St. Asaph of Llan-Elwy – May 1

St. Asaph of Llan-Elwy
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Like St.Deiniol, St.Asaph was a grandson of Pabo Post Prydyn, but he went to train under the great St.Kentigern and followed his master when he left Scotland to avoid persecution. The two of them first visited St.David at Menevia and then settled on land given to Kentigern by Cadwallon, father of Maclgwn, who was then King of Gwynedd, at a place in the valley of the river Elwy. Most of what we know of Asaph comes from the twelfth century Life of St.Kentigern by Joscelyn, a monk of Furness.

Asaph had a great devotion to his master and Joscelyn relates that one very cold night when Kentigern had performed his usual discipline of reciting the psalter while immersed in freezing water, Asaph saw him crawl to his cell so numb with cold that he thought that he would die. He ran to fetch fire to warm the saint, and finding no pan in which to carry the embers, he gathered them up in the folds of his cloak and carried them without suffering hurt to his flesh or his clothing. This act so endeared him to Kentigern that shortly afterwards he ordained him to the priesthood, and when he returned to Glasgow, he appointed Asaph his successor as Abbot of Llan-Elwy.

It is said that Kentigern left his church with 665 monks by the north door and subsequently that door was always kept closed in mourning, except on the Feast of St.Asaph. 300 monks remained with Asaph, who was held by them in great affection and reverence. These figures approximate to those given by John of Tynemouth in his description of the monastery in St.Kentigern’s time. He says there were 995 brethren, 300 were illiterate and worked the land, 300 prepared the food and did the domestic work in the abbey, while the 365 who were learned sang the daily offices. The learned were divided into three choirs, which succeeded each other in rotation, so that prayer never ceased in the church.

Asaph died in the year 596 and was buried at Llan-Elwy. We hear very little about this Christian centre for the next six hundred years except that the original wooden church was replaced by one of stone. The Normans made this church the Cathedral of an extensive diocese and much of the present building dates from the 13th century (Baring Gould and Fisher, Bowen).

Another Life:

St. Asaph of Wales, Bishop
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Died c. 600; feast day formerly on May 1. The small town of Saint Asaph in northern Wales was once the scene of a busy and thriving monastery, for here came Kentigern of Scotland who founded by the river side the monastery of Llanelwy. He was probably returning at the time from a visit to Saint David, and he had with him Asaph, his favourite pupil, whom he left behind at Llanelwy as abbot to consolidate his work. Others say that it was Saint Asaph who founded the abbey after having been trained by Kentigern–the truth is shrouded by time. There is, however, certainty that Saint Asaph founded the church of Llanasa in Flintshire. An interesting account exists of Llanelwy’s establishment. “There were assembled in this monastery no fewer than 995 brethren, who all lived under monastic discipline, serving God in great continence.” A third of these, who were illiterate, tilled the ground and herded the cattle; a third were occupied with domestic tasks inside the monastery; and the remainder, who were educated men, said the daily offices and performed other religious duties.

A distinctive feature was its unbroken continuity of worship, for, like the Sleepless Ones, the monks of Llanelwy divided themselves into groups and maintained an unceasing vigil. “When one company had finished the divine service in the church, another presently entered, and began it anew; and these having ended, a third immediately succeeded them.” So that by this means prayer was offered up in the church without intermission, and the praises of God were ever in their mouths.”

Among them, we are told, “was one named Asaph, more particularly illustrious for his descent and his beauty, who from his childhood shone forth brightly, both with virtues and miracles. He daily endeavoured to imitate his master, Saint Kentigern, in all sanctity and abstinence; and to him the man of God bore ever a special affection, insomuch that to his prudence he committed the care of the monastery.” A later medieval writer penned about Asaph’s “charm of manners, grace of body, holiness of heart, and witness of miracles.” Still little is actually known about him.

The story has been handed down to us that one bitter night in winter when Kentigern, as was his custom, had been standing in the cold river reciting from the Psalter, and had crawled back to his cell, frozen and exhausted, Asaph ran to fetch hot coals to warm him. Finding no pan, however, and being in great haste, fearing that the shivering abbot might die, he raked the glowing coals into the skirt of his monk’s habit, and ran with them, at great risk and discomfort, and cast them on the hearth of the saint.

That story is typical of his spirit, for he was devoted both to his master and to the welfare of his monks. We are not surprised that Kentigern, with every confidence, left the monastery in his care. Under Asaph’s leadership it flourished, and when Asaph was made bishop, it became the seat of his diocese. The goodness of one man spread and infected many others with holiness, including many of his kinsmen, e.g., Deiniol (September 11) and Tysilo (November 8). Today on the banks of the River Elwy stands the cathedral that bears his name (Attwater, Benedictines, Gill).

Sources:

Attwater, D. (1983). The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, NY:
Penguin Books.

Baring-Gould, S. & Fisher, J. (1907) The Lives of the British
Saints. 4 volumes. Charles J Clarke.

Benedictine Monks of St. Augustine Abbey, Ramsgate.
(1947). The Book of Saints. NY: Macmillan.

Bowen, Paul. When We Were One: A Yearbook of the
Saints of the British Isles Complied from Ancient Calendars.

Farmer, D. H. (1997). The Oxford Dictionary of Saints.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gill, F. C. (1958). The Glorious Company: Lives of Great
Christians for Daily Devotion, vol. I. London:
Epworth Press.

Husenbeth, Rev. F. C., DD, VG (ed.). (1928). Butler’s
Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints.
London: Virtue & Co.

Roeder, Helen. (1955). Saints and Their Attributes.
Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

For All the Saints:

http://www.saintpatrickdc.org/ss/ss-index.htm

These Lives are archived at:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/celt-saints