Such insight and perception of the all too frail human priest from Father Seraphim Aldea!
St. Winifred, whose name in her own language was Gwenfrewi, was born in North Wales in the early seventh century, when Christendom was still whole, and many great saints where living on the British Isles. She was of noble lineage, a descendant of the early Welsh kings of Powys, and the only daughter of Tyfid, Lord of the townships of Abeluyc (Trefynnon, later named Holywell), Maenwen & Gwenffynnon in Tegeingl. Her mother’s brother was St. Beuno, Abbot of Clynnog Fawr in Gwynedd. After difficulties he had encountered from the local princes of Clynnog, St. Beuno sought refuge with his sister’s family, and thus received land from her husband, Tyfid. From an early age, Winifred was instructed in the spiritual life by her uncle, and her sole desire was to dedicate herself to God and become a nun. She lived under St. Beuno’s care, near a chapel he had built in her native town of Abeluyc.
One Sunday, while St. Beuno was serving the Liturgy at the church, Winifred was alone in her house. A prince named Caradog was riding by, and stopped at the house to ask for a drink of water. Winifred was very beautiful, and Caradog was stricken with the desire to have her in marriage. The maiden’s resolve to preserve her virginity and become a nun was unshakeable, however, so the prince attempted to take her by force. Winifred struggled free and ran toward the church, but Caradog soon caught up with her on his horse. Out of anger at the refusal, he struck off her head with his sword. Her severed head rolled down the hillside to the churchyard. When her uncle and the congregation—which probably included Winifred’s other kin—saw what had happened, they were horrified. The wicked Caradog fell dead on the spot. (Other historical sources say that Caradog was killed by Winifred’s brother, Owain, as an act of revenge.)
A spring of healing water sprang forth at the place where St. Winifred’s head fell. St. Beuno took Winifred’ head and replaced it to her body, then prayed to God that she be restored whole. By St. Beuno’s prayers, Winifred came back to life. The two sat on a rock which was later named, “St. Beuno’s rock,” and her uncle told her that anyone seeking help through her prayers at that spot would find it. A red mark remained around her neck, as a remnant of her miraculous restoration.
With her parents’ blessing, Winifred soon received the monastic tonsure at her uncle’s hand. St. Beuno advised Winfred to remain at that church to live the monastic life, which she did, eventually gathering around her eleven honorable virgins, and instructing them in the Christian faith. St. Beuno himself became a missionary, traveling west to Ireland.
St. Winifred made a pilgrimage to Rome, and was greatly influenced by the order of monastic life there. When she returned home, she called a synod known as the “Synod of Winifred,” attended by other Christian ascetics of Wales, Dumnonia, and the North. The common ascetic practice in Wales at the time was the eremitic life. At the synod, all agreed that the safety of the coenobitic life she led was preferable to the solitary life. Thus, after seven years in Abeluyc, Winifred decided to go out and help establish other coenobitic communities. It is said that two hermits she approached with the idea, Sts. Diheufyr and Sadwrn, were not interested in what seemed to them an innovation. It was not until she reached Gwytherin that she was welcomed by her mother’s cousin, St. Eleri. Here, Winifred was presented to his mother, St. Tenoi, and together they established a double monastery in the village. Winifred eventually succeeded St. Tenoi as abbess there.
St. Winifred reposed on November 3, 660 AD, and was buried in the monastic cemetery.
Recently a fragment of an eighth-century reliquary from Gwytherin, the Arch Gwenfrewi (Winifred’s Casket), was found, witnessing her status as a recognized saint almost from the moment of her death, the earliest such surviving evidence for any Welsh saint.
