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.

St Cadfan

Feast Day (new calendar): 
November 1st
Feast Day (old calendar): 
October 19th


Bardsey IslandBardsey Island

Bardsey, or Ynys Enlli in Welsh, is a small island near the Llŷn Peninsula—2.5km long and about 1km wide. Over the course of its existence, the island became a crucial location for the Celtic Christian Church, attracting many monks and pilgrims. It was the place where Saint Cadfan founded his famous monastery. The Celtic churches before the Norman conquest had a distinct monastic character, being relatively decentralised compared to the Roman church, and organised around monasteries and abbots rather than bishops residing in urban centres. By the early 6th century Wales had several tens of established monastic communities. The monastery was a focal point of evangelisation and education from which priests could reach out to the laity of the neighbouring daughter churches. Such centres of monastic devotion and pastoral care presented a special model known as clas, an autonomous community with the abbot as its leader. Later in the 11th century Celtic monasteries of the clas type complied with the Roman system and became Benedectine and Augustinian orders. 


St CadfanSt Cadfan

Cadfan came over to Wales from Armorica (part of contemporary France) towards the end of the 5th century, as part of a large group of saints and learned men, with the desire to renew the faith of the local people. On arrival, Cadfan founded a church on the Welsh mainland, whilst later he went on to found a monastery on the nearby Bardsey Island. Having come to Wales as part of a large group (numbering several hundred), it is perhaps understandable that Cafdan, alongside a selection of companions, chose to move toward the relative isolation of Bardsey. Here the pressing political and military conflicts sometimes stirred up on the mainland would have become a more distant reality, the relatively treacherous sea crossing serving to create a place of solitude and retreat. It is impossible, however, to consider Cadfan’s story simply as an entirely solo undertaking, and it remains tempting to consider the later popularity of Bardsey in relation to the size of the group that came across with him, the influx of people able to make an impact beyond that of a single man on his own. Whilst we know relatively little of Cadfan’s life a later ode in praise of Cadfan by Llewellyn Fardd largely focuses on his legacy, the church he established standing as a monument dedicated to God, a place of worship that stands as a pillar of the Gospel, a place of devotion, belief and communion. Cadfan’s shaping of this area of Welsh landscape as a place of God comes down to us where much about the man himself has been lost to obscurity.

Church of fair Cadfan, brilliant to behold
Bright whitewashed church proudly whitened,
As though it had been fashioned by God himself
He fashioned for the Godhead a choice residence
When he came from Brittany to the community of Christendom
The blessed youth nurtured no sin:
May God bless the devout servant. [...]
Blessed the voyage of his company
When he came to the realm night by night, day by day,
When there came to the issue of Emyr the desire to gaze upon
Aber Menwenfer in the evening and in the morning [...]
The noble country of Cadfan where there coexist always
the noble gospel, humble guide, [...]
May the valiant wise God guard Cadfan's domain
(Song to Cadfan - Llewlyn Fardd I)


Bardsey has a particular reputation as a place of pilgrimage; firstly for the saying that three pilgrimages to Bardsey were equivalent to one journey to Rome, and secondly for its reputation as the burial-place of 20,000 saints. It is easy to be suspicious of mathematical calculation of the merits of pilgrimage, and in such wariness we find ourselves in good company. The fathers of the church, in their discussions of pilgrimage, are always keen to guard against its mis-use, and to outline what it does and doesn’t mean within a Christian worldview. A focus on the ability to approach God from any place is often combined with an emphasis on the Christian’s spiritual pilgrimage towards heavenly things, as a stranger no longer attached to or at home in the world. Nevertheless, within such an understanding it is clear that from an early stage pilgrimage became a crucial part of Christian practice. In one sense, pilgrimage represents precisely such dislocation from the world, abandoning the comforts of house and home in order to set out on a devotional journey of repentance and transformation mapped out by the things of God. For Saint Jerome it seems to represent the gathering together side by side of precisely those who are members of the scattered and non-localised kingdom of God in a beautiful and priceless vision of the church. Similarly, in their veneration of relics—a phenomenon often associated with pilgrimage—the early Christians are careful to steer clear of potential misunderstandings of this practice as something akin to the worship of idols, and to make it clear, instead that whilst the saints are honoured through acts of devotion it is ultimately the God whom they served who is being worshipped through such acts. Such veneration, and the potential for the granting of miracles through relics and saintly remains demonstrates the ongoing life of such holy men and women as part of the communion of saints—those who had united themselves to God in this life continue to unite themselves to him beyond the grave and continue to share fellowship with those remaining on earth. 


Leaving thy native Brittany for the love of Christ, O Father Cadfan,
thou dost teach us not to love places or things more than Him.
Wherefore, O holy one, intercede for us that we may be faithful to our calling and found worthy of great mercy


Cadfan and Bardsey:
Janet Burton and Karen Stöber (editors 2013) Monastic Wales: New Approaches. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Mark Redknap (1991) The Christian Celts: Treasures of Late Celtic Wales. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.
G Hartwell Jones (1912) Celtic Britain and the Pilgrim Movement. London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.
Pippa Marland (2014) ‘Island of the dead’: composting twenty-thousand saints on Bardsey Island, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 18:1, 78-90
WJ Rees (translator 1740) The Liber Landavensis. London: The Welsh MSS Society. 
Sabine Baring-Gould and John Fisher (1908) The lives of the British saints (Vol II). London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.  
Meryl Gover (2015) Cadfan’s Church: A History with Digressions. Leicester: Matador

Writings of the Fathers: