Tag Archives: Wales

A Patron for Codependents: St. Samson of Dol (d. 565)

28 Jul

“We can live without drugs and alcohol, but…people are more complicated than substances.”
~ Dr. Kristi Pikiewicz

St. Samson was a big deal. Born in Wales, educated by monks, and seemingly destined for leadership, Samson was “perhaps the most important British missionary of the 6th century,” according to David Farmer, and “an excellent example of the wandering Celtic monk-bishop.” He established new abbeys, reformed older ones, preached the Gospel boldly, and ably led the flocks entrusted to him.

Although he pined for a hermit’s life in the wilderness, Samson ended his days in Dol, Brittany, where he established a monastic missionary outpost and served as an irregular episcopal ordinary. We might not be very familiar with St. Samson in the States, but his feast (July 28) is celebrated throughout the British Isles and beyond, and there are numerous European parishes named for him. A stellar saint, to be sure!

But I’m guessing there’s a shadow side to his story that’s easy to overlook.

After his initial formation and ordination in the abbey of Llanwit, Samson transferred to the community on Caldey Island where he took up duties as cellarer – a kind of steward of the monastery’s foodstuffs and drink. This is significant, because Caldey’s Abbot, St. Pyr, seems to have had a bit of a drinking problem – and the cellarer would’ve been the first to know about it. The annals tell of Pyr getting so snockered one night that he stumbled into a well and died as a result of the fall. And since such spectacular episodes of intoxication are highly unlikely to be isolated events, Abbot Pyr probably had been battling the bottle long before his mortal mishap.

Now, Pyr’s lack of temperance and unseemly end might cast some doubt on the suitability of his saintly designation – a title ascribed to him by tradition rather than formal canonization. We have to remember, though, that those who struggle with substance abuse and addiction are still called to become saints and, what’s more, can become saints. Truly, everyone can become a saint – even me, even you – and God gives us the grace to do so.

But besides questions related to Pyr’s habits and holiness, what fascinates me about his story is that the abbot’s propensity to over imbibe must’ve been an open secret in the cloister. Sure, Samson the cellarer knew, but so did everybody else – how could they not? A monastery is an intimate family, after all, and the abbot is the dad – in Pyr’s case, a dad crippled by addiction. How did Samson and his confreres deal with that?

It seems to me that it could very well have been a classic case of codependency.

Codependency is a controversial term these days, but it was all the rage not that long ago. It can apply to almost any flavor of dysfunctional family system, but it’s especially associated with alcoholic homes.

I know of it firsthand because my dad was an alcoholic. Like so many in that situation, I was clueless about the chaos at home and its connections to the booze. The family strife, the erratic behaviors, the cover-ups and pain – I naturally assumed that it was all normal. That it was what all families experienced. Why would I think otherwise?

Then my mom talked to me one night about something called Al-Anon – an organization that provides support for folks who live with alcoholics. She’d been in touch with them and was getting involved, looking for help. “There’s also a group for teenagers,” she told me. “Maybe you should consider going.”

I never did. Somehow, I still managed to get through high school and college, and then launched into the adventure of my own adulthood. I moved here and there, became a Catholic, dated off and on, and tried my hand at various pursuits. But there was definitely a gnawing void within – I was hurting, in agony.

At some point, somebody (my mom? a co-worker?) got me to read Janet Woititz’s 1983 book, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and it was a game changer. What she described – the enabling, the duplicity, the stress, the craziness – really resonated. It prompted me to finally reach out for help – like my mother did so many years before – and I was able to separate my problems from my dad’s. He continued to struggle with his addiction, alternating between sobriety and drinking the rest of his life (rest in peace, dad), but I got to the place where I could see it as his struggle, not mine.

I loved my father, although sometimes I regret not loving him better – not to mention plenty of other regrets. Most of the time, however, thanks to writers like Woititz and a host of counselors, I can focus on the present and today’s challenges – the ones associated with being a husband, father, worker, and would-be saint. That’s plenty to deal with, and I’d like to think that my efforts honor my dad and the best parts of his legacy that live on in me.

St. Samson seems to have gone through a similar transformation. Whatever brand of codependent exigencies that preceded Pyr’s tragic demise, Samson stepped up and set a new course afterwards. He took up the abbot’s crozier and attempted to clean house at Caldey, but the community’s dysfunctional patterns were too entrenched and, in the words of Farmer, Samson “accordingly resigned the abbacy in disgust.” That action freed him up to seek out new opportunities to exercise his gifts, which led to the many foundations and apostolates he became associated with.

Clearly Samson strived to become the spiritual father that the impaired Pyr couldn’t quite manage. He left the brokenness of his past behind and forged a new path, striving to draw everyone he encountered closer to Christ. It seems that wherever he went, flourishing followed, and the honor in which his name is held to this day is testimony to how God worked in and through him.