Veneration of the saint was mainly limited to Wales until the late eleventh, early twelfth century, when it began spreading throughout the British Isles. Other wells have been recorded as dedicated to her, including one in Dublin, Ireland. In 1136. Her relics were translated to an ornate shrine in Shrewsbury, while her original tomb was retained at Gwytherin and a fragment at Holywell. The spring that had broken forth in Holywell on the site where her severed head fell is still active; the temperature of the water never changes, summer or winter, and the supply remains constant regardless of drought or flood in the locality. It is so clear that the pebbles at the bottom are distinctly seen to be stained as though with blood. It is lined with fragrant moss, the Jungermannia oplevoides.
* * *
Holy springs are still a strong tradition in Orthodox countries—among them are the spring of St. Athanasius on Mt. Athos, the spring of St. Theodora of Vasta in Peloponnesus, and the many holy springs connected with saints and the Mother of God in Russia. History shows that there were also many holy springs in Britain during its pre-schism period, but the miraculous spring of St. Winifred is now one of a kind there. The following description of her spring in the town which is now named for it, Holywell, is from Source, “Holywell – Clwyd” by Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse.
HOLYWELLHolywell first enters written history in 1093, when “Haliwel” was presented to St. Werburgh’s Abbey, Chester. In 1240, the Welsh prince Dafydd ap Llewelyn, once more in control of this area in Wales, gave the holy well and church to the newly-established Basingwerk Abbey; and the Cistercian monks cared for the well and its pilgrims until the Reformation.
Winifred’s fame, and with it the fame of the Well, continued to spread throughout the middle ages, but little is factually recorded about the pilgrimage. By 1415, her feast had become a major solemnity throughout Wales and England. Kings could be found among her pilgrims. Henry V came in 1416. Richard III maintained a priest at the Well. But it was during the reign of the Welsh Henry VII that devotion reached its pinnacle, with the building of the present well-shrine under the patronage of Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort.
Such glory was short lived, though the Well’s fame was never eclipsed. The Reformation swept away shrines and pilgrimages; but no attempt ever quite succeeded in destroying devotion to St. Winifred at her Well. Through all the years of religious persecution, pilgrims, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, continued to visit Holywell. It became the centre of Catholic resistance. James II and his queen visited the Well in 1686, to pray for an heir. But James was exiled, and the persecution renewed. Through these long years, Holywell and its pilgrims were served by the Jesuits. They wrote popular Lives of the saint; and even kept inns in the town, where Mass could be said in comparative safety.
In the nineteenth century, after Catholic Emancipation, it was the Jesuits who oversaw and directed the spectacular renaissance of the pilgrimage. A church opened in the town in the 1840’s was constantly enlarged and enriched. A pilgrim’s hospice was erected shortly afterwards. And under Fr. Beauclerk in the ‘nineties, the pilgrimage underwent a revival of medieval proportions. Pilgrims came literally in thousands, necessitating a branch rail line into the town. The popular press gave account of each reported cure. And the sick reported cures in such numbers that Holywell came to be called the ‘Lourdes of Wales’. Despite the alterations to pilgrimage patterns caused by the increasing secularism of 20th-century life, and by devotional changes within Catholicism itself, the Jesuit’s heritage continues: people are still coming to Holywell on pilgrimage.
THE WELL CRYPT AND CHAPEL
Unlike Gwytherin, with the grave and other relics of the saint, or Shrewsbury Abbey, which after 1138 enshrined Winifred’s body, the Holywell pilgrimage has always centred on the Well itself. A church, almost certainly on the site of the present Anglican church of St James, over-looking the Well, has stood by the Well, certainly since 1093 and probably since Winifred’s own time. And there may perhaps have been a further small chapel, connected more directly with the Well. But we have no indication as to the form of the Well itself throughout the middle ages. Celtic holy wells take many individual forms, and it is possible that until the end of the fifteenth century there was no form of structure at all around the spring itself, which is what the medieval Welsh votive poems suggest. The sheer force of the spring would support this.
