Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Saints by Amy Steedman
Our Island Saints by  Amy Steedman

Saint David

T HERE is an old legend which tells us that the good Saint Patrick, before he returned to the Green Island where he had been a slave, stayed for a while in Wales and thought to make his home there. He loved its wild mountains and deep glens dearly, its dancing streams and purple cliffs rising so straight from the edge of the blue sea. There was much work there, too, waiting to be done, and he thought that he was the man to do it. But one evening, as he sat at sundown upon the steep rock of Cam Ilidi, a messenger of God was sent in a vision to change his purpose. It was a fitting time and place for a heavenly vision. Below him the heathery moors sloped down to the edge of the sea, whose blue waters stretched out their shining glory of sapphire and gold in the sunset glow, and above in the sky the clouds were flinging wide their banners of rose and crimson. So full was the very air of wondrous light and colour that the angel who stood beside him seemed but a part of the shining glory.

"Dost thou see," said the angel, "beyond yon golden sea, a dim blue line beneath the sunset edge? That is the land where thou shalt dwell and wage thy warfare for God, the land from whence thou shalt enter into thy rest. This country is not for thee, but is reserved for one who shall be born thirty years hence." So it was that Saint Patrick went to Ireland, while Wales waited for the saint whom God should send.

Full thirty years then passed away before Saint David, patron saint of Wales, was born. His father, it is said, was kin to King Arthur, and his mother was a poor Irish nun. Leaving her monastery, the gentle nun went to live in a cottage at the edge of the cliffs, above a little bay which is still called by her name. Here, while the wild winds dashed the spray far up the cliffs and shrieked like demons around the little cottage, her baby was born.

Perhaps the favourite name of all others in Wales has ever been David or Dewi. Sometimes it is spelt Dafyd, and the old nickname "Taffy" may have been the way which English tongues pronounced it. It was this name of David which they gave to the baby born in the wind-swept cottage that stormy night, little guessing that it was to be the name of the patron saint of Wales.

Like other children wild and free, he grew up strong and hardy; learned to climb the rocks like a young goat and to live his life out of doors, the sky above for his roof and the thymy grass for his carpet. But that was when he was but a little boy. Growing older, there were lessons to be learned and duties to be done, and so young David was sent to be tamed and taught at the monastery school.

Paulinus, his master, loved the boy, and found him quick to learn and easy to teach. In the old stories of Saint David's life there is not much told of his childhood, but it is said that "David grew up full of grace and lovely to be looked at. And he learned at school the psalms, lessons of the whole year, mass and communion; and there his fellow disciples saw a dove with a golden beak playing about his lips, and singing the hymns of God."

Pure lips from which no ugly word ever fell, kindly speech that turned quarrels into friendliness, straightforward truth and honour, that was what his companions noted when they watched young David, and this was why perhaps they spoke of the dove with golden beak that played about his lips.

One other thing the old story tells about the boy. Paulinus the master suffered once from a dreadful pain in his eyes. For a time he could see nothing and feel nothing but his misery, and he did not know when David came and stood beside him in pitying silence. But presently he felt cool hands laid on his aching eyes, a tender touch that gently stroked the hot suffering eyelids until in some miraculous fashion it charmed the pain away.

As the Master of old in Galilee brought peace and healing by the touch of His kind hand, it is not strange that those who walk closest in His footprints should have learned from Him the virtue that lies in a tender loving touch.

There were rough times to be faced when David grew to manhood and became the head of his monastery. Not only was the land continually plundered by foreign foes, but there were still many bards and chieftains who hated Christianity and looked upon David as their foe. The love of music and poetry was as strong in the land as the love of the sword, and these bards were the teachers of the people, poets who sang of the great deeds of heroes, and told in flowing verse of their victories and defeats. Thus it was a great matter to win these bards to the service of Christ, and David counted it a great victory when they listened to his teaching and were willing to enter Christ's service. The monasteries welcomed them eagerly, knowing that the music of their harps lifted men's souls to heaven.

So the banner of Christ floated more and more triumphantly over the land, and one by one the monasteries were founded by David, and filled with men eager to take service under that banner. It was no easy life that tempted men to become monks in those days. Saint David's rule was so strict that only those who were willing to endure hardness could have found pleasure in living as they did. Clothes rough and coarse, made from the skins of animals, food of the simplest, work of some sort from morning till night, this was what Saint David's followers willingly endured. Every moment of the day had its duties, either prayer or hard work in the fields. Instead of oxen or horses, the monks themselves were harnessed to the plough, and patiently plodded through the work given to them to do.

But through it all the love of beauty and music and poetry was never crushed out, but rather grew stronger in these simple monks. One thing they loved above all, and that was to make copies of the Holy Book, and each one strove to make his copy as fair and exquisite as skill could achieve. So much did they love this work that a special rule was obliged to be made, which ordered that when the church bell rang the brothers were to stop work at once, the sentence be left unfinished, and even the word left half written. Instant obedience was one of the first things David's monks learned, and it taught them how to conquer the world.

Upon the same rock of Saint Patrick's vision David built his own beloved monastery, and there, in sight of the sea he loved and those purple hills of glory, he too received the heavenly messenger and heard the summons, "Friend, come up higher."

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