My son and I have recently been on a week long pilgrimage across Britain to a number shrines and holy places. The purpose of the journey was pretty straightforward. Although ordained as an Anglican priest for over a decade, for much of that time I have suffered periods of ill health as I have tried to reconcile what I was tasked to do on a daily basis, with my own sense of calling and conscience. The issues of conscience I wrestle with are not to do with the issues that seem to bother Anglicans today, it would be much easier if they were, but are to do with more subtle matters of the heart and mind. The best way to describe it succinctly, is to say that I have felt for some years like a ‘fish out of water’. I gradually came to the point where I concluded that God was calling me to embrace the fullness of Orthodoxy. That yearning has grown year by year and was confirmed as both my wife and my eldest children began to feel the same. Our pilgrimage was primarily intended as a time to pray to the saints of this land, to help me find the courage to move to Orthodoxy as I knew that having courage to step into the unknown was something I sorely needed. On day three of our pilgrimage my eldest son and I set out from Shropshire in the pouring rain to journey to Powys in Wales, our objective was to visit a remote little hamlet called Pennant Melangell.
The last leg of our journey involved turning off the main road and driving along an extremely narrow country lane for a couple of miles. The lane follows the course of a stream called Afon Tanat (that eventually flows into the River Severn) and it leads into a valley that is called Cwm Pennant. As we drove along and entered Cwm Pennant, we increasingly felt that we were journeying into another world – at the time we remarked that it felt as though we were entering part of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
In fact, this other-worldly Welsh valley has been associated with a legend that could come straight from Tolkien’s pen; the story goes that at Moel Dimoel, a hill that looms over the valley, there once lived a giant called Berwyn. As we drove further into the valley, which had been carved out by a glacier during the last ice age, it became deeper. Low cloud was cloaking the trees on the valley sides and the bare top of Moel Dimoel was only occasionally visible through the mist, all of which added to the ethereal feel of the place.
After a couple of miles, praying that we wouldn’t meet another vehicle on the way, we reached our destination. There is not much in Pennant Melangell, a couple of houses, a farm and the ancient parish church. For nearly fifteen hundred years the church in this valley has been a place of pilgrimage and it contains the shrine of a female Irish saint who is said to have lived an eremitic life here in the sixth century. She now gives her name to the place and to the church; in Latin she is called Monacella, in Welsh Melangell. Visiting this place and her shrine, proved to be a powerful experience and a momentous turning point in my discernment of God’s for my future and that of my family.
So, who was St Melengall whose intercession we had come so far to seek in this remote valley in rural Wales? The earliest written record of her life is in a Latin hagiography dating from the end of the fifteenth century, but it only comes down to us through transcriptions from the 1570s and 1580s.
The details of this fifteenth century life of St Melangell, was almost certainly based on a much earlier written and oral tradition. The hagiography tells us that in the year 604, the king of Powys Brochwel Ysgithrog was in Cwm Pennant hare coursing with his hounds. During the chase, the hounds disappeared into the undergrowth and as he followed them, Brochwel found himself in the middle of a bramble bush, face to face with St Melangell, who is described as a ‘virgin, beautiful in appearance’.
The hare he had been coursing was resting under the hem of St Melangell’s garment and as Brochwel ordered his hounds to catch the hare, they ran away in the opposite direction howling. Brochwel asks St Melangell who she was, and she replied that she was the daughter of an Irish king and that God had led her across the sea to Pennant fifteen years previously, to escape from an arranged marriage. She said that he was the first man she had seen in that time and that she was in Cwm Pennant in seclusion so that she could remain spotless and devote her life to Christ. Brochwel was impressed by her piety and he granted to her the land she was living on and confirms for her sanctuary rights. The hagiography concludes by telling us that she remained in Cwm Pennant until her death thirty-seven years later, having established a monastic community of women. Her travels across the sea and the risk she took in order to follow Christ, is what appealed to me about her and why I sought her intercession. If I was to move forward and follow God’s call in my life, I knew I must move and take a risk too.
In the 1980s the church at Pennant Melangell was in a dire physical condition, it was declared redundant and was very nearly demolished entirely. Thankfully between 1989 and 1991 it was saved and restored and through the vision of the then Anglican priest today renewed as a place of pilgrimage for all. Thanks to that vision the church still bears physical testimony to the life and the cult of St Melangell.
The church is small and rustic and as is common in this part of Wales, the nave and the chancel are divided by an thick-set and elaborately carved fifteenth century rood screen. In the prime position on the beam just below where the rood would have stood in medieval times, is a carving of St Melangell’s legend. She is shown in the centre of the carving, dressed as an abbess and holding a pastoral staff. To her right is the hare being pursued by two hounds and to the left is King Brochwel Ysgithrog, both on his horse and dismounted blowing his hunting horn.
Beyond the screen in the chancel is the shrine of St Melangell and beyond it the original burial place of the saint. Destroyed at the Reformation, the shrine was reconstructed in the late 1980s from fragments that were found built into the walls of the church and the lychgate. It now stands directly behind the high altar in the chancel, dominating the interior of this tiny space. The shrine, which dates from the early twelfth century, is tall, gable-ended, a tomb chest raised up on six sturdy pillars, with delightful foliate carving embellishing it.