The present glorious structure was begun around 1500 and probably took ten or fifteen years to complete. It is unique, having no parallel anywhere in Europe; and is a masterpiece of late Perpendicular architecture. It takes the form of an almost square crypt, built into the steep hillside, but open to the North through a triple arcade which gives access to the Well. In the centre the spring rises in a star-shaped basin, before flowing into an oblong bath, access to which is gained at either end by steps. All around the Well, graceful columns rise to support the elaborately vaulted roof; and in the centre, directly over the source, is a large pendent boss, beautifully carved with the legend of St Winifred, but now badly worn. Originally, the spaces between the columns were filled with delicate Gothic tracery, destroyed by the Puritans. An open gallery in the west wall originally gave the pilgrim his first glimpse of the holy well as he descended from the chapel above, to enter the crypt through the now closed door.
The chapel comprises a nave and a side-aisle, and is built directly over the crypt, with which it is contemporary. At its east end an apse was built out onto the hillside to contain the altar. The well-crypt has never ceased to be used for its original purpose, but the chapel has seen many changes of use, used at times as a court-house, at others as a school. In consequence, it suffered great damage, but it was thoroughly restored and re-roofed in 1976. Both the interior and exterior of the chapel are enriched with fine, and often amusing, sculptures.
Considering the superior quality of the architecture, and the degree of technical skill required to build directly over the source of a small river, it is odd that not a single hard fact concerning its construction has survived. We do not know the name of its architect, nor the name of those who commissioned and paid for the shrine: not even the dates of its construction. The building itself yields the only clues. The emblems and coats of arms carved on the bosses of the crypt ceiling suggest the patronage of Margaret, Countess of Richmond and Derby, the pious mother of Henry VII. Margaret died in 1509. The arms of Catherine of Aragon suggest further royal patronage; and yet other badges indicate the beneficence of other noble families. Such patronage, which alone could account for the building’s splendour, is also the only real clue to dating it to the first decade of the sixteenth century.
Though its exact history will probably always remain a mystery, the shrine remains a fitting setting for the only British pilgrimage to have survived continuously for over 1300 years.
THE HOLYWELL CURE TRADITION
People have bathed in St Winifred’s Well for 1,350 years. They still do. Pilgrims today pass three times through the small inner bath, saying a decade of the Rosary; afterwards entering the outer pool to finish their prayers kneeling on St Beuno’s Stone, by the steps. Some pray for a cure; more “offer up” the discomfort of the icy waters for friends, or simply in honour of St. Winifred, or as a gesture of thanks. Pilgrimage has many reasons.
This ritual is as old as the pilgrimage itself. Maen Beuno, Beuno’s Stone, connects us directly with the time of St Winifred. The Medieval Lives say that Beuno sat on this stone when he told Winifred that anyone coming to the Well and asking something in her name, “might receive an answer to their request at least at the third time.” This was understood to mean that the petitioner should bathe three separate times. After the building of the present Well this meant three dips in the little bath. A carving opposite this bath shows how healthy pilgrims carried the sick through the waters on their backs. The stonework of the Well is covered with hundreds of graffiti, initials of hopeful or grateful pilgrims. Some inscriptions explicitly testify to cures received at the shrine.
The exterior pool formed no part of the original building, being added later; but its size witnesses to the crowds of pilgrims who came even during the times of religious persecution. Nor was their faith in vain. For 800 years there is a continuous record of cures and other favours claimed at the Well through the prayers of St Winifred—the only British shrine boasting such an uninterrupted history of pilgrimage and healing. Until the 1960s, the crypt was stacked with crutches left by cured pilgrims. Centuries of letters testify to the power of God and His saints in this place: records of cures not only of Catholics, but of Protestants; and even of those with no faith in anything. One account, touching in its simplicity, a scrap of paper left at the Well 100 years ago, can stand for all the rest:
A Protestant Father wishes to return thanks to God that through the use of St Winifred’s water, his only daughter was cured miraculously, Three years ago of a serious malady, which had resisted the efforts of several doctors & friends for the period of Three and a half years. Signed, C.T. Longley.
