It’s Only a Coincidence

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There are no such things as coincidences. I was reminded of that on Wednesday while on a Celtic Day of Reflection retreat. Carl Jung called these synchronicity. Some of us refer to fate and destiny. Whatever we call it, the world is interconnected in so many ways and those random occurrences float in and around us from who we sit next to in grade school to joining a book club, and including the world of the internet which has only brought us closer together, gathering with people who share the same hobbies, music, art, and so many other topics and then quietly moving beyond them.

In 1986, I was a college junior. I was dating a boy. Until I wasn’t.

Later that year, my friend who was student teaching in England invited me to join her there for winter break. Other than a lack of money there was no reason to say no. It wasn’t like I had a boyfriend. So I joined her. She made all the plans.

I arrived on the last day of 1986, ringing in the New Year in London’s Trafalgar Square, and we were off. Wednesday’s Celtic retreat talked quite a bit about thin spaces and in a place as old as the island of Britain they are everywhere the eye can see, and more likely beyond the eye’s sight. You will instinctively know them if you’ve ever experienced them. Stonehenge is one of those places. From the first sight of the giant monoliths, I felt something. The past swirls around it and blends with the present, and in the cold dusk of January with my breath visible amongst the stones, it was almost as if I was in another time long, long ago but also right now. It was visceral, and it defies description. Indeed that is another story for another time.

From there our itinerary had us traveling west to Wales. All of it was wonderful. Adventurous, thrilling, exciting with newness around every corner. I took it all in, and enjoyed every moment in every space.

And soon we arrived in Wales. Up until that moment I thought of Wales as an extension of England – don’t tell that to the Welsh – the thought is an unforgivable sin. The sun was setting, we were walking, trying to arrive at the youth hostel before it got really dark. However, something changed. The air? The sky? The way my foot fell on the pavement? All of the above?

From the minute I set foot in Wales, I felt something beyond anything I’d ever experienced before, including that recent excursion at Stonehenge. I’ve always believed in the supernatural, the spiritual, I’ve seen ghosts and Wales was…I don’t know what Wales was, but it changed my life completely in those few moments.

The road between Pen-y-Pass and Llanberis, North Wales, 1987.
(c)1987-2021

It was piercing, this strong feeling that permeated every fiber of my being. I felt an ache, a calling to me as if I’d returned to a home I never knew. There was something special and the word special wasn’t enough to describe the wonder. In that moment, I became Welsh in my own way. Something mystical changed in me. Magical.

It set me on a path of a mental immersion into Wales, the Welsh people, the land, the culture, even the language. It was through the language many years later that I met a native speaker who helped me translate some fiction I was writing and through that friendship that he was able to guide me where to go when the sudden opportunity to travel appeared, and this was a key in one of those not-coincidences. He recommended Caernarfon and visiting its castle. This suggestion shaped my whole trip. I stayed at a hostel within the remaining walls of the walled town. Emerging out from under the stone arch onto the Promenade, sniffing the sea air of the Menai Strait, turning just a tiny bit left, and there, right there in front of me was the huge stone wall of one of the towers of the Castle. It was spectacular.

While Caernarfon Castle is in Wales, it is not a Welsh castle; it was not built by the medieval Welsh. A few days later, upon leaving Caernarfon I went to a truly Welsh castle, Dolwyddelan. While the castle wasn’t there at the time, this was the land where Llywelyn the Great was born and grew up in the 11th century. This was one of his many strongholds where he commanded most of Gwynedd, in the North of Wales. He built the castle in the 13th century and over the years it has been added to and restored until finally falling into disrepair.

The mist and the rain of that day only added to the mystery and the mystical. Everything is green and there are gatherings of sheep in every corner of every field or so it seems. Some were so close to the road that I thought the car would hit one or two and I honestly don’t know how they were missed. They were close enough to touch their wool from the window.

In the interim, between this solo adventure in 2009 and our family visit in 2017, I went through some emotional upheaval and through that (a much longer story than what will fit here) I joined the Catholic Church, going through the RCIA program and receiving all the sacraments of to become fully joined with the church. Like the 2009 trip to Wales, my path as a Catholic was filled with an open mind and no regrets; no second thoughts about my conversion. It is the only thing I’ve done in my life that did not foster second thoughts and questions of my conviction. That in itself was an important sign in support of my choice.

But the coincidences were not through with me yet.

