Brynach and the Strength of Contemplation.
A longer Read
One of my most favourite places in the world is a little church by a brook in West Wales. It sits below a wooded hill on which the Normans built a castle, little of which remains. The church is very ancient and built into its fabric are the remains of strange monuments marked by an archaic Irish script called Ogham, which looks not unlike a barcode, with lines incised into the edge of long stones. This part of north Pembroke shire has always had strong links with Ireland. The mass of Carningli, ‘the cairn of the angels’ dominates the skyline, it is an outlier of the Preseli hills and from its summit, on a clear day Ireland itself is visible.
At some time after the year 500, a young man from Ireland, already much travelled, called Brynach arrived at the nearby harbour of Cwm yr Eglwys, ‘the valley of the church’. He landed carrying with him a portable stone altar. If you want to see what it looked like one belonging to St David is set into a more modern altar table in the side aisle of St David’s cathedral, just beyond the tomb of the Lord Rhys, who was responsible for the ruinous state of the Norman castle at Nevern. These altar stones gave rise to the legend that the Celtic saints sailed the western seaways balanced on millstones.
What is beyond legend is that Brynach settled a little inland at the site of the church at Nevern, possibly married the daughter of a local nobleman and led a life of great holiness. It is said that he used to climb Carningli and converse with angels on its windswept summit. It is a place I love to climb myself, and up on its top it is possible to understand how Brynach found it a place where the power of the Holy Spirit blew through his soul, just as at its foot at his church there is a sense of deep and healing peace.
In the churchyard, sheltered by ancient yews, there is a tall and venerable cross in a pitted and lichen-stained grey stone. It is the shape of the war memorial in Cleobury, indeed its distant ancestor, with a Celtic sun-disc around its head. In legend this head was brought to Brynach by St David himself, the two men were certainly friends and fellow missionaries.
Somebody wise once said that Christianity in our own day in these islands is still sustained by the prayers of the Celtic saints. At Brynach’s church at Nevern it is very
possible to believe that this is true. One of the churchyard yews bleeds red sap, it is said in lamentation for the crucifixion, and on St Brynach’s day, the 7th of April it was also said that the priest would wait for the first cuckoo of spring to alight on his cross and sing, before he would begin his Mass…
Such things are charming stories, but the idea of the power of prayer, and the reality of the cosmic unity of prayer across those on Earth and those in the Heavens is real. Many times have I climbed up the long steep slope out of Trefdraeth (Newport), first past the massive protective bulk of the mediaeval church tower, on past the tiny schoolroom that was one of the first elementary schools in Wales, and then after the painted stone cottages have been left behind, on along the road with the rushing stream to my right, for water is everywhere in this landscape. And then I have come out onto the sodden heathland that rises in one of those frustrating slopes where the summit seems to grow larger but somehow not closer. High up over the landscape stretched out below me, sometimes with the Wicklow Mountains a smudge on the horizon to the north-west and Cadair Idris across Cardigan Bay as sentinel to Snowdonia, I have reached the scree that skirts the mountain top, and scrambled over the last boulders to reach Carningli head.
High up there the ridge of the summit is guarded on each side by an outcrop like a castle tower, and then sheltered between them is a less windswept hollow. This is the place, with the valleys of the Gwaun and the Nanhyfer below him, and the distant mountains across the sea to the north and west, and the nearer mountains of the higher Preselis, whence came the bluestones for the first phase of Stonehenge, dark to the east of him, that Brynach came to pray. Sometimes, rarely, up there you find it still, and in stillness filled with a peace contained by the breathtaking panorama. Usually, there is a restless wind, you may be alone, but the weather ceaselessly buffets you and tugs at you; you may have climbed with your own agenda of thoughts and prayers, but the moving and tumbling air makes you aware of the immensity of the world beyond you and outside your understanding. Sometimes the wind is stormy, making the place dangerous in its beauty, with a force that threatens to altogether overthrow you.
In all its seasons Brynach came up here to pray. He climbed on his own, was the only human figure there, but he did not pray on his own. For one thing he was part of a movement of Christians who for the previous two hundred years had first poured out of the cities of Egypt and Syria and then out of the towns of the West to shape lives of prayer not in human environments but in the created landscapes of God, places balanced within His nature. By Brynach’s time there were few towns in these islands anyway, Rome had gone down in the West, and in these Atlantic lands civilization had fallen away so that the material world had regressed to a state far more basic than it hadbeen when she first came. Brynach prayed humanly alone in a world that was adrift from its certainties, he sought solitude so as to be more aware of a greater wholeness. He prayed (should we say ‘prays’?) as part of that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Heb 12 j) which is the company of heaven; saints and angels. The mountain gets its name from the notion that as he prayed at its top the angels ministered to him. Unlike the bleeding yew and the cuckoo in the churchyard its foot in Nevern, this is not a charming story, it is the truth.
I don’t know when I can climb Carningli again. My next piece is going to be about exile, for indeed the Covid 19 pandemic has made all of us into exiles, exiles from places we love, and worse, from people we love. Some of us are driven into complete solitude, some into small household units. We are anxious and frightened, and the certainties with which we have lived have been overthrown, as those of Brynach’s day were. But we can use this time to ascend a mountain within us. God so often reveals himself on mountain tops, on Sinai, on Zion, on the mountain of Transfiguration, on the Mount of Olives, on the Hill of Golgotha and on the mountain in Galilee where Jesus met His disciples after his resurrection and gavethem the great commission to baptize all peoples into the name of the Trinity. We cannot pray in our churches, we cannot pray in physical congregations, yet as we pray at this time we do not pray alone, the whole Church in Heaven and Earth prays with us, our pleas mingled with those of all of our brothers and sisters in the mighty wind of the spirit. As we walk this Holy Week carrying no physical cross through our parishes, we walk in fact in our hearts with a numberless multitude led by an invincible Shepherd, through darkness, climbing towards light.
My dearest sisters and brothers, keep very safe, and God + bless you and yours.
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