I haven’t been to Wales. The closest I have come is when I spent a week in the Midlands about six years ago. Indeed, if truth be known, I probably don’t even know that much about Wales. Cardiff, leeks, mountains, words that are unpronounceable. St Danial’s Theological College, St Beuno’s Theological College, St David’s cathedral – this shows where my interests lie!
But I have heard of St David. St David, the patron saint of Wales. St David who became a renowned preacher, founding monastic settlements and churches in Wales, Brittany and southwest England – including, possibly, the abbey at Glastonbury. St David who is said to have survived on water and leeks as part of his austere lifestyle, possibly the reason that leeks became the national symbol of Wales. St David, performer of miracles who when preaching to a large crowd was hackled by those at the back because they could not hear him. His response was to pray and suddenly the land on which he had been standing rose up to form a hill so that all could see and hear him. St David who raised a dead child to life.
But our focus is not on St David. And this is the point. Call her St Non, St Nonna, or St Nonita – variations of names on the same person – our focus for this talk is on Non, the mother of David. And yet, always she is spoken of not as herself, but in her role as being the mother of David. Look her up on the internet, search out references to her in my books on the lives of the saints, always she is referred to as Non, mother of St David.
I want to spend some time focusing on what it might really mean to be known only in reference to someone else, on questions around who am I in myself without being known by the external referent, about like St Non, how much of my own identity do I need to surrender to truly be who I already am. And I have to say, this whole topic leaves me with more questions than answers.
Several years ago, when I was doing some degree or another, we were asked to spend a few minutes writing a list of ten things that describe who we are. After a time of silence, we went around the room and people shared their list – I am mother, I am aunt, I am wife, I am teacher, nurse, husband, uncle, gardener, dishwasher… I sat there stunned, dreading my own turn in this sharing. I had not thought to write of who I am in relationship to others. I had described myself by writing 10 characteristics about my personality – I am creative, I am thoughtful, I am enthusiastic. I had never considered to include who I am in community. Even now, I often forget to tell people that I have a partner and a daughter and am grandmother to four complicated, wonderful young people.
Was it like that for St Non? On meeting a stranger, did they turn to her and say, ‘So, you’re St David’s mother’? Was she always known in this way, through her relationship with others, particularly her son, and did it matter that her own identity was subsumed into that of her son?
That list of ten characteristics - What I want to know is what I might have written on that list if I had been writing my answers in the honesty and privacy of my diary where I knew that no one would ever read it. Would I have had the courage to write ‘I am lovable, I am generous, I am gifted’?
Go deeper Cath, go deeper. Who am I? Who am I? I am a channel of love, I am open to grace, I am a servant of Wisdom.
And the list that I write when I open myself to the presence of God? Your love calls me to be more love… I am loved... I am love… I have hit silence. No words, no words. Just essence…
Hold that thought because I want to tell you something about John the Baptist. In the turning of the liturgical year, we know that in the northern hemisphere the feast of Christmas has been placed at the winter solstice. The symbolism around this is profound. Let’s face it – no one knows when Jesus was born. If there is any hint at all in the Gospels, it was that Jesus was born in spring or summer because the sheep were out in the pasture rather than locked up in barns. The spiritual practice of placing the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice was to show that the light has come into the darkest of times and places and that forever the future will be different because of this event. As the amount of daylight increases each day, as the seasons turn away from winter toward spring, we remember the spiritual practice of the birth of the Christ occurring at the winter solstice.
What then of John the Baptist? Where has his feast day been placed on the liturgical calendar? June 24th. In the northern hemisphere, this is the summer solstice. Exactly six months opposite Christmas. From his feast day onwards, the days become shorter. Because John the Baptist knows that the essence of his vocation is to proclaim that ‘I must decrease so that you may increase.’ In the same way that the days become shorter, so too I must become less so that you, the Christ, may become more. Not in some unhealthy sense of martyrdom where self-sacrifice is offered through resentment and anger, but as a complete fulfillment of John the Baptist’s particular vocation. ‘I must decrease so that you may increase.’
What if our vocation calls us to be the one who makes way for another so that love may shine through?
Is this what St Non was called to do? To step aside in deference to her son, the one who would become the patron saint of Wales?
I find this really confronting. I rail against this, especially if once again a woman has to stand aside so that the man can shine. I want to shout out at every patriarchal system that belittles women and I want to say ‘but what about me? Don’t you want to know who I am in myself, rather than in reference to those around me?’ Don’t I matter in myself?’
The theologian Frederick Beuchner tells us so cleverly that our vocation is the meshing place between our deepest gladness and the world’s greatest hunger. I really like this. As a spiritual director, much of my work is to sit with my directees as they come to know ever more fully what their gladness might be and from there to ask questions about a life of service. When they speak out their truth that empowering others, or caring for the disabled, or providing solace to the bereaved is their great gladness, and when they come to know that this desire is an outpouring of the desires that God has for our life, then we talk about stepping into ministry, or furthering our education, or hospice work – whatever it is that might be a response to living out of our deepest gladness. But maybe this is just like that list of ten things that I was asked to write about myself. Maybe the list that is written in the privacy of my diary dares whisper of a much deeper gladness. Maybe it is about saying yes to the relinquishment, the shedding, that happens when I truly ask what my deepest gladness is. Maybe in silence before God I dare name that place where ‘nada’, ‘nothing’ is the only response left.
Did St Non get this? That ‘I must decrease so that you may increase.’ Did she rail against always being known as her son’s mother? Or does it come down to that core, essential question ‘Jesus, forget what anyone else says. Who do you say that I am?’ Maybe this is the only question that needs to be asked and the only answer that needs to be heard.
