birth in a women’s monastery, and her child was raised there.
This child, grown to be a man, began to preach the gospel in his corner of the world. The reputation of his sanctity spread, and he began to become known as y Sant, or simply, the saint. It is unusual that the saint would come to be called the Illuminator of Wales, as his country was not known by that name at that time. Most likely, his country was still known by her Roman name: Britannia, and her people spoke Latin after their fashion as well as their native British, now Welsh. Like a formerly prosperous family fallen on hard times, they must have cherished these small remnants of Roman civilization, and maybe, just maybe, Christianity was one of these remnants. It is by no means certain that the saint’s countrymen were all Christian. It had been the legal religion of the Empire for only a scant 20 years before the legions departed, and there were many pagans for the saint to convert.
The full flower of his manhood is punctuated with many stories. The saint was preaching to a crowd of people, and the crowd grew to such a proportion that those on the fringes were unable to hear his preaching. He prayed, and the earth rose under his feet, forming a hillock so that all could hear his words. Some farmers nearby were complaining that there wasn’t enough water for their crops, so he prayed, pushed his staff into the ground, and a fountain of water sprayed up to provide the farmers what they needed. The monks at this time must have been quite lax, although it is remarkable that there were any monks at all. Brittania was the other side of the world from Christian monasticism’s center of gravity in Egypt and Palestine, but monks there were, and many followed the saint. He founded many monasteries and guided his monks with a rigorous discipline. They were forbidden the use of draught animals, and had to pull their plows themselves. In addition, they were enjoined to forswear beer and wine, and drink only water, a real test of faith in a day before chlorine tablets.
Not that Brittania was hermetically sealed from the rest of the Christian world. Perhaps because Pelagius himself was a Briton, the saint found it necessary to refute him in several local councils. It is a shame that his arguments against Pelagius have not survived, and Augustine’s did. It would have been informative to compare the two. Towards the end of his life, the saint found it necessary to travel to the center of the remaining Empire, to Palestine, and receive the bishopric of his country from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Whether the saint took the land road or the sea road, it must have been a long and arduous journey, and the good patriarch must have felt like the Archbishop of Canterbury appointing the rector of the parish on St. Helena. The saint returned to his native Brittania, founded one last monastery in the extreme west of his land, and died there on this day, March 1, supposedly in 589. His last words to his disciples were
Be steadfast, brothers, and do the little things.
The saint’s country changed dramatically after his death. The pagan Saxon marauders pushed the Britons father and farther north and west until they were bottled up onto the extremities of the island, but they never found the Dark Ages to be all that dark. They had another name for it: Oes y Seintiau – The Age Of Saints. They named their country Cymru, the land of the people, and their tongue became Cymraeg. The ungracious Saxons named them the Wealas, the foreigners, but admitted that they were great warriors and greater poets and singers. Little by little, first the Saxons and later the Normans dragged this people of the retreat into the even longer and more tragic general retreat of the West into feudal Catholicism, Calvinism, secularism, and unbelief
This is Dewi Sant, Saint David, patron of Wales in the undivided Church. Interestingly, Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican all honor him, and his last church is now a great cathedral. The Welsh still love him, and his day is their national day.
He is also my patron, and I would like to share a story of a miracle I believe was wrought by his intercession. When my family and I moved to Atlanta late in 2007, the area been suffering a severe drought for many years. The drought was so absolute that people were not allowed to wash their cars or water their lawns. I hadn’t been Orthodox longer than a few months, but I noticed that St. David had worked many miracles that were related to water. I besought his intercession on our behalf and rested the matter with him. On his day, March 1, 2008, Atlanta experienced a freakish snowfall of several inches that effectively broke the drought. The commentator on the radio noted that this was the best way to drop so much precipitation on a drought-hardened ground. Five years later, even though water levels have yet to return to normal, at least the lawns are being watered and the cars washed.
Dewi Sant, gweddia ni
Saint David of Wales, pray for us
When I was five or six years old, my troubled parents moved to the nation’s capital in a fruitless attempt to halt my father’s descent into mental illness. Within a year they were divorced, and somehow, I discovered church. My mother brought the three of us every Sunday to Westminster Presbyterian Church, which at the time was located close to us in Silver Springs, Maryland, being just across the state line in the District of Columbia. I was unceremoniously dropped into the nursery where, with dozens of other Baby Boomers, I was left pretty much to fend for myself.
There was a book of Bible stories in that nursery. It is likely familiar to many because I have seen the same volume in doctors’ and dentists’ offices. I believe it is published by the Seventh Day Adventists, and it is richly illustrated. At five years of age, the book’s illustrations seemed to me to be backlit with the very Uncreated Light of Tabor itself. The account of the Creation, the Fall, and the Flood, ignited my young imagination and made me an instant evangelist. There was a young teenaged girl watching us in the nursery that Sunday, and I approached her with the book opened to the account of Noah and the flood. Breathlessly, I retold the story of how a man built a boat and God brought all the animals to him, and then He made it rain a long long time…
The teenaged girl looked at the book and smiled at me. With the all authority early adolescence could muster over against the earnestness of childhoold, she informed me: “That’s like a fairy story, you know. It’s a nice story but it didn’t really happen.” When I returned to read the book, the light had died on its pages. I threw the book into a corner and picked up some plastic dinosaurs.
