Llandaff Cathedral 8th February 2015
What a wonderful evening this is and such a historic occasion: we thank the Dean and Chapter for the generous invitation to celebrate Mass in this Cathedral Church, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, Dyfrig, Teilo and Euddogyw. Christians have been worshipping on this spot since the first church was built here in the middle of 6th Century, though this building was not begun until after the Norman Conquest of South Wales, when our small Celtic churches were replaced by larger ones in the Romanesque style which was brought in from England and the Continent. Nevertheless, the relics of the three Welsh founding saints were preserved here and, in the Middle Ages, those of St Teilo and the magnificent shrine that contained them rivalled St David’s and the relics of our patron saint in West Wales. Thousands of pilgrims flocked to Llandaff to find healing and relief, hope and consolation, not to mention good company and lots of fun. Tonight, we follow in their footsteps, at the end of Mass, we will have the opportunity of venerating the relics of St Teilo, praying for his powerful intercession.
Tonight’s first reading allowed us to eavesdrop on the remarkable vision Isaiah had when he was called by God to be a prophet. He saw the glory of heaven and heard the angels sing. He became immediately aware of his unworthiness and confessed that he was a sinner, a man of unclean lips. With a live coal his sin is taken away and his iniquity purged. Only then could he proclaim, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” We don’t know the details of St Teilo’s vocation, that moment that takes your breath away and you realise that you have been chosen by God for a ministry for which you are totally unprepared and utterly unworthy. But St Teilo knew the Scriptures well and probably saw in the call of Isaiah something of his own calling to be a priest and a bishop for his people in Wales. Born in the year 500, his life spanned the whole of 6th Century, and it was dedicated entirely to God and the mission of the Church.
St Paul, writing to the Corinthians in our second reading, tells us that the language of the Cross may be illogical for some, but that we, as Christians, see it as God’s power to save. 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, for whom God was everything, his first love, his best friend, the very air that he breathed. He experienced the presence of God at every turn, in every person and in all creatures. It was a presence that gave him courage, strength, perseverance, hope, vision and abounding charity, and all this with a deep joy and an extraordinary sense of humour. If nothing else, St Teilo teaches us that the adventure of faith, a life lived in the presence of God, can be totally fulfilling and full of surprises. Now that’s true of all the Celtic saints. You will never meet a dull or unhappy one whose life was a misery and a bore. Even the martyrs, like St Cadoc or St Tydfil, took persecution and death in their stride and faced adversity with joy and thanksgiving. “Thy will be done.”
In the Gospel passage we heard tonight, Jesus calls his first disciples, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” They simply up sticks and follow him, no questions asked. The first lesson we learn from St Teilo is the enormous joy of being a disciple, because fidelity to God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Church is the best life you can have. In short, it’s great being a Christian and a Catholic, a privilege and a joy that lasts throughout life and beyond the grave. Do you remember the miracle of the multiplication of bodies? On his death, three churches laid claim to his body, Penally, where he was born, Llandeilo Fawr, the great monastery he founded, and Llandaff, 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 treasure 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 to you.”
One of the fascinating things about the Celtic saints is the contacts and friendships they nurtured. Our saint studied under St Dyfrig, a native of Madley in Herefordshire and one of the great masters of the monastic and spiritual life in 6th Century South Wales. It was with his close friends 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. Now the unusual thing about St Teilo is that his cathedral was near Llandaff whereas his monastery, a much more important settlement, was at Llandeilo, in St David’s diocese. It seems they didn’t see the need to respect diocesan boundaries, which as yet were rather vague anyway. They worked alongside one another, often overlapping and strengthening each other’s work and mission.
The visit to Rome also demonstrates their fidelity to the Mother Church of Western Christendom. At no time was there a Celtic Church, independent of or separate from the Church of Rome. The Church in Celtic lands was always part and parcel of the Latin Church. They spoke their various 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 went and at the Fisherman’s feet they knelt. And they were obedient to his teaching and instructions. The Celtic saints, without losing their idiosyncratic charm and individuality, knew how to work together as a team and there were no factions or divisions among them.
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 Jesus had said, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” and 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 sail for Brittany with a group of followers. There he remained for seven years, seven months and seven days, and was befriended by St Samson. Together they planted an apple orchard 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 much more land than a generous count had offered him. In Brittany there are many legends about our saint that are told to this day.
But what do these legends, these didactic stories, teach us today? Above all, that we should never be afraid but trust in God who will always guide and protect those he loves. Fear, rather than indifference, is paralysing our lives as Christians and the mission of the Church in this country today. St Paul said, “If God is with us, who can be against us? Nothing can separate us from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The gift of faith means trusting in God and how we need that gift today, but the truth is that we already have it, but are afraid to use it and so fail to follow in the footsteps of St Teilo, who was undaunted and untiring in proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. We also learn to love nature in all its richness and to respect the beauty, perfection and integrity of God’s creation. St Teilo’s life shows us clearly that God made us to be co-creators with him of both this world and the world to come.
Finally, the beginning and the end of St Teilo’s life and work was the love of God, that “perfect love which casts out all 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 and neighbour, 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. Throughout his life St Teilo opened his heart with humility and gratitude to the loving kindness and mercy of God. We pray today that we, like him, may come to know, love and serve the living God with profound joy and thanksgiving. As we all know, 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 always be joyful and in that joy not only keep the faith but proclaim and share it with integrity and vigour. After all, we have all been called by Jesus to become fishers of men.
