The phrase: ‘Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things’ is familiar to many in Wales as being the last words spoken by St. David on his deathbed. They have remained part of the inherent psyche of the Welsh people for centuries. Yet when one looks around for the legacy of St. David, where is it to be seen?
For many it may be the hundreds of churches across the world which bear his name, for others it might be the firm foundation which the Christian faith still has within the life of the Welsh nation. The majority would probably point towards the Cathedral, which is dedicated to him in ‘Glyn Rhosyn’, the site where he founded his monastery and where he sought to live an austere and prayerful life. Yet even within the architectural gem which is St. David’s Cathedral, there is little focus on St. David or his life.
It was undoubtedly this lack of focus upon the patron saint of the Cathedral and the nation, which led the current Dean of St. David’s Cathedral to address the situation. This the Very Reverend Jonathan Lean, Dean of St. David’s Cathedral did in September 2010, when he launched an appeal to raise £150,000 to restore the medieval shrine of St. David, which is located close to the High Altar of the Cathedral. Some might say that in this era of economic downturn, depression and cutbacks, this project may seem extravagant, yet the Dean fundamentally disagrees with this: ‘The Cathedral was built to honour Saint David, it served as a centre for pilgrimage for several centuries and the shrine itself provided a focus for that ministry in the building. Without Saint David and his shrine, this Cathedral would not exist.’
For the Dean and the seven shrine guardians whom he has appointed to assist in the management of this project, the restoration of the shrine is an integral part in the renewal of the life of the Cathedral and it seeks to serve three main purposes. Clearly the main purpose of the shrine is to honour St. David, his life and the fundamental part which he played in bringing Christianity to Wales. There are many stories and legends relating to the life of St. David, many of which arose several decades, if not centuries after his death. It is clear that David was born around the year 500 AD and that his mother was Non. After receiving his education at several Christian foundations across south Wales and beyond, David founded a monastery in the inhospitable area known as ‘Glyn Rhosyn’, where the current Cathedral now stands. David and his followers lived a simple life: refraining from eating meat or drinking beer. David’s holiness of life quickly identified him as a future leader of the Church and he became a Bishop. The miracle most closely associated with him is that which occurred at Llanddewi Brefi. Whilst he was seeking to address a large gathering, many complained they could not hear him, and so the ground on which he stood is reputed to have risen up to form a small hill so that everyone had an opportunity to hear and see him. A white dove then settled on his shoulder, a sign of God’s grace and blessing upon his life and ministry.
David died in the year 589 AD and the monastery is said to have been ‘filled with angels as Christ received his soul.’ David was buried in his monastery. By seeking to restore the shrine the Dean clearly wishes to educate those who visit the Cathedral about St. David and his life: ‘For me David points us to God, but also points us to simplicity of living, which is important to those of faith and those of none.’ However for those of faith, the shrine will undoubtedly play an important part in their visit to the Cathedral, because a crucial element to this project is to restore to the Cathedral the ministry of receiving pilgrims. It was Pope Calixtus II in the 12th century who declared St. David’s Cathedral to be a place of pilgrimage. So important was the Shrine that two pilgrimages to St. David’s were equivalent to one to Rome, three were equivalent to one to Jerusalem. It was at this time that the medieval shrine was constructed and situated in the presbytery, close to the High Altar. Pilgrims came in the thousands to visit the Cathedral and to honor the life and example of St. David.
The restoration of the Shrine will enable the Cathedral to become a centre for pilgrimage once more. 300,000 people visit the Cathedral every year and the Dean wishes to see the shrine make an impact upon their understanding of the Christian life. The determination to complete this project is partnered with a desire by the Dean to improve the educational outreach which the Cathedral offers. Many Cathedrals in England have already embarked, some many years ago, upon creating education centres which seek to offer opportunities for people of all ages to visit and learn about the history, heritage and Christian traditions of their own area and church. The Dean and Chapter (the governing body of the Cathedral), in partnership with the Friends of the Cathedral, are endeavouring to do just the same in St. David’s, although these plans have yet to be finalized. For many however, the historical and theological arguments behind the restoration of the Shrine may play a small role in their opinion of the whole project. Undoubtedly the aesthetic change will be tremendous.
The Cathedral has to some extent been undertaking a period of restoration since the latter part of the 19th century. This project will be a further addition to the renewal and refurbishment of the building. The designs are certainly impressive. Caroe and Partners of Wells are managing the work, and the initial drawings were undertaken by Peter Bird, the Cathedral Architect, who sadly died earlier this year. Five icons will be installed in the shrine, three to the front and two to the rear, all of which will be created by local artist Sarah Crisp. Each icon will depict a saint with a strong connection to the Cathedral. David, Patrick – who is likely to have been born in west Wales, Andrew – to whom the Cathedral is jointly dedicated, Non – the mother of David, and Justinian who was a contemporary of David and lived a similar aesthetic life. A painted canopy will be installed and the reliquaries currently located in a casket in the Holy Trinity Chapel will be placed in two niches in the lower part of the shrine. In addition to this an illuminated Book of the Gospel has been commissioned, which will also be housed in the shrine. The project is due for completion in early 2012, with a dedication of the shrine likely to be held on St. David’s Day of that year. For the Dean this will mark a turning point in the life of the Cathedral: ‘The restoration of the shrine is about so much more than the aesthetic improvement of the building. It is about placing the life of St. David and his example of Christian living at the heart of the Cathedral. About pilgrimage, hospitality and prayer becoming even more part of what we do day by day as we seek to live out our Christian witness in this place.’ The restoration of the Shrine will undoubtedly put St. David and his Cathedral on the map once again. The Reverend Harri Williams Secretary of the Friends of St. David’s Cathedral