“Ask and you will receive,” Jesus assures us in the Gospel today, “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Those are precisely the promises that enabled St. Samson to move on from his unhealthy roots to a more glorious future.

They’re the same promises that we broken folk can rely on today.
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A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Highlander, Pig Brains, and Easter: St. Beuno of Wales

21 Apr

Remember Highlander (1986)? It’s about a race of immortals who rattle around the centuries trying to wipe each other out. “In the end,” declaims one of them (played by the immortal Sean Connery), “there can be only one.” Plus there’s this: The only way to kill one of these guys is to lop off his head. And when I say lop, I mean lop – with a three-foot broadsword that looks like it weighs more than my Camry.

It’s a fun movie – really! – but don’t take my word for it. “People hate Highlander because it’s cheesy, bombastic, and absurd,” acknowledges the micro-review on Rotten Tomatoes. “And people love it for the same reasons.” Actually, I loved it as a teen because, well, it was about a bunch of tough hombres chasing each other around the world. Forever. With Medieval swords. What’s not to love?

And now, good news! On the off chance the Highlander species of perpetual peripatetics might actually exist, there’s late word that not even decapitation need hold them back. It seems that researchers at Yale obtained a bunch of pig heads from a slaughterhouse and perfused their brains with a special hemoglobin-rich fluid. The result? Detectable brain activity, even hours after the heads had been severed from their respective bodies.

Now, true, it wasn’t the kind of activity that you’d associate with cognition or awareness, but it was still actual, measurable cellular commotion in grey matter long deemed defunct – or at least theoretically defunct. I mean, what else could it be after an extensive detachment, in both time and space, from any blood-pumping heart or other vital organs? “Assuming always that this work is replicated,” commented Hank Greely of the International Neuroethics Society, “I think it’s going to force us to think harder about how we declare somebody dead or not.”

Right – mortals and immortals alike.

Anyway, it’s funny that the pig brain story was hitting my newsfeed just as Holy Week was getting underway because Easter this year happens to coincide with saint’s day that has beheading and resuscitation overtones. Today is the feast of St. Beuno, a holy monk who is said to have evangelized much of northern Wales in the 7th century. A benefactor set Beuno up with a tract of land in Gwynedd where the saint founded a monastic community, and where he served as abbot until his death on April 21, 640. The monastery is gone now, but the chapel where he was buried remains intact.

The story goes that Beuno’s own niece, St. Winifred, was intent on a life of religion herself in imitation of her pious kinsman. Yet, the comely Winifred had attracted the attention of Prince Caradog, an ardent suitor. When she rebuffed him, the prince flew into a violent rage, cut off her head, and fled. The spot where Winifred’s head landed came alive with a gushing spring – the famed Holywell which became known for its healing properties and which acquired a reputation as the “Lourdes of Wales.”

End of story? Hardly. Like the Yale researchers, Beuno was not to be outdone by a mere beheading. When the Abbot heard of his niece’s demise, he interrupted the Mass he’d been celebrating, hurried to put Winifred back together, top to bottom, and then resumed the liturgy, offering impassioned prayers for the young woman’s healing. Sure enough, Winifred revived, “as if awakening from a deep slumber,” according to the legend, and she “rose up with no sign of the severance of the head except a thin white circle round her neck.”

Ah, a thin white circle around her neck – a scar, as it were, after a miraculous healing. Couldn’t God have accomplished that healing through Beuno’s prayers without leaving a scar? Of course, but he didn’t. No doubt, Winifred was conscious of that scar the rest of her life, and it just may have played a part in her becoming the great saint that she did – someone remembered for having “lived in almost perpetual ecstasy and to have had familiar converse with God.” Maybe every time she felt it – every time she saw it when she was gazing into the waters of Holywell – she was prompted to new heights of gratitude and surrender to the Lord.

And that’s what lends a certain verisimilitude to Winifred’s tale despite its preposterous premise, for God has a tendency to leave scars behind for our own good.

Today we’re all celebrating the Resurrection, but next Sunday, we’ll hear St. Thomas cast doubt on the Easter outrage: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

The Lord was happy to oblige: “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’”

This Easter season, consider getting reacquainted with your own lingering scars that the Lord has seen fit to leave with you – he must’ve had a reason. And then, in the spirit of St. Winifred, perhaps use them as launching pads for ever grander gestures of fidelity and love. May every scar we retain and associate with our resurrections lead us to say with St. Thomas – through our words and our deeds – “My Lord and my God!”
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King St. Brychan of Wales (5th century)

6 Apr

“St. Brychan. King of Wales, undocumented but popular saint. Brychan is credited with having twenty-four children, all saints” (Catholic Online).

Read more…

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