The Land of David
by Brendan O’Malley
Remotely situated near the western extremity of Wales,
where the land stretches out to the Irish sea; and where
a narrow river runs through a valley: is Dewisland, the
land of David.
As into the sea all rivers go, and yet the sea is never
filled, and still to their goal the rivers go, so too do
pilgrims journey to St. David’s and to the cathedral
dedicated to his name.
St David’s Cathedral equals any in the British Isles for
beauty and interest, and is rivaled by only a very few.
Its situation is unique: visitors, unless forewarned,
would not know that it was there. They come first to the
winding streets of St David’s City, which is little more
than a small town. Then, as they pass through an old
gateway, there is spread before them a valley and a
scene of vast medieval splendor: a cathedral built from
the local purple-colored Caer Bwdy stone, harmonizing
with the windswept natural surroundings. To the north
lie the ruins of St Mary’s College, and to the west,
across the little River Alun, are the magnificent ruins
of the Bishop’s Palace.
This little city was once a place of considerable
activity. St David, the patron saint of Wales, was held
in such veneration that his shrine ranked with the
holiest in the land as a place of pilgrimage. In fact,
in medieval times two pilgrimages to St David’s were
counted as equal to one to Rome, but pilgrims were not
by any means the only travelers to St David, as the city
lay on the old main road westward to Ireland. Among
those who came were kings and nobles, who, having paid
their reverence and made their offerings at the shrine,
could rest awhile in the Bishop's Palace.
This remote corner of the British Isles became a place
of pilgrimage purely as a result of the saintly
reputation of David. His contemporaries called him
Aquaticus ('The Waterman'), doubtless on account of his
asceticism (he would allow no alcohol past his lips). It
is said in the ancient chronicles that his birth was
miraculously foretold to St Patrick thirty years before
The earliest life of David was written by Rhygyfarch,
Bishop of St David from 1088 to 1096. Legend tells that
the Saint's parents were Sant, the son or grandson of
Ceredig (from whom Cardigan takes its name), and Non,
the daughter of Cynir and the granddaughter of King
Brychan of Brecknock. David was born around the year
520. Legend says there was a great storm: his birthplace
glistened as though the sun was visible and God brought
it in front of the clouds!
Photos of St. David's - city in Wales
At his baptism at Porthclais, David was held by a blind
monk named Movi. A spring had burst from the ground at
that place to supply the water for his baptism. Some of
the water splashed into Movi's eyes, and he recovered
his sight. The child was baptized by an accompanying
Irish Monk, Ailbe or Elvis, who later became Bishop of
The young David was brought up at Hen Fynyw (Old Menevia)
and was educated by St Peulin (Paulinus), who also
regained his sight through the intercession of his
student. When his education was complete, the newly
ordained David set out on his travels, founding monastic
settlements and churches. He is credited with the
founding of twelve monasteries scattered as far apart as
Glastonbury and Leominster. But his most important one
was the establishment of the monastic foundation where
St David's Cathedral now stands.
The monastery was founded in the face of fierce
opposition from Boia, the chieftain of a local Irish
settlement. He did his best to drive St David and his
monks away, but eventually, through the prayer and
example of David, Boia was converted to Christianity. He
and his whole family were baptized.
The way of life at St David's monastery was similar to
that of the Egyptian monasteries of the Desert Fathers,
and although the regime was strict, there was no
shortage of recruits.
Tradition says that the death of David was foretold not
only by himself, but also by a company of angels. It is
generally accepted that he died in the year 589. His age
at his death is unknown. His last words to his brethren
were, “Do the little things that you have heard and seen
The beautiful Norman Cathedral, which stands in the
‘Vallis Rosina’ (Glyn Rhosyn in Welsh), 'the valley of
the little marsh', bears little resemblance to the
original monastic settlement of David. His embryonic
Cathedral would have been a small mud and timber church
surrounded by a defensive earth work or wall, which
would have included a small group of wattle and daub
huts. A guest house, store house and preaching cross
were essential to such an early Celtic monastic
When the cult of David grew in the Middle Ages, a number
of little chapels were built around the St David's
Headland, where pilgrim travelers would climb up from
the point of landing on the coast and offer thanksgiving
for a safe journey, or when embarking on an outward
voyage, a prayer for protection on the seas. The chapels
were all on pilgrim routes to the Cathedral.