Conference 10th February 2015
It’s just a coincidence that today is the Feast of St Scholastica. I hadn’t intended speaking about her. We all know the account of her last meeting with St Benedict in the Dialogues of St Gregory so well, there’s a danger of switching off, letting our minds wander, when we hear it read each year at Vigils. Nevertheless, the lesson that St Gregory draws from that meeting remains powerful and instructive and helps us understand the relationship between love and prayer in our own lives. In fact, what happens in our prayer life is a true indication of what really matters to us and of where our true interests lie. At times, I fear, they lie far from the love of God. Of course, God does see the prayer, whereas we rarely see more than distractions.
This episode in the Dialogues seems to echo the reading from the Song of Songs we heard at Mass: “love is strong as Death; love no flood can quench.” It shows us a Benedict who is rather more concerned about observance and decorum than in caring for the needs of his sister and discerning what is truly the will of God in this particular situation, a Benedict torn between the monastic and the pastoral, you could say without exaggerating. It is something we have all experienced, hence it’s central position here in such an important episode of the Dialogues. I know when I go home to visit my mother, how torn I am between rushing back for Vespers and staying an extra hour or so to keep her company, an old lady who lives alone and often sees no one in the course of the day. I know that “honour thy father and thy mother” is one of the Ten Commandments, but missing Vespers or any other part of the monastic day, to which I have made a solemn vow, fills me with what I can only call ‘monastic guilt.” Strange how a life, that should make us free, can enslave us for all the wrong reasons.
Now, we must learn how to create a sensible balance between our monastic duties and the supreme law of love, which lies at the heart of the Christian life and, therefore, at the very heart of monastic and Benedictine spirituality. It’s a question of working as hard as Martha, while praying as hard as Mary, for both sisters loved the Lord deeply and were utterly devoted to him. Nevertheless, it was Mary who had chosen the better part and it was not to be taken from her. How do we stop worrying and fretting about so many things and keep our hearts and minds focussed only on Jesus and yet fulfil all those tasks that fill the diary of any seriously hard-working monk? In the Dialogues St Gregory gives us an answer.
Just like Martha and Mary, both Benedict and Scholastica had given their lives to the Lord. Both were intent on serving him to the best of their ability. There was no competition here, as there often is with us, between the divine and the worldly, though we do have to discover the spiritual in the material and thus sanctify the world through our lives of consecration to God. That is part and parcel of the search for God. Scholastica and Benedict had spent the whole day “praising God and talking of sacred things,” and all Scholastica wanted of her brother was to continue discussing “the delights of the spiritual life.” It wasn’t a question of a night out on the town or simply reminiscing over the purely human side of their lives, their parents and childhood together in Norcia, their experiences in Rome, common friendships and memories of Subiaco and Monte Cassino. No, it was the Lord himself on whom their minds were focussed and the life of prayer and communion with God to which the monastic life should lead. So it was a choice between two goods, not between good and evil or between a greater and a lesser good.
It would appear, then, that St Scholastica had advanced further along the road of perfection than her twin. She had climbed further up the ladder of humility to that “perfect love that casts out all fear.” Indeed, hers was that “freedom of the sons of God,” for which we all long. Even when her prayer was answered, “Sadly, he began to complain,” St Gregory tells us. Scholastica had prayed, Benedict had not; her prayer was answered, he complained as though she were a common sorcerer and not a nun. “May God forgive you, sister. What have you done?” But what had her prayer been, surely not for thunder and lightening and torrential rain? No doubt it was that perfect prayer taught us by the Lord himself and his Blessed Mother. “Thy will be done.” “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.” “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.” All we ever need pray for is that God’s will be done. It’s so simple, and yet so difficult for us, who have great difficulty handing over our will to God, even after we have vowed to do so in obedience, stability and conversatio morum.
And so it was that “they stayed awake all night, engrossed in their conversation about the spiritual life.”
This was to be their last conversation, for three days later St Benedict saw the soul of his sister leave her body and fly like a dove into the glory of heaven. Fully aware now of the gift of sanctity, which had been granted his sister for her total surrender to the will of God, he praised God and had her body buried in his own grave, so that together they could await the Resurrection of the Body on the Last Day. There is a particular spiritual intimacy in sharing a grave.
I’ll bring these few words to an end by going back to St Gregory’s commentary on that final meeting of brother and sister. “It is not surprising that she was more effective than he, since as John says, God is love, it was absolutely right that she could do more, as she loved more.” True prayer can only be the fruit of love, while love itself, true love, can only be the fruit of prayer, for God is love. But God is not only love, all-embracing as that is; God is also gift. God gives himself to us in the act of creation and, in the gift of life, he has shared his very being with us. This divine self-giving bursts forth into new life in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Prayer, which is the fullness and totality of our relationship with the Father in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, is also a gift. Like love, it cannot be bought, as the Song of Songs so dramatically puts it. Prayer is God’s gift; it is also what marks us out as his sons. It is the union of wills, ultimate communion, a foretaste of heaven. That was where St Scholastica stood, when she met with St Benedict for the last time. She was ready for heaven, and it was all God’s gift, for he was now her only love: she had been given the better part. Now that is our goal, our desire, our love and our prayer. Amen
well worth watching and listening:
well worth watching and listening: