Saints, Cows & Spiders … Oh, My!

Mother Nature delivered another perfect day on Wednesday, August 7th. Mandy and I ventured to the coast on our own this time to visit the stunning cathedral of St. Davids. If you know anything at all about Wales, it just may be that St. David is the patron saint of this fair country.

Born in the 6th century, David What-the-heck-was-his-last-name-anyway? founded a monastery and church on the River Alun somewhere under the current site of the cathedral. The day we visited the grounds, the river wasn’t exactly roaring as seen in the pictures below.

David was born into an aristocratic family and is believed to be the son of Sandde, prince of Powys. Sadly, there is suggestion David’s mother Non may have been forced upon by Sandde which would later cause her to become a nun.

Eleventh century historians claim Non gave birth to David during a violent storm – on top of a cliff, no less! Wonderful place to have a baby, right? At the moment of his arrival, a lightning bolt sent directly from heaven struck a nearby rock, splitting it in two. Wow. What a way to make an entrance.

David is well educated, performs a few miracles, becomes a teacher and a preacher, opens a few monasteries, abbeys and churches, yadda yadda, yadda … He dies and is made a saint. Not the end of the story as it’s time to put on my researching cap because I don’t know nothing about saints or how to become one.

The first question I asked the internet was … how does one become a saint? I mean, what made David What’s-his-name so special? I’m sure he was a great guy and all – holy, humble and humane. But what made him saint-worthy? I mean no disrespect at all. I would simply like to believe a person has to accomplish something rather spectacular to be canonized and not just beatified, although that’s noble enough.

Referring to an article by the BBC News in 2014, there are five steps to becoming a saint. Here’s my over-simplified version:

1) Waiting period. There is a five-year waiting period following a candidate’s death. This serves as a span of time to overcome any undue emotional influence.

It is unknown exactly when St. David was canonized, but it’s safe to assume it was long after the five-year waiting period. Technically, the pope can do whatever he wants and grant a waiver, but this obviously was not necessary in St. David’s case.

2) Investigation. The candidate’s life must be investigated to determine whether he or she is worthy of sainthood. Not sure how their piousness is measured, but it includes collecting evidence of their deeds and witness testimonies. If the investigation goes well, the bishop of the diocese where the person died declares the candidate “a servant of God,” and the case moves up the ladder.

An investigation into the life of someone who lived hundreds of years earlier must have proved a difficult task. But given St. David’s position as a teacher and founder of monastic settlements and religious houses, there were most likely a plentitude of surviving records to act as witness accounts.

3) Congregation. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints make a first pass scrutiny of the investigative report provided by the diocese. They determine the candidate’s piety, examine his or her work (I assume within the community and perhaps globally?) and judge his or her spiritual influence on others. If given a collective thumb’s up, the case passes to the Pope.

I have no idea how many members are part of the congregation – oh, I could make so many Discovery of Witches jokes here – or whether the decision to pass a candidate’s case onto the Pope must be unanimous or majority. It’s all very hush-hush. From there, the decision can go in several directions and things get very complex involving martyr and non-martyr status, venerable vs. blessed, etc. Who gets an official “feast day” in their name and who only gets prayer cards sold in souvenir shops? Let’s stick with the path to canonization. The candidate is declared “venerable” or “heroic in virtue” by the Pope and his or her case moves forward. St. David obviously passed this step with flying colors.

4) Miracle verification. The aim of this step is to declare the candidate “beatified” through the proof of the candidate’s influence in heaven … meaning, does the candidate have God’s ear and, thus, can he or she get prayers answered?

This step brings to mind a show called Miracle Workers which aired on tbs in the U.S. earlier this year. It stars Daniel Radcliff and Geraldine Viswanathan as low-level angels working in the miracles department of heaven (the only angels working in that department). Steve Buscemi is God which is probably all I need to say, and you get the picture. It’s a comedy, of course, based on the novel What in God’s Name by the hilarious Simon Rich. Showrunner Rich describes the show “as a cross of Old Testament and The Goonies.”

In the show miracles are not taken lightly. Radcliff spends hours answering the simplest prayer to find a set of keys. His goal is to answer 3-4 prayers a day … out of millions. Buscemi spends no time at all on miracle prayers because of the overwhelming number … and because of his laziness and lassitude. Whether you believe in miracles or not, this show explores the humorous and complex side-effects of enacting a miracle.

It seems to me, there are two kinds of miracles. (Remember, I’m over-simplifying. 😉) Those which happen spontaneously, such as the sudden appearance of a divine image in nature or the direct presence of a divine being, i.e. an angel. Then there are the kind in Miracle Workers, those prayers which are answered by heaven directly. Obviously, these are the kind of miracles which must be verified for canonization.

