On the Borders

Lessons for the Feast of Saint David of Wales (Patraon): Proverbs 15:14-21; Psalm 16:5-11; 1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12; Mark 4:26-29

King Arthur and the knights of the round table have captivated our imaginations for generations. We are captivated by the stories of Gawain and the Green Knight, Lancelot and the Holy Grail, the battle with evil Mordred at Camlann, the beautiful and graceful Guinevere, the sword Excalibur, the utopian Camelot, and the wizard Merlin. Consider some of the twentieth century versions of the story that you might have read or seen: The Once and Future King, Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, The Mists of AvalonMonty Python & The Holy Grail. We are captivated by the romance, the chivalry, the sword fights, and, above all, by the quest for the sacred and right. A BBC version of the story called Merlin, which aired a few years ago, began each episode with the catch phrase, “In a land of myth, and a time of magic.”

Much of what we know about Arthur and Merlin, Camelot and the round table is legend that borders on myth. But beneath all of the legend and myth, there is a deeper story the pervades that tells of a time of tremendous upheaval and transformation. What we see in the Arthurian stories is a tension between the “old ways” and the “new ways.” The stories themselves are simply a stage on which is playing out the same tension in the world at large. Consider the broader historical context. The late 5th or early 6th centuries CE, during which the original Arthurian legends were cast, was a time when the Western Roman Empire was crumbling, falling in on itself. After the Gothic general Alaric, sacked Rome in 410 CE, the Roman emperors tried to consolidate forces. Part of this consolidation was the essential abandonment of their province on the island of Britain. The people that lived there, Romans in culture, language, and identity, were thus left to fend for themselves after four centuries of Roman protection and rule. And with Roman retreat came the bands of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, invading from across the channel and beyond the sea.

This was the context in which the earliest Arthurian legends arose in Wales, where one named Arthur is king and defender of the land from the beasts and demons of the “Otherworld.” In other words, Arthur arose as the defender of Briton from the savage Anglo-Saxon-Jute hoards. One of the earliest known references to Arthur is attributed to the bard Aneirin, a Welsh or perhaps Cumbrian bard, who was a contemporary of the Welsh hero Saint David, our patron and protector, in whose memory and honor this Eucharist is celebrated today.

We do not know a lot about the life and ministry Saint David of Wales. Like Arthur and Merlin, David is shrouded in mystery. There is an endearing legend which posits a direct connection between the great King Arthur and our Saint David. The connection comes through David’s mother, Saint Non or Nonnita, the daughter of a local chieftain named Cynyr Caer Goch. The very same chieftain, Cynyr, was also convinced by Merlin to raise the child Arthur on behalf Uther Pendragon, with Merlin as his tutor. King Arthur was, therefore, Saint David’s foster uncle.

March 1, 589 has been the accepted date of David’s death since the ecclesiastical histories of Saint Bede the Venerable. 589!…Eight years before Pope Saint Gregory the Great would send Saint Augustine to “Christianize the Kingdom of Kent.” Even before England, the heart of the British Empire, and before Canterbury, the focal point of global Anglicanism, Christianity had filtered into Britain. Christianity had filtered into Britain, not through its center and its strength but through the periphery. Christianity seeped in through the edges, on the borders, through the small channels and in the thinly veiled places: Cornwall, Galloway, the Isle of Wight, Iona, and Wales.

As the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes were altering forever the cultural and political landscape in the East and the South, the “Old Ways” continued on the borders in places like Wales. Yes, the “Old Ways” of the folk traditions that gave rise Merlin and Arthur but also the already “Old Ways” of Celtic Christianity, in which asceticism was key and in which a welcoming of all God’s creatures was at the root of common life. The forces that were bearing down on east and south would reach Wales soon enough but, for now….well, this was the land into which David was born and over which he would be made priest and abbot and bishop: A land of Arthurian legends and Celtic Christianity.

About David….

  • David was a vegetarian who ate only bread, herbs and vegetables and who drank only water, for which he became known as Aquaticus or Dewi Ddyfrwr (“Water Drinker” for those of us who find that Welsh is filled with far too many consonants to actually speak).
  • As self-imposed penance, David would stand up to his neck in frigid Welsh lakes, reciting Scripture.
  • David traveled throughout Wales and Brittany as a missionary, founding at least twelve monasteries on the way – the furthest afield across he Bristol Channel in Glastonbury.
  • David’s Monastic Rule followed the severe asceticism of the Eastern desert fathers. Monks must drink only water and eat only bread with salt and herbs, and spend the evenings in prayer, reading and writing. No personal possessions were allowed, even saying “my book” considered an offence. David also prescribed that the monks had to pull the plow themselves without draft animals.
  • He took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he took a strong position against the Pelagians. It was in Jerusalem, as the legend goes, that David was made Archbishop – making him the first of such in the British Isles, before even Canterbury and York. This, however, may have been a later Welsh nationalist tradition as a counterpoint to England’s perceived supremacy.
  • One of the best known stories of David’s life took place during an impassioned sermon at the Synod of Brefi, called to condemn the same Pelagians. As David was speaking, either he was so eloquent or else someone shouted, “We can’t see or hear!” (Two versions of the story disagree.) In any event, a small hill was said to have arisen beneath him, allowing all in attendance to see and hear just fine. The noted Welsh historian John Davies has commented that “it would be difficult to conceive of any miracle more superfluous” than the making of another hill “in view of the nature of the landscape of Ceredigion” (A History of Wales, 74). Be that as it may, during the same sermon (or maybe it was a different one) a dove is also said to have settled on his shoulder, a sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit which gave him such great eloquence.
  • The monastery that he founded at Minevia on the Pembrokeshire coast alongside the river Alun on the western coast of Wales – on the border near the sea – would become the seat of his episcopacy, his final resting place, and the locale where stands today the Welsh city of Saint David’s with its eclectic neo-Gothic cathedral built over the tomb of the Welsh Apostle.

