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An Elegy towards Hope

Stand with me for a moment on the southern shore of a lake only a few miles from where I live in mid-Wales. To the east stand the dark green heights of Mynydd Llangorse that form the western wall of the Black Mountains. To my left, a range of low hills shelters ancient farmsteads and lanes of earth and shattered rock, which long use has etched several feet deep into the black earth. Llangors Lake (Llyn Syfaddan) stretches out in front of me. Its glassy surface reflects a blanketing fog broken only by vivid slashes of reeds.

Just behind me stands the parish church. Its only companion is the old schoolhouse turned private home wrapped snuggly behind strands of wisteria, leafless in winter. The church is mostly Victorian: one of the first reordered according to Tractarian principles. Its beautiful décor was intended to herald a Catholic revival across Wales as much as a Gothic revival in architecture. Now, it sits by the lakeside like an elderly lady on a park bench — admired now more for her age-worn beauty than for any sins of vitality.

The churchyard’s circular shape, however, shows that it is far more ancient than the Victorian church. So does its name, Llangasty. In Wales, most places prefixed by llan are ancient. In the age between the retreat of Rome and the coming of the Normans, when Christianity baptized and transformed ancient myths or gave new life to legends and folktales, saints were apparently as common as sheep in Cymru. The places they chose for their home were marked so profoundly by their presence that they have been remembered ever since in the names given by those who venerated them. Llanfrynach, Llanddew, Llanhamlach, Llandefaelog, Llanfilo, and Llansantffraed are only some of the holy llans within a few miles of Llangasty, itself named after the otherwise forgotten fifth-century St. Gastyn.

Across the lake from where I am standing is a small island. Once it was crannog: a kind of Esgaroth from The Hobbit in miniature. It may have been the palace of the heirs of Brychan Brycheiniog, the eponymous ruler of Brecknockshire. Though he was a bit of a rogue, at least 12 of his sons and daughters became saints in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany. If you’re to believe the legends, many were catechized by old Gastyn. According to those same legends, Brychan was born down the hill from my home and educated by a blind hermit on a site now marked by a church where my wife read a lesson last Christmas at a carol service.

You have to take it all with a pinch of salt. But only a philistine would rob this landscape of its saintly heritage. I am disposed to accept and delight in the most outlandish legends and stories that arose from a time when so little history has been preserved. My soul delights to recall that almost all of human history has been populated more by such folk memory than by skeptical empiricism. It was how we invited our ancestors to live with us in the present. These local Welsh saints influence my ministry, too. I like to think that their beatific piety is such that it might accept as fanciful a creature as an American vicar into the company of their prayers. On mornings such as this, when I look into a gray limbo, I can feel their presence around me. I’m more certain of them than I am of much I encounter in my church these days.

It’s easy to become melancholic on mornings like this. Places like Llangasty, lonely in a sparsely settled landscape, are reminders of how much the faith once meant to the people who lived here. These days we struggle to keep almost any rural church open, never mind fill their stone walls with spiritual life. Few show any signs of an imminent widespread revival; fewer still can resist settling into the secure embrace of their crumbling heritage. Like beggars in a historic city, they depend on the largesse of generous tourists or the goodwill of those in power. Consider for a moment that Llangasty has meant enough to successive generations to remain a holy site for 1,500 years. We don’t think in such terms these days. We lack the patience, the confidence, the faith to do so. Our secular hearts have grown too cramped for such enduring love.

The preservation of such sites is even more astonishing when you consider the communities they have served. Rural churches are testimonies to humility. They have drawn their strength to endure almost entirely from the domestic sphere rather than from flashy initiatives, new models of ministry, or grand schemes. The time that our forebears wasted in committee meetings, training programs, and workshops was minimal. Around 40 generations of local Christians would have known little more about the content of their faith than perhaps the Paternoster and Ave Maria. Their descendants probably differed only in what they learned by heart: the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the comforting words of the prayer book. Still, they believed enough to look after their families, care for their homes, and sustain their little churches. Their imperfect love of God and neighbor is memorialized by the venerability of their holy sites.

In Wales these days, such churches now typically cling to life. There are churches near me where the infrequent worship includes only three or four people. They are symbols of neglect by governments that don’t value their historic buildings, by people who trivialize their heritage as much as religious faith, and by a society that appreciates the countryside for leisure more than the culture it supports. The campground across the lake from Llangasty and the nearby outdoor activity center thrive while both churches and farms struggle. Good sense suggests it would be much better to close the church or sell the farm than to face the continual toil of subsistence. Each Sunday that people gather for worship, therefore, is an act of astonishing faith.

Yet, for all my nostalgia, I must recognize that the faith practiced in these humble churches has proven not to be enough — not enough to hold onto the people who live in the rural towns and villages today and not enough to resist the forces of modernity arrayed against them. People who prefer the thrill of sport to “the silence of eternity, interpreted by love” are not likely to prize their churches. Too many souls have lost the poetry that versifies their lives with heavenly meaning. Besides, the death knell of many rural churches was rung when agricultural workers were run off their farms by machinery.

Is my standing, therefore, a graveside vigil? I pray not. I’d like to think that the mere idea of places like Llangasty has sufficient beauty to move people to care for them. How can anyone not be deeply touched by these ancient sites? The babes christened, the couples wed, the people who have gathered to partake of bread and wine or listen to God’s Word preached, the wept-over bodies commended to their gracious Lord — all these (and far more) give even our most neglected churches a moral weight that nothing in our modern lives can touch. They have the power to recall us to our creaturely humanity if we but notice. In this way, they are not unlike masterpieces of art that awaken our hearts to the deep currents of meaning that flow through our God-given world. If so, then in their cases the Artist has taken his time, making sure to include the full range of absurd humanity in crafting his artworks. These churches remind us that God works with the patience each of us requires.

So, as ever, I leave with a hopeful heart. Yes, I long for a world in which our society prizes such places over flashy cars, exotic holidays, and expensive gadgets. And I pray for an institutional church that isn’t so mystified by a rural Christianity that resists its restructurings and is left utterly unmoved by its visions of reform and renewal. I pray too that more the people who live near these churches will become as loyal to the “faith once delivered to the saints” as they are to their married and buried memories. And yet I have often stood quietly on flagstone floors of rural churches and felt the company of saints memorialized in brass plaques around me. Those plaques are almost always polished, and their sheen reveals a devotion greater than I’ve ever mustered. That gives me hope.

So, I always leave these places glad of this world that God has fashioned and redeemed. I have stood in the silence of these humble holy of holies and have heard and accepted their message of endless hope. “Know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain,” they seem to whisper, quoting 1 Corinthians 15.58. That’s exactly what ancient churches like Llangasty teach me: that, indeed, my labors of love can never be in vain.

If you would like to visit Llangasty yourself, you can stay at Llangasty Retreat House, once run by Anglican nuns, and discover something of the tranquility and holiness of this ancient locality. Visit www.llangasty.com for more information.

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