To this day, the seas around the St David's Peninsula
can be treacherous, so many such chapels may be found
emphasizing the need for numerous landing places. The
chapels are named after St Non, St Patrick and St
Justinian. There was also a chapel at the place of St
David’s baptism, Capel-y-Pistyll. Whitewell, a hospice
for pilgrims was there too, as were Cwmwdig, Hen Fynwent
and Y Gwrhyd, all testifying to the importance of St
David’s as a place of pilgrimage.
“The David Stream”
Dewi Ty Ddewi
Tegwch bro yn wir wyt ti
Dewi Ty Ddewi
Ti yw’m cartref i
David St David's
Your are in truth so fair a land
David St David's
You are my home
David Evans (1866)
To enter the land of David is to enter into the ‘David
Stream’, that process of consciousness, which connects
with the presence of otherness.
The Celtic saints were imbued with this mysterious
reality of the continuing presence of God. They were
'grace-filled' through the practice of constant prayer,
open-hearted hospitality to God; to his presence in the
little everyday moments of their lives. Today, pilgrims
seek the nectar of spiritual and physical enlightenment
at the very same places where dwelt the holy ones of
long ago. As with the early followers of saints, the
modern pilgrim seeks spiritual nectar or grace when
visiting a holy place. They are spiritual bees in search
of the word…
'Weaving a psalm
to the unutterable Word
which dwells in the dewdrop and the rock...'
as the Welsh poet Rhydwen Williams said.
The Holy Spirit has made thin the canvas of these places
so that the visitor may, as George Herbert wrote:
'look on glass' and 'on it may stay his eye; or, if he
pleaseth, through it pass, and then the heaven espy.’
The pilgrim is on holy ground, perhaps at first only
dimly aware of the imminent presence of God. St David’s
settlement is such a Celtic holy ground and, in common
with other holy places, attractive to people very close
to nature. It is both mystical and very down to earth,
reflecting the Celtic saints who dwelt in such a sacral
environment and for whom every well-spring, wood and
stone took on a mystical significance. No doubt, this
proceeded from their pagan past, but that was
transformed. Its numinous properties spiritualized by
Christian prayer. The Scottish Gaelic language has a
phrase, "Are you going to church?” which when literally
translated, says, "Are you going to the stones?"
The awareness of the whole world as Incarnational, was
linked into a tremendous ‘spirit of place'. St. David’s
locates for us this long and deep, spiritual and
cultural tradition. It is older than Iona, Lindisfarne
or Canterbury as a Christian settlement and, I feel,
To enter into Dewisland is to arrive at a place of
choice. We may choose to visit the Cathedral, the
Bishop’s Palace or St Non's Chapel and Holy Well with
guide book in hand, noting their beautiful location and
history, to depart in happy memory, never to return
again. Or we may choose to wander about the area for a
while, stay on for a few days, and allow ourselves time
to realize we are lodging on 'holy- ground'.
The divine life is the pervading Presence of the Holy
Spirit in everything that has being in this holy, Celtic
land. This life is welling up within us, in the
innermost recesses of our heart, as we become open to
the presence of God not only within ourselves but
perceived and sensed in the unfolding of creation. It is
'thin', the divine veil between human being, Creation,
and the God of Being, who is present in the core of the
whole matter and spirit. He is our ceaseless call and
longing. He is the sounding wave, the voice of the
‘It swims with the seal in his laughter.
The sacrament of being you share with me.'
Ray Howard Jones.
To enter beyond this ‘thin veil’ is to enter into a felt
experience of the Kingdom of God, both created and
uncreated. It is to go beyond time and space, as God is
beyond time and space. As we experience the drawing of
the veil, subject-object distinction disappears. God is
within us and the whole of God's creation is in God; the
whole of creation is in us too. He is the pulsing life
of all, the ceaseless call and longing, the unquenchable
thirst, the One Thing Who Matters.
