Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Saint Non

The power of example is often underestimated not least, sometimes, among the evangelical community. In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches these examples are proclaimed saints and whatever we may think of the devotion these churches encourage towards such people they are powerful examples for the Christian to help us in our Christian walk. Of course evangelicals have their 'saints' too - Wesley, Brainard, Praying Hyde, etc - but we are so wary of excesses that we are slow to recognise such people today, which I believe makes us all the poorer. In an age filled with so many negative examples for our children to follow, where are the positive roll models from our recent history and today to inspire them?

Which is why, although I don't personally encourage devotion to any of the saints, I like to research their lives if they crop up on the Anglican Calendar of readings for the Christian Year.

Coming soon is the day to remember St. Non (March 2nd), famously remembered as the mother of David. Here is a little talk I prepared for the occasion:


The main source of information we have about Non is from an 11th century work about her famous son David called “Life of St David”. It was written by  Rhigyfarch who was a Norman cleric whose father had been Bishop of St David's for 10 years.

Tradition holds that Non and that the product of that rape was David. Rhigyfarch bases his claims on oral tradition that the offender was Sanctus, King of Ceredigion, who came upon Non while travelling through Dyfed. After she conceived Non continued to live a celibate life living on bread and water alone. When a preacher found himself unable to preach in the presence of her unborn child, this was taken as a sign that the child would himself be a great preacher. A local ruler learned of her pregnancy and was afraid of the power of the child to be born. So he plotted to kill it upon birth, but on the day of her labour a great storm made it impossible for anyone to travel outdoors. But wheer Non was in labour it was bathed in light. It was a difficult birth and the pain was so intense that her fingers left marks as she grasped a rock and the stone itself split in half. On the place of David's birth, a church was built, and this stone is now said to be concealed in the foundations of the altar.

Variations on her story state that she was the daughter of the nobleman Cynyr of Caer Goch (in Pemborkeshire) she may have become married to Sant before David's or after his birth. She brought the boy up at Henfeynyw near Aberaeron  and founded a convent nearby at what is now called Llanon (the village being named after her). It appears she may have travelled to Cornwall and ended her days in a Breton Convent.

The place where Non gave birth to Saint David is now named Capel Non, and is marked by the Chapel of St. Non. Close to the ruins of this chapel is her holy well. Other churches bear her name in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire.  

Non's relics were initially venerated at Altarnun in Cronwall but these were destroyed during the Reformation. There is a holy well nearby with a long tradition of bringing the insane to be immersed in hope of a cure. She is also the patron of Pelynt in Cornwall where there is St. Nonna's Holy Well.
Non died at Dirinon, Brittany, ten miles east of Brest, and is buried there; her shrine can still be seen in Dirinon's parish church.

What can we learn from Non’s life such as we have of it?

First, her life and the birth of her son underlines the truth of Romans 8:28 where Paul writes “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Last night in the UNITAS Lent Course “Glimpses of God” our group shared together some of the challenges of life and how God helped us to deal with them. One lady shared her story about her fight with cancer that at one stage infected parts of her stomach, lungs and other vital organs. Thankfully the treatment worked and she is in remission, but although it was a frightening and scary experience God used it for good as she suddenly began to cut away all that was of secondary importance in life and concentrate on what mattered most—God, family and slowing down to drink more deeply of the life she had. She thanked God for the cancer NOT because cancer is good but because God used it for good to open her eyes and her heart wider to Him.

Non’s experience of rape was a terrible and violent thing but through it she was able to give birth to a Saint whom God used to preach the Gospel and save Wales from the darkness of paganism and unbelief. His life  had an enormous impact for good on its life, culture and faith.

Second, Non was a good and godly mother very much in the tradition of the mothers in the Bible - Mary, Elizabeth, Ruth and later in history Monica (Augustine's mum) and Susanna Wesley. The work of giving birth is even today a hard one but harder still is trying to guide children in the right way through life. Sometimes you can do the very best you can and it still goes wrong. Non’s example and godliness—epitomised by her vow of celibacy and her simple lifestyle and faith -managed to have a profound impact on her son and just as we are grateful to David the man for who he was, we must also remember Non whose contribution was important too. Without her there would be no David.

Third, although it is not mentioned, there is no doubt the power of prayer and Non’s prayers for her son. And again there are wonderful examples in the Bible including Hannah, where mothers have prayed for their children and exerted a positive influence on their lives. My own mother was not a regular churchgoer although in later years she went more often. She very much kept her faith quiet and private. In fact I was not sure that her faith went very deep until not long before she died I discovered that every night she had prayed for me and my brother and sisters. Unfortunately—so far—my older brother and younger sister are both atheists although my older sister Pat is quite involved in her local Methodist Church in Tenby. So two our of 4 is not bad I suppose. But my calling and subsequent ordination I now acknowledge, had a lot to do with my mother and whatever good I am able to do as a Christian leader I very much owe to the faithfulness of my mother’s prayers. Her example means that I - and my wife - pray daily for my children as she did for me.

So to summarise. What we know of Non shows us a woman whose faithfulness and trust in God ensured that his promise to redeem us will, if we let Him, work all things—good, bad and even evil—to the good. And just as good came out of the evil and destructiveness of the Cross so the good that was David came from a woman who herself suffered the evil and violence of rape. It was through God's grace that Non went on to raise and nurture her son in the way of Jesus and through her influence as a good and godly mother, and the value of her prayers, helped make David the great man he was.

So let us be encouraged by her, and let us thank God today as we remember her together.

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