In St. David’s case, someone prayed to him and he answered. This prayer-and-answer miracle was documented, thus providing the evidence for verification. St. David was beatified and given the title “blessed.” His case moved forward. I suppose it’s a good thing Daniel Radcliff was not involved. Watch the show, and you’ll get the joke.

5) Canonization. Depending on a candidate’s martyr status, the final step in achieving canonization may or may not include one more miracle verification. It’s basically up to the Pope. If a candidate makes it all the way to step 5, they are in!

St. David was canonized by both the Holy See and the Eastern Orthodox Church, meaning his life was pretty thoroughly investigated and exalted.

It was not my intention to go into the details of canonization, as simplified as my version may be, but I did find the process interesting. I hope you did, too. Now on to the fun stuff …

Below you see my trek around St. Davids, the cathedral and the bishop’s palace, as well as a few places I may or may not have been allowed to traverse.

My walk around St. Davids

Having learned my lesson the day before, Mandy and I headed directly to The Farmers Arms for lunch where they had plenty of food with a lovely venue outside under a canopy of blue.

The Farmers Arms, St. Davids (Photograph by Mandy Tidwell)

After buying a T-shirt because the weather willed it so, Mandy and I headed back down the hill to explore the cathedral. It’s an impressive sight as you can see.

Being an absolutely gorgeous day, the grounds were fairly crowded with tourists and locals, lounging just about everywhere. I had to be quick on the draw and very sneaky to capture the angles I wanted. I must admit, I did paint out at least one bare-chested man sunbathing between the tombstones. Whatever gets his goat, eh?

By the way, did you know there’s a St. David’s App? Unfortunately, I didn’t know about it until after my trip. It’s full of useful descriptions and historical tidbits. I highly recommend it for your future visit(s)!

Upon entering the nave, it’s impossible not to feel its history. The nave is the oldest surviving part of the cathedral and dates back to 1181 as I learned from my nifty new app. It’s built in a Transitional Norman style with a ceiling carved from oak. The ceiling was constructed in the 16th century in response to damage caused by an earthquake in the 13th century.

The stained glass window in the bottom right picture is called the Rose Window and dates back to the 14th century when one of the Bishop’s had the roof re-pitched to accommodate larger installations, thus allowing more light into the nave. The center pane features a dove in representation of the Holy Spirit descending down onto Jesus during his baptism in the river Jordan. Other Bible stories featuring water are also present, including Noah’s Ark in the bottom pane.

Drawing my eyes away from the magnificent ceiling in the nave, they locked onto the elaborate tiled floor in the South Aisle. I especially admired the way the sun through the lancet windows struck the burnished orange and gold medallions.

Along the back wall, you’ll notice the two effigies of Bishops Anselm le Gras and Iorwerth. Little factoid from the app: In 1215 Iowerth became the first Welsh Bishop in over a century to head St. David’s cathedral and was the author of their oldest surviving set of statutes.

Next on my self-guided tour, I wandered into the Presbytery – a fancy word for rectory. This particular rectory holds the High Altar (smaller now than its medieval predecessor) and is used for special services. In the foreground, you’ll notice the tomb of Edmund Tudor, father of King Henry VII and half-brother of King Henry VI; however, the most significant feature of the Presbytery is St. David’s Shrine. In the 12th century it became a point of pilgrimage and thus, was placed near the High Altar. Over the centuries, particularly during the Reformation, the shrine was pillaged and ravaged. Thankfully, the once medieval shrine was restored in 2012.

The Presbytery architecture displays a mish-mash of styles from medieval to Tudor to early 20th century restoration. Once again, the splendid ceiling drew most of my attention. Like the nave, the Presbytery ceiling is also carved from wood and dates back to the 15th century. The four lancet windows above the High Altar were replaced in the 16th century in an effort to preserve the original architectural design.

The Chapel of St. Thomas Becket (pictured above) is located just off the North Transept. St. Thomas is an example of a martyred saint, made famous by his gruesome murder in 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral following a number of ecclesiastical and secular disputes with Henry II. To this day, it is unclear whether Henry directly ordered Thomas Becket’s assassination or the group of knights responsible for Becket’s death overacted to a heat-of-the-moment utterance by the king – “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”

And finally, we come to my absolutely favorite part of St. David’s Cathedral – the Holy Trinity Chapel. I spent a long time in there studying and ogling the mesmerizing architecture. The walls are lined with oolitic limestone (per the app) and adorned with a fan-vaulted ceiling (per my own eyeballs).