I am talking about an experience where there is only the
divine Now. We are all eternally created in the
uncreated womb of our Mother God. In God, we already
possess and enjoy the things-to-come, for all things to
come are already present in the eternity of God.
In St David’s, the veil is thin. The ‘thin place’ is an
archetypal symbol, the parting of the veil on holy
ground, breaking through time and space into the
imminent Presence of God within the self and creation.
Pilgrim Ways and Holy Wells
For some time, I was Chaplain and Succentor of St
David's Cathedral. I conducted innumerable groups of
pilgrims around the shrine of St David and the holy
places nearby. I suppose you could say that I took for
granted the evident beauty of the place and its
surroundings. Celtic Spirituality or Christianity was
not an interest or ‘hobby’ for me, so much as something
lived and experienced in everyday living in the West of
Several years later, I found myself as parish priest of
The Havens - three parishes situated in St Brides Bay,
only a few miles or so south of the St David’s
Peninsula. Pilgrimage walks on the routes to St David’s
were a form of regular exercise and prayer, as were
expeditions in search of the ancient holy wells. The
liturgy in the parish church reflected the seasons; both
of the local saints and the coming and going of spring,
summer, autumn and winter.
The elements are a very important factor in Celtic
countries, and great respect is paid to the Lord of the
Elements, as well as to the Lord of the Harvest. In
countryside such as that bordering the western ocean off
Pembrokeshire, God is held as central to his creation
and to all human endeavor, especially to that of food
production. The earth is seen as the creation of the
Lord God, and made for all his creatures to enjoy. We
know that we have the stewardship of it.
Yes, God has given us this world to use, to love and to
care for. How easily we forget what a wonderful treasure
this world of ours (and His) is. We must think carefully
about what we should be doing to keep this gift in right
order, to keep it safe and protected, living and
To wander along the coast path of St Bride’s Bay to St
David’s is, for me, the most natural way to pray. To
walk in the footsteps of love, body and soul moving in
rhythm to the Jesus Prayer and aware of
'The Maker of all things,
The Lord God worship we:
Heaven white with angels' wings,
Earth and the white-waved sea.'
(Early Irish Poem)
Wherever I looked I saw the Cosmic Christ. In everything
and for everything I offered Christ; finding Him in
everything. There was a saying circulated among the
early Christians attributed to Christ, though not found
in the Gospels:
'Lift the stone and you will find me,
cut the wood in two and there am I.’
It is this sense of God's presence and power that is so
great. God's presence within everything. And so through
the walked rhythm of prayer, I saw Him in everything,
and turned to him for aid and guidance for everything.
Among the pre-Christian dwellers of this land of David,
perhaps it was believed that a God, or Gods, was
actually present in the wells, in the stone. The seeds
of Christianity in Celtic lands had fallen into earth
fertilized by centuries of natural worship. The
pre-Christians believed in tree Gods and water
goddesses, in mountains and animals and sunlight. When
combined, the new faith and the old belief gave Celtic
Christianity a unique flavor.
We Christians today cannot believe in a multiplicity of
Gods, but we still believe in the same indwelling
presence. Wellsprings are holy places, not just by
virtue of the fact that a holy saint lived there and
prayed there, but by virtue of the fact of what they
are, living waters springing up from the earth and the
gift of God. The waters springing from mother earth were
also sacramentalized in the rite of Baptism as well as
quenching the thirst of the weary pilgrim. That is what
makes for a holy place.
It is perhaps a good thing to remember that the early
Celtic Christians recognized that every fountain had its
own particular Guardian Angel who was the symbol of the
living embodiment of God's presence in that place. They
loved all creatures for what they were.
Water, for example, is loved for itself, not because it
is full of sprites and ethereal things, but because it
is a creature like us. As a creature, water is my
sister; and it is hardly normal to pour toxic acid into
your sister! We are inter-related with all Creation. We
not only pour forth from the Hand of God, our Father
Creator, but in common with all creation, are brought
forth out of our Mother, the Earth, by the action of the
love of the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.
'He breathes through all Creation,
He is love, eternal love.'
