Thursday, January 17, 2008

A foul Murder of the Saintly Martyr-Pater Ishow of Nant Mair

Life in the Welsh Church was very spiritual united through a communion of friendships and alliances between spiritual leaders and their monasteries. This was a continuation in Welsh culture of ‘soul friends’ or ‘soul mates’ There are numerous stories of saints showimg the monastic founders studying, working, travelling together, and frequently mentoring each other. They made pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem together. St Cadoc is known to have made seven pilgrimages to Rome.

Holding all in Common....

What made the pre Saxon churches into a culture of their own was this common spiritual kinship, and they shared a common history, common heroes, and a common love of music, poetry and stories. These British churches were not cut off from the universal Catholic church nor the Pope The storytelling, of the people, their music, art, liturgical and private prayers, were expressions of its spirituality, a spirituality which was highly community based, emphasizing, as it did, the spiritual bonds of tribe, family, and soul friends. In fact a great deal of Druidic lore and emphasis remained , not at its heart but in its appearance and poetic heart.

Listen to the Bard's delighted description of the legend of Bees and Mass Candles...

The origin of bees is from Paradise and on account of the sin of man they came from there: and God conferred this blessing on them , and Mass cannot be sung without the beeswax’!


I will speak more of relics later, although I did mention them in my Christmas edition in respect of the relics of St Sicarius at Brantome, one of the 12-24 male babies killed by Herod at the slaughter of the Innocents mentioned in the Bible. The question of the importance of relics is a huge topic in itself, and deserves a special episode. There was even a relic of St Mary Magdalene and another of St Radegund in Usk until it was destroyed by Tudor monarchs in the 16th century. There was a relic of St Margaret of Anthioch at Caerwent in Mediaeval times in a church which still holds the relics of the martyred local saints Tewdrig and Maches

People of Gwent, the Law and the Pope

Rhyme, and rhetoric were enjoyed and debated by the people and they enjoyed poetry and singing immensely. The rule of law was interesting and important. In fact by the end of the first millennium, Hywel dda, the great King had submitted his laws to the Pope for approval after studying the Justinian Code in Rome. These confirmed that at that time, Wales was divided only into Gwent Gwynedd and Dyfed. Gwent had its own code of laws. According to these laws , the Church founded on Peter was an organic part of Welsh tribal society and great prominence is given to the status of the monasteries.A man under monastic orders was a Gwr wrth grefydd and a secular priest was a dyn eglwysig wrth urddau cyssegredig’.Papal confirmation was asked for because Hywel was anxious that none of his laws should conflict with the laws of the Church. In the text of the laws, the authority of the church is clearly recognised . Welsh bishops were consecrated on the Feast of St Peter’s Chair.(Feb 22)which shows a recognition of Roman primacy.

How did the people of Monmouthshire enjoy themselves?

They were (and are!) fond of joking , being facetious , telling good humerous stories, being satirical and ready with witty sayings. Like the Romans, they also consulted soothsayers called Awenyddion whom they believed could forecast events. On being consulted , these people went into a sort of exstasy, and gave their enthusiastic view of incoherent nonsense, and then the person who had paid had to make of it what he could. These were not bards, who were experts in music and poetry. Interestingly, the word for ‘poetry’ was the same word as for ‘harmony’ in singing in Welsh.

Early Hermits , Saints and Martyrs usually of Royal blood

In the Old Welsh tradition, there were many tales of men and women of royal blood, who forsook everything as according to the gospel and going to live out their lives in God’s service as we saw Materiana and Ceidio do last week. I mentioned that strong in this tradition, which was shared by St Augustine of Hippo, was the model of the desert and giving up their lives in the service of God. This was contained in the idea of a white or green martyrdom.

'White' and 'Green' Martyrdoms

The idea of White Martyrdom was that a would be saint would set sail in a boat (often poetically reckoned to be a leaf) and go wherever the waves took him or her. This would be where God had sent them. They would not always go by sea. Holy hermits often went on long walks over mountains and set up their own settlement or hermitage where they felt God wanted them to go.

