Sacred Places Journal
21 October, 2001: Sunday at St. David's: A Thin Place
At breakfast I meet a writer of children's stories. She asks if I've been to St. Non's Bay yet. I haven't. "Go to the nuns," she tells me. "They'll hug you to death." I can't wait. But first, Parish Eucharist and Sung Mattins at the Cathedral.
The cathedral doubles as a parish church and the service feels just like parish worship at home. I discover, though, that although it has been my favorite hymn for years, you haven't sung "And Can it Be" until you've sung it with a Welsh congregation. Charles Wesley's wife was Welsh, after all. They even have a verse I've never heard before.
"Da boch chi," my friend from breakfast bids me. (God be with you, in Welsh.)
"And also with you," I respond.
St. Non's Retreat and Chapel
Mattins. The pew sheet says, "We welcome you to this service. Worship has been offered to God daily on this site for over a thousand years. Today you are part of a congregation which comes from all over the British Isles and from all over the world. Though we may not know each other, we are fellow-members of the world-wide church.
"Mattins is the distinctive service of Morning Prayers used by the chuches of the Anglican Communion, and is sung or said daily at St. David's cathedral. It includes elements from the medieval offices of Matins, Lauds, and Prime and has changed little since the first English Prayer Book." (1549)
Modern St. Non's Chapel
Wales is the place to come if you love to sing hymns. This morning we have George Herbert, John Henry Newman, and three by Charles Wesley.
But before the service begins I hurry back outside to hear the bells. One can't hear them from inside. The changes come tumbling down the hill like a waterfall from the tower by the gate and the sun shimmers on the wet grass. Then in for Lovely, lovely Mattins. I shall miss English worship. The echoes aren't the same anywhere else in the world.
The walk over the peninsula to St. Non's is splendid with sunshine and green hedgerows. I sit on a bench by St. Non's Chapel listening to songbirds, seabirds, bees, and a hum of conversation from the retreat house behind me, dazzled by the sun on the water. Then I enter the Chapel of Our Lady and St. Non, built 1934 in old stone in the style of old Pembrokeshire chapels from as early as 500 when St. David was born, St. Non being his mother. David was born in a house that stood where the ruined chapel is today--in a field behind me. One legend is that the nearby well sprang up when David was born. It has been considered a holy well, especially healing for the eyes, for 1400 years.
Ruined Chapel - site of St. David's birth
I walk along the cliff edge and, my full English breakfast having worn off, find a spot to consume my takeaway bap filled with chicken, turkey, mango chutney, English mustard and salad. The cliff tops are covered with bracken, gorse, heather and the inevitable nettles. The waves crash on the black rocks below me as I gaze westward. It's a clear day, but I can't quite make out New York.
Lunch over, I go to St. Non's well, a small spring sheltered in a manmade grotto overlooked by a shrine of Our Lady. A few yards along the path is the ruined chapel where Dewi/David was born. A party clad in wetsuits tramp by me. I see them later snorkeling far below in the aquamarine water.
St. Non's Well, healing for the eyes
When I go back up the path I see 3 ladies sunning themselves on the bench in front of the retreat house. "Do you know if the sisters are in?" I ask.
"We are the sisters." They invite me up for tea and we sit in the sun chatting about St. Non and how difficult it is to believe the awfulness in the world is real in such a place of beauty, peace and prayer as this. And, indeed, I am hugged and blessed on my way.
Once again, the bells, a cascade of chimes, then an exceptionally lovely, hushed Evensong in this most holy and intimate of cathedrals. I am on my knees as the choir sings the prayers and the windows glow golden in the sunset.
The dean takes his text from Deuteronomy 34:1 "And the Lord showed Moses all the Land." He recounts the history--how little has changed in the Holy Land in the past 3000 years--all the wars. "And it neeen't have been that way." Possession of the land wasn't to be the goal--relationship to God was meant to be the goal. The Christian experience leads us to leave such grasping for personal power behind. "We are to be sanctified, transformed to realize that vision of peace, mercy and truth which God calls us to live in."
St. Non's Bay - Next Stop: New York
On the way out I tell the dean, "St. David's seems especially holy."
"It is, yes. Oh, yes," he says. "it's a thin place."
"We are the sisters.": Nora, Breda, Alma