To be sure, many of these stories are legend, emerging from a land shrouded in mystery, magic, and myth. What is enduring, however, about these tales – what is true and real about the early history of Welsh Christianity, about David and his monasteries and his sermons, about David’s connection to the legends, is that no matter where or when Christianity has always seemed to plant and firmly root itself in the borders – first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. It’s the places on the edges, on the borders that seem to grow strong, vibrant Christian places.

The healthiest Christian communities to which Paul wrote were Thessalonica and Philippi. They were both large cities, yes, but they were also both cities on the outskirts of Greece proper. They were both on the edges, between cultures, on the borders, away from the center. And it seems to me, that is where faith has thrived – in the in-between places, the borders…in the misty valley of Glastonbury, on the wind-swept shores of Iona, and in the rocky crags of Pembrokeshire… with mountain dwellers of Central India, among the wandering herdsmen of the Masai, in Coptic Ethiopia, and among the Maori of New Zealand. Wherever it is, Christianity seems to do best (maybe not biggest) on the borders. When it’s not at the center and when it’s not in power, the Christian message thrives. When it’s allowed to be challenged and when it’s allowed to challenge, Christianity flourishes. We might be comfortable in the position of power but the Christian faith, for whatever reason, has always thrived in the wilderness – in the in-between spaces – in the thin spaces – where God meets us in the mess, the unrehearsed and unresolved times and places in our lives.

This is where Jesus met us. Jesus came to us on the borders of our comfort. There’s a poem by American Edwin Markham (1852-1940), that I return to when I need a reminder about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

He drew a circle that shut me out
Heretic, liar, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.

For me, this poem speaks volumes about discipleship, about what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to be in the Jesus Movement, to be a light-bearer and a Christ-bearer. It speaks volumes, I think, about what Saint David was about, about what Saint David knew of God:

  • That God is the power of love – love that is extravagant, indiscriminate, abundant, unconditional, and all-inclusive.
  • That Jesus is the embodiment of love, who loved extravagantly, indiscriminately, abundantly, unconditionally, and all-inclusively.
  • That discipleship is a commitment to demonstrate love extravagantly, indiscriminately, abundantly, unconditionally, and all-inclusively.

Now, I don’t do it very well myself but I know that I’m supposed to. So, if I call myself a disciple, if I truly want to be a student Jesus of Nazareth, I need to remember what Jesus said to the Pharisees:

“Go and learn what this text means, ‘I desire steadfast mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Mercy, or hesed in the Hebrew, indicates God’s faithful and merciful love. “I desire steadfast mercy” means that God demands and expects of God’s people nothing less than what God offers: extravagant, indiscriminate, undeserved, abundant, unconditional, all-inclusive love. This love was embodied in the person of Jesus, who loved everybody: tax collectors and tax payers; pious women and those of ill repute; high ranking military officers and conscientious objectors; the deaf, the blind and the lame. Jesus loved the brilliant scholar and the village idiot; the ruthless merchant and the honest farmer; the exalted governor and the common thief; the rich and the poor; the oppressed and the oppressor; the clean and the unclean; the religious and the non-religious. Nobody was exempt from his love. Jesus also loved the birds of the air, the animals of the land, and the fish of the sea. He loved the flowers, the grass, the trees, the water, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Jesus loved the earth, the sky, the universe, and the rest of God’s creation. Nobody and nothing was exempt from his love. Jesus loved people whom nobody else could love. He loved folks who couldn’t love each other. He loved individuals who couldn’t love themselves. He loved those who had looked for love in all the wrong places.

He even loved those who tried to destroy him, those folks who drew a circle to keep him out. Jesus drew a circle that took them in: “Abba, forgive them” were his words of unconditional love. I think that those that Jesus ate with – Jesus’ table fellowship – was probably emblematic of what that kind of all-inclusive love looked like. And I think it was an example lived out by Saint David and his companions. Part of Saint David’s reputation arose not only because he was a great preacher but because everyone was welcome in his church and in his monastery. His order became famous for welcoming pilgrims, feeding the poor, and caring for the many orphans left by the ravaging of the Angles, the Saxons, and, later, the Vikings. Later, his followers would welcome the very same Angles and Saxons and Vikings, who were wayward and lost. All were included by Saint David because it is the very nature of God’s love to include us all. Sometimes we in the modern world, in our comfortable place, away from the border, forget the essential message of Jesus – abundant, indiscriminate, extravagant, all-inclusive, and unconditional love – love that is radical (deeply rooted and very extreme).

David’s last sermon, preached from his death bed, went something like this,

“Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.”

“Do the little things” is apparently a well-worn Welsh phrase. It reminds us that even in a time of great transformation n, in a land of myth and a time of magic, in a land of rugged individualism and extreme nationality, in a land of have and have-nots, the work of faith is still in the little things…in the relationships of love with those around us. They can be found in the daily work we have been given to do and in the small, incremental changes that we all can make.


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