January 29, 2018

Saint Gildas the Wise, Abbot of Rhuys in Brittany (+ 570)

St. Gildas the Wise (Feast Day - January 29)

Venerable Gildas may have been born in the lower valley of Clydeside in Scotland around 500. He is often called "Badonicus" because he was born in the year the Britons defeated the Saxons at Bath in the Battle of Mount Badon. His father was of the ruling family of a small kingdom on the borders of Northumbria with its capital at Dumbarton but he was sent from the banks of the Clyde to the monastery of Llaniltut or Llantwit, in southern Wales, where he was trained by Saint Illtyd (Nov. 6) together with Saint Samson (July 28) and Saint Paul Aurelian (Mar. 12), though he was much younger. Well-known Irish monks, including Saint Finnian (Dec. 12), became his disciples. He made a pilgrimage to Ireland to consult with his contemporary saints of that land and wrote letters to far-off monasteries. He seems to have had considerable influence on the development of the Celtic Church.

When Gildas graduated from Llantwit he went to Ireland to continue his studies, moving from one monastic center to another. Possibly he was ordained priest in Ireland and went back to the North of Britain, teaching and preaching in the land of his birth. The fame of his successful ministry made Ainmeric, a King in Ireland, invite him back to restore the discipline and ordered Liturgy in the monasteries and he taught for a time in the School of Armagh.

On returning to Britain, he assisted Saint Cadoc at Llancarven and accompanied him when he went to Brittany, or Armorica as it was called at that time. Gildas also went on pilgrimage to Rome and there is a story that he visited Cadoc on the way. He brought with him a leather pouch and when he opened it he produced a bell, shaped like a square cap. The bell was made of beaten metal, a mixture of silver and copper, and had a very sweet tone so that Cadoc desired it for the monastery he was building at that time. Gildas however told him that it was destined for Saint Peter's at Rome, but when he presented it to the Pope on his arrival in the Holy City, the bell gave no sound at all. On his way back he called on Cadoc again and gave him the bell which now sounded as sweet as ever. From this incident Gildas learnt that his labors should be among his own people.

He is best remembered in Britain for his history of the Church in that land from the departure of the Romans to the invasion of the Saxons. It was probably written at Glastonbury about 540 and is titled De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (The Ruin of Britain), which he says came upon the British through the decadence of their rulers and clergy. The work laid bare and severely criticized the lives of Britain's rulers and clerics, blaming their moral laxity for the triumph of the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Although the fierceness of its rhetorical invectives has been criticized, the wide scriptural scholarship that it reveals is uncontested. It also shows that he was knowledgeable about Virgil and Ignatius (Oct. 17). This work was cited by Saint Bede.

He is considered to be the first English historian. He lived as a hermit for some time on Flatholm Island in the Bristol Channel, where he copied a missal for Saint Cadoc (Sept. 25) and may have written De excidio. Gildas, upon returning from his pilgrimage to Rome, founded a monastery on an island near Rhuys (Rhuis or Morbihan) in Brittany, which became the center of his veneration. Though he lived for a time on a tiny island in Morbihan Bay, he gathered disciples around him and does not seem to have cut himself off entirely from the world; he did travel to other places in Brittany.

The De excidio, which was very influential in the early Middle Ages, may not have been written entirely by Gildas. Some of it may have been added shortly after his time. The work serves as an example of the classical and early Christian literature that was then available in England. Gilda's writings were used by Wulfstan (Jan. 19), Archbishop of York, in the 11th century in his "Sermon of the Wolf" to the English people during the disordered reign of Ethelred the Unready.

He did spend some time as a hermit on the island of Flatholm in the Bristol Channel but he eventually moved to Brittany where he founded a monastery at a place which bears his name, Saint Gildas-de-Rhuys, which according to Peter Abelard who was later abbot there was not a very salubrious spot. His tomb is behind the altar in the present church and there are relics in the sacristy. His repose took place around 570.

Apolytikion in Plagal of the Fourth Tone
Truly thou art surnamed 'The Wise', O Venerable Gildas, for in thy monastic solitude thou didst use thy God-given gift of words for His greater glory. Teach us to despise nothing, that all our talents, however small, may be employed in God's service, for the salvation of our souls.

Kontakion in the Second Tone
As one learned in the art of writing, 0 wise Gildas, thou didst not hide thy talent, but brought it forth to glorify thy Creator. Singing praise to thee, we pray for grace to follow thee in offering everything to God for His glory alone.