Sts. Illtyd & Cybi

cybiThe month of November offers us a host of Welsh saints to contemplate as we transition from autumnal days into winter light, that region of bright fasting and glistening feasts. Before footprints in the snow illumine our paths toward Nativity and further to Epiphany, we dawdle under the final clinging leaves and see the tracings of holy men who preceeded us, but nonetheless walk with us today. Contrary to our physical senses—truly pitiful without spiritual discernment—the veil is thin.

Such an emphasis on periochoresis, or interpenetration between the unseen spiritual reality and the physical, temporal world, is a key concern for Arthur Machen and may be most easily witnessed in his Sangraal cycle. Unlike traditional Arthurian romances, which are populated with chivalric figures of legend, Machen populates his modern incarnations with Celtic saints. His “monk-errants” of first millennium British Christianity interpenetrate the lives of twentieth-century people. Through visions and visitations, the Church Catholic, which is the Body of Christ, is revealed as unbound to the laws of nature.

Iconographically, the historical saints who are found throughout the author’s work symbolize this greater reality. Likewise, bells, altars and holy places, such as wells serve as cyphers resonating with truth, while that Hieroglyph of Hieroglyphs, the Holy Grail, represents Paradise glimpsed by man, a dreadful reminder of both his origin and his return destination.

While much of Machen’s concentration in The Great Return (1915) falls upon the Rich Fishermen—a saintly trinity of David, Teilo & Ilar—other Celtic saints pierce the curtain from time to time.

St. Illtyd, Abbot of of Llanilltud-Fawr (November 6/19) appears twice, first as a member of the saintly host called upon by Welsh soldiers for succor in Machen’s wartime miniature, The War Song of the Welsh (1916). Secondly, Machen invokes the holy figure with verse in the Levavi Oculos segment of The Secret Glory (1922). On a journey to venerate a relic which ultimately is revealed to be the Grail, the youthful protagonist, Ambrose Meyrick is instructed by his father in the lives of the saints, who recites the following:

The cell of ILLTYD is by the sea-shore,
The ninth wave washes its altar,
There is a fair shrine in the land of Morgan.

In greater detail, Ambrose’s father continues by speaking of St. Cybi (November 8/21):

The cell of CYBI is the treasure of Gwent,
Nine hills are its perpetual guardians,
Nine songs befit the memory of the saint.

See,” he said, “there are the Nine Hills,” and he pointed them out to the boy, telling him the tale of the saint and his Holy Bell, which they said had sailed across the sea from Syon, and had entered the Severn, and had entered the Usk, and had entered the Soar, and had entered the Canthwr brook; and so one day the saint, as he walked beside the little stream that almost encompassed the hill in its winding course, saw the bell, “that was made of metal that no man might comprehend,” floating under the alder boughs and crying:

Sant, sant, sant
sail from Syon to Cybi sant.

And so sweet was the sound of that bell,” Ambrose’s father went on, “that they said it was as the joy of angels ym Mharadwys {in Paradise}, and that it must have come not from the earthly, but from the heavenly and glorious Syon.”

Excellent articles have been written on these two saints and can be read here: St. Illtyd & St. Cybi.

Reading the Lives of the saints is also recommended and is provided here: Life of St. Illtyd & Life of St. Cybi.

In the above excerpts, one can identify chief preoccupations of Machen. Firstly, in the instance of the Welsh soldiers, the reality of the Celtic saints manifests as a heavenly army answering the fervent intercession of modern characters. Here is a link within a chain of narratives in which Machen portrays the Great War as not only a conflict of nations, but one of cosmic significance. This can be found in The Great Return, where the Rich Fishermen rejuvenate and refresh a war-weary populace with a reassertion of Paradise during the dark time, or as in The Terror (1917) in which lower creation rebels against man for his inhumanity and resignation of kingship.

Secondly, as Ambrose journeys through the wilds of Wales, the thin veil nearly disappears before his eyes as the tales and hymns of holy men such as Illtyd and Cybi enter his soul. Along the way, he visits the site of St. Ilar’s well, and in his mind, the holy liturgy is reenacted, but in contrast to the horrific events of The Terror, animals gather to cooperate and worship with the saint. Ultimately, the very landscape of the Welsh countryside is alive with the living memory of saints and relics which interact with him. These incidents build a mosaic of hieroglyphics, each one preparing Ambrose, leading him further to the awful unveiling of the Cup, before which he is undone.

Here, and elsewhere, Arthur Machen creates a tapestry of periochoresis so that the reader may contemplate the world with an eye for the Uncreated Light which is everywhere and fills everything. It isn’t a safe place. He doesn’t promise such; delusion is not his goal. Yet, despite the difficulty, he gently reminds us of guides, including these two November Luminaries, who may lead us through the darkest winter.

All original essays, original artwork & supplementary material: copyright 2020 by Christopher Tompkins

2 thoughts on “November Luminaries

  1. I have been enjoying these articles which capture the seasons with Belief. The ability to pull together a change in the year and connect it with saints is fun and practical. It’s a way to travel more freely in our own world. The Earth which we may trudge through every day, sometimes with closed eyes and minds, may be our home, but it’s likely not our Home. We are called upon to expand our vision to witness those who came before us; to those who walk among us; and to saints who possibly walk beside us. Do I choose to believe or do I choose not to believe? Is there a choice at all? The Lord would give us free will– yet the range of it, how far the Will brings each of us, is surely unknown. Can my physical self ever hope to know my spiritual self?

    With the weather changing, as it does throughout the year, we should keep an open mind about that which we know and understand, and all that we find incomprehensible about the seasons of our world, and the seasons of our hearts. Right now, imagine: a saint comes down and stands beside me. What strength would there to be gained? What could I offer in return? Reading outside my norms offers hints of illumination, but I don’t know how this works; what is the Word behind the word; the meaning that is the Meaning?

    There can be no reward without sacrifice and no knowledge without study. Nor would I want such hollow gifts. I can search alone, or we can search together. We may find a personal truth or a universal truth– or we may come across nothing, but the searching that we do together is a reward in itself. How deep it may feel depends on how large of a step we take every day through the world that we can see around us.

    – Nov. 6, 2020, A.T.


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