The Little Things
March 1, Feast of David, Bishop of Menevia, Wales, c. 544:
Draft copy of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
There was a very inventive and quite enjoyable BBC show on a few years ago about the young wizard Merlin in the years just before and then right after Arthur Pendragon ascended the throne of Camelot.
Each episode began with the line (read by John Hurt): In a land of myth, and a time of magic.
Of course, Arthur and Merlin and Camelot are all legends, but legends set in a time of great transformation.
Think of all the versions you’ve encountered (from Romance tales you may have had to read in high school (Sir Gawain) to The Once and Future King, Sword in the Stone to Excalibur to Camelot to The Mists of Avalon, possibly even to Monty Python & The Holy Grail—my personal favorite)
Of course we’re gripped by the romance, the love triangle, the chivalry, the cool sword fights, the quests for sacred objects…
but underneath all of that, in the vast majority these retellings, there is a subtext of a clash of cultures—a clash of faiths—a clash of different ways of approaching and apprehending, and engaging with the Divine.
Sometimes it’s simply a clash between the “Old Ways” and the “new ways” often it’s more specific—The Mists of Avalon describes a tension between Matriarchal Celtic culture and patriarchal Christianity,
In the TV series Merlin there’s a constant tension between a world infused with magic, and people who can tap into the power of the natural world and those who refuse to acknowledge the enchantments of the world and try to eliminate all trace of magic.
The legend itself becomes a screen upon which our contemporary culture can work out a lot of the tensions in our own world.
But the broad historical time frame for most of the Arthurian legends sets them in the late 5th or early 6th centuries.
It was a time of the Roman empire crumbling in the west.
Bands of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were invading from the north and east, and everything was in flux.
The earliest Arthurian stories come from Wales where Arthur is a king defending the land from beasts and demons of the Welsh “Otherworld” OR or defending Briton from the invading Anglo-Saxons.
One of the most famous early poetic references to Arthur is attributed to a Welsh bard known as Aneirin (A-nerin) who lived in the 6th century, and would have been a contemporary of the Saint whose feast we celebrate today— St. David of Wales.
We don’t know much about St David of Wales.
Like King Arthur and Merlin, his story is deeply shrouded in legend.
One legend even suggests a direct connection between St. David and King Arthur.
David’s mother St. Non was the daughter of a local chieftain
And it’s said that it was this chieftain who—at Merlin’s suggestion—agreed to raise Arthur on behalf of Uther Pendragon, with Merlin as his tutor. (http://www.britannia.com/bios/ebk/cynyrccg.html, http://www.britannia.com/bios/ebk/noncg.html). Thus, making Arthur David’s foster uncle.
The date for David’s death has, since the 12th century, been accepted as March 1, 589, or 8 years before St. Augustine of Canterbury made his missionary voyage to England at the behest of Pope Gregory the Great to “Christianize the Kingdom of Kent”
Christianity had filtered into Britian through a variety of channels.
And despite the overwhelming conquest of the eastern half of the British Isles by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, in Wales, Cornwall, Galloway and points west, “the Old Ways” continued.
Both the old folk ways and the ways of Christian monasticism and asceticism.
Thus it was that in a land of myth, in a time of tumultuous change, David was born and became a priest and abbot and bishop.
He is said to have founded a monastery way out on the Pembrokeshire coast, where the Welsh Cathedral city of St. David’s stands today.
David is also know as “the water drinker” for he was said to drink nothing else, and may have refused to let the monks drink alcohol. He’s also said to have insisted that the monks pull their plows themselves rather than use draft animals. Two traits that I can’t imagine would have endeared him to anyone, and yet here we are celebrating his feast day.
He is said to have undertaken a number of missionary journeys through Wales and Brittany, and gone on a number of pilgrimages, including one to Jerusalem, and to have been a staunch defender against the Pelagian heresy.
The best known story of David took place at the Synod of Brefi. It was called to condemn the heretical teachings of Pelagius (Pelagius denied Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin and believed in radical free will—that humans could fulfill the law without divine aid).
During the Synod David rose to speak against this heresy and was either so eloquent, or someone said, “we can’t see or hear him” (the stories differ), but either way, a small hill is said to have risen beneath him.
Now, I’ve never been, but I understand that Wales is a very hilly country, and historian John Davies notes that one can scarcely “conceive of any miracle more superfluous” in that part of Wales than the creation of a new hill.[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_David].
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.
In iconography today, David is often portrayed as (you guessed it) standing on a small hill with a dove on his shoulder.
These stories all emerged from a land of myth in a time of magic and legend.
But to me what is enduring and real and true about these tales of early Christian Britons—about David and his life and ministry, and his connection to this legendary period of history—is that no matter where the time or place Christianity always seems to do better in the border lands.
Think of Paul writing from Thessalonica and Philippi—now they were large cities but cities but at the edge of the empire—near the borderlands.
That’s where the faith thrives—those in-between places.
In the rocky crags of Pembrokeshire, or Iona.
In Coptic Ethiopia, or among the Maori of New Zealand.
Christianity seems to do best, to thrive, when it’s not in power.
When it’s being challenged and questioned.
We might be more comfortable in power, or in the majority, or even when we think we know what’s coming and are well prepared.
But our faith does better—actually thrives in the desert, the wilderness.
Those in-between spaces-thin spaces where God meets us in the mess, the unrehearsed and unresolved times and places in our lives.
Those thin, dark, maybe legendary places inside of us—those places in our past—the times of challenge and hurt and quests for dreams that only you dare to dream: that’s where the seed of God’s grace takes root. That’s where miraculous growth takes place.
David’s most lasting contribution to the Welsh people and to us is a phrase said to have been part of his last sermon just before his death.
He said: ‘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-know phrase in Welsh, and it reminds us that even in a time of great transformation, in a land of myth and a time of magic, or even in a land of presumed rationality and a time of great disenchantment, the work of faith is still in the little things…primarily in the relationships of those around us. In the daily work we have been given to do. In the small, incremental changes that we all can make.
And that if we stay focused on doing the little things with God, then God will give the growth.