Are you Afraid? Yesterday I took a long walk by the promenade. It was dusk, and the tired sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea. The sea was basking in an orange sunset. Watching the seagulls’ gliding and soaring was mesmerising. I just stopped and let it sink deep into my heart . It brought such peace, freedom and joy to me! No video can do justice to the Beauty of their flight!
I was reminded of Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘s daring before challenges. His Yes to Life:
“You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way”.”
How diametrically different to J. Alfred Prufrock‘s neurotic cowardice, futile death-in-life and paralysing procrastination:
“I say yes because I believe that if it is not for my good God will make it so that the No will come from the very one who invited me. …
Today I am ninety years old–may you live so long! I read again and again and again in the Gospels, and I see something strange. Jesus Christ comes and says to the Apostles, “Leave now what you have and follow Me.”
Now, if they said, “And who are you? Why should we lose what we have? Why should we lose our profit? Where will you take us? What will you do with us?”—if they had said that, what would have happened? They would have remained in darkness.
They said Yes to the Unknown who came and said, “Throw all that away!” Why? Because they believed in God, and they waited for the One who would say to them, “Come!” And that was the beginning.
Because if we say No, what will happen? . . . One or the other: If you believe, you will walk on the water like St. Peter. If you are scared–Bloop! Nothing else.
… He said to us, “Why do you worry? … Even the hairs of your head are numbered!” Why worry? Faith is lacking. May we have faith.
Part A: How the little city hermit became a bird, a fountain, a tree and a pearl!
Deep peace of Christ, silence, hesychia, these are the words that come to my mind when I remember Suzana monastery and my three-day retreat there this summer. Also, self-emptying, kenosis. But above all, silence!
Only through poetry can such silence be conveyed, so I will paraphrase a favourite poet of mine, Rumi, to convey to you what I experienced here.
I had begged the Wise One to tell me the secret of my existence, my calling in this world. Gently, gently, He whispered at Suzana monastery “Be quiet, the secret cannot be spoken, It is wrapped in silence.”
I ground myself, strip myself down, to this overpowering Silence. I feel spiraling into a void of silence where a hundred voices thundered messages I longed to hear.
At its unfathomable bottom I encounter a vast fullness, the Spark of LIFE and LOVE, a secret passage to the WAY which wandering talk blocks, a dimension where HE was waiting for me, for my soul to shake.
I was carrying so much baggage while seeking the signs of the Way.
But at Suzana* monastery, I am ‘forced’ to stop, open up, surrender to this thundering silence, be invaded by ‘It’, and stay there until I Saw, until I looked at this blinding Light with infinite eyes.
This overpowering Silence kidnaps me to the core of Life. There is a sacredness in it. Silence is indeed the language of God, and all else is poor translation.
This is exactly what I experience when I am trying to write a poem, how I feel especially when I finish a poem. A great silence overcomes me and I wonder why I ever thought to use language.
Silence is indeed the sea, and speech is like the river. The sea is seeking you: don’t seek or walk into the river. Don’t turn your head away from the signs offered by the sea. Listen to the ocean.
The sound of Waters and the sound of Silence is a motif in Suzana monastery. At least for me. Everywhere the sound of waters reaches you, so overwhelmingly that I often feel the need to stay in my ‘cell’ and not even venture out.
Just listening to that sound was so overwhelming! The very moment I set my foot on this monastery, the sound of Living waters immobilized me, an ocean wave, a mighty river in flood, a cascading waterfall, a fountain of benediction, a Life- Giving spring, welling up to Eternity.
19 Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.
38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
Kenosis is also another state I suffered there:
“And they shall build the old wastes,
they shall raise up the former desolations,
and they shall repair the waste cities,
the desolations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:4)
I needed so desperately such ‘Decluttering’ in my life, a Relentless Focus, a Subtraction, Becoming ‘poor’, an Unburdening, a Curtail, a Reduction and Emptying, Until my rebellious bones sore.
This silence, this moment, every moment, this silence brought all what I needed. I sat quietly, and listened for a voice which told me ‘Be more silent.’ ‘Die’ and be quiet. Maybe quietness is the surest sign that you’ve ‘died’. My old life was such a frantic running from silence. Suzana monastery moved me, even for a little, outside the tangle of fear-thinking.
In the end, I became a pearl!
“And since I have wandered in thee, pearl,
I will gather up my mind
And by having contemplated thee,
Would become like thee,
In that thou art all gathered up into thyself;
And as thou in all times art one,
One let me become by thee!” (St Ephraim, The Pearl)
This very old, poor, secluded, fairy-tale monastery, surrounded by forests, mountains and springs, and steeped in holiness, is most certainly God’s special Providence for my tired, exhausted self.
I feels like coiling in a virginal womb, unwinding time, beholding
“The memory of the glory that I had when I was entirely with You and entirely in You, before time and temporal illusions.
When I, too, was a harmonious trinity in holy unity, just as You are from eternity to eternity.
When the soul within me was also in friendship with consciousness and life.
When my soul also was a virginal womb, and my consciousness was wisdom in virginity, and my life was spiritual power and holiness.
When I, too, was all light, and when there was no darkness within me.
When I, too, was bliss and peace, and when there were no torments of imbalance within me.
When I also knew You, even as You know me, and when I was not mingled with darkness.
When I, too, had no boundaries, no neighbors, no partitions between “me” and “you.” (St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Memories – Prayers By the Lake XXX)
Even the very fact that I cannot not speak Romanian, just barely understand it, is an added blessing, an extra ‘precaution’, a ‘just in case’ … Speaking all too often impoverishes, drenches us. As St. Seraphim of Sarov wisely urges us, “Keep away from the spilling of speech”.
Hesychia, Deep peace of Christ wrapped me in green leaves like a tree;
I breathed like a tree in the quiet light!
* Suzana Monastery is a Romanian monastery about 5.5 to 6 hours away from Rasca monastery in Bucovine, North Moldavia, where Fr. Seraphim Aldea was tonsured as a monk in 2005. After my retreat here I have a slightly better, more ‘intimate’ understanding of ‘Romanian’ Orthodoxy and Fr. Seraphim’s calling to found the first Orthodox monastery, Mull monastery, in the Hebrides in over a millennium. In a sense only a Romanian hieromonk would be really equipped, spiritually, emotionally, as well as intellectually, to undertake such a huge task! Glory to God for everything!
Continue to Part II
I’ve been travelling for the last two weeks. It was simply wonderful, but I’m waiting for a few free hours to put together a post about all this, my moving to the UK, the Archdiocesan Conference with our Father and Metropolitan His Eminence Silouan which I attended, and all the new friends I made and the living signposts (newly baptised ‘converts’ with amazing stories to share, clairvoyant priests who would read your thoughts across the room! …) I met in just two weeks!
While unpacking here, I discovered a small box with 4 pebbles and put it in my icon corner (under construction …)
It all started with 3 pebbles I was given by my spiritual father back in 2015. (All but the pebble in the middle above) They were from St Patrick’s Chapel, St Herbert’s Island (Celtic Pilgrimages) and Sambata de Sus (Romania).
Heysham — St Patrick’s Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire, UK
St Herbert’s Island
Sambata de Sus
For Fr. Arsenie Boca – the blessed Romanian elder and prophet, who “made Christ transparent to us”, watch the documentary The Man of God.
Little did I know then how those tiny pebbles would affect my life! They were not just a memento of my visit to the UK, but “relics” blessed with extraordinary Grace of most mighty Saints who were to turn my life upside down.
Back in Greece, these 3 pebbles started to exert a magnetic “attraction” in my icon corner and soon “assembled” there dozens of Saints’ relics from all over the world!
This Easter I was offered by my spiritual father yet one more …
This pebble was picked by him when he was 10 (!) from Iona Island, another major Celtic pilgrimage.
I now know better …