I had to stop there a moment to research “oolitic” limestone not that I know a thing about any other kind of limestone but oolitic is a cool word so I couldn’t resist looking up what the heck it is and why it’s called oolitic (run-on sentence much?).

Oolitic limestone is also known as “egg stone” because of its bubble or fish-egg appearance when examined up close. Way back in the Jurassic Period (195 to 135 million years ago) oolite formation began with a tiny seed, such as a shell fragment or a grain of sand. Currents tumbled the seed across the sea bed where it accumulated concentric layers of calcium carbonate, creating pearl-like grains called ooliths. Now imagine trillions of these tiny spheres swishing around together. Over millions of years, those ooliths were compacted under pressure from the ocean creating limestone from the sediments. Much of this prehistoric limestone can be found throughout England, including the Cotswold Hills, Isle of Portland and North York Moors. But I suspect the oolitic limestone used in the construction of St. David’s Cathedral was native to Wales which would make it Hunts Bay Oolite from the Carboniferous geologic period (359–299 million years ago!). And that’s my B- geologist report. Moving on …

Let’s take a close look at the marvelous fan vault ceiling. I’ll let you admire it before I give you the nibbly bits.

Fan vault ceilings are English in origin and (obviously) gothic in architecture. Perhaps being mathematically-minded is what drew me to the complex details of its symmetric design pattern. I am very symmetrically-minded.

The ribs of each fan have equal curvature and are evenly rotated an equal distance around the central axis spreading out into a beautiful set of cones, thus the name. In between the concentric cones, decorative triangular spandrels add to the ceiling’s artistry.

Amazingly, the chapel’s current space was once an open courtyard filled with debris. It was turned into this sublime chamber in the early 16th century and later restored in 1923.

After popping upstairs to the small Hogwarts-like library, I ventured out beyond the cloister where I found a small, private garden behind the refectory.

Upon further exploration I found a gate … which led to a path …

… up and away from the cathedral.

I took the graveled path, passing by a lone house whereupon I found a stone walkway leading toward a set of stairs.

I continued up the path until I noticed the remnants of a wall off to the right. Of course, I had to go off path to make a closer inspection of the wall.

I followed along the wall until it brought me to the top of the stairs whereupon I noticed the wall continued in the general direction of the cathedral. Realizing the wall bordered the original cathedral grounds, I followed it – this time along the top from where I could see the cathedral in the distance.

At this point I reckoned I could return to the cathedral via the wall, not quite sure how I would get down once I got there, but that was a problem for later, so I kept going …

Eventually, I came to a break in the wall, so I climbed down the broken stones whereupon I discovered a small herd of cows, if four can be called a herd. Maybe they’re just a cow quartet.

The cows seemed as interested and shocked by my sudden appearance as I was to theirs. Now, my problem became – how do I get back to the cathedral without the wall? I did not want to spook the cows by entering the field. Further, I had no idea whether I was still on cathedral property.

So, around I turned and headed back to the staircase …

… whereupon I found this lovely cobblestone path leading up to town.

Back on the other side, I reconnected with the wall and my old friends, the cow quartet, who seemed happy to see me though two of them showed no interest in turning to smile for the camera.

When we first arrived at the cathedral, the grounds were full of people lounging on the grass. By the time I returned from my wall hike, I was pleased to find almost everyone gone so I could take a clean shot of the cathedral.

The afternoon was wearing thin by the time I approached the Bishop’s Palace. I took very few pictures and elected not to go inside the parts of the structure still standing. It truly deserves more real estate in my travel log than I allotted, but … oh, well.

I made a quick foray into the courtyard and around the entire palace via a path through the woods (of course), then Mandy and I hit the road.

We drove up the coast before returning to the farm house, stopping only once in a Georgian seaside town called Aberaeron, population 1400 or so. Aberaeron is a small town, supported mostly by tourism and its honey production. It is quite charming and scenic with a particularly rocky and mollusk-y beach.

One of my favorite characteristics of Wales, besides the dog-friendly pubs and restaurants, was the colorful array of houses we passed through every village, like the ones below.

Half scale.

By now, you may be wondering where and how the spiders enter my travel log. I suppose they enter the same way most spiders enter a room. Home from a long day of hiking, I was sitting on my nice, comfy bed with laptop on my lap when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. At first, I thought it might be a mouse because even peripherally I could tell it was large. To my surprise, it was a not so itsy-bitsy-you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me spider.

Now, this story has a happy ending … if you’re the spider because I caught him and put him outside. What I learned later was … he wasn’t alone.

2 thoughts on “Saints, Cows & Spiders … Oh, My!”

  1. I’m enjoying your travelog of Wales with your unique perspective, which includes among many other delights a sense of wonder and deep respect.

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