Living on the Border: a Thought for St David’s Day

We live in the Welsh Marches, where England and Wales intertwine. Hearing Welsh spoken in our local hospital or in the market at Abergavenny no longer feels like an exclusion, a reminder of our alien status. It is part of the richness of our British heritage, one of the blessings of living on the border. I sometimes regret that I don’t speak Welsh myself and feel a certain shame that I’d make a better fist at asking directions in Spanish, say, than in the language spoken by some of our neighbours; but I’ve learned to react to signs written in Welsh and always enjoy opportunities to learn more about Wales itself. But is there anything more, anything deeper than what one might call the tourist response? I think there are two: one spiritual, the other social.

Living in the Marches is a powerful reminder of the intersection of time and eternity, of the thin places where God reveals himself. Ruined monasteries, abandoned chapels, tiny churches tucked away in obscure corners: these have a way of bringing us up short, questioning our busy-ness, our confident air of knowing what we are about, where we are going, what we will do. The faith of earlier generations mutely challenges our own. Or we walk over the hills or beside the Welsh sea-shore and the whip of the wind, the lash of the rain and the keening calls of gulls and birds of prey evoke St David and his severe and ascetic form of monasticism, attuned to nature certainly, but impossibly harsh for all but the strongest. Here, if anywhere, the kingdom of heaven is taken by storm.

Then, there are the castles that punctuate the borderlands: one no more than a grassy hillock, another a magnificent stretch of shaped ashlar, incorporating all the latest technological advances of the warfare of the day. When it rains, as it often does in these parts, the ironstone shines red again, as if with blood. This is a landscape shaped by violence, greed, pride, defensiveness. The fighting may have ceased but to be English in Wales is to be an immigrant, to know both the beauty of hospitality and the sudden flash of resentment.

For all of us living in Britain today, immigration has become a hot topic. It is easy to adopt one of two extreme positions, either wanting to admit everyone or wanting to keep everyone out. Those of us who live comfortably, our homes and jobs secure, can pontificate from our armchairs about what others should do. Those who live more uncertainly, with homes and jobs always at risk, may be more fearful. We who live where peoples and cultures mingle have a duty to think and pray about these things. Are we going to build churches or castles, bridges or barriers? What does our faith, if we have one, demand of us? As St David said long ago, Bydwch lawen a chedwch ych ffyd a’ch cret, a gwnewch y petheu bychein a glywyssawch ac a welsawch gennyf i. A mynheu a gerdaf y fford yd aeth an tadeu idi, which translates as, ‘Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.’ I think I know which I must choose.

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St David and the Women’s World Day of Prayer

The last words attributed to St David were ‘Be joyful. Keep the Faith. Do the little things.’ They are singularly appropriate for the theme of this year’s Women’s World Day of Prayer, when we are asked to think about welcoming the stranger. We Benedictines are in the middle of reading the so-called penal code of St Benedict and today’s chapter, RB 24, brings home the desolation of excommunication, of being excluded from the group.

What makes us strangers? It can be almost anything from the colour of our skin to an inability to speak the local language. We may stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, or our difference may be hidden, something only we know, but our separation from others is real enough and is like ice at the heart. To be welcomed, to become not a stranger but a friend, is a magical moment in anyone’s life. It is to experience joy and warmth quite independent of our circumstances, and so often the welcoming consists in someone’s doing ‘the little things’ of which St David spoke.

I have mentioned before how my sister and I were affected by our parents’ habit of welcoming immigrant workers to their house every Sunday for a family day. We were resentful and difficult as only children can be (‘nasty little blighters’ was, I think, the phrase our father used of us) but something rubbed off on us eventually. Today, as we unite in prayer with women the world over, I can think of nothing better than to try to extend a welcome to others. It may be just a smile we give, but it may be the only smile that person receives today; and if the person in question is one of those who are not-quite-clean-and-respectable or in some other way a person we are tempted to avoid, so much the better. We may discover that in welcoming others we are ourselves made welcome in a way we did not expect.

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