Make me an island

Justinian of Ramsey Island

Feast Day (new calendar): 
December 18th
Feast Day (old calendar): 
December 5th

Ramsey IslandRamsey Island Tradition reports that the priest Justinian set up his hermitage on the island of Ramsey, or Ynys Dewi, off the western coast of Wales as early as the 6th century, after receiving a revelation from God that he should leave his home in Bretagne. His name appears very early in Welsh calendars. 

Friends, Separation and Conflict

His choice to renounce the world through an eremetic existence did not mean, for Justinian, rejecting friendship. We know that on the island he met a hermit, Honorius, who had already established himself on Ramsey and became friends in Christ with him. He is also said to have had a community of monks who followed him to the island to live under his spiritual guidance. His other connection is with the archbishop, saint David who was impressed by Justinian's holy life and chose him to be his confessor and spiritual father. It is interesting that the connection between the two saints can be traced also in the name of the island which is called in Welsh Ynys Dewi after David. At the same time Justinian was not always  friendly and easy-going. He came into conflict with the monks in St David's community, prompting him to move further away, to the hermitage of Ramsey island and, once there, he persuaded Honorius to send his sister and the female part of the monastic community away from the island. According to one version of the legend he was even murdered by his own monks who were outraged by the strict regime he imposed on them.

Ascetic Struggle

Justinian’s story shows clearly the nature of the ascetic path as a struggle against temptation, and against the different forms that this can take in the world around. The story of Honorius’ sister is one instance of Justinian's attempt to pursue such a struggle. Another story tells of how, later in his life, five men come to Justinian, telling him that his good friend saint David is very ill and wants him to visit. Justinian leaves the island and begins the journey to David in a boat before realising that the men are actually demons who, following his chanting of psalm 69 (70 in Hebrew numbering)—which likely he knew by heart through habit of reciting the psalms in prayer—reveal their true nature and fly away in the form of crows. Similar stories are common within ascetic narratives, and we find similar tales of temptation as far back as the desert fathers. Temptation for the ascetic, is firstly a matter of internal struggle, and a battle with thoughts within, but this often spills out into the world around, sometimes becoming associated with demons, or often with other people - not only women, but family members. It is a particular danger for the monk when he is tempted away from his cell and his chosen existence into the world around him, momentarily stepping away from his single-minded path. Often the form of the temptation seems a worthy one, and the monk will seem foolish or arrogant for turning away from it—as might be the case in either of the stories above, however often the wisdom of his decision and the potential dangers of abandoning it are made clear. The choice to remain steadfast to his choice despite the normal patterns and expectations of the world is part of what sets the ascetic existence apart as a distinct pathway that conforms to an alternative order and worldview.

Relic casket at St David's cathedralRelic casket at St David's cathedral Supernatural Events

Justinian’s life is not one that is full of miracles, but nevertheless we find within it, at key moments, supernatural elements. In addition to the story of his temptation, the story of his death contains events in which the boundaries between the natural world and the supernatural are, if not always completely broken, at least substantially blurred. From the place where he was killed, a well is said to have sprung up to cure the sick, his killers were struck with leprosy, and his body is said to have picked up his severed head and walked with it to the place where he wished to be buried. The sources of his story are late, and it is possible, even reasonable and tempting, to write such elements off as late embellishments, particularly as they strike against many of our expectations of what such events should, ideally, look like. This, however, is precisely part of their challenge to us - they testify to an understanding of the world in which God and created reality intersect and interact in ways that are foreign to us. They remind us that there are other ways of conceiving this relationship that can speak to us of profoundly different ways of living and cut across our expectations to ask whether there are indeed other possible ways that God and the world might interact. 

Beyond Death

Even though under more-rationalist modes of thought the details of the saint's death would best be considered as simply a stereotypical medieval legend, there are are nevertheless a couple of observations worth making. The death of the saint is the day of his celebration in the church calendar because it is regarded as the most important event of his life, the final transcendence of the soul from the ascetic struggles to the Heavenly Kingdom of God – the ultimate goal of every Christian saint. Whereas for the saint this is the beginning of new life, for people it also marks the establishment of the saint's cult. The narrative about Justinian shows through miracles how the saint himself contributes to this: he chose the place of his burial which gave people the opportunity to build a church dedicated to the saint in Llastinan, near Fishguard. There the saint's body continued to serve people even after his death through miracles. David, Justinian's friend took care of the body, arranging a new tomb in his own church, now St David's cathedral in St Davids, Wales. The authenticity of relics always presents questions and challenges. The earliest of the remnants held in the casket in the Holy Trinity Chapel have been carbon-dated to the 12th century. Nevertheless, within the story the honouring of the relics is not simply a tale of an obscure medieval cult but is shown instead as a personal expression of love to the friend passed away and a testimony to Justinian's care towards the people living nearby his island and pilgrims. The holiness of the saint's soul, ensured by his relationship with God, extends to his body. This embodiment of Christian love in the cult of relics at the same time points towards the notion, in the eastern theological tradition, of sainthood as theosis, that the saints become God by divine grace.  


Doing battle with temptation, Holy Justinian, you followed in the narrow way of Christ.
Through your example you showed this path to others
and through your song, demons were scattered and Satan’s plans destroyed
Through your obedience you have won a place in the heavenly kingdom
Therefore we ask: Pray for the world, and for the salvation of our souls


Further Reading:

David Farmer (2011) Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sabine Baring-Gould and John Fisher (1911) The lives of the British saints (Vol III). London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.

John of Tynemouth. Nova Legenda Anglie

J Wyn Evans and Jonathan M Wooding (2007) St David of Wales: Cult, Church and Nation. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.