There are a lot of things I don’t remember from my very early childhood, but I do remember that incident. The idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, so long discredited in biology, seems to me to have some bearing in spiritual formation, so that at the tender age of five or six, I had thrust upon me the soul-choking infidelty and unbelief of mid twentieth century liberal Protestantism at floodtide. Interestingly, that particular congregation takes great pride in the continuity of this particular mindset in its midst down to the present day.
But I remembered the Light I saw on the pages of that book. All my life, whenever I had to make a conscious decision about divine or moral things, I have had to choose between moving towards that Light or away from it. In my early twenties, early in my conscious Christian walk, I was given a package of Watchtower material to read. It contained a lot of teaching about the Bible, but the Light wasn’t there, not like it was in the Baptist, Pentecostal, and Catholic material I was devouring at that time. It was as if someone was trying to dance a waltz while the orchestra was playing a quadrille.
I shudder to say that I didn’t immediately sit down with my Bible and a Strong’s Concordance and puzzle through every Scripture reference in the Watchtower material to see, like the Bereans, if these things were so. Had I taken such a puntillistic approach at that time, who is to say whether I would not have ended up as a Jehovah’s Witness. Subsequent contacts with members of this sect have shown them to have a strong belief in the power of argument, debate, reason, comparing text to text, and acrimony to establish the truth of Scripture, and subsequent experiences with the Scriptures have informed me that they do not yield their treasures easily to the disputers of this age.
I have in my possession a bulletin of the order of service for Hope Reformed Church, Holland, Michigan, on January 2, 1952, the day of my baptism. Since the Reformed Church In America doesn’t celebrate Epiphany, I will assume that the service was a standard one for Ordinary time. There was an introit, an invocation, a Kyrie, an Old Testament reading, a Gloria Patri, a New Testament reading, and Offertory, a sermon, and me, red, misshapen, and howling, according to my mother, being subjected to the waters of Baptism.
Now, it wasn’t until my father died in 2005 that I learned that the reason I had been present on that undoubtedly cold and blustery morning was because my great-great grandfather had no desire to walk 130 miles in a Wisconsin winter.
Arend had come over from the Netherlands in 1848 with his brother Jacob on the promise of a job in Chicago. During the months that they were crossing the Atlantic and portering up the Saint Lawrence and into the Great Lakes to Chicago, the brothers’ sponsor had passed away, and no one met them at the pier. Jacob decided to try his luck in the Yukon, and left, disappearing into the northern mists and most likely from the gene stream as well. His brother never heard from again, but his name lingers on in the family. ‘Jacob’ was my grandfather’s and my father’s middle name.
Arend, whose name means ‘eagle’ in Dutch, was Catholic, although his grandmother was a Huegenot refugee. He knocked around Chicago for a while until someone told him there was a colony of Netherlanders about 60 miles up the shore in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He walked there, arriving in late October. It turned out that the colony was Reformed, and if my ancestor wanted to stay, he would have to convert to the Reformed faith. There was a colony of Catholic Hollanders up near Green Bay, about 120 miles north, but an early winter was and setting in, and besides, one of the Reformed maidens had caught his eye. Arend decided that my great-great grandmother was worth forgoing a Mass, and accepted the Reformed faith.
He outlived my great-great grandmother and two other Protestant wives as well, who are buried in the Reformed churchyard in Kenosha. Interestingly, he requested that he be buried apart from all of them, in unconsecrated ground.
There is no evidence that my ancestor was particularly devout, either as a Catholic or as a Protestant, but his choice sealed the religious destiny of my family for five generations, and nobody deviated from the norm until I came along. This is interesting to me because it speaks to me that no one makes decisions entirely for one’s own self.
Baptism has fallen on hard times recently. A lot of Christians in the United States would maintain that the baptism that I was surrendered to by my young father and my even younger mother, on that cold January morning accomplished nothing at all. Funny, the less baptism means, the keener people seem to be that you have done it “by the book”. I have been baptized twice, as has my son, my daughter, and my wife. We just barely escaped a third baptism as well. Between the four of us, we have probably spilled enough baptismal water to regenerate a small Germanic tribe in the fifth century. My first baptism, though, fixes me in time and space and history as a member of a family and as a member of a clan, a gens, and an ethne’ in a way that none of the subsequent laverings accomplished. I’ve been all over the map since then, both geographically and ecclesiastically, but my roots are there, and as the Psalmist says, “all my springs are in her”.