A story exists of the Irish Saint Ea being driven on to the coast of Cornwall on a leaf and Arriving at St Ives to which she gave her name-(slightly changed by English usage now). St Barruc set sail from Brittany and landed at what is now Barry-named after him to create his hermitage. Here he became a soul friend of and worked with St Cadoc , son of Gwynlliw of Newport) who was working at Cadoxton or 'Cadoc’s town.' Here they would labour to help the community but generally pray and work in God’s service. Having arrived on the sea, the sea taking them to where God wanted them to be, they would set up a Green Martyrdom.

With this in mind, here is the story of an early Gwentian saint and martyr- Pater Ishow of Nant Mair

There was once a man called Ishow, (Esau) a holy man who dreamt of serving God in such a ‘Green Martyrdom’He set out from his father’s house, possibly that of Brychan Brycheiniog and began walking over the Black Mountains and in the shadow of the Skirrid Holy Mountain, he walked down through one of the most beautiful and secret valleys in Gwent and arrived at a tiny place high up in the mountains. So spiritual is this place that there was even a private revelation of the Virgin here in the nineteenth century.

A Note about the Skirrid before I go on, as it is important for our story of Gwent

The Skirryd is often called ‘St Michael’s Mount as the local legend says, at the time of the crucifixion at the time of Jesus death, the veil of the temple at Jerusalem was ripped in half. At the same time, the archangel Michael brought down his flaming sword on the Skirryd and cut a deep gash in it. The mountain remains holy to this day. In times of persecution many Catholics climbed to the top to take part in secret Masses and rosaries if there was no priest. Even to this day, on the Feast of St Michael in September and Good Friday, Catholics climb to the top for Mass and veneration of the cross.

Farmers are said to drive up and take away ‘holy soil’ to put on their land if it became barren and almost all churches within sight of it are dedicated to St Michael, usually as well as to Our Lady. The Skirrid has been a holy place all through Christian times and it is easy to see why Ishow built his cell within sight of it on the other side of the valley and also why our great patron Saint David built his small cell in the green valley in its sight before he rose to prominence. He intended to do a Green Martyrdom there all his life, but as we shall see, God usedDavid's great talents of oratory, scholarship and humility to protect the church from the false claims of Pelagius at Llandewi Brevi.

If you drive on the mountain road from Llanfihangel Crucorney near Abergavenny up towards Llanthony, a tiny left hand turn signs you to Fforest and to Patrishow. You need to drive quite a few miles up the narrow country roads to get there. Nant Mair (Mary's Brook) is quite deep below.

Pater Ishow's Daily Office, his mission

Ishow, or Issui which was a Welsh form of the name Esau. became a hermit.He built his cell on the banks of the enchanting brook named Nant Mair (Mary's brook)named for the Mother of God. Every morning he would say his morning psalms and praises. Occasionally he would be visited by a priest who would say Mass He lived there for many years in prayer and charismatic contemplation winning the affection of the country folk who fed him, so he would pray for them. Even today the local farmers and country people look after and care for the little chapel. In fact the place became so holy that a preaching cross was established there for that little parish, where Archbishop Balwin arrived with Gerald the Welshman to raise money and men to fight with King Richard the Lion Heart in the Crusades. There is still the preaching mark to commemorate this on the wall near the gate-a cross etched out of a stone.

Ishow was greatly loved and did what he was told in the Bible, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and giving shelter to those who came upon the little chapel in their travels over the mountains. He fasted often and gave away his food to the poor.

A Knock on the Door...Welcoming Ritual

One night, it was a cold and draughty night there was a knock on the door. A stranger stood outside asking for shelter from the wind and the rain. Isshow invited him inside as was the custom. The man gave up his weapons and Isshow brought wa rmwater wash his feet, which the accepted quickly and Ishow made him very welcome.Ishow prepared for the wayfarer to stay overnight. He fed him with some bread and meat and warm beer and made him comfortable for the night He said his night offices, that is the psalms and prayers used even to today in the church and went to bed.He would rather prophetically say the Nunc dimittis, before he slept. ‘Now Lord lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’…..the song of Simeon the Temple Priest, when he had seen the child Jesus.

