ONCE IN A while, one comes across a lovely tale of a prince or princess who becomes a Saint by leading a life of goodness involving no martyrdom and little apparent suffering. They don’t give their lives so much as Such a one is St. Melangell, a girl who gave her life to God in devotion and solitary prayer.
Her story is so catching that it features in children’s stories that actually start with “Once upon a time” and in Celtic legend where she shines forth at the center of nature’s love and harmony. As pretty as those stories are, and useful sometimes to teach children lessons, they tend to cast shadows over hard truths about God.
Melangell’s life is as obscure as anyone’s from 7th century Britain might be, but her story has been told enough times that if we subtract the variations, we are left with some details that in their constancy become reliable and form the contours of a life not at all fairy tale like but quite Saint like. One such detail takes the form of a hare, a character central to the story that introduces Melangell to us.
Now, for most of us, the main distinction between a hare and a rabbit is too little to worry about, but in this story it matters quite a lot. Unlike rabbits, hares don’t burrow and therefore have fewer places to hide, which is why this little hare became key to Melangell becoming known to us as St. Melangell, the patron saint of hares and a protectress of living things, including humans.
Melangell’s father, an Irish king, ordered his youngest daughter to marry a nobleman. Of course, she refused. She desired a life devoted to God, so she fled to a wood outside her father’s realm where she hid herself from all human contact while praying among the wild things. There she was discovered one day by a prince from a town called Pengwern Powys in the Tenat Valley of Wales while hunting hares. His dogs had chased a hare into a thicket where, with no place else to hide, it took rather bold refuge among the folds of Melangell’s garments as she prayed. And it is this fact that rescues Melangell’s story from being a mere legend or simple fairy tale. For Melangell was neither aware of the hunter and his dogs or the hare nor did she offer sanctuary to anyone. She herself was hiding. But she had been hiding there alone for fifteen years, praying, and the hare was drawn to the safety of that spot where Melangell and God, together in communion, had redeemed her thicket and made it a place where living things were free from fear and harm.
Despite the Prince’s awe at Melangell’s holiness and love for critters, it was God who gave sanctuary to both Melangell and the hare. In this important detail, we see not a Celtic Goddess who lives among her creatures or a mere lover of nature whose gentleness attracts creatures to herself but a model of what is to be, when through our devotion to God, God extends salvation to the world and all that live in it.
Prince Brochwell responded by giving Melangell his lands and the woods in which she prayed as a perpetual sanctuary to all who sought refuge there, including people whose lives were hunted either by law or injustice, provided they remained and did no harm. She lived for thirty-seven more years as an abbess, and her land remains a dedicated sanctuary to this day and a place of Christian pilgrimage.
❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012