Michael Fisher pays homage at the windswept chapel of St Non in Pembrokeshire
‘Then he said to them, “You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while.”… So they went off in a boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves.’ (Mark 6.30–32, gospel for the sixteenth Sunday of the year).
Do you have a favourite get-away place, somewhere you can go to find peace and quiet away from the busy daily round; a place where you can gather your thoughts, to think and reflect, and perhaps to pray? It could be a favourite country walk, somewhere by the sea, or simply the bottom of the garden, the allotment, or—in the case of men—the shed. One of mine is out on the Pembrokeshire coast, near the cathedral city of St David’s, the smallest city in the UK with a population of under 1,500. While staying there in July, I was faced with a difficult choice: ‘Shall I go to choral evensong at the cathedral, or shall I say my evening office in some quiet place all by myself?’ It was a warm summer’s evening, so I chose the latter, and walked the pilgrims’ path—yn ol troed y pererinion—to the chapel and holy well of St Non, on the very edge of west Wales, about a mile from the cathedral. Beyond, there’s nothing but the Atlantic, and the next land is the east coast of America. Here is the birthplace of St David, patron saint of Wales, born, it is said, to his mother St Non during a violent thunderstorm in around 500AD. Did St Non come originally from Cornwall as place-names such as Altarnon on Bodmin Moor might suggest, or was it the other way round? The Welsh and the Cornish may argue over that ad infinitum, but it should be remembered that Cornwall was anciently known as West Wales and that both Welsh and Cornish stem from the same Brythonic root-stock.
The saint’s birthplace is marked by some ruins in a field close to the cliff-edge. Legend has it that this was the site of St Non’s dwelling, replaced later by the chapel of which only the foundations now survive. The present chapel of St Non—built in 1934—stands higher up the hillside and is cared for by the Sisters of Mercy who manage St Non’s Retreat close by.
From the chapel a path leads downwards to the holy spring where clear water wells up from the ground into a deep stone trough protected by a tunnel-like shelter made of rough masonry. Battered by winter storms when Atlantic waves thunder against the cliffs below, making the ground tremble, this rugged outpost of Celtic Christianity has a powerful spiritual presence. Walsingham it is not, but undoubtedly a holy place drenched in prayer where pilgrims have trod for over fifteen centuries to seek wholeness and peace. Some words by T.S. Eliot came readily to mind:
‘Wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his blood for the blood of Christ,
There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it
Though armies trample over it, though sightseers come with guidebooks looking over it….
From such ground spring that which forever renews the earth…’
(From Murder in the Cathedral)
Sunlight streamed through the west door of the tiny chapel of St Non, lighting up the altar which—like the high altar at Walsingham—is built with stones gleaned from ancient sites. On the north side of the altar a life-size marble statue of Our Lady cradles the Christ child, but her head is turned away from him as she directs her gaze towards the tabernacle on the altar, as if to say, ‘Here’s where you may find him now.’
Standing close to the Pembrokeshire coast path, the chapel draws in walkers and sightseers as well as more purposeful visitors. Some light votive candles and leave written requests for prayers: for a husband needing 24-hour care for mother, that she may be kept safe and well; for the healing of Janet; for little Ingrid and her parents; for son John, that he may come to believe in Christ.
As I set about saying my evening office a few coast-walkers appeared, some venturing in to stand quietly before the altar, others simply peering in through the open door. To the pile of written petitions I added one or two of my own before making my way down to the well where the only sounds were those which St Non and St David would have heard: the calling of sea birds circling overhead, the rhythmic surge of waves on rocks and shingle evoking the measured cadences of the Welsh liturgy: Sanct, Sanct, Sanct, Arglwydd Dduw’r lluodd (‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts’). Two walkers resting on a nearby bench looked on curiously as I sprinkled myself at the well, and filled bottles from which to replenish the holy water stoups back home. Close by in the adjacent field a heavy-breathing cow munched away on grass kept lush and green by the outflow of water from the spring.
Next day began with morning prayer at the cathedral, which lies hidden in the valley of the river Alun on the western edge of the city, with only the top of the tower visible from the lower end of the main street. It’s said that the site was chosen so as to keep the cathedral hidden from the eyes of invading marauders, and so it remained safe for hundreds of years until the arrival, in the sixteenth century, of the ultra-Protestant Bishop William Barlow who stripped the interior of many of its treasures, including the shrine of St David. He also devastated the fine medieval bishop’s palace just west of the cathedral. ‘That’s what Protestantism does for you,’ a visitor was heard to remark as she viewed the ruins. Worse was to follow a century later when Cromwell’s men left parts of the cathedral roofless and derelict. Mercifully, much of the cathedral’s former magnificence was restored from the 1840s onwards. More recently the energetic Wyn Evans, successively cathedral dean (1994-2008) and bishop (2008-2016) of St David’s, initiated a series of development projects around the time of the millennium, encompassing the organ, the cloisters, heritage centre, and the restoration of St David’s shrine on the north side of the sanctuary.
Yet new fracture lines have appeared within Yr Eglwys yng Nghymru (the Church in Wales). The see of St David’s is now occupied by a female, as is the cathedral deanery. The decision not to appoint a successor to Bishop David Thomas, who retired in 2008, left the province without a provincial episcopal visitor, while Bishop David’s death in May 2017 removed the last vestiges of alternative episcopal oversight. Nor do those of the traditional integrity enjoy the same degree of commitment to ‘mutual flourishing’ as applies (at least on paper) in the English dioceses through the Bishops’ Declaration and the Five Guiding Principles. Yet Credo Cymru (the Welsh equivalent of Forward in Faith) battles on bravely under the banner of ‘Be joyful and keep the faith’—reputedly the last words spoken by St David to his monks—as the ground shifts to the other sacraments. Confirmation is no longer considered to be a prerequisite for admission to Holy Communion, which may now be administered to all who have been baptized, regardless of their age or understanding. We should never cease to pray for those who, under difficult circumstances, keep the faith as delivered to and through St David of Wales, and who today walk spiritually yn ol troed y pererinion.
I think again of that marble statue of Blessed Mary—Y Santes Fair—at the side of St Non’s altar, fixing her gaze on the tabernacle. ‘He’s right here,’ she seems to be saying, ‘here for you.’ In today’s Gospel reading, Our Lord invites his disciples to ‘come away to some lonely place, all by yourselves and rest awhile’ (Mark 6.31) for they had been so busy that they had ‘no time even to eat.’ Busyness and the pressure to fill our lives dawn-to-dusk with activity and noise are among the curses of modern life, and Christians are by no means immune to them. We all need to ‘chill out’ spiritually if we are to give of our best, and the means are there. Go to ‘some lonely place’ if you can, like St Non’s on the edge of Wales, or some other favourite spot where you may find stillness, but remember too that any of us may, at any time, make a pilgrimage to the tabernacle in our own church, to be still in the presence of the Lord, and within the holy fellowship of St David, St Non, our own patron saint, and all the company of heaven.
(Adapted from a homily given at St Michael & All Angels, Cross Heath, 22 July 2018)
Father Michael Fisher writes on ecclesiological matters.