Today we’ll be talking about St. Kentigern’s Monastery in St. Asaph.
Wait a minute, that’s two saints.
Yes, it is, and in the case of this particular monastery, it’s a bit confusing because the monastery was founded by St. Kentigern, and then it was taken over by a second saint, Asaph, for which the town was named. In fact, unless you do some research, you might never know that the monastery in St. Asaph was initially founded by Kentigern at all.
Two weeks ago, in my introduction to early monastic houses, I explained that they weren’t organized along the lines that we have come to know from the later Middle Ages, in that each would belong to a particular order: Benedictine, Cistercian, Augustinian, Franciscan, or Dominican. Each had their particular ‘rule’ they followed, the monks wore different colored robes, had different tonsures, as well as different overriding purposes, like feeding the poor, or preaching, or prayer.
I will be talking more about those differences later in this season, but for now, suffice to say that none of that was in operation in the monasteries founded by early Welsh saints. St. Kentigern’s Monastery in Wales is no exception. Like the other sacred sites we’ve talked about so far, this monastery was founded in the 6th century by Kentigern, who was known in Scotland and Ireland as St. Mungo. As St. Mungo, his life story was written down in 1185 by a monastic hagiographer, Jocelyn of Furness.
Like many other saints, Kentigern was born royal, the son of a princess, but he was born out of wedlock (after his grandfather threw his mother from a great height as punishment for becoming pregnant), never mind that his father was also a king. He was raised by Saint Serf, who was administering to the Picts, and who gave him his nickname, “Mungo” which means “dear one” in Cumbric, a related language to Welsh. After he was grown, Mungo founded a parish near Glasgow, but after thirteen years was forced out of the region by an anti-Christian king.
That’s how he ended up in Gwynedd founding a monastery in Wales on the River Elwy around 545 AD.
This monastery is actually one of the best documented in Wales of this period, being described as built “of smoothed wood, after the fashion of the Britons, seeing that they could not yet build of stone”. That’s possibly a prejudice of the chronicler in 1185, by the way.
According to the story, the monastery had a whopping 965 disciples, of whom Asaph was one, and they were divided into three groups: 300 of the unlettered farmed the outlying lands, 300 worked in the offices around the monastery, and 365 (a number you may note which corresponds to the days of the year) attended the divine services. Of these disciples, the oldest assisted Kentigern in the government of the diocese, and the rest were subdivided into three choirs. “As soon as one choir had terminated its service in church, immediately another entering commenced it: and that again being concluded another entered to celebrate.”
Also in the legend, Kentigern would frequently pray standing in an icy river. On one occasion, having suffered very severely under this hardship, he sent the boy, Asaph, who was then attending him, to bring a brand of blazing wood to burn and warm him. Asaph instead brought him live coals in his apron, and the miracle revealed to Kentigern the sanctity of his disciple. Eventually, Kentigern was invited back to Strathclyde by a new king, and he appointed St. Asaph to take his place as abbot.
Next week we’ll be talking about perhaps the most famous early Christian of all: King Arthur.