Tuesday, 5 February 2013

St. Teilo Circa 500—560 AD

During our midweek services at St. James I give a short address usually based on the lives of great Christians throughout the ages. This week the Church remembers St. Teilo's after which many Welsh churches are named and so I have included my talk below:

Looking up sources for my talk I came across one on the website of one of Teilo's churches, Llandeilo itself (click here). It appears quite dismissive not only of Teilo in particular but also of Christianity in general - I may have misread it - and so I wondered what the point was of writing it? This is part of what he has written:

"Biographies of the very early Christian saints read very much like modern novels, because in both cases the authors have effectively created a work of fiction. For most of the saints who are said to have flourished in the early centuries after Christ, not a single written source exists from the period when they were alive, and presumably hard at work converting the local pagans to the obscure middle-eastern cult that was then only a few centuries old. …….What people think are facts about such people as St David or St Teilo, after whom Llandeilo is named, are just an accumulation of legends, miracles, tall tales, church propaganda, and even outright fabrications (lies!), the earliest of which usually appear several centuries after their deaths. In the case of St Teilo the first written versions of his life appeared in the twelfth century, more than enough time for a thick crust of legend and supposed miracles to have completely obscured whatever are the true facts of his life.

Clearly then the writer is quite dismissive about Teilo and whether there was such a person and about the possibility of miracles. But here is a rough outline of his life:

He was said to be the son of a prince who was in turn a grandson of a ruler of Ceredigion. He was also related to St. David—his first cousin—and educated with him under St. Paulinus in Whitland. Like many founder-bishops they appear to have had experience in battle  and so when they travelled to Mynyw (St. David's), where David founded his abbey,  they had to first oust an Irish pirate, kill his cattle and burn his fortress.

In 540’s a yellow plague affected Britain and so Teilo with a small group of monks moved to Dol in Brittany where he stayed for seven years and seven months. They then travelled to Dumnonia—an ancient Kingdom encompassing Devon, Cornwall and Somerset - before joining again St. Samson in Dol. In fact the fruit groves claimed to have been planted by Teilo and Samson still grow there today.  After his return to Llandeilo Fawr Teilo died on February 9th 560.

Teilo subsequently became one of the most venerated saints in Wales and his remains are said to be divided between three churches: LLandaff Cathedral where Teilo founded his first church—buried to the right of the main altar (although his skull is buried in the south chapel), LLandeilo Fawr and Penally Abbey near Tenby. At least 25 churches and schools in Wales, Brittany and Cornwall and Devon were dedicated to him and there are also three villages in Brittany named after him.  Many miracles were ascribed to Teilo during his life and following his death.

So as you can see from these bare bones there is not a lot to go on. But returning to our sceptical friend at the beginning he does at least acknowledge this:

“Of course, someone must have been around in the sixth century, otherwise the spread of Christianity in Wales couldn't have taken place, and the existence of 25 churches dedicated to Teilo, some as far afield as Cornwall and Brittany, indicates that whoever he was, he was a very busy little missionary indeed. “

So even given his scepticism he has to concede that there must have been someone called Teilo who with others did a lot of work for the Kingdom of God.

This leads me to a few thoughts:

1. Teilo and his brothers and sisters in Christ lived in what was known as the Dark Ages. These were the years following the decline of the Roman Empire where Europe was in chaos both economically and culturally (sound familiar?). Into that the light of faith shone and became a force for good where hospitals, school and universities were founded upon Christian principles and the love of God was preached everywhere.  As Europe continues to cut itself free from the moorings of the Christian faith we who call ourselves Christians can draw inspiration from people like Teilo and not only keep true to our faith but do all we can to share that faith with others.

2. These are dark times for the Church as it continues to make one compromise after another in a bid to try and keep up with the way the world is going. But, as Paul reminds us, we are not to be conformed to the world—or in J.B.Phillips wonderfully translated it we are not “to let the world squeeze us into it’s own mould” - but to be "transformed by the renewal of our minds." (Romans 12:1ff). We can only do that if we embrace more closely God’s light and not the world’s darkness. We must not compromise our faith or the faith of our fathers - people like Teilo, David or Paul and Peter before them.

3. Finally we must not allow despair to overwhelm us or we will become embittered and resentful and cease to be the salt and light Jesus calls us to be. There is an old saying: “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

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