The following morning, he got up and made breakfast for the stranger and talked to him, because he sensed the stranger was troubled. But the ungrateful stranger suddenly demanded Ishow’s money.-He did not understand his holy calling and that this meant he had none! Isshow told him he had no money, only what people gave him. Infuritated, the stranger stabbed or throttled the old man, who after a lifetime of service as a hermit met his Lord and Maker in a real blood martyrdom. Shockwaves were felt through the countryside. Local people brought candles and flowers. His Requiem must ave been attended by many people.The bishops of Hereford who visited now and again and also priests who visited him, began to visit the little chapel of the Martyrs shrine and he was believed to have been buried there. The hermitage grew in importance as a Martyrs shrine and a larger stone building added to accommodate all the pilgrims. The font of the church bears a rudely cut inscription-'i tepore genillin' fecit'which gives a clue to the date of the church. Cynhyllin (cunhillin)was Lord of Ystradwy (Uh strad-oo-ee) in 1056 so before the Battle of Hastings was being fought, holy men were praising God here.

A Martyr of the Catholic Church

He was named a martyr by Bishop Herewald in the 11th Century.In recent years the little church and hermit’s cell have been restored and a large statue erected in the cell to the Blessed Saint. His good life and sacrifice always remembered by local people,where as the name of the ungrateful murderer is unknown and unremembered..


If you want to make your own plgrimage to Patrishow- (and it is WELL worth it!) From Abergavenny take the main Hereford Road and turn left at Llanvihangel Crucorney. After the Skirrid Inn take a left turn down (Signposted to Llanthony Priory) and keep going for three miles. Turn left at the Left hand sign to Forest Coal Pit and Patrishaw (a hamlet)Keep driving up the mountain and suddenly you will see it on the left. There is a small car parl. There is also a holy Well of Pater Ishow. The Hermitage is next to the Church, which has recently been restored by the Church in Wales who now have ownership for it. The Mediaeval Preaching Cross is very interesting. Afterwards travel back down to the road you turned from and drive on to Llanthony Abbey. There , as part of the ancient parish church is the Cell of Blessed St David of Wales. The monastery was destroyed by Hentry VIII in the sixteenth century but the Crypt boasts a good restaurant and is open for walkers all day Sundays. I am told the beer is fine, and there is a hotel. When you have finished continue up the mountain along the road and you will come to Capel y ffin. Turn LEFT at the little junction and as you go up the mountain on the Right Hand Side, you will see the place where the Virgin is claimed to have been seen by three choir boys in the nineteenth century. This is on private land, but the owner has a pony trekking business and is very kind. This used to be a monastery run by a Victorian and eccentric but sincere Anglican Monk Ignatius Lyne. The Monastery eventually merged with Prinknash but was subsequently sold, as it proved too expensive. The owner is trying to raise money to refurbish and reroof the Oratory.

If you do visit the little church or hermit’s cell,and it is well worth a visit as it has been so beautifully restored, say a rosary for this kind holy man who came to such a horrible end and just be glad there are people like him today working in Darfour, in Zimbabwe and in Kenya , trying to bring about God’s Kingdom by giving themselves up to his service in their own White and Green Martyrdonm and facing great danger, often giving their lives to do the same things for people as Ishow Materiana and Ceildio in ancient Gwent.

Be it mine to praise Him, God has guarded us
Who is great in Who praises: God has made us
Him as Ruler I adore, God will save us:
For He has increased the fruit God is our Hope,
Of His charity. Worthy and perfect-- Beautiful His destiny.

We are O and A'd of him God has come
Tough he was of highest heaven Though he was imprisoned
King of Trinity In his gentleness
God was sorely tried when he entered Sovereign most blessed
Suffering and pain He shall make us free for the Judgement
To God we were lost From the blood stained rood
Except the ransom Salvation came forth
Of a blameless decree To the wide Universe
Mighty Shepherd!
Never shall the merit of Christ decay!
Old Literature recorded in the Black Boook of Carmarthen (Ceredigion)

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