While going through the RCIA process, I had need to choose a saint for confirmation. It became my predisposition to find a Welsh saint. There are not that many but I felt strongly about my Welsh connection. I had narrowed my decision down to three saints (one of whom was Welsh) and in choosing St. Elen, her patronage of travelers and introducing the monastic church to Wales were both high on my list to affirming that she was who I wanted the connection through my confirmation. There were two things that really sealed it for me. The first was something that should have stood out to me from the start and that is that Ellen is my mother’s middle name. How I didn’t see it from the beginning is beyond me. The second is how the saint is known in Wales: as St. Elen of Caernarfon.

Caernarfon.

That place I’d never heard of before my friend suggested it seemingly out of the blue.

It only cemented my choice.

I tried to do research about St. Elen, but sadly there is very little. She is often conflated with St. Helena of Constantinople, mainly because of their similar names and their sons’ similar names, Cystennin and Constantine the Great. In this research I discovered a holy well named for St. Elen and was shocked and astounded to find out that its location was in Dolwyddelan, just down the road, walking distance from Dolwyddelan Castle where I’d actually been five years before.

When we made our family trip to Northern Ireland in 2017 I decided that we would add in a pilgrimage for me to visit St. Elen’s holy well in Dolwyddelan.

Holy Well of St. Elen of Caernarfon, Dolwyddelan, North Wales, 2017.
(c)2017-2021

It had come full circle. Arriving for the first time in Wales in 1987 at Betws-y-Coed by train and taking the pilgrimage to St. Elen’s Holy Well in Dolwyddelan in 2017, thirty years in between and a mere six miles apart reveals that coincidences do not exist, but providence does.

Elen of the Hosts

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St. Elen (Elen of the Hosts) (St. Helen of Caernarfon – English)

Everyone keeps asking me about my choice of saint for my confirmation name. I thought it might be easier if I wrote up a little bit about her since she is an unusual choice. With a person so far back in history, there are many things that are conflated and confused, especially with so many having the same names and much of the history and mythology being intertwined as one, not to mention that it was an oral history with bards and storytellers, and so what was remembered may be less than accurate to what actually happened, but some of Elen’s life is well documented through The Mabinogion (known as Elen Luyddog) and the writings of St. Gregory of Tours and Sulpicious Severus.

St. Elen is known as Elen of the Hosts or Saint Helen of Caernarfon.

She is a Welsh Catholic Saint and is often confused with Helena of Constantinople because of their similar names and the similar names of their sons, both of whom were named Constantine. Helena’s son was better known as Constantine the Great although Elen’s son was called Custennin Fawr, which is Welsh for Constantine the Great. This was not helpful.  St. Helena of Constantinople’s son is the famous one.

It is also possible that the sons have been confused over the centuries and they did not both have the Great descriptor and that was added later. There are other sources that describe nearly every royal house in Britain traces its lineage back to Elen and her husband Macsen, 4th century Emperor of Rome.

Elen’s feast day is May 22.

It is said that through her association with St. Martin of Tours, she brought the monastic church to Wales with her sons, Custennin and Peblig (who is also a Welsh saint known as Publicus.)

Elen is also named on several Roman roads in Wales and is known to be the patron saint of British roadbuilders and the protector of travelers. Roman roads in Wales are known as Sarn (au) Elen or The Causeways of Elen and she is said to have commissioned the road themselves to be built, but it is more likely that the roads were named for her after her death as their existence is much older than she. There is recent discovery that there are even older roads in Ireland, showing that the Celts were proficient roadbuilders, so who know?

Initially, I was seeking out a Welsh saint because of my long spiritual connection to Wales and the Celtic peoples, but upon discovering St. Elen, I discovered that there were several other reasons why I connected to her.

First and foremost, Ellen was my mother’s middle name and it gives me a connection to her as I join the church. My first teacher, who taught me lessons of generosity and the importance of family.

Secondly, Elen is from Caernarfon, the town in which I stayed for three nights in 2009. It hadn’t been on my list of places to visit until a Welsh friend randomly suggested it that I should go there and see the castle.

Her daughter is said to have married Vortigern, the only source for their marriage being carved on the Eliseg Pillar which is very near Valle Crucis Abbey, another Welsh place I gravitated to.

Ellen is also one of my favorite television characters: mother, business owner, independent, smart, how could I go wrong?

As I mentioned earlier, St. Elen is also the patron/protector of travelers, and more than anything else I consider myself a traveler. It is always my choice for being and writing and seeing and I love that this saint has a connection to something I love so dearly despite the anxiety that accompanies it.

 

*sources are limited and all the ones I used are second hand sources. I tried to use only the information that was known in more than one source.*