(Bishop Timothy Rees)
Photos of St. David's - city in Wales
We find the hand of God in all things. The whole
approach of Celtic Spirituality is familial, simple and
mystical. Mysticism is not merely visions and ecstasy,
Christian mysticism consists in living the Christian
mysteries and being transformed by it. For me, the
mystical approach is to find the extraordinary in the
ordinary; to find eternity in the familiar object we
handle and use every day.
My Chief of generous heroes, bless
my loom and all things near to me,
bless me in all my busy-ness,
keep me for life safe-dear to Thee.
This is completely in the tradition of practicing the
presence of God; i.e. experiencing the 'thinness' of our
presence to Him and His working through us for the
building up of the Kingdom. In common with the Celtic
Christians we are to have a double value towards the
world round about us, we are to value each thing for its
specific vastness or 'isness'. We are to become aware
that we are in each particular thing: and then in each
thing and through each thing we are to apprehend the
presence of the living God.
Things that are solid, with sharp outline and distinct
relief, are at the same time transparent sacraments of
God’s presence, and means of communion with Him.
The whole universe is interrelated and interdependent.
All matter is connected, a fact acknowledged by both
Mystic and Scientist. All movement, sound, and vibration
has a repercussion and effect throughout the whole of
the created order. The most important heritage which
Celtic Christianity received from the old religion was
the profound sense of the immanence of God in the world.
The Celtic Christians remained very much aware of the
divine presence in all nature, and it is this sense of
an all pervading presence that is characteristic of
their Christian piety. Through prayer, these Celts
experienced their relationship with the whole creation.
Entering into harmony with the universe they Journeyed
towards the ultimate destiny of God's world. Seeking the
Lord of the Elements and journeying through life for the
love of God, they achieved a state of grace.
'Up to the present, as we know, the whole created
universe in all it parts groans as if in the pangs of
childbirth, waiting for the children of God to appear.'
The Dewisland Coastal Walk
The chapels of St Non with its Holy Well, St Justinian
and St Patrick are worth a visit. The thirteen mile
round trip from the Cathedral (eight, by a shorter
route) makes a good day’s walk and may be used as a
pilgrimage if the chapels and other stopping places on
the way are treated as stations for prayer and thought.
St. Non’s Chapel marks the site of St David's birthplace
and is dedicated to his mother, St Non. In common with
many early Christian churches, the Chapel may have been
built on a Druidical site. The stones of a Bronze Age
stone circle can be seen in the field around it. There
is a legend which says that to relieve the agony of her
labor pains, Non supported herself on a stone that lay
near her and that it retained the prints of her fingers.
It is said that when the Chapel was later built on that
spot, the stone was introduced as an altar table.
Every little chapel had its Holy Well, many taken over
from the Druids and Christianised; the waters used for
Baptism and the needs of the Chapel. St Non's Holy Well
was also a healing well, used for rheumatism and eye
The ruins overlooking Ramsey Sound are those of a Chapel
built in the sixteenth century on the site of an older
building, possibly a Celtic oratory. St Justinian was a
hermit, born in Brittany, and a friend of Saint David.
He was murdered on Ramsey Island; walked across the
Sound with his head in his arms and laid himself to rest
on the spot marked by his Chapel. His remains were later
taken into the Cathedral where they are reported to have
been interred with the relics of Saint David.
One other chapel site is the one now sadly laid bare,
which legend says marked the place of St Patrick's home,
from which he was stolen by pirates and taken to
Ireland. It has also been suggested that it marks the
spot in Porth Mawr from which he later sailed to unify
the Irish Church, There is also the 'Seat', Eisteddfa
Badrig, from which the mountains of Ireland are visible.
Whatever the occasion, it most certainly was a holy
station for early pilgrims on their way to and from
Ireland and the settlement of St David’s.
Ireland returned the compliment later, for there are
churches dedicated to St. David in the Irish dioceses of
Cloyne, Ferns and Kildare. St Maedoc of Ferns was a
disciple of Saint David.
