HOMILY OF ABBOT PAUL ON ST TEILO“For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” St Paul knew what he was talking about and the saints of every age have taken him at his word.
If you arrived early for Mass or have prepared for this visit by reading the magnificent Museum website, you will have taken a close look at the extraordinary new rood screen with its beautifully detailed and nuanced life of St Teilo and the text that fully describes what you see. St Teilo is one of the great figures of the early Welsh Church, whose life spanned the 6th Century, from his birth in the year 500.
The life of St Teilo, by any stretch of the imagination, even the Celtic imagination, is a story of faith, powerful faith in the God whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and whose weakness is stronger than human strength. It is the story of a man, a most attractive man, for whom God was everything, his first love, his best friend, the very breath he breathed and every step he took. He saw and experienced the presence of God at every turn, in every person, in all creatures. It was a presence that gave him courage, strength, vision, perseverance, hope, and an exquisite charity, and all this with a deep joy and an almighty sense of humour. If nothing else, St Teilo shows us that the adventure of faith, a life lived in the presence of God, can be fun and full of tremendous surprises. Now that’s true of all the Celtic saints. I’ve yet to meet a dull or unhappy one whose life was a misery and a bore. Even the martyrs, like St Cadoc, took persecution and death in their stride and faced adversity with a big smile on their faces.
The first lesson we learn from St Teilo, then, is simply the enormous joy of being a disciple because fidelity to God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Church is a fantastic way to live and a great adventure. In short, it’s fun being a Catholic, in fact it’s more fun than being anything else, and it’s a fun that lasts through life and beyond the grave. I just love the story of the multiplication of bodies. You probably know it well. On his death, three churches laid claim to his body, Penally, where he was born, Llandeilo Fawr, the great monastery he founded, and Llandaf, his cathedral. The contending parties decided to pray over the matter through the night and at daybreak they were amazed to see three bodies of the saint. So each group returned home rejoicing with their precious relic for burial. The second lesson is never give up hope and to persevere in prayer. No situation is so desperate that God cannot work a miracle and solve it in the most delightfully unexpected way. “Ask and it will be given unto you.”
Now we often say, “It’s a small world” and so it is, and we have all had the experience of bumping into friends in the most unexpected places, sometimes to our embarrassment. The fascinating thing about the Celtic saints, and St Teilo is no exception, is the contacts and the friendships they nurtured. Our saint studied under St Dyfrig, one of the great masters of the monastic and spiritual life in 6th Century South Wales. (Wales, of course, extended into Hereford in those days for Dyfrig was born at Madley, not far from Belmont, and had his great monastery at Hentland, on the banks of the Wye not far from Ross.) It was with his soul mates St David and St Padarn that he travelled to Rome to kneel at the feet of the Pope, who gave them each a blessing, a bell and a chair. It is said that St Teilo was so humble that he took the smallest chair. Did the Holy Father ordain them or just give them their allotted mission area in Wales? We don’t know, but on their return each founded a cathedral, a diocese and a monastery. Now the unusual thing about St Teilo is that his cathedral was near Llandaf whereas his monastery, a much more important settlement, was at Llandeilo, in St David’s diocese. Although they were all great roamers, they did not see the need to respect diocesan boundaries, which as yet were rather vague. They worked alongside one another, often overlapping and strengthening each other’s work and mission.
Here we have more useful lessons and to begin with, fidelity to the Mother Church of Rome. At no time was the Celtic Church independent or estranged from the Church of Rome. It was always part and parcel of the Western, Latin and Roman Church. They all spoke their Celtic dialects and languages, but they knew Latin well and celebrated the Liturgy in Latin. So to them, the Pope was the figure of authority in the Church and it was to Rome they all went and at the Fisherman’s feet that they all knelt. And they were obedient to his teaching and instructions. Secondly, there is the importance of Christian friendship. Jesus told his disciples, “You are my friends, if you do as I command you.” He taught them to love one another and to work together, without quarrelling and without childishly competing against each other. They really practised what Jesus taught, that the greatest is the least. The Celtic saints, without losing their idiosyncratic charm and individuality, knew how to work together as a team. There were no factions and divisions in their Church.
Of course, St Teilo, like all Celtic monks, was an inveterate traveller. It’s as though they had taken a vow of stability to the open road and wild sea. But then Jesus had said, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” And he had sent out his apostles two by two to prepare the way for his coming. On the advent of the yellow plague in 545, St Teilo set out for Brittany with a group of followers and they travelled via Cornwall. It was in Brittany, where he was to remain seven years, seven months and seven days, that he was befriended by St Samson. Together they planted an apple orchard, which can still be seen, and thus St Teilo became the patron of apple trees. Next he was sent a horse from heaven and with the help of this divine creature he befriended and subdued a ferocious dragon, thus becoming the patron of horses. Then, when offered land on which to build a monastery, with holy cunning he mounted a stag with which he was able to claim far more land than a generous count was willing to give him. In Brittany there are many legends about our saint that are told and retold to this day.
But what do these legends, these holy and didactic stories, teach us today? In the first place, that we should never be afraid but trust in God who will always guide and protect those whom he loves. No doubt each night St Teilo prayed as we do at Compline, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit,” the words prayed by Jesus on the Cross. Now St Paul said, “If God is with us, who can be against us? Nothing can separate us from the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Trust in God, what a wonderful gift of faith that is and how we need it more than anything else. Next, the humility and the gratitude to be able to accept God’s gifts and acknowledge that God really does want to bestow his many gifts on us if only we open our eyes and stretch out our arms and hands to him. We might be pleasantly surprised, as St Teilo was with his horse and his stag. Again, we learn the love of nature in all its richness, trees and fruits, animals wild and tame, and a deep respect for the beauty, perfection and integrity of God’s creation. St Teilo helps us to recognise and believe that God made us to become co-creators with him of both the earthly and heavenly Kingdom. Indeed, to believe that in Christ both Kingdoms are one, for all are one in Christ, who is the One God living and true.
Finally and above all, the beginning and the end of St Teilo’s life and work was the love of God, that “perfect love which casts out fear,” On his deathbed he could say with St Peter, “Lord, you know everything: you know I love you.” God’s love for him was reflected perfectly in his love for God, a love made possible through the Incarnation of God’s only-begotten Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, outpoured into his heart, which was so receptive to the loving kindness and mercy of God. We pray today in this his church for his intercession, that we, like him, may come to know, love and serve the living God with profound joy and thanksgiving. St David’s parting blessing to his people was, “Be joyful. Keep the faith.” Today we ask St Teilo to pray for us that we may do just that, always to be joyful and in that joy to keep the faith. Amen.