‘So, you’re St David’s mum.’ Yes. And more. What about Non in herself? Who do the historians, the hagiographers, the folklorists say that she was? And might we dare ask, ‘who does God say that she was? That she is?’
Let’s head to Wales and the late 5th century. One story says that Non was a nun of unknown origins. The alternative story is that she was the daughter of a powerful chieftain of the area around what is now St David's in Dyfed. This story seems far more likely, given that she became known across a wide area stretching from Wales to Cornwall and Brittany. At that time, those who became known as saints were often from the ruling families of Britain which makes sense of our St Non in that membership in the ‘nobility’ would have allowed her the freedom to travel across England and Europe.
What all the hagiographers agree on is that St David was conceived as a result of rape. St Non was raped. St Non was raped. The mother of the patron saint of Wales St David was raped. St David is the child of that rape.
It’s funny how life has its twists and turns. I happen to be on the Board of a very small organisation called Humanity in Need: Rainbow Refugees. If ever there is one place on this amazing planet where God seems to have forgotten to notice the inhabitants, it is amongst those refugees of LGBTQI orientation stuck in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. 180,000 refugees live in this hellhole waiting for some country to notice them and provide sanctuary. Of this number, a couple of hundred refugees are brave enough to come out as LGBTQI. How do you get Christians and Muslims in this camp to live in harmony? You create a common enemy, the members of the gay community. Those we support through Humanity in Need: Rainbow Refugees are this enemy and as such are regularly bashed, set on fire and yes, too many have been murdered. Jackeline was raped. Gang raped. Three men, in the night, forced themselves on her. About five months ago we had a special ‘Go Fund Me’ appeal for Jackeline. Through the generosity of many here in Australia, when Cristin was born three months ago, we were able to provide Jackeline with many of the things she would need as a new mother. Jackeline was raped. Cristin is the child of rape. Jackeline from a far-flung horrific refugee camp in Kenya. Who is Jackeline in God? Infant Cristin, born into this hellhole. Who is Cristin in God?
Non was raped. David is the child of rape. Who is Non in God? Who is David in God?
When Non was heavily pregnant with Saint David, she went out alone for a walk along the coast of Dyfed on the very edge of Wales. On the eve of the first of March, a storm came crashing in from the sea. Such storms in that area are ferocious and terrifying, with waves breaking violently on the cliffs and coursing over them. Alone, in the middle of this fierce storm, her time of giving birth had come. Pelted by rain and whipped by fierce winds, she clung to a rock throughout the night. Some say that the only place that the storm did not touch was where Non lay and that while she was groaning with the birth-pangs, the storm lashing around, she was bathed in light. The pain of Non’s labour was said to have been so intense that her fingers left marks as she grasped at a rock and that ‘the stone itself split asunder in sympathy with her.’ In the morning, the storm subsided, the sun rose and her child was born.
To this day pilgrims come to this rock, with its identifiable hand prints carved into the surface, to ask for prayers to be answered.
It is not insignificant that near the birthplace of David are the remains of bronze-age standing stones. Others before her had come to know the sacredness of this little headland in Wales. Already this site had been selected as a thin place where the veil between this realm and whatever lies just beyond is gossamer fine, where the Divine slips into this realm as much as we might find ourselves looking straight into the face of God.
Just near the supposed birthplace is a sacred well. No surprise there either. In the Celtic tradition, at any site that is being named as particularly holy, we are going to find either a grove of sacred trees or a sacred well bringing water from Earth herself. The well brings wisdom from below; the earth is the womb of the Goddess and the well is the point of access to Her wisdom. Ancient location, storm, sacred water, the wild wind, the site bathed in light – all the elemental forces are present at this birth. Notice the child who is born; notice the child who is born.
Do you know what I wonder? Was this enough for Non? Was it enough that her identity became inextricable linked to the birth of her son? I suggest that no, this was not enough. David was called to head off and do his work about becoming the patron saint of Wales. Non had her own gladness to live into, separate, distinct from her son. A shaping of an identity that reflected and emerged from her unique identity in God.
Non brought David up at Henfeynyw near Aberaeron and together they founded a nunnery at a nearby site. In later years, she moved to Cornwall to live closer to her sister, St. Wenna. As part of this journey to Cornwall, Non sent out some oxen ahead of her to drag her portable altar to the place where she intended live. Stubborn beasts that they are, the oxen stopped at what is now known as Altarnon (Altar of St Non) and could not be convinced to walk another step. Seeing this as a sign form God, Non settled in this place and established a community of believers, founding here a monastery. Non eventually moved to Brittany and settled in Finisterre. Here she set up a third monastery, living out her final days at the town names ‘Finisterre, the end of the earth.’ St Non died on 3rd March. We know the date, but we don’t know the year! The shrine that the oxen took for her wherever she moved to can, to this day, still be seen in the parish church at Finisterre.
Non was to become known as the patron saint of women in despair. Her birth experience, her sufferings, the rejection of her family, all led her to say ‘yes’ to developing a special affinity for women in despair. Part of this was her mission in setting up three monasteries where women could find sanctuary. Non’s deepest gladness was to say ‘yes’ to the invitation to be provide a place where women, in their own turn, might seek answers to their own question of ‘who am I in God?’
They said of St Non, ‘So you’re David’s mother.’ That’s true. And more. Much more. She is Non of God.
Where does that leave me? Who am I in God? I am daughter, partner, mother, grandmother, spiritual director, pilgrim, harpist… That’s true. And more. Much more. I am beloved of God. I am servant of wisdom. I am someone who, in the face of infinite love, is called to be more love. What of you? What is your name in God? What do they call you? What would you like to be called? What might you call yourself in that place of silence in God? Who are you in God? Who does God say that you are? I’m not sure that anything else really matters.