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Saint David

Last updated: 01 March 2011

Saint David and religion

David was educated at a monastery, usually taken to be Whitland in Carmarthenshire, for at least 10 years under the tutelage of St Paulinus of Wales.

David is said to have cured his tutor Paulinus of blindness, by making the sign of the cross. Realising that his protégé was blessed, Paulinus sent him off as a missionary to convert the pagan people of Britain.

Soon after reaching adulthood, David was ordained a priest. He worked firstly in Wales and later on in the west of England and in Brittany, and is also believed to have visited Rome and Jerusalem. He is said to have founded 12 monasteries in southern Wales during the course of his travels.

David believed in a simple life. His monks rose at dawn to pray, and afterwards worked the fields around the monastery. They had to pull the ploughs themselves without the help of animals, and prayed as they worked.

The men were expected to remain silent unless praying or in an emergency. They ate only bread and vegetables, and drank nothing but milk and water. David himself drank only water. Despite his strict ascetic principles, David's piety and charisma was enough to unite his followers.

However, at one of his monasteries the life of austerity was so unpopular that the monks attempted to poison David. St Scuthyn is said (other accounts name St Aeddan) to have warned him of the danger after travelling from Ireland on the back of a sea-monster. David ate the poisoned bread after blessing it, and came to no harm.

A monk, abbot and bishop who later became archbishop of Wales, David did much to spread the Christian word throughout the land. He was active in suppressing the Pelagian heresy, the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that people are capable of choosing good or evil without divine aid.

He founded a monastery in around 550, where St David's, the United Kingdom's smallest city, stands today. It is said by some that two pilgrimages to St Davids are equal to one pilgrimage to the Vatican in Rome.

The most famous story relating to St David occurred as he preached to a large crowd at the synod of Llandewi Brefi. One of the crowd shouted, "We won't be able to see or hear him". The ground David stood on is said to have risen up so that he was standing on a hill, so he could be seen and heard by all.

David's last recorded words appeared in a Sunday sermon. Rhygyfarch, himself the son of a later Bishop of St David's, records the words as "Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us."

David is said to have lived for over 100 years, and died on Tuesday 1 March 589, in the week after his final sermon. He was buried in the grounds of his monastery, which was said to have been "filled with angels as Christ received his soul".

Throughout the Middle Ages David's shrine became a popular destination for pilgrims. In the 12th century he was made the patron saint of Wales, with his feast day on 1 March. He was officially recognised as a saint by Pope Callixtus II in 1123.

St David is often shown with a dove on his shoulder. The bird symbolises the Holy Spirit which gave David the gift of eloquence as he preached.

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