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Joy, despite sin at the door

15 February 2012

David Winter applauds the writing of a little-known Welsh poet, mystic, and minister


Saintly Enigma: A biography of Pennar Davies
Ivor Thomas Rees
Y Lolfa £9.95
Church Times Bookshop £9

Diary of a Soul
Pennar Davies
Y Lolfa £9.95
Church Times Bookshop £9

PENNAR DAVIES was a poet, novel­ist, mystic, and Christian minister recognised as one of the most gifted Welsh writers of the 20th century — he died in 1996. The reason why he is little known outside his native land — unlike, say, his contempor­ary R. S. Thomas — is that by delib­erate choice he wrote in Welsh rather than English. His potential readership thereby shrank from hun­dreds of millions to the few hun­dred thousand people who read Welsh.

He was, in fact, a fluent and gifted writer in English, which was his birth language, but at a crucial point in his adult life he decided that the ancient and beautiful lan­guage of his nation could survive and flourish only if its rich literary heritage had modern voices. It was a remarkable act of cultural commit­ment, but there is no doubt that it con­tributed to the fact that he ended his life in genteel poverty.

These two books introduce English readers to this remarkable Welsh­man, Saintly Enigma in bio­graphical form, and Diary of a Soul through a very effective translation, by the Revd Herbert Hughes, of his own words.

The biography provides the story of Pennar’s life, which is a remarkable catalogue of achievement. A miner’s son in the Rhondda, Wil­liam Thomas Davies (“Pennar” was his literary name) won his way to Balliol College, Oxford, and thence by a scholarship to Yale. There fol­lowed the beginnings of a promising academic career, together with some success as a writer, before he sur­prised his friends by announcing that he was seeking ordination in the Welsh Congregational Church (Yr Annibynnwyr). At about the same time, he became deeply involved in the political struggle for Welsh nationalism — he stood as a parliamentary candidate for Plaid Cymru, and was a committed supporter of the campaign for a Welsh television channel. All of this is faithfully recorded in Saintly Enigma, but the narrative tends to get lost in a maze of names, places, roles, and obscure ecclesiastical disputes.

More arresting by far (and re­cently taking its place in the Church Times best-seller list) is Diary of a Soul. Its Welsh title, Cudd fy Meiau (“Cover my Sins”), more accurately describes its content. It is indeed a daily diary, first published more than 50 years ago in a church periodi­cal, and subsequently brought out as a book, recording Pennar’s spiritual and sometimes mystical exper­iences. He is very conscious of sin “lurking at the door”, but also ex­periences wonderful highs of ecstasy and joy.

Here, for instance, is his diary for Easter Eve. He begins with the thought that there is a “cold shiver” in the Welsh word for “buried” — claddu. This reminds him of Barth’s fascination with the Latin word sepultus. Jesus not only died, he was buried. Pennar proceeds: “In meditation I crawled into the grave and I felt the fog like a blanket around me. I sensed the deep dark­ness and the terror of it gripped my heart . . . Deliverance did not come . . . And gradually the darkness be­came light. Not that light shone from the outside, but that the body of the darkness itself shone like a new dawn . . . I saw that darkness was as crucial as light — it was the darkness that heard the command, ‘Let there be light’, the darkness in the depths of the sea, the darkness of the soil, the darkness of the womb.”

This book is full of riches, and loses less than his poetry does in translation. Pennar draws on the whole treasury of Christian spiritu­al­ity, from medieval mysticism to hymns familiar in every Welsh chapel. His theology aroused sus­picion among some of his denom­inational colleagues — his Christo­logy was not exactly that of the Nicene Creed — but there can be no doubting his personal commit­ment to the crucified and risen Son of God, and to the principles of the Kingdom into which he called his followers.

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.

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