When I walk this coastland of Saints Bride and David I
am always aware that through and beyond this most
beautiful and whole landscape is the holy inscape, the
wholly 'other' world for which the physically seen is an
Ye saints of Wales
by love of God led
with heavenly power incarnate.
Great ones entrusted with the leadership
of many Celtic peoples.
Ye, O David, Dragon-
Saint of the western shores;
Teilo mighty in the music
of the word.
Padarn, bearer of the staff of light
and Illtud of the healing bell.
Samson, Brynach, Dogwell, Dyfrig
of misty mountain, Holy Well;
Pilgrims through earth , air, fire, and water,
seeking the love and power of God.
Flow within our hearts
and lighten our path
as we journey onward
through the shadows of the veil.
Thinness is Oneness
In the ancient Celtic journeys or voyages in search of
the underworld, we find that the specified entrances or
crossing-places into the Otherworld were not 'up-there’
but through a fluid, ambiguous place, which cut across
In the Voyage of Bran, it was perceived as being located
on an Island in the western sea. Such a site is 'Gwales
in Penvro’; reputedly Grassholm Island which lies on the
westerly seascape beyond St David's Peninsula. This
magical island is the 'fair and noble spot overlooking
the ocean' mentioned in the Welsh Mabinogion story of 'Branwen,
daughter of Llyr’.
Sacred Springs such as St Non’s, and Blessed Islands
such as Grassholm, are gateways through which the
timeless Underworld was reached. The Irish voyages, or
immrama ,at a later date reflected the same inner need
to travel through the realm of the liminal into a
supernatural experience. At a later date the holy wells
of the Celtic Christian can be understood as an
adaptation of the belief that springs are places of
All around St David’s are liquid images of ancient
subliminal entrances into the holy Otherworld. It has
Sacred Sites, Holy Wells and Blessed Islands , poetic
inspiration for the questing pilgrim.
The spiritual atmosphere here is deeply affected by what
I would call the ‘David Stream': a process initiated
centuries ago and of which St David was a luminous part.
To tap into the David Stream is to become a participant
in an architypical experience which has the power; which
shakes forth from all Creation, to draw one closer to
the Creator. I am speaking here of the incarnated
presence of the Cosmic Christ; sensed, felt, experienced
as an Open Door into a higher dimension. The Door is the
entrance to the Kingdom of God. The door is Christ.
At a 'thin place' such as St David’s, we realise that
the Kingdom of God is at hand within us. We are to
repent, break through into the otherworld of our self
and then understand that God is living in the depths of
our heart. We enter into Him or allow Him to enter into
us. It is a question of being wholly present, to being
within and without, letting go and 1etting God into the
well of the heart like a flood. In this, way we access
pure mind not thought, we become aware that what makes
the ground holy and the place 'thin' is the cumulative
mirrored effect of what is happening within ourselves -
a personal encounter with God; the moment of conversion.
We discover that thinness is oneness and oneness is God.
"Moses, Moses!" God said. "Here I am," he answered.
"Come no, nearer. Take off your shoes, for the place
where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of
your ancestors. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and
the God of Jacob.”
At this Moses covered his face, for he was afraid to
look at God. (Exodus 3:4)
Photos of St. David's - city in Wales
Copyright 1997 by
Brendan O'Malley. All rights Reserved. Used
AUTHOR BIO AND INFO
Brendan O'Malley is Chaplain of the University of Wales,
Lampeter and Officer for Pastoral Development and
Renewal in the Diocese of St David's, Wales. He is of
Irish descent, Scottish birth and education, Welsh
adoption, and is a former Cistercian monk.
He has a Master's Degree in Celtic Christianity and is a
Retreat and Workshop leader in Celtic Spirituality.
His previous publications include:
The Animals of St Gregory (Paulinus Press, 1981)
A Pilgrim's Manual, St David’s (Paulinus Press, 1985)
A Welsh Pilgrim's Manual (Gomer Press, 1989)
Celtic Spirituality (Church in Wales Publications, 1992)
God at Every Gate (Canterbury Press, 1997)
Pilgrim Guide to St David's (Canterbury Press,1997)
Celtic Blessings (Canterbury Press, 1998)