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Arthuriana Liturgical Year

The Monk Who Forgave King Arthur for Murder? (Feast of Gildas the Wise, January 29)

While my Presbyterian tradition offers many riches, our liturgical calendar is pretty scarce when it comes to weekday feasts and festivals.

Growing up, the only weekdays on which I went to church were Maundy Thursday and Christmas Eve (when not a Saturday or Sunday, of course). I don’t recall ever attending a Good Friday service until I was in college—I think the Presbyterian circles I grew up in were suspicious of it being “too sad,” and somehow a “funeral for Jesus” rather than a necessary part of our preparation for Easter Day.

Not even Ascension Day—always the sixth Thursday after Easter, in Western observance—made the cut, despite the Ascension’s importance to no less a Presbyterian forefather than John Calvin.

The upshot is, when I discovered other branches of the Christian family had calendars chock full of weekday feasts and festivals remembering so many in the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12.1) who’ve gone before us, I felt some liturgical jealousy!

Sprinkling the Weeks of the Year with Saints

If you’ve never seen the The St. James Calendar of the Christian Year, check it out sometime (no, that link’s not an affiliate link).

Its full-page engravings are exquisite, but look at the boxes. You can’t use this on a day-to-day basis—jotting down due dates, scribbling in appointments. Every square is jam-packed with observances from traditional and contemporary Western and Eastern Christian communions.

Yes, every day is a day the Lord has made, and is special and sacred for that reason alone. Yes, Sunday is the Day of Resurrection; it is especially stamped as the Lord’s Day, and takes primacy over all others.

But the traditions represented in The St. James calendar “sprinkle” or “pepper” their weeks with occasions to remember God’s activity in the lives of specific believers.

To be sure, most of these believers lived centuries ago. Many of them are priests, bishops, and other ecclesiastical officials. The majority are men.

But sanctoral calendars need not be limited to mostly male clerics from ages past. As much as I admire these rich calendars, I’m still Protestant and Presbyterian enough to insist all God’s people are saints (Romans 1.7; Ephesians 1.1; et al.), saved by grace through faith.

We can take the principle of the sanctoral cycle and expand it. In 2010, for example, Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro included a calendar marking “landmark dates in the struggle for peace and justice.” It recognizes a wider variety of people who’ve played important roles in the story of God’s activity through—and sometimes, sadly, even in spite of—God’s people.

In the past, I’ve found observing these special days, even if just with a particularly appropriate reading or a unique collect (I recommend the Church of England’s free Daily Prayer app) makes me stop and think a little more about God’s presence in my life.

This is all a long and roundabout way of saying I intend to, now and then, mark some of these special days here on the Gleam Chaser—especially when I can draw some connection to science fiction or fantasy. I hope you’ll find these excursions into weekday liturgical time interesting at the least. And maybe they’ll help you pay greater attention to God’s presence and activity in your day

While I hope to eventually note a wide range of saints, January 29 happens to commemorate one of those ancient male clerics.

Laying the Groundwork for the “Hopeless” Arthurian Legend

Gildas the Wise (died c. 570) was a Celtic abbot about whom, it turns out, historians can’t say too much with certainty (it was the Dark Ages, after all). But he’s remembered for writing De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain).

Though he’s often credited as being the earliest British historian, his book sounds like a salvation history, along the lines of the Bible’s own historical books. Gildas’ stated purpose is to illustrate his people’s sins and how God has judged them. He speaks truth to power, calling five different kings in his post-Roman Britain to account for their moral failings. He also indicts British clergy, exhorting them to repent with words from “a veritable catalog of Old Testament prophets” (Ancient History Encyclopedia).

I haven’t read Gildas’ book for myself. Frankly, it doesn’t sound like one I want to put atop my “to read” pile.

But when I spotted Gildas’ name on the calendar today, I recognized it, because this morally ferocious monk is inextricably connected to the history of Arthurian legend.