In the east wall of the chancel behind the shrine, is a round headed arch, offset slightly to the north and this leads to a modern apse completed in 1991. This apse replaced an eighteenth century building that had been used as a school room for many years, but had always been known the cell y bedd, i.e. the ‘chamber of the grave’. That building had in turn replaced a twelfth century apse and during excavations in the 1950s and 1980s, the foundations of the original apse were discovered, and the new apse followed its plan.
Set into the floor of the twelfth century apse and offset to the south, a large stone was found and this is believed to be the original burial place of St Melangell. Small bones were discovered in the grave under the stone in 1959 and in 1989, which may be those of Melangell herself and they were placed in the newly reconstructed shrine in the chancel. Scholars are divided as to where the twelfth century shrine was originally placed. It is now in the chancel, but it is more likely to have been erected over the original grave in the apse. Throughout the Middle Ages the shrine of St Melangell was a popular destination for pilgrimage and as her ‘life’ states many miracles were performed at her shrine until the Reformation swept the shrine and her cult away.
I wasn’t seeking a miracle during my pilgrimage at Pennant Melangell, just a settlement of my mind as to the way forward. What I received through St Melangell’s prayers and God’s grace, was slightly more than I had expected. I offered my prayers before St Melangell’s shrine, lit a votive candle, reverenced the two beautiful icons of her in the church and left behind a written petition of my prayers to join the hundreds of others placed in the base of the shrine. As I stood there before her shrine, I was suddenly overcome with emotion and a deep sense of joy and I couldn’t suppress my tears – I cried my heart out. The shrine seemingly obliterated forever by the zeal of Protestant reformers, was today resurrected as a focus of prayer and devotion and that was God’s work. The shrine of St Melangell is a spot that is super-charged with joy; joy at the resurrection of devotion to this sixth century saint who was model of a life of obedience, prayer and devotion and joy in the risen life of Christ in which she now shares and we will all share when Christ comes again. My tears kept coming in waves, for the first time, but not the last time in this pilgrimage, I’d received the answer to my prayers.
When my tears subsided I then started to take the photos I’m sharing with you today. While I was taking photographs of the shrine, my son was sitting in the cell y bedd. As I turned away from my camera to look to see where he was, I spotted a butterfly; it seemed to rise from the ground behind the original grave slab of the saint. It fluttered past my son, through the arch into the chancel and then upwards, disappearing behind the raised tomb of the shrine itself. I immediately went to the other side of the shrine to look where it had gone, but it had simply vanished, we both looked, but there was no sign of it anywhere. This happening was almost an icon of this place, a replaying of events here. Through the devotion of people long ago, St Melangell’s relics were lifted from her grave and placed in the tomb chest of the shrine and the butterfly seemingly repeated that action. The life cycle of the butterfly itself reflects the history of the shrine. A caterpillar enters the apparent dormancy of the chrysalis, but all the while something is happening within it, then the chrysalis open and a butterfly emerges. The early devotion of St Melangell was deep and made a lasting impression on this place, it entered the chrysalis of the Reformation, that devotion was wasn’t destroyed only sleeping, to emerge as something new and beautiful in our own age. I wasn’t surprised by such a happening, Pennant Melangell is hallowed by prayer, infused with joy and delight, the sense of transcendent holiness in this place is almost tactile. I thank God for the butterfly’s appearance that day.
As we left the church after a couple of hours, we noticed that the churchyard surrounding it is circular as many early churchyards and Christian sites are in Wales and that there were yew trees growing at the edges and flanking the lychgate. They are ancient yews, perhaps dating back as the time of Christ. They are the only physical things here that date back with certainty to the age of saints, we were looking at trees that Melangell herself had seen when she lived in this valley nearly fifteen centuries ago. These trees had been a witness to her life in Christ, to the lives of countless pilgrims to this place in the past who have found refreshment here, to the destruction and the restoration of her shrine and now they were witnessing our pilgrimage too.
It has struck me since our pilgrimage to Pennant Melangell, that the name of this place is very apt, it accurately reflects the spiritual power that is to be found here. The Welsh name Cwm Pennant means ‘valley at the source of the stream’ and some distance from the church is a waterfall and this is the source Afon Tanat that waters the valley. Just as the water dramatically cascades from the falls and flows into the calm of the Afon Tanat, so a spiritual waterfall of grace flows from Melangell’s shrine and provides for the pilgrim a source of spiritual refreshment and enrichment. What I found in Pennant Melangell was God’s peace, calm waters to wash away the doubts and worries of my own heart, as I begin to follow where God is leading me. Melangell is such a distant figure in history, yet here in her place she is just as present as the ancient yews in the churchyard – time and the division between this reality and the next is meaningless on the holy ground of Cwm Pennant. Melangell herself held to the faith of ages, to the faith of the church then undivided and was prepared to give up all she had and take a risk to draw closer to God the Holy Trinity. Here for the first time I came to know with clarity, that there will be a way to embrace what she had embraced in her life, the fullness of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic faith. So powerful was the experience here, that I didn’t want to leave Pennant Melangell. I felt almost like Jacob at Bethel, suddenly waking from sleep to realise the awesomeness of the place he was in, his place of encounter with the living God.
As my son and I prepared to leave and we drove along the narrow lane again, there were grouse all over the road, blocking our way and slowing us down as we re-entered the world beyond. With the experience of the butterfly still fresh in my mind at the time we felt that St Melangell herself had arranged for the birds to slow down our departure from her place. For the rest of our journey we kept an icon of her on the dashboard of the car and she became the official patron of the remainder of our pilgrimage, the beginning of our pilgrimage to Orthodoxy.