A message from Father Nick 26
Safety from the winter storms…
We should never exaggerate our differences, but sharing a border between England and Wales can remind us of the richness that diversity brings. We are all united in the same faith, but we also have quite distinct background stories to tell. The Scots and the Irish rightly cherish their own traditions of evangelization, and the Welsh and the English should be proud of theirs too – as should all those who have joined us from other countries.
The origins of faith in Wales lie hidden in the old world of Roman Britain. Illtud, the renowned “Magister Elegans”, cultured teacher of all the Britons, founded what has been called a fifth century university on the South Wales coast. As well as being a place of constant prayer, this was intended to hand on the fruits of Christian and classical learning to new generations. In other words, from its very beginning, Wales was a Christian country. Its Celtic elements had some inflection from the Greek world, but, against the pagan influx of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, it was very much a Roman Catholic entity.
We saw last week how the mission to England began with Pope St Gregory’s full support. And by letter and by constant encouragement, he continued to urge the monks he sent from Rome in 597 to incorporate as much as they could of English custom and practice – not destroying all traces of paganism but converting those traces too. His policy would bear much fruit.
Bede, in his History of the English Church and People, gives a moving account of how Christianity was accepted in Northumbria in 627. King Edwin has gathered his advisers to discuss this strange new doctrine brought to them by the monk Paulinus. The question is: should they accept it or not?
“Coifi, the chief priest, replied without hesitation:’ Your Majesty, let us give careful consideration to this new teaching; for I frankly admit that, in my experience, the religion that we have hitherto professed seems valueless and powerless. None of your subjects has been more devoted to the service of our gods than myself; yet there are many to whom you show greater favour, who receive greater honours, and who are more successful in all their undertakings. Now, if the gods had any power they would surely have favoured myself, who have been more zealous in their service. Therefore, if on examination you perceive that these new teachings are better and more effectual, let us not hesitate to accept them.’
Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement with this prudent argument, and went on to say: ‘Your Majesty, when we compare our present life on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day, with your thanes and councillors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall: outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. The sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, we appear on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’ The other elders and counsellors of the king, under God’s guidance, gave similar advice.”