Notes from a 'pilgrimage' to Pennant Melangell on St Melangell's Day, 28th May 1997
Wales has been described as a place with a holy landscape. So much of it: towns and villages, hillsides and green, green valleys, named as places of worship, places where God is encountered and praised. 'Llan' means church, and Wales is full of llans: Llandudno (the church of St Tudno), Llanbedr (the church of St Peter), Llangynog (the church of St Cynog)... Then there's the places named after the saints who established them: St Asaph, St David, St Mellons, and - the beautiful hamlet I visited yesterday - Pennant Melangell.
In the sixth century Melangell found her way from Ireland to a tiny valley deep in the Berwyn range of hills, and there settled, found God and established an abbey. The place took on her name and its significance thus derives from its association with the presence and practice of the Christian faith there. Such is the case all over Wales: a country full of places where travellers - some missionaries, some soldiers, some pilgrims - stopped and stayed and brought the life of the Spirit to. By adding the words of their worship to the sounds of the streams and songs of the birds these saints (people just like us) brought a wholeness to these places; by settling into the rhythm of life in these temporal settings, through all seasons and over years, they helped to make these places feel - and be - truly holy.
This sounds romantic, which is a Welsh trait of course, but nevertheless contains some spiritual truth. Certainly Pennant Melangell felt holy yesterday: when Paul, Julie, Margaret and I celebrated in the church, the Saint's day and then soaked in the green pleasure of the land with a walk to the waterfall at the head of the valley, an idyllic setting by any standards.
It felt holy through the life of worship continuing there, and the beauty of nature, but also because of the work which we know continues there: in a healing centre attached to the church, where cancer sufferers come for help and counselling from the Revd Evelyn Davies. What she has there is beautiful: what she does there is holy - I wrote these words in her visitors book and reflected back on them as we drove through the heart of Berwyn country and talked about church life at home: in the suburbs and in the city, finding that to us, Melangell's model and Evelyn's example, exemplify our understanding of how life and faith should work in our places too.
Because although Wales was - and is - a pagan land, past and present incumbents of Eglwys Santes Melangell don't preach at people to try to 'get them in' to their church. They settle. And by being in a place for a long time, there practicing humbly but without embarrassment or loss of momentum, their faith, they make this place holy.
And so can we make our places holy - starting perhaps by beginning to love them. This may seem easier in the beautiful Berwyn mountains, but it is possible in ugly L8 too. It's achievable with a change of heart. Kenneth White writes:
"Loveliness is everywhere... even in the ugliest and most hostile environment ... It rises in its own reality and what we must learn is how to receive it into ours."
Our task is to help make our places holy. And we start by beginning to look for the loveliness in them, and celebrating that in our daily life of faith, our prayers and our work. In this way not just Wales, but all our places, can become, in time, holy landscapes.