As Father Sean Mullen of Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia preached in an exceptionally eloquent sermon in 2012 (he is one of the most consistently eloquent and literate preachers I’ve ever heard, and someone I want to preach like when I grow up), the legends of King Arthur aren’t necessarily edifying.

Commenting on the musical Camelot, Father Mullen said, “I see how sad the story of Camelot is, and how hopeless the nostalgia it rests on. Like all the Arthurian legend, it looks wistfully backward without any real hope of building Camelot in this world, because, after all, Camelot is the stuff of fantasy and musical theater.”

Fair enough. (Read or listen to his whole sermon; it’s a brilliant juxtaposition of King Arthur and Christ the King.) Nonetheless, King Arthur’s always been an interest of mine. I still sometimes entertain daydreams of writing a great American Arthurian novel someday. All Father Mullen says about the Matter of Britain is true, but I’m still drawn, again and again, to the gleam of hope, the “one bright, shining moment,” that—unlike God’s Light—the darkness (or, at least, the Dark Ages) ultimately overcomes.

(I suppose I’m drawn to Star Trek universe for the same reason. It paints a bright, shining future—in J.J. Abrams’ vision, complete with over-the-top lens flares—we humans will never achieve on our own, but for which I can’t help but feel we must strive, believers and non-believers alike, if we want any chance of making our imperfect world a little more perfect until God perfects all things in the end.)

I digress.

A Glimmering Light in Gildas’ Choice to Forgive

Gildas does not mention King Arthur in the Ruin and Conquest of Britain. But he is the earliest chronicler of the Saxon mercenaries whom British kings brought into the land after Rome’s legions departed. As any student of Arthuriana knows, these “barbarians” were the existential threat the historical Arthur (if he existed—a big if) united the Britons against.

Though Gildas doesn’t mention Arthur, he does refer to the battle at Mount Badon, which later lore-spinners, beginning with the ninth-century Welsh monk Nennius, identify as the site of Arthur’s twelfth and decisive defeat of the Saxons.

But Gildas—who says he was born in the same year as the fight at Badon (circa 516)—identifies a British warrior there as “The Bear”—which is what the Celtic word “Art” means.

That’s not the most intriguing connection between Gildas and Arthur, however. As the story goes, while Gildas was preaching in Ireland, Arthur killed Gildas’ brother, Huail. One 12th-century text describes Arthur’s act as “murder.”

It took some persuasion, but Gildas eventually forgave Arthur. They may even have literally “kissed and made up.”

It may be pious legend. It may be as fanciful in its own way as any tale of the Round Table and its dragon-slaying, Grail-questing knights.

But it just may also be one glimpse, however faint and flickering, of light in the Matter of Britain. The light-bearer in this case is not the once and future king, but a monk who chose—even if after much reluctance, as we all sometimes must choose—to forgive, obeying the command of Christ the King:

Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors; only so can you be children of your heavenly Father… There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds. (Matthew 5.44, 48, Revised English Bible)

Gildas is called “the Wise” for his writing. But we may also deem him wise for following the Gospel in choosing against returning evil for evil, and striving to live peaceably with all—even the high king who killed his brother.

A Collect for the Feast Day of Gildas the Wise

I couldn’t readily find a collect for Gildas—though I did find this long and fascinating Celtic prayer attributed (sometimes) to him, reminiscent of Saint Patrick’s breastplate.

I also found a few supplications addressed to Gildas: Pray for us that we will become worthy to enter into the joys of eternal life.

But being too Presbyterian to pray to saints (though I wonder how different it might be from asking the living saints around us to “pray for us”… if we believe “they are all alive to God” and our fellowship with them, through Christ, continues…), here’s my attempt at a collect:

God of perfect wisdom,
you called your servant, Gildas,
to take up his pen and serve your holiness,
and to offer the kiss of peace to his enemies.
By your Spirit,
may your righteous light shine also through us,
and may we ever show mercy as you have shown us mercy
in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

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