Saints for Our Times: Legend abounds for the only Welsh man to be canonized
By Mary Lou Gibson
Welshmen all over the world celebrate March 1 as St. David’s Day honoring the only saint from Wales to be canonized in the Western Church. David, or Dewi in Welsh, has an unreliable history, but many writers concede that he was the most important British churchman of his time, the late sixth century.
On St. David’s Day, it is a long standing tradition in Wales to wear a leek (an onion-like vegetable) in remembrance of a battle against the Saxons. David is said to have told the Welsh to wear leeks in their hats to distinguish them from the enemy.
Much of his life’s story and fame rests on a biography written in 1090 by Rhygyfarch, the bishop of St. David’s, according to editor Dom Basil Watkins writing in “The Book of Saints.” He is remembered as a powerful preacher, the founder of about 12 monasteries and the defender of the faith against the Pelagian movement. Tessa Paul explains in the “Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia of Saints” that this heresy claimed it was possible to find salvation without help of divine grace.
Tradition describes David as having a grand lineage with his father thought to be of the princely family named Sant. However, the circumstances of his birth are clouded by the stories that his mother was not a willing partner for his birth in about 520. In due course, David was ordained a priest. Editor Michael Walsh writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that he next went to study under a Welsh hermit, St. Paulinus, who lived on a remote island. St. Paulinus was blind from much weeping over the sins of the world and David is said to have restored his sight.
Over the next several years, David set about spreading the faith in western Britain. He founded between 10 or 12 monasteries in Wales and England. Father Thomas Donaghy writes in “Lives of the Saints” that the ruins of many of these monasteries may yet be seen at every crossroad west of Herefordshire.
David was an austere priest and became renowned for the harshness of his monastic rule. His principal monastery was at Mynyw (Menevia), a remote corner of Wales. Paul writes that the monks lived by hard labor and were not allowed to use oxen to help plow the fields. Their diet consisted of salt and some vegetables and water. Rosemary Guiley writes in the “Encyclopedia of Saints” that David earned the nickname “the Waterman” (or “Aquaticus”) because of his strict monastic rule prohibiting alcohol. This monastic regime was modeled after that practiced by St. Anthony in the desert. Biographer Malcolm Day asserts in “A Treasury of Saints” that David’s favorite exercises were genuflections and total immersion in cold water.
David presided over two synods called to combat Pelagianism. The first was at Brefi (or Brevi) in 550. Tessa Paul writes that while he was preaching to a crowd, the earth beneath him swelled into a small hill so that more people could see and hear him. This led to him being made head of the Church in Wales by popular acclaim. He also presided at the Synod of Victory at Caerleon around 569.
David moved his see from Caerleon to Menevia where he ruled his monastery for many years. He lived to a very old age and his death in about 601 took place at Mynyw. His final words to his monks were “Keep your faith, and do the little things you have seen and heard with me.” He was canonized in 1120 by Pope Callistus II. He was regarded as the patron of Wales from the 12th century. He is also the patron of bards, poets and doves.
But there is more to St. David than his reputation for strict monastic rule. There are the legends. Rodney Castleden describes them in “The Book of Saints.” He was supposed to have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he was consecrated as archbishop by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Then there are the stories of his father’s kinship with King Arthur, but there is no evidence to corroborate these stories.
Other legends were recorded by medieval writers who wrote that David’s birth was foretold 30 years in advance by an angel appearing to St. Patrick. In another story, an angel appeared to David’s father, Sant, in a dream.
His March 1 feast day is not on the General Roman Calendar, but is celebrated by the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the U.S. There are more than 50 place names and dedications to David in South Wales today.