St. Gildas the Wise: Monk and Missionary
The saint of the day for January 29th is St. Gildas the Wise, a sixth century British monk.
Gildas was born in Scotland around the year 516 to a noble British family. He was educated in Wales under St. Iltut, and was a companion of St. Samson and St. Peter of Léon. Sometimes he is called “Badonicus” because his birth took place the year the Britons gained a famous victory over the Saxons at Mount Badon, near Bath, Somersetshire.
Noted for his piety, Gildas was well-educated, and was not afraid of publicly rebuking contemporary monarchs, at a time when libel was answered by a sword, rather than a Court order.
He lived for many years as a hermit on Flatholm Island in the Bristol Channel. Here he established his reputation for holiness through acts of self-denial. He also preached to Nemata, the mother of St David, while she was pregnant with the Saint.
Around 547 he wrote De Excidio Britanniae (The Ruin of Britain). In this, he writes a brief tale of the island from pre-Roman times and criticizes the rulers of the island for their lax morals and blames their sins (and those that follow them) for the destruction of civilization in Britain. The book was written as a moral tale.
He also wrote a longer work, The Epistle. This is a series of sermons on the moral laxity of rulers and of the clergy. In these, Gildas shows that he has a wide reading of the Bible and of other classical works.
Gildas was an influential preacher, visiting Ireland and doing missionary work. He was responsible for the conversion of much of the island and may be the one who introduced anchorite customs to the monks of that land.
He retired from Llancarfan to Rhuys, in Brittany, where he founded a monastery. Of his work on the running of a monastery (one of the earliest known in the Christian Church), only the so-called Penitential, a guide for Abbots in setting punishment, survives.
He died around 571, at Rhuys. The monastery that he had founded became the center of his cult.
St. Gildas is regarded as being one of the most influential figures of the early English Church. The influence of his writing was felt until well into the Middle Ages, particularly in the Celtic Church.
Gildas is the patron of churches and monasteries in Brittany (modern day France) and other locations. He is regarded as the earliest British historian. Copies of his writings are